Polish Poet, Essayist, Translator and Nobel Prize in Literature Recipient
Wisława Szymborska, fully Maria Wisława Anna Szymborska
Polish Poet, Essayist, Translator and Nobel Prize in Literature Recipient
But ?astonishing? is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We?re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we?ve grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn?t based on comparison with something else.
Granted, in daily speech, where we don?t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like ?the ordinary world,? ?ordinary life,? ?the ordinary course of events? ? But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone?s existence in this world.
Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It?s made up of all those who?ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners ? and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it?s born from a continuous ?I don?t know.?
It?s not that they?ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It?s just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don?t understand yourself.
The world ? whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we?ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don?t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we?ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world ? it is astonishing.
This is why I value that little phrase ?I don?t know? so highly. It?s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself ?I don?t know,? the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself ?I don?t know?, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying ?I don?t know,? and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.
Utopia: Island where all becomes clear. Solid ground beneath your feet. The only roads are those that offer access. Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs. The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here with branches disentangled since time immemorial. The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple, sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It. The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista: the Valley of Obviously. If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly. Echoes stir unsummoned and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds. On the right a cave where Meaning lies. On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction. Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface. Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley. Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things. For all its charms, the island is uninhabited, and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches turn without exception to the sea. As if all you can do here is leave and plunge, never to return, into the depths. Into unfathomable life.
All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they ?know.? They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don?t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments? force. And any knowledge that doesn?t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.
There were doorknobs and doorbells where one touch had covered another beforehand. Suitcases checked and standing side by side. One night, perhaps, the same dream grown hazy by morning. Every beginning is only a sequel, after all, and the book of events is always open halfway through.
Vigilance does not fade. As fade dreams do not hum or bell, scatters not cry or fuss.
There's nothing more debauched than thinking.
We call it a grain of sand but it calls itself neither grain nor sand. It does just fine without a name, whether general, particular, permanent, passing, incorrect or apt. The window has a wonderful view of a lake, but the view doesn't view itself. It exists in this world colorless, shapeless, soundless, odorless, and painless. There's no life that couldn't be immortal if only for a moment. Death always arrives by that very moment too late. In vain it tugs at the knob of the invisible door. As far as you've come can't be undone.
There's nothing new under the sun: that's what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn't read your poem. And that cypress under which you're sitting hasn't been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same.
We have a soul at times. No one?s got it non-stop, for keeps. Day after day, year after year may pass without it. Sometimes it will settle for awhile only in childhood?s fears and raptures. Sometimes only in astonishment that we are old. It rarely lends a hand in uphill tasks, like moving furniture, or lifting luggage, or going miles in shoes that pinch. It usually steps out whenever meat needs chopping or forms have to be filled. For every thousand conversations it participates in one, if even that, since it prefers silence. Just when our body goes from ache to pain, it slips off-duty. It?s picky: it doesn?t like seeing us in crowds, our hustling for a dubious advantage and creaky machinations make it sick. Joy and sorrow aren?t two different feelings for it. It attends us only when the two are joined. We can count on it when we?re sure of nothing and curious about everything. Among the material objects it favors clocks with pendulums and mirrors, which keep on working even when no one is looking. It won?t say where it comes from or when it?s taking off again, though it?s clearly expecting such questions. We need it but apparently it needs us for some reason too.
They forget that life is not here. Other laws, black on white, apply here. Blink of an eye last as long as I say, you will leave to split into small eternity full of bullets stopped flying. Not a thing will happen here if you want . Without my consent will not fall leaf, nor shall bow stem below the point of the little hoof. So there is a world that can stand independent fortunes? A time that bind with chains of signs? And exist in my incessant command? The joy of writing. The power to perpetuate. revenge of a mortal hand.
We know ourselves only as far as we?ve been tested.
They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me, anyway.
We live longer but less precisely and in shorter sentences.
They were or they weren't. On an island or not. An ocean or not an ocean swallowed them up or it didn't.
We will pass without a gesture and without saying a word without remembering that for a short time we made ??love forever.
They're both convinced that a sudden passion joined them. Such certainty is beautiful, but uncertainty is more beautiful still. Since they'd never met before, they're sure that there'd been nothing between them. But what's the word from the streets, staircases, hallways-- perhaps they've passed by each other a million times? I want to ask them if they don't remember-- a moment face to face in some revolving I know the answer. No, they don't remember. They'd be amazed door? Perhaps a sorry muttered in a crowd? A curt wrong number caught in the receiver? But to hear that Chance has been toying with them now for years. Not quite ready yet to become their Destiny, it pushed them close, drove them apart, it barred their path, stifling a laugh, and then leaped aside. There were signs and signals, even if they couldn't read them yet. Perhaps three years ago or just last Tuesday a certain leaf fluttered from one shoulder to another? Something was dropped and then picked up. Who knows, maybe the ball that vanished into childhood's thicket? There were doorknobs and doorbells where one touch had covered another beforehand. Suitcases checked and standing side by side. One night, perhaps, the same dream, grown hazy by morning. Every beginning is only a sequel, after all, and the book of events is always open halfway through.
We're extremely fortunate not to know precisely the kind of world we live in. One would have
This adult male. This person on earth. Ten billion nerve cells. Ten pints of blood pumped by ten ounces of heart.
When I was young I had a moment of believing in the Communist doctrine. I wanted to save the world through Communism. Quite soon I understood that it doesn't work, but I've never pretended it didn't happen to me.
This object took three billion years to emerge.