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Monday, May 22, 2017

The Poetry Show features Nobel Poet Wislawa Szymborska

Enlighten Radio -- May 22, 2017

Wislawa Szymborska was born on July 2, 1923 near Poznań in western Poland, but in 1931 her family moved to Kraków, where she spent most of her life. There she attended a high school for girls. When the school was closed during the German occupation, she attended underground classes. She later studied Polish literature and sociology at Jagellonian University from 1945 to 1948 before financial difficulties interrupted her education. She died in Kraków of lung cancer on February 1, 2012. The president of Poland paid tribute to her, calling the Nobel Prize winner his nation's "guardian spirit" whose poems "were brilliant advice, through which the world became more understandable." Since the intensely private Szymborska disliked giving interviews or speaking of herself, biographical information about her can be sparse and contradictory. For instance, it is unclear whether it was she or her friends who labeled the award of the Nobel Prize in 1996 as the "Stockholm catastrophe." Never a prolific poet, she published fewer than 400 poems in her lifetime. After an unpublished first volume of poetry, and two books written in a Socialist Realist mode that she later disavowed, in 1957 she published what most critics consider her breakthrough collection, Calling Out to Yeti. Ten collections, including her final collection Enough, followed. Map: Collected and Last Poems edited by Clare Cavanagh and translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Barańczak was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015. In addition to her poetry, she also wrote book reviews, published in English as Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (2002). Among her other honors, Szymborska was awarded the Herder Prize and the Goethe Prize (1991).

In her short but graceful Nobel lecture, "The Poet and the World," Szymborska extolled the virtues of not knowing: "Poets, if they're genuine, must also keep repeating 'I don't know.' Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as that final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that's absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying...." 

This week's featured poem, "Under One Small Star," is from Map: Collected and Last Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).


My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.

My apologies to necessity if I'm mistaken after all.

Please, don't be angry happiness, that I take you as my due.

May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.

My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.

My apologies to past loves for thinking each that the latest is the first.

Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.

Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.

I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.

I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep at five A.M.

Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.

Pardon me, deserts, that I don't rush to you with a spoonful of water.

And you, falcon, unchanging year after year, always in the same cage,

your gaze always fixed on the same point in space,

forgive me, even if it turns out you were stuffed.

My apologies to the felled tree for the table's four legs.

My apologies to great questions for small answers.

Truth, please don't pay me much attention.

Dignity, please be magnanimous.

Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from your train.

Soul, don't take offense that I've only got you now and then.

My apologies to everything that I can't be everywhere at once.

My apologies to everyone that I can't be each woman and each man.

I know I won't be justified as long as I live,

since I myself stand in my own way.

Don't bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,

then labor heavily so that they may seem light.

—translated Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Barańczak

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