Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Poetry for Dark Times: Szymborska's "In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself"

Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) was one of the pithiest of twentieth (and twenty-first!) century poets, as well as winner of the Nobel Prize. Her work is characterized by an ethereal beauty, a cross between the exquisite and the earthy, and easily travels, like the most magnificent of celestial zoom lenses, from the microscopic to the universal. Though many of her poems engage with the weightiest of subjects, from death to true love to the meaning of life, they are always leavened with an elegant, light-touched, and ironic sense of humor. Szymborska succeeds in striking a tone that is equal parts deadly serious and wittily unpretentious. Indeed, the lack of pretension elevates her poetry above that of many of her contemporaries. She may address Death, but then, she accuses it of a lack of humor ("It can't take a joke") and incompetence ("Preoccupied with killing,/it does the job awkwardly,/without system or skill./As though each of us were its first kill"). Her stars are celestial orbs, but she's as likely to reference Einstein or Plato as she is one of the Romantic poets. Time is bent and twisted about, examined up close and from a distant perspective. Dreams and reality collide; Szymborska reaps a spark of something beautiful or truthful in their collision. A poem entitled "Metaphysics" lands neatly on the decidedly contemporary image of a plate of fries, while "Tarsier" ascends to an ironic apex, vaunting the very essence of being the wide-eyed animal. Her world is a modern one, cognizant of its smallness in the cosmos, populated by machinery and wracked by the throes of misery in death camps and terrorist attacks, but Szymborska's frame of reference is enormously wide, easily encompassing ancient Greek philosophy, astrophysics, Dutch painting, medieval tapestry, archaeology, slapstick silent film, and even every-day life.

Many of us, as 2016 comes to a close, can look back at a difficult, if not brutal year. Those events that effect all of us have been frightening and threaten to have dire consequences. And, I would claim, the time is ripe for poetry. Perhaps no poet can serve us better, then, than Szymborska. Here is one of her beautiful poems, translated from the Polish by Claire Cavanaugh and Stanislaw Baranczak, "In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself."

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 weight a ton,
in every other way they're light.

On this third planet from the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is number one.

This poem was published in the collection, A Large Number, released in 1976, mid-way through Szymborska's career. Here we have an example of the brilliance of her final ironic turns, an elegant deflection that suddenly shines a blinding light on the human condition. Animals in her poems are never anthropomorphized, though they sometimes speak for themselves, as in the aforementioned "Tarsier" and "Monologue of a Dog Ensnared in History," which builds to a devastating last stanza. However, animals coexist with human beings not as lesser, but as different, beings, beings that abide by different moral codes, different rules. By drawing comparisons between the pitilessness of animals, of the hard and often brutal demands of their continued survival, with the behavior of human beings, Szymborska - who lived through World War II in Poland, one of the worst ravaged countries in Europe - steadfastly, almost obstinately, insists that we face ourselves, who we really are, and pass sentence on ourselves. If you shrink from the sight of a lion mauling its prey or an insect burrowing into the skin, she tells us, look around and take a look at yourself.

Even so, this doesn't mean that her point of view is pitiless. In her refusal to name the creatures who comfort themselves with clear consciences and count themselves as estranged from the bestial, she is clear-eyed, but not cruel. The admonishment is clean, cool, keen, but it is really the reader, not the poet, who admonishes. The reader jumps from that final line to the state of her own conscience and must either recognize the stains upon it - or be marked as bestial. The only other option is to slam the book shut and determine to forget one ever read such words.

Szymborska wrote many poems that both obliquely and explicitly address specific violent conflicts and events, including the Vietnam War and September 11th, but the war that occupies her most deeply, unsurprisingly, is World War II. In desolating poems such as "Starvation Camp Near Jaslo" and "Still," Szymborska insists on the facts, and if they are brutal, upsetting, or ugly (and, goodness knows, they are), she refuses to turn away from them. She remembers the neighbors that disappeared, she notices the verdancy of the fields that cover mass graves, she recognizes that there are stories, people, lurking beneath every gravestone. This is why I believe her to be a poet to cherish at this moment. She provides us beauty and bracing, unadulterated truth, a look at our naked selves in a mirror, in equal measure. The mixture of these two qualities offers a certain degree of pleasure and relief without permitting escapism. So, let us read poetry; perhaps it will prove a better guide than any other. Through poetry, if we're more sagacious than human beings usually prove to be, maybe we'll remember to think and to have compassion for others. It's no guarantee, but then, as Szymborska has written, "there's no stop/along our escape route/where reality isn't expecting us."

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