s.penkevich's Reviews > Poems New and Collected

Poems New and Collected by Wisława Szymborska
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's review
Oct 16, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: nobel-prize-winners, poetry
Recommended for: Poetry lovers old and new
Read from December 10 to 22, 2011

Wisława Szymborska, the recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in literature, has the power to make the reader feel both insignificant and heroic simply for existing. This collection, which spans her career from 1957-97, offers a broad range of Szymborska’s talents. Her eloquent prose is direct and extremely quotable, overflowing with clever witticisms just begging you to go crazy with a highlighter through the pages, and is very accessible, making this a perfect collection for both veteran poetry fanatics and for those who only occasionally dip into the sea of poetry.

Born in 1923, Szymborska was witness to all the horrors of the century from her home in Krakow, Poland. Inspired by another Polish poet, Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz (of whom I give the highest of recommendations), she began penning her first poems, as well as short fiction, in the mid-1940’s while serving on the railroads. Despite her first collection being banned by the socialist regime, she continued to refine her craft and held close to the party limitations until splitting ways in the mid-60’s. Anyone who has read Miłosz’s The Captive Mind will see why he would applaud her for breaking loose and writing freely. This collection of her poetry does neglect much of her overtly political poems written while towing the party line and focuses primarily poems which are more all-encompassing of of humanity.

Poets are poetry, writers are prose-
Prose can hold anything including poetry,
But in poetry there is only room for poetry-

Baring her soul, Szymborska often addresses her self-conscious feelings about being a poet in this collection. ”They publically confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it” she says in her Nobel Lecture, which, as a nice little addition, is included in this collection. Poetry is often overlooked; I myself admit to being enamored with poetry yet often neglect this art for lengthy periods of time. Poetry is not taken as serious as it should be. Perhaps this is due in part to every weepy eyed kid you knew in high school who had a folder of sappy or morbid ‘poetry’ that they took far too seriously when finding any moment to read it and show off their ‘inner pain and deepness’. Okay, total cliché, but we’ve all seen this in film or in real life and I think this image of poetry has taken root in the everyman’s mind and created a slight aversion to it, masking it as only for ‘arsty’ folk. Even Szymborska states that it is better and more comfortable to say whatever it is else you do in life that to label yourself as ‘a poet’. With this collection, Szymborska scores a massive victory for poetry and evinces that poetry can be for and understood by the everyman, and although she may be quite self-conscious while doing so, she bravely puts forth her powerful stanzas. Poems such as Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem shows her ideas of the power of poetry, especially over the absence of poetry that would or could have been written.

The message lying in wait within her poems is often fairly discernable upon the first reading and Szymborska uses very direct and honest language. Literally anybody could pick this up, flip through, and find a half dozen poems that they feel is a potent statement on the human condition. This is a translated work, but the messages come through unhindered, though (I have not seen or am able to understand the original Polish) there may have been a loss of some literary devices so I cannot be certain that she doesn’t chip in cases of consonance or apply any alliteration or any other devices of that nature.

Much of her poetry pertains to death. Szymborska takes it upon herself to prepare the reader for their inevitable fate, showing humans as fragile, temporary, and sometimes rather insignificant in the face of eternity. I found it humorous how she occasionally sneaks this in, drawing me near with some tirade and then slapping me across the face with an open palm of mortality. Take, for example, the poem True Love, in which she humorously details how annoying those who are caught up in love are to those around them. This poem wraps up as follows:
Let the people who never find true love
Keep saying that there’s no such thing.
Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.

Heavy stuff right out of the blue. Poems such as Cat in an Empty Apartment or The Suicide’s Room show the void death leaves within the world. However, Syzmborska has one of the most optimistic poems about death I have ever read with On Death, Without Exaggeration. She illustrates death as weak and sloppy, saying death always does the job awkwardly and
can’t even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave
make a coffin
clean up after itself

Syzmborska is one of the rare few who place the living on the winning side in a battle against death:
Whoever claims that it’s omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it’s not

There’s no life
that couldn’t be immortal
if only for a moment.

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.

Not all of her poetry is gloomy. Much of it deals with the human condition and Szymborska has a signature bemused flair that seeps into her poems about mans fate and place in the universe. She often writes of how the world is seemingly made up of chance, how we by chance became who we are (and that she would never want to be anyone else) and that each second of life is an escape from a chance death (which made me think of life as a game Russian Roulette – each time a near death experience slides by its as if we hear that ‘click’ of safety, but this can only go on so long before that ‘click’ will be the ‘bang!’). Several poems, including my personal favorite Life While-You-Wait give us a Shakespeare-like vision of each human as a actor upon a stage, except life is improvisational acting and there is no rehearsal and no second chance to get it right.
I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’ mine, I can’t exchange it.

I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.

If I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen”

The link between the past, present and future is often tied tightly within her poems. In a very existential way, Szymborska describes us as being a product of our choices and pasts, a unique chance of actions that created us out of the infinite possible selves. From No Title Needed:
And yet I’m sitting by this river, that’s a fact
And since I’m here
I must have come from somewhere
and before that turned up in many other places,
exactly like the conquerors of nations
before setting sail.

From somber, introspective, morbid to outright funny, Szymborska’s collected poems deliver one treat after another. It could easily be picked up and read at random, but a straight through reading offers a bit more insight to the growth and maturation of the aging poet. If you are a fan of this often neglected art, do yourself a favor and read some Szymborska. If you are looking to get into poetry, this is a perfect starting point. Keep your pen or highlighter nearby while you read because she is very insightful and delivers gem after gem that you will want to revisit.

A few recommended poems:
Life While-You-Wait
On Death, Without Exaggeration
Over Wine
An Opinion on the Question of Pornography
I’m Working on the World
No Title Needed
A Contribution to Statistics

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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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s.penkevich So far I'm very impressed, I plan on doing a review for it at some point this weekend. Her poetry is quite profound and has plenty of fun little quips, definitely a book to keep a pen close by to underline lots of her lines that could work as almost a "bumper sticker philosophy". Her poetry is really accesible and you don't have to really pause and pick through it to get to the meaning, but it is still quite powerful in its simplicity. I recently read this years Nobel winner, another poet, Tomas Transtromer and I think I slightly prefer him or the other Polish Nobel poet Milosz, but Syzmborska is quite good.

s.penkevich Nice, Frost is a classic. I have a collected works that I should spend more time with. Poetry is something I enjoy but I never give it enough time as I should. I have yet to read Oliver, I think I'll kill some of the end of this workday browsing what I can find of her online. Thanks for the recommendations. And yeah, definitely check out Transtromer if you can. He is what really brought me back into reading poetry this fall.

Oh, and W.H Auden is worth a look as well, him and Dylan Thomas are my favorites.

message 3: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Wonderful review!!! I will need to check this out.

s.penkevich Thank you very much Stephen. She is definitely worth reading.

message 5: by s.penkevich (last edited Feb 02, 2012 06:59PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

s.penkevich Rest in peace Wisława Szymborska
7/2/1923 - 2/1/2012
You will be missed.

message 6: by Richard (last edited Feb 02, 2012 07:52PM) (new) - added it

Richard That's too bad, s.p. You just told me about her the other day! I'm sure she would appreciate your review and the heartfelt little tribute in your previous comment.

Mike Puma I'd forgotten I own this book. Your review demands I give it some attention. Looking forward to it (although, poetry almost always leaves me baffled).

s.penkevich Richard wrote: "That's too bad, s.p. You just told me about her the other day! I'm sure she would appreciate your review and the heartfelt little tribute in your previous comment."

Yeah I was bummed when I heard on NPR she died. I thought 'but I just read her book!'

Mike wrote: "I'd forgotten I own this book. Your review demands I give it some attention. Looking forward to it (although, poetry almost always leaves me baffled)."

I think you would like this collection. Her poems are very 'face-value' and out in the open, which was rather nice actually. Hope you enjoy!

Mike Puma s.penkevich wrote: "Richard wrote: "That's too bad, s.p. You just told me about her the other day! I'm sure she would appreciate your review and the heartfelt little tribute in your previous comment."

Yeah I was bu..."

Finished reading this collection this morning. Reread your recommendations (psst, pretty sure it's: No Title Required) By the time I was approaching the end of this collection, I was liking them more and more. Thanks for reminding me I had this book.

message 10: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Great, insightful review. You should float it so people who aren't already looking at Szymborska collections see it :)

s.penkevich Perhaps I will. I feel bad floating though ha. I did when she passed away, which was actually just after writing this.

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