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Wislawa Szymborska – POEMS NEW AND COLLECTED 1957 - 1997

By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1998
ISBN: 0-15-100353-X
273 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2015

This is a collection of Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry from 1957 – 1997. I have already read several of the individual volumes from which these poems were talem, but it’s always a delight to go back and reread her works. Some of the poems are new to me and I’ve enjoyed those very much.

From the earliest collection included, I was very excited to read the poem “Four A.M” This short poem talks about those of us who rise at five a.m. each morning, and what it is like to have some vague awareness of 4 a.m.

I am one of the 5 a.m.ers. Almost like an automaton I’m in bed at just about 9 p.m. each evening and asleep in minutes. However, I do not allow myself to arise until 5 a.m., even though I often wake during the half hour before five.

Thus I was especially delighted with Wislawa Szymborska’s poem on arising at 5 a.m., yet being aware of that strange period before rising. However, she calls it the hour of thirty-year-olds. 5 a.m. has been my hour of rising for all of my 70s and some years earlier as well.


The hour between night and day.
The hour between toss and turn.
The hour of thirty-year-olds.

The hour swept clean for roosters’ crowing.
The hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace.
The hour of cool drafts from extinguished stars.
The hour of do-we-vanish-too-without-a-trace.

Empty hour.
Hallow. Vain.
Rock bottom of all the other hours.

No one feels fine at four a.m.
If ants feel fine at four a.m.
we’re happy for the ants. And let five a.m. come
if we’ve got to go on living.

There seem to be a significant number of the earlier poems which focus on the lifelessness of characters in paintings and literature who had all the trappings of real life, yet they lack life itself, exhibiting changelessness, with no alteration or new futures. These art objects are simply frozen pictures devoid of the essence of life, doomed to be what they are at the moment for all time.

This seems a strange notion of aesthetics. I sort of take it she is criticizing this feature of painting, even poetry and literature. Yet I can’t imagine the captured moment being anything other than “captured” FOR the moment.

“An Unexpected Meeting” is a challenging philosophical poem. Two former friends run into each other and share a number of trivial memories and “catch ups” on family and such, represented in the poems as ‘pets.’ But then:

“We fall silent in midsentence,
All smiles, past help.
Our humans
don’t know how to talk to one another.”

I find this to be a bit harsh. I wonder back on what the relationships might ever have been. We are born into family, we have neighbors, school mates, co-workers, the friendly gas station attendant and so on. How much did we ever talk beyond the trivialities of how are you, the kids? Work going well? You still have that yellow car? And so on.

The poem “Ballad” is very powerful. She opens calling attention to a popular ballad called ‘Murdered Woman Suddenly Get Up from Chair.” The poem comments:

“The thing happened fair and square
With curtains open, lamps all lit.”

But she does get up and goes on. The murder is a ‘walkout’ and ‘abandoning’ but the ‘dead” woman it’s all the same.

Very powerful and tragic poem.

“The Railroad Station” seems to me a marvelously clever creation. The opening two lines explain:

“My nonarrival in the city of N
took place on the dot.”

Yes, she was supposed to go, but eventually chose not to. Now everything else happens to those who did go. It was, as the ending tells us, a rendezvous which never happened:

“Even a rendezvous
took place as planned

Beyond the reach of our presence.

In the paradise lost of probability.

Somewhere else.
Somewhere else.
How these little words ring.”

Oh my, “True Love” is a very favorite poem for me. She rails against the notion of true love, it would be more than the world could bear and what would people do?

She fumigates:

“Look at the happy couple
Couldn’t they at least try to hide it . . .”

She also thinks it would be an evolutionary disaster:

“Tact and common sense tell us to pass over it in silence.
Like a scandal in Life’s highest circles.
Perfectly good children are born without its help.
It couldn’t populate the planet in a million years,
it came along so rarely.”

I arise early, at 5 a.m. most days, and often I spend a very quiet hour or so reading poetry aloud to myself. I like to read it aloud, though softly so as not to wake Sally sleeping in the next room, since the music of the poetry is clearer to me when heard aloud.

Some like poetry and some are less likely to read it often, some, of course, almost never, other, definitely never.

Szymborska’s short little poem “Some People Like Poetry” describes me in fair measure:

“Some people –
that means not everyone.
Not even most of them, only a few.
Not counting school, where you have to,
and poets themselves,
you might end up with something like two per thousand.

Like –
but then, you can like chicken noodle soup,
or compliments, or the color blue,
your old scarf,
your own way,
petting the dog.

what is poetry anyway?
more than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question was first raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like a redemptive handrail.

Her poem “The End And The Beginning” contains a stanza whose message has struck me very strongly in recent times. As I approach now my 76th birthday I notice more and more than many of the young have virtually no memory of many things which are everyday realities to me. And I remember how my parents and other relatives of other generations, found the same experience with memory so short a time ago.

Life goes forward, but we humans simply don’t know the past, haven’t heard a bit about it, then even newer generations who never even heard of “that” part of the past. She captures it well in the stanza:

"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.”

At times I am a bit astonished at this when I experience it in talking with someone of a younger generation, but then when I reflect on what my fixations and memories and obsessions have been, I realize I have always been like all others. Our memories are very time circumscribed and what was living and important to one generation becomes less powerful in a later, and soon, in an even later generation, virtually unknown. What was new and alive for one generation is so old had, and soon even totally forgotten.

“Nothing’s A Gift” is a very philosophical poem. She points to the fact that from birth on we are dying.

“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 myself,
give up my life for my life.”

She doesn’t protest this-living-until-I die notion, but she knows it wasn’t a choice to be born, just a fact of life.

“I can’t remember
where, when, and why
I let someone open
this account in my name.”

Thoughtful and quite clever!

To close my comments on this wonderful book of poetry, I invite you to play a game with Wislawa Szymborska. The third last poem in the book is entitled “A Contribution to Statistics.” She asks: For any of the given descriptions, what per-cent of the humans fit the category. I’ll give you the first two so you can see her plan, and then I’ll first list the rest WITHOUT the second part of the couplet where she gives the reply. So, you FIRST fill in your estimates of the per-cent and then, when you are finished, compare yourself with Szymborska. When my partner Sally got up this morning I had just finished this book of poetry. I sat her down in a recliner in my office and had her play the “game” with me. Actually we were both very close to Szymborska in most of our replies. See how you do.

First two as a sample:

Out of 100 people:

those who always know better


doubting ever step

nearly all the rest

Now for the rest here, first are her questions, but not the replies she gives. Those are later on. Note what per-cent you would answer and then compare yourself (below the questions) with Szymborska’s own replies. See how YOU compare. Again, Sally and I took the quiz this morning, and we were very very close with Szymborska’s replies

What per-cent of people are:

Glad to lend a hand

Always good

Able to admire without envy

Suffering illusions, influenced by fleeting youth

Not to be taken lightly

Living in constant fear

Capable of happiness

Harmless singly, savage in crowds

Cruel when forced by circumstances

Wise after the fact

Taking only things from life

Hunched in pain, no flashlight in the dark


Righteous with understanding

Worthy of compassion


Now, below are her replies, check them against you own.

Glad to lend a hand

as high as forty-nine

Always good because they can’t be otherwise

four, well maybe five

Able to admire without envy


Suffering illusions, influenced by fleeting youth

sixty, give or take a few

Not to be taken lightly

forty and four

Living in constant fear of someone or something


Capable of happiness

twenty-something tops

Harmless singly, savage in crowds

half at least

Cruel when forced by circumstances

better not to know even ballpark figures

Wise after the fact

just a couple more than wise before it

Taking only things from life

thirty (I wish I were wrong)

Hunched in pain, no flashlight in the dark

eight-three (sooner or later)


thirty-five, which is a lot

Righteous with understanding


Worthy of compassion



a hundred out of a hundred. Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett