Wisława Szymborska

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Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves … in our clamorous times it's much easier to acknowledge your faults, at least if they're attractively packaged, than to recognize your own merits, since these are hidden deeper and you never quite believe in them yourself.

Wisława Szymborska-Włodek (2 July 19231 February 2012) was a Polish poet, essayist and translator. She was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Quotes[edit]

The Poet and the World (1996)[edit]

Nobel lecture (1996-12-07)
Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists...
  • They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me, anyway.
  • Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves. They publicly confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it. But in our clamorous times it's much easier to acknowledge your faults, at least if they're attractively packaged, than to recognize your own merits, since these are hidden deeper and you never quite believe in them yourself.
  • Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists. There is, there has been, there 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 — 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 that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."
Whatever else we might think of this world — it is astonishing.
  • Any knowledge that doesn't lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life.
  • "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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.

Poems New and Collected (1998)[edit]

Translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh, Harcourt Inc., ISBN 0-15-601146-8

Calling Out to Yeti (1957)[edit]

Toy balloon once kidnapped by the wind — come home, and I will say: There are no children here.
  • Here we are, naked lovers,
    beautiful to each other—and that's enough.
    The leaves of our eyelids our only covers,
    we're lying amidst deep night.
    • Openess.
  • Toy balloon
    once kidnapped by the wind —
    come home, and I will say:
    There are no children here.
    • "Still Life with a Balloon".
  • They were or they weren't.
    On an island or not.
    An ocean or not an ocean
    Swallowed them up or it didn't.
    • "Atlantis".
  • I'm working on the world,
    revised, improved edition
    ,
    featuring fun for fools
    blues for brooders,
    combs for bald pates,
    tricks for old dogs.
    • I'm Working on the World"

Salt (1962)[edit]

Our snakes have shed their lightning, our apes their flights of fancy...
  • Our snakes have shed their lightning,
    our apes their flights of fancy
    ,
    our peacocks have renounced their plumes.
    The bats flew out of our hair long ago.

    We fall silent in mid-sentence,
    all smiles, past help.
    Our humans
    don't know how to talk to one another.

    • "An Unexpected Meeting".
  • I am too close for him to dream of me.
    I don't flutter over him, don't flee him
    beneath the roots of trees. I am too close.
    The caught fish doesn't sing with my voice.
    The ring doesn't roll from my finger.
    I am too close.
    • "I Am Too Close..."
In Heraclitus' river a fish has imagined the fish of all fish...
  • My cry could only waken him. And what
    a poor gift: I, confined to my own form,
    when I used to be a birch, a lizard
    shedding times and satin skins
    in many shimmering hues.
    • "I Am Too Close..."
No other sense can make up for your missing sense of taking part. Even sight heightened to become all-seeing will do you no good without a sense of taking part.
  • In Heraclitus' river
    a fish has imagined the fish of all fish
    ,
    a fish kneels to the fish, a fish sings to the fish,
    a fish begs the fish to ease its fishy lot.
    • "In Heraclitus' River".
  • I, the solitary fish, a fish apart
    (apart at least from the tree fish and the stone fish),
    write, at isolated moments, a tiny fish or two
    whose glittering scales, so fleeting,
    may only be the dark's embarrassed wink.
    • "In Heraclitus' River".
  • No other sense can make up for your missing sense of taking part.
    Even sight heightened to become all-seeing
    will do you no good without a sense of taking part.

    You shall not enter, you have only a sense of what the sense should be,
    only its seed, imagination.
    • "Conversation with a Stone".
  • I knock at the stone's front door.
    "It's only me, let me come in."

    "I don't have a door," says the stone.

    • "Conversation with a Stone"

No End of Fun (1967)[edit]

Our stockpile of antiquity grows constantly...
  • Born.
    So he was born, too.
    Born like everyone else.
    Like me, who will die.
    The son of an actual woman.
    A new arrival from the body's depths.
    A voyager to Omega.
    • "Born".
  • Our stockpile of antiquity grows constantly,
    it's overflowing,
    reckless squatters jostle for a place in history,
    hordes of sword fodder,
    Hector's nameless extras, no less brave than he,
    thousands upon thousands of singular faces,
    each the first and last for all time,
    in each a pair of inimitable eyes.
    How easy it was to live not knowing this,
    so sentimental, so spacious.
    • "Census"
I'm sorry that my voice was hard. Look down on yourselves from the stars, I cried, look down on yourselves from the stars...
  • I remember it so clearly —
    how people, seeing me, would break off in midword.
    Laughter died.

    Lovers' hands unclasped.
    Children ran to their mothers.
    I didn't even know their short-lived names.
    And that song about a little green leaf —
    no one ever finished it near me.
  • I'm sorry that my voice was hard.
    Look down on yourselves from the stars, I cried,
    look down on yourselves from the stars.
    They heard me and lowered their eyes.
    • "Soliloquy for Cassandra".
  • Yes, she loved him very much. Yes, he was born that way.
    Yes, she was standing by the prison wall that morning.
    Yes, she heard the shots.
    You may regret not having brought a camera,
    a tape recorder. Yes, she has seen such things.
    • "Pietà"
This is a war, you've got to choose.
  • Yes, the memory still moves her.
    Yes, just a little tired now. Yes, it will pass.
    You may get up. Thank her. Say good-bye. Leave,
    passing by the new arrivals in the hall.
    • "Pietà".
  • "Whose side are you on?" "I don't know."
    "This is a war, you've got to choose." "I don't know."
    "Does your village still exist?" "I don't know."
    "Are those your children?" "Yes."
    • "Vietnam"
God of humor, do something about him, OK? God of humor, do something about him today.
  • This adult male. This person on earth.
    Ten billion nerve cells. Ten pints of blood
    pumped by ten ounces of heart.
    This object took three billion years to emerge.
    • "A Film from the Sixties".
  • He feels like a handle broken off a jug,
    but the jug doesn't know it's broken and keeps going to the well.
    • "A Film from the Sixties".
  • Within him, there's awful darkness, in the darkness a small boy.

    God of humor, do something about him, OK?
    God of humor, do something about him today.

    • "A Film from the Sixties"
We, my lord, are your dream, which finds you innocent for now.
  • I am a tarsier and a tarsier's son,
    the grandson and great-grandson of tarsiers
    ,
    a tiny creature, made up of two pupils
    and whatever simply could not be left out...
    • "Tarsier".
  • And only we few who remain unstripped of fur,
    untorn from bone, unplucked of soaring feathers,
    esteemed in all our quills, scales, tusks, and horns,
    and in whatever else that ingenious protein
    has seen fit to clothe us with,
    we, my lord, are your dream,
    which finds you innocent for now.
    • "Tarsier".
  • So he's got to have happiness,
    he's got to have truth, too,
    he's got to have eternity —
    did you ever!
    • "No End of Fun"
He's no end of fun, for all you say....
  • He has only just learned to tell dreams from waking;
    only just realized that he is he;
    only just whittled with his hand né fin
    a flint, a rocket ship;
    easily drowned in the ocean's teaspoon,
    not even funny enough to tickle the void:
    sees only with his eyes;
    hears only with his ears;
    his speech's personal best is the conditional;
    he uses his reason to pick holes in reason.
    In short, he's next to to one,
    but his head's full of freedom, omniscience and the Being
    beyond his foolish meat —
    did you ever!
    • "No End of Fun".
  • He's no end of fun, for all you say.
    Poor little beggar.
    A human, if ever we saw one.
    • "No End of Fun"

Could Have (1972)[edit]

Everything the dead predicted has turned out completely different. Or a little bit different — which is to say, completely different.
  • Everything the dead predicted has turned out completely different.
    Or a little bit different — which is to say, completely different.
    • "The Letters of the Dead".
  • I believe in the refusal to take part.
    I believe in the ruined career.
    I believe in the wasted years of work.
    I believe in the secret taken to the grave.
    • "Discovery"
It still surprises me how little now remains...
  • I lost a few goddesses while moving south to north
    and also some gods while moving east to west.
    • "A Speech at the Lost-and-Found".
  • My siblings died the day I left for dry land
    and only one small bone recalls that anniversary in me.
    • "A Speech at the Lost-and-Found"
My apologies to great questions for small answers.
  • Gone, lost, scattered to the four winds. It still surprises me
    how little now remains
    , one first person sing., temporarily
    declined in human form, just now making such a fuss
    about a blue umbrella left yesterday on a bus.
    • "A Speech at the Lost-and-Found".
  • My apologies to the felled tree for the table's four legs.
    My apologies to great questions for small answers.
    • "Under One Small Star".
  • 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.
    • "Under One Small Star"

A Large Number (1976)[edit]

My choices are rejections, since there is no other way, but what I reject is more numerous, denser, more demanding than before.
  • My choices are rejections, since there is no other way,
    but what I reject is more numerous,
    denser, more demanding than before.
    A little poem, a sigh, at the cost of indescribable losses.
    • "A Large Number".
  • My dreams — even they're not as populous as they should be.
    They hold more solitude than noisy crowds.
    • "A Large Number"
How can we talk of order overall when the very placement of the stars leaves us doubting just what shines for whom?
  • And how can we talk of order overall
    when the very placement of the stars
    leaves us doubting just what shines for whom?

    Not to speak of the fog's reprehensible drifting!
    And dust blowing all over the steppes
    as if they hadn't been partitioned!
    And the voices coasting on obliging airwaves,
    that conspiratorial squeaking, those indecipherable mutters!
    Only what is human can truly be foreign.

    • "Psalm"
They were neither good nor evil now — every living thing was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.
  • I felt age within me. Distance.
    The futility of wandering. Torpor.

    I looked back setting my bundle down.
    I looked back not knowing where to set my foot.
    Serpents appeared on my path,
    spiders, field mice, baby vultures.
    They were neither good nor evil now — every living thing
    was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.
    • "Lot's Wife".
  • The going's rough, and so we need the laugh
    of bright incisors, molars of goodwill.
    Our times are still not safe and sane enough
    for faces to show ordinary sorrow.
    • "Smiles".
  • On this third planet from the sun
    among the signs of bestiality
    a clear conscience is Number One.
    • "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself"

The People on the Bridge (1986)[edit]

Secret codes resound. Doubts and intentions come to light...
  • Millennia have passed
    since you first called me archaeology.
    I no longer require
    your stone gods, your ruins with legible inscriptions.

    Show me your whatever
    and I'll tell you who you were.
    • "Archeology"
We call it a grain of sand but it calls itself neither grain nor sand...
  • Secret codes resound.
    Doubts and intentions come to light.
    • "Archeology".
  • Show me your little poem
    and I'll tell you why it wasn't written
    any earlier or later than it was.

    Oh no, you've got me wrong.
    Keep your funny piece of paper
    with its scribbles.
    All I need for my ends
    is your layer of dirt
    and the long gone
    smell of burning.

    • "Archeology"
The view doesn't view itself. It exists in this world colorless, shapeless, soundless, odorless, and painless.
  • 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.
    • "View with a Grain of Sand".
  • 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.
    • "View with a Grain of Sand"
There's no life that couldn't be immortal if only for a moment...
  • 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.

    • "On Death, Without Exaggeration".
  • He managed to come into the world at what was still a fitting time.
    All that was to pass passed in this house.
    Not in housing projects,
    not in furnished but empty quarters,
    among unknown neighbors
    on fifteenth floors
    that student field trips rarely reach.
    • "The Great Man's House"
Few of them made it to thirty. Old age was the privilege of rocks and trees.
  • Few of them made it to thirty.
    Old age was the privilege of rocks and trees.

    Childhood ended as fast as wolf cubs grow.
    One had to hurry, to get on with life
    before the sun went down,
    before the first snow.
    • "Our Ancestors' Short Lives"
And who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
  • And who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
    That's tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers' little boy!
    • "Hitler's First Photograph".
  • God was finally going to believe
    in a man both good and strong,
    but good and strong
    are still two different men.
    • "Our Century's Decline".
  • There's nothing more debauched than thinking.
    • "An Opinion Concerning the Question of Pornography".
  • It's shocking, the positions,
    the unchecked simplicity with which
    one mind contrives to fertilize another!
    Such positions the Kama Sutra itself doesn't know.
    • "An Opinion Concerning the Question of Pornography"

The End and the Beginning (1993)[edit]

  • After every war
    someone has to tidy up.

    Things won't pick themselves up, after all.

    Someone has to shove
    the rubble to the roadsides
    so the carts loaded with corpses
    can get by.

    • "The End and the Beginning"
Those who knew
what this was all about must make way for those who know little. And less than that And at last nothing less than nothing.
  • Those who knew
    what this was all about
    must make way for those
    who know little.

    And less than that.
    And at last nothing less than nothing.
    • "The End and the Beginning"
Something doesn't start at its usual time. Something doesn't happen as it should...
  • Something doesn't start
    at its usual time.
    Something doesn't happen
    as it should.

    Someone was always, always here,
    then suddenly disappeared
    and stubbornly stays disappeared.
    • "Cat in an Empty Apartment".
  • I shake my memory.
    Maybe something in its branches
    that has been asleep for years
    will start up with a flutter.

    No.
    Clearly I'm asking too much.
    Nothing less than one whole second.

    • "May 16, 1973"
Nothing's a gift, it's all on loan...
  • If there are angels
    they must, I hope,
    find this convincing,
    this merriment dangling from terror,
    not even crying Save me Save me
    since all of this takes place in silence.
    • "Slapstick".
  • Nothing's a gift, it's all on loan.
    I'm drowning in debts up to my ears.
    I'll have to pay for myself
    with my self,
    give up my life for my life.
    • "Nothing's a Gift"
For the sake of research, the big picture and definitive conclusions, one would have to transcend time, in which everything scurries and whirls.
  • We're extremely fortunate
    not to know precisely
    the kind of world we live in.
    One would have
    to live a long, long time,
    unquestionably longer
    than the world itself.
    • "We're Extremely Fortunate".
  • For the sake of research,
    the big picture
    and definitive conclusions,
    one would have to transcend time,
    in which everything scurries and whirls.
    • "We're Extremely Fortunate".
  • The counting of weekdays
    would inevitably seem to be
    a senseless activity;
    dropping letters in the mailbox
    a whim of foolish youth;
    the sign "No Walking On The Grass"
    a symptom of lunacy.
    • "We're Extremely Fortunate"

New Poems 1993 - 97[edit]

I'd have to be really quick to describe clouds — a split second's enough for them to start being something else.
  • I'd have to be really quick
    to describe clouds —
    a split second's enough
    for them to start being something else.

    Their trademark:
    they don't repeat a single
    shape, shade, pose, arrangement.

    • "Clouds".
  • They aren't obliged to vanish when we're gone.
    They don't have to be seen while sailing on.
    • "Clouds".

External links[edit]

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