Profound Poet Szymborska Carried Her Gravity Lightly

Poet Wislawa Szymborska of Poland died this week at the age of 88. Renee Montagne talks to Lawrence Weschler about her death. He covered Poland in the 1980s and '90s as a staff writer for The New Yorker. And Weschler has written about her in his books including his latest Uncanny Valley.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Wislawa Szymborska could be called the national poet of Poland. The world heard her name in 1996 when she was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature. Szymborska was 88 when she died this week. And in her long life, she lived through Poland's turmoil: Hitler's invasion, world war, the Holocaust, a communist dictatorship then Solidarity's freedom fight. From those experiences came hundreds of poems. Her poems are contemplative, and speak of darker things, but are also simple and often playful.

To learn more, we reached Lawrence Weschler. He covered Poland in the 1980s and '90s as a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine.

Good morning.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Good morning. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. You know, you were - as was all of Poland, it seems - you know, a great fan of Wislawa Szymborska's work.

WESCHLER: Right.

MONTAGNE: You've written about her in a couple of your books, including your most recent, "Uncanny Valley." What was it about her poetry that drew you to her?

WESCHLER: She was deeply profound but she carried her gravity lightly. She was extremely clear. She was very, very modest; was quite shocked to have gotten the Nobel Prize. The story goes that, you know, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment groaning with books in Krakow and suddenly gets this prize and goes to Stockholm. Was given the top suite in the fanciest hotel, an entire city block of a suite.

She spent the night before giving the Nobel speech, sleeping in the bathtub of the bathroom, because it was the only room she could figure out how to turn on the lights.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WESCHLER: She was just a clean gleam of a human being. And I mean what one should do is just look at her poetry. It's so wonderful.

MONTAGNE: Well, we'll look - read as a poem or part of a poem if...

WESCHLER: OK. Well, look here - let's - I mean one of my oldest love is "Maybe All This."

(Reading) Maybe all this - by which by she means everything.

(Reading) Maybe all this is happening in some lab, under one lamp by day and billions by night. Maybe we're experimental generations poured from one vial to the next, shaken in test tubes - and she goes on, and she goes and says that...

(Reading) Maybe we're not of all that much interest. Or maybe they only look at us during wars or migrations - and then she says...

(Reading) 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. The radar shrieks. The staff comes at a run. What a darling little being with its tiny heart beating inside it. How sweet its solemn threading of the needle. Someone cries, enraptured, quick, get the boss. Tell them he's got to see this for himself.

Or another one "Here's an Opinion on the Question of Pornography." This was written in 1978 at the midst of the communist regime.

(Reading) There's nothing more debauched than thinking. This sort of wantonness runs wild like a windborne weed on a plot laid out for daisies. Nothing sacred for those who think; calling things brazenly by name, risqué analyses, salacious syntheses, frenzied rakish chases after the bare facts - and then she goes on...

(Reading) It's shocking the positions that unchecked simplicity with which one mind contrives to fertilize another. Such positions the "Kama Sutra" itself doesn't know.

She has a great line where she says that...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WESCHLER: She has this great line where she says that: Degenerate daughters corrupt their fathers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Now, that is interesting. Now, you picked that poem because - she first wrote back in the early '50s, first was published, when Poland was still under Soviet, but Stalinist, rule, really.

WESCHLER: Right. Right, and she has said that she was a true believer - as many, many people were at that time. Her first book of poetry was socialist realist but she was not unlike very many people in Poland. I mean the three great Polish poets of this generation - all of whom should have won Nobel Prizes, and only two of whom did - she and Czesław Miłosz won. But both Miłosz and she were - had a certain kind of communist dalliance at the very beginning.

But anyway, just the flame of subjectivity runs completely counter to a totalitarian regime. And in that, she was deeply, deeply loved.

MONTAGNE: She wrote, what you might say, few poems - a relatively few. And then after winning the Nobel Prize in 1996, she stopped writing for years. What was that all...

WESCHLER: Well, it was just - it was - I think she - everybody called it the disaster, the Nobel disaster. I mean she wasn't asking for it, she wasn't expecting it, and it just kind of knocked her cold for a little while. She then revived again. But I think she was thrown by all that attention and, for that matter, even the money. I mean she lived in extremely modest life. And she was...

MONTAGNE: She wrote...

WESCHLER: She was very private...

MONTAGNE: She cherished solitude, is what she said.

WESCHLER: She was private. Well, solitude and privacy and intimacy. And its out of that intimate core that all this poetry comes.

MONTAGNE: One of her most cherished and famous poems is "A Cat in an Empty Apartment," which, I think, really goes at how she was able to write about death.

WESCHLER: Yeah, she wrote about mortality when her longtime companion died. She wrote a poem about the death of someone in the absence left, as seen from the point of view of the cat. But here's another one called "Nothing is a Gift."

(Reading) Nothing is a gift. It's all on loan. I'm drowning in debts up to my ears. I'll have to pay for myself with myself, give up my life for my life. Here's how it is arranged: the heart can be repossessed, the liver too, and each single finger and toe - and then she goes on to mention everything else...

(Reading) The inventory, infinitely detailed, implies we'll be left not just empty handed but handless, too. I can't remember where, when, and why I let someone open this account in my name. And we call the protests against this state of affairs the soul. And it's the only item not included on the list.

MONTAGNE: Lawrence Weschler, thank you very much.

WESCHLER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Lawrence Weschler remembering poet Wislawa Szymborska. She died Wednesday in Poland at the age of 88.

Lawrence Weschler covered Poland for The New Yorker magazine.

And from NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION. I'm Renee Montagne.

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