By Elaine Magliaro
Stanley Kunitz, the tenth Poet Laureate of the United States, once said, “Memory is everybody’s poet-in-residence.”
Wislawa Szymborska, a Nobel Prize-winning poet from Poland, was born in 1923. Jaroslav Anders (Los Angeles Times) said that during her young adulthood, she “witnessed some of the worst atrocities of the century, which left a lasting impression” on her terse, restrained language and “dark, disenchanted world view.” He added that it was “not surprising, therefore, that a subtle, intelligent, often ironic meditation on mortality seems to be the main unifying theme of her poetry.” He noted that “the theme of perpetual, universal fading and departing–not only of people, nations, living organisms but also memories, images, shadows and reflections–was present in her poetry from the very beginning”.
After the death of Wislawa Szymborska in 2012, Katha Pollit wrote an article about the famous poet and her work for The Nation.
She takes the most serious themes—war, history and its many horrors, the passage of time, death, love and the loss of love—expresses them through vivid, concrete situations and gives them a wry comic twist. “Museum” shows us mortality by imagining the gleeful triumph of our “ten thousand aging things”: “The hand has lost out to the glove./The right shoe has defeated the foot.” “Hitler’s First Photograph” mocks the present for its ignorance of the future: “And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?/That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!”…
Szymborska lived through appalling times: World War II and the brutal Nazi occupation of Poland, followed by four decades of Stalinist communism—what Elizabeth Bishop, another poet of particularity, called “our worst century so far.” After a brief “socialist realist” phase in her youth, she disclaimed grand political schemes and mass utopianism in favor of irony, wit, skepticism and the individual: “Four billion people on this earth,” she wrote in “A Large Number,” “But my imagination is still the same.” In the great poem “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo,” she writes: “History rounds off skeletons to zero./A thousand and one is still only a thousand.”…
Jaroslaw Anders wrote the following about Szymborska’s poem “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo” in a review of her book POEMS NEW AND COLLECTED: 1957-1997 for the Los Angeles Times:
There are moments when, despite the author’s taciturn style, the experience of her wartime generation speaks through her poems directly and with shattering force. “Write it down. Write it. With ordinary ink / on ordinary paper: they weren’t given food, / they all died of hunger.” Thus begins a poem, “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo.” The Nazi death camp in Jaslo, in southern Poland, was one of those places where inmates were crowded in an empty, fenced space and left to die a slow death without food and water. This is not an easy subject for a poem, but Szymborska handles it masterfully by reversing the pastoral image of nurturing nature…
Excerpt from Starvation Camp Near Jaslo
By Wislawa Szymborska
Write it down. Write it. With ordinary ink
on ordinary paper; they weren’t given food,
they all died of hunger. All. How many?
It’s a large meadow. How much grass
per head? Write it down: I don’t know.
History rounds off skeletons to zero.
A thousand and one is still only a thousand.
That one seems never to have existed:
a fictitious fetus, an empty cradle,
a primer opened for no one,
air that laughs, cries, and grows,
stairs for a void bounding out to the garden,
no one’s spot in the ranks.
Click here to read the full text of the poem.
Wislawa Szymborska, 1923–2012: The great Polish poet disclaimed grand political schemes in favor of irony, wit, skepticism and the individual. (The Nation)
Hunger of Memory (Los Angeles Times)
There comes a point when a man must refuse to answer to his leader if he is also to answer to his own conscience.
— Shawcross – Prosecutor at Nuremberg
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