Wisława Szymborska’s View With a Grain of Sand

Wisława Szymborska is a highly regarded Polish poet who has a long and distinguished career. Born in 1923 in Kornik, in western Poland, she studied Polish Literature and Sociology at Jagiellon University in Krakow, and has published sixteen collections; her work has been translated into over a dozen languages. In 1996 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” View With a Grain of Salt is the third selection of her poetry made available in English.

View With a Grain of Salt opens with selections from her collection Calling Out to Yeti from 1957. Very early on, we are treated to Szymborska’s happy ability to create the transcendant from the mundane, delivered with its earthiness still clinging to it, as in “Notes From a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition,” as she calls out to the snowy mountains:

Yeti, down there we’ve got Wednesday,
bread and alphabets.
Two times two is four.
Roses are red there,
and violets are blue.

Szymborska repeatedly subverts our sense of our own importance while simultaneously reinforcing our value. Her humor is droll, sometimes acidic, and provides a ready means of access to her work, the uninflected dryness of her stance only setting the stage for our own imaginations.

There are moments of subtle profundity, as well, and a kind of deep compassion for the human condition, especially those qualities that lift us beyond ourselves, as in “Acrobat,” from No End of Fun (1967):

Solo. Or even less than solo,
less, because he’s crippled, missing
missing wings, missing them so much
that he can’t miss the chance
to soar on shamefully unfeathered
naked vigilance alone.

Szymborska celebrates life’s very improbability, the twists and turns that the most mundane existence undergoes, and turns them into passages of wide significance. And such is the delicacy of her touch, the unobtrusiveness of her wide-eyed skepticism, that we are left with understanding and no surety where it came from. My overall impression from these poems is that here is a very wise person, a very compassionate commentator on what it is to be human, someone whose curiosity is tempered by experience and not only love, but affection. Perhaps the best summation of Szymborska’s attitude is her own, from “We’re Extremely Fortunate” (from The End and the Beginning, 1993):

We’re extremely fortunate
not to know precisely
the kind of world we live in.

One would have
to live a long, long time . . .

From that perspective,
one might as well bid farewell
to incidents and details.

She doesn’t do that, but she pulls far more meaning out of those “incidents and details” than we have any right to expect.

The translations, by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (winners of the 1996 PEN Translation Prize), are graceful and telling, their very fluency as convincing as though we were reading the originals. And the title of this book makes perfect sense: we are in the hands of a participant as well as an observer, who sees the universe in a grain of sand.

I’m not even sure you have to love poetry to enjoy this book; I think you just need to enjoy anything that makes use of wit, humor, and a kind of obsessive innocence to explore what it means to be human.

(Harcourt Brace, 1995)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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