Wislawa Szymborska died on Feb. 1 this year. Born in Poland 1923, Szymborska lived through the political tumults of the 20th century, but her poetry stubbornly presented the individual conscience in the face of history. A shy and retiring woman, Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996.
Lawrence Weschler, reporter, author, and the director of NYU’s Institute for the Humanities, covered Poland for the New Yorker in the 1980s-1990s. He has written about Szymborska frequently, including in his new book Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative.
The Rumpus: You covered Poland for the New Yorker for a long time. Were you aware of Szymborska before that? Is that what brought your interest?
Weschler: I was made aware of her before she won the Nobel. There were three great Polish poets of that generation, who were among the ten greatest world poets of that generation, which is of course Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Wislawa Szymborska. It was a place where… The history of the 20th century is essentially the history of Poland. Norman Davies in his history of Europe [Europe: A History] has made exactly that argument. Poland and Belarus are the place where Russia and Germany—Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union— play out; it’s a wide flat plane where that happens.
It’s a little bit like that incredible convergence of genetic material around the time of the American Revolution in America, you had this incredible poetic generation in Poland who basically were themselves great, great poet but also had great material to work with. And Poles very much treasured their poets, maybe more so than their novelists for example and I had been following all of them and using their poetry in my reportage. And the day she got the Nobel Prize, I was called by NPR because I was on their rolodex for things that happened in Poland and I said that you know how every year the Nobel Committee gives it to someone you’ve never heard of and then they go interview Susan Sontag and it turns out she’s been reading the person for thirty years and you feel like a complete doofus, but then when you go to read the person you can’t stand the stuff anyway, because it is really dense and lousy? This is not the case with Szymborska. You are being introduced to this person and she is going to become your favorite poet. She is just the best. Lucid and clear. Grave but wearing the gravity lightly. She is just a wonderful, wonderful poet.
I should mention also by the way that she is unusually well served by her translators. The translations I always look at are the ones done by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh together as a team. Just gorgeous.
The Rumpus: Having read her only in English, I wanted to ask if there was something about the Polish language.
Weschler: I have to confess that I don’t read Polish either. But having said that, I think it is more the occasion, the poetic occasion: the poetics of witness, basically. It’s interesting, by the way, that after the World Trade Center, the Institute [of the Humanities] here at NYU responded to 9/11 by having an event which was readings by 15 or 16 poets and people like Sontag and [the critic Edward] Hirsch and W.S. Merwin and so forth, all reading Polish poetry. And the reason we did that is that Polish poetry is about what it is like to be hit by history— what it’s like to be the plaything of huge forces. New Yorkers and Americans are so unused to being hit by history, or rather we are the ones who do the hitting ordinarily. We are not usually the ones who get hit. The event was at Cooper Union and it lasted like eight hours. And nobody left. It was amazing. We had [Adam] Zagajewski, the new generation poet, who was there that day.
The Rumpus: Did you know Szymborska when you were in Poland?
Weschler:: Basically not. I had these very funny interactions with her. She had an English speaking assistant, terrific guy, and I would be in Krakow and I would have these conversations with her through him. She was extremely shy, extremely modest. She lived in a one bedroom apartment groaning with books, she tried to retain it and that lifestyle even after winning the prize. But in any case I was always trying to get her to come to America, to come to New York. She hardly did any travelling at all—she’d been to Paris a few times, maybe a little bit of Italy, but not to the United States. But I kept passing on, through him, that we would love to host you. Then at one point, I said: “What would it take to get you to come to America?” And she sent back the message, “Well, if you can arrange for me to be able to meet with Woody Allen and Jane Goodall…” So, I went back to the hotel and made a few calls, I mean, I know people who know people, so I was able to call and within half and hour, I had commitments from both Woody Allen and Jane Goodall, they were both huge fans of her and would love to part of an event with her. And word came back: “I was just kidding. I was just trying to get you to go away.”
Parenthetically, last year there was a documentary about this offer, in Poland, which consists of this Polish crew interviewing Woody Allen, they interview Jane Goodall, they interview me, and interview her [Szymborska] and this is the meeting that never took place. She never came.
She was shy and modest and certainly not looking for fame. She had people all around her calling her receiving the prize, the “Nobel Disaster.” It really threw her for a loop. I think she wasn’t expecting it; I think she fully expected that Herbert would get it, if anybody was going to get it. And she in fact went silent for a few years before she got her balance again.
The Rumpus: The story you tell about her going to get the Prize in Stockholm-
Weschler: That just sums her up. She lived very modestly in this apartment and hadn’t travelled much and she goes to Stockholm and they put her in the nicest hotel in town, in the penthouse, which is a whole city block, and she spends the night before the Nobel speech sleeping in the bathtub because the bathroom is the only room in the penthouse where she can figure out how to work the lights. She was not a terribly worldly person, but her poetry encompassed worlds.
The Rumpus: Did she hang out with the other poets of her generation?
Weschler: There was a period there when Krakow was really the city of poetry. There were a whole group of them and she was well beloved in that group. Among friends… she wasn’t an agoraphobe, but she was modest and shy and not made for the world of self-promotion. Here by the way, is where you put in the poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself.”
“In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself”
Translated by Stanislav Baraczak and Clare Cavanagh
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.
A jackal doesn’t understand remorse.
Lions and lice don’t waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they’re right?
Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
In every other sense they’re light.
On this third planets of the sun
Among the signs of bestiality
A clear conscience is Number One.
The Rumpus: Having been a student and aficionado of her work, when you first heard the news last week, what were the first lines you thought of?
Weschler:: I’d been teaching her again and there is that fantastic poem, “Nothing’s a Gift.” So I certainly thought of that poem. A poem you obviously think of is the poem about the cat in the apartment, which everybody else just loves. I’m not a cat person so I don’t love it quite as much, but it is a brilliant formal conceit where she is describing the death of her longtime partner from the point of view of the cat who has been abandoned and how you just shouldn’t do this to a cat. Death shouldn’t be allowed,
I mean how is the cat supposed to know what is going on?— the guy’s not there anymore. And the cat basically negotiates the entire emptiness, which is the lack of existence any longer.
An excerpt from: “Cat in an Empty Apartment” Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
Die—you can’t do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here
but nothing is the same.
Nothing’s been moved
but there’s more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.
But I also definitely thought of “Could Have” which is all about mortality.
An excerpt from: “Could Have” Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.
You were in luck — there was a forest.
You were in luck — there were no trees.
You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant …
What is amazing about that poem is that for everybody who is alive in that generation in Poland, one of those words applies. Every single one of them is like a novel that they even got through at all. I sometimes think that it would be great if one had a workshop in a fiction writing class, where each of the twenty people in the class gets one of those words [“first,” “last,” etc] and has to write the short story that goes with it and culminates in those last lines [Listen,/how your heart pounds inside me.] I remember thinking about that that morning [she died] and specifically thinking about hearing my own heart beating and knowing that hers wasn’t beating anymore.
I have written about the poem “Maybe All This,” before. When I said she wasn’t worldly but encompassed worlds I was thinking of “Maybe all this”— and she means the whole world —“is happening in some lab” [where it is watched] but then she ends up talking about maybe they only look for big events. “Maybe just the opposite. They’ve got a taste for trivia there. Look, on the big screen, a little girl is sewing a button on her sleeve.”
And I’ve written about how the image on the screen is Vermeer’s “Lacemaker,” and the thing about that painting is so amazing is that everything is out of focus except for what the girl is focusing on, the thread and in a similar fashion, this little girl [in the poem] intent over her thread is the poet intent over her line, but at the same time it is the boss, envisioning it all. And what is so great in that poem and so magisterial about her is this fantastic empathy with both being miniscule and being cosmic.