Szymborska's 'View': Small Truths Sharply Etched Adam Gopnik says the Nobel Prize winner isn't merely a poet: She's "a necessary writer, as necessary as toast," adept at delivering "a small truth articulated as a sharp ironic point" — and "an emotion given a shape neither all too familiar nor all too abstract."
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Szymborska's 'View': Small Truths Sharply Etched

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Szymborska's 'View': Small Truths Sharply Etched


Szymborska's 'View': Small Truths Sharply Etched

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Summer is almost here, which means that it's time for our summer reading series, You Must Read This. It features writers talking about books they love.

New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik starts this off this year telling us about a poet who has become a part of his daily routine.

Mr. ADAM GOPNIK (Writer; Resident, New York): Every other year, it seems, the Nobel Prize in literature goes to an obscure European writer full of hard consonants and solemn purposes, whom we all agree to honor for a day and forget all about right after. But the bright exceptions of the list is the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel in 1996.

Szymborska is not merely a great writer, like many others. She is a necessary writer, as necessary as toast.

Every month, it seems, I give to someone a copy of one of her books and guess for what she's written, in response, not just admiration or respect but eyes alight with delight, recognition, laughter and that special kind of happiness that comes from seeing a small truth articulated as a sharp ironic point.

Born in 1923, and spending most of her life in the Polish city of Krakow, Szymborska survived the Second World War as a railroad worker, and then spent the long years of the Russian occupation as one of the more discreet kinds of Polish dissident.

Yet her exposure to the pain of history did not turn her into a poet of history in the usual sense. She lived through some horrible times, but rarely wrote about them directly. Her poems take small subjects and make much of them. In her poetry, a child about to pull a tablecloth from a table becomes the type of every scientist beginning an experiment; a visit to the doctors, with its stripping down and piling on of clothes becomes a metaphor for all we go through in the company of the odd and any mechanisms, our naked bodies.

In the poem of hers that I used for the epigraph for my own last book, she writes all about the range of human and historical difficulties that make the decision to have a child impossible at any moment. We just can't do it, it's the wrong time to try and yet we do.

This is from her poem, "A Tale Begun"

(Reading) The world is never ready for the birth of a child. Our ships are not yet back from Winnland. We still have to get over the San Gothard(ph) pass. We've got to outwit the watchmen on the desert of Thor, fight our way through the sewers to Warsaw's center, gain access to King Harald the Butterpat, and wait until the downfall of Minister Fouche.

And then she goes on to conclude…

(Reading) May delivery be easy. May our child grow and be well. Let him be happy from time to time and leap over abysses. Let his heart have strength to endure and his mind be awake and reach far. But not so far that it sees into the future. Spare him that one gift, o heavenly powers.

And I have always been moved and inspired by the text of her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. She writes…

(Reading) 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. 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.

That's Szymborska's faith. I have a hard time knowing how I would get through a single ordinary day in my own life without her poetry.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Adam Gopnik is the author of "Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York." Next week, on You Must Read This, Rebecca Scott(ph) raves about Moby Dick's erotic beninese. And you can find the wealth of some of reading recommendations at


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