When she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, the poet Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012) was praised for her wit, her ironic timing and her ability to illuminate “fragments of human reality.”The Nobel Prize brought global fame, but it was a mixed blessing, say a group of students who are studying the Polish poet. After winning one of the world’s most prestigious awards, Szymborska, who had previously been known mostly in Poland, went several years without composing a poem.
“Szymborska was not happy to win the Nobel Prize,” says Peter Schaedler ’17, a computer science major. “Her friends called this ‘the Nobel tragedy.’ For years afterwards, she didn’t write anything.”
Schaedler is working with Karen Huang ’17, a cognitive science major, Sava Marinkovic ’16, an English major, and Avi Setton, a graduate student in English, to produce a film about Szymborska. The students have spent the last two months putting together a 20- or 30-minute piece that they say will be a hybrid between a documentary and an interpretation.
Their endeavor, one of 20 that student interns have undertaken this summer as part of the Mountaintop Project, is supervised by Elizabeth Fifer, professor of English. Last semester, Fifer assigned the students in her class on international poetry (English 11) to make short films on Szymborska. The Mountaintop interns are editing those films and adding their own contributions.
A modest prankster
Wisława Szymborska has a name that is challenging for English speakers to pronounce (vee-SWA-vuh sheem-BOR-skuh), but her poetry, even in translation, is remarkably accessible, say the Mountaintop interns.
“I really enjoy Szymborska’s poems,” says Schaedler. “They’re very relatable and down-to-earth. They’re not snobby; they’re very personable.”
“There’s something sarcastic about her poetry,” says Huang. “She says things that are so obvious but no one else is saying them.”
“Szymborska was funny, witty, private and modest,” says Setton. She was also a prankster, he adds, who was not above playing a practical joke on the friends she invited to her home.
“Szymborska was very much an innovator,” says Setton. “At the same time, she was adamant about preserving some things, including the medium of poetry. She handled this in a very unique way that enabled her to reach a bigger audience than the typically small group of people who like poetry.”
A Slavic take on reality
Marinkovic, a first-generation Serbian-American and devotee of Eastern European literature, sees in Szymborska’s writing a concept that is familiar to people with a Slavic world view.
In Serbian and in other Slavic languages, says Marinkovic, the word biti—similar to the English word be—also alludes to something almost akin to fatalism, to a belief that human beings cannot help the way things are.
“I definitely see biti in Szymborska,” Marinkovic says. “She’s down-to-earth; she’s humane. There’s not much artifice to her writing. It’s extreme realism; she tells stories of real life.”
Szymborska, says Huang, often summed up her philosophy in a three-word phrase: “I don’t know.”
“She used to say,” says Huang,” that those who pretend they do know make the most fuss in the world. “She refused to be put into one single school of political thought or into one poetic genre. She refused to tie herself to a political thought or a philosophy.”
Early in her career, says Schaedler, Szymborska aligned herself with the communist ideology that was imposed on Poland by the Soviet Union after World War II.
“At the beginning of her adult life, Szymborska was very politically minded. She was a fan of communist doctrine. But she fell out and became her own person. She later said she wanted to renounce the thoughts she had at that time [earlier in her life].”
Huang expands on this: “When she won the Goethe Prize in 1991, she gave a speech in which she admitted she had made mistakes. She had done this because she had believed she could change communism from the inside out.”
The students have organized their film along a rough timeline of what they call the qualities of Szymborska’s personality. Each is contributing a short perspective that will be tied in with clips from the films produced in the spring by students in Fifer’s international poetry class.
“We’re looking at parts of her life, along with her personality, and how they come through in her poems,” says Huang, who has also written an essay on Szymborska’s poem “Nothing nothinged itself out for me as well.” (see below.)
The students plan to screen their completed film on campus this fall.
Photos by Christa Neu
Story by Kurt Pfitzer
“NOTHING NOTHINGED ITSELF…”
by Wisława Szymborska
translated by Joanna Trzeciak
Nothing nothinged itself out for me as well
It truly turned inside out.
Where did I find myself?
From head to toe among the planets,
not even remembering how it was for me not to be.
O my dear that I met here and fell in love with here,
I can only imagine, with my hand on your shoulder,
how much emptiness is allotted us on the other side,
how much silence there for one cricket here,
how much meadow lacking there for a tiny leaf of sorrel here,
and the sun after darkness, like reparations
in a drop of dew–for such deep droughts there.
Starry helter-skelter! Here the other way around!
Stretched over curvature, weight, friction, and motion!
A break in infinity for the limitless sky!
A relief from non-space in the form of a swaying birch!
Now or never the wind moves a cloud
for the wind is exactly what doesn’t blow there.
And a beetle steps onto a path in the dark suit of a witness
on the occasion of a long wait for a short life.
But it just so happens that I am with you.
And I really see nothing
ordinary about it.
The End and the Beginning
by Wisława Szymborska
translated by Joanna Trzeciak
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
and bloody rags.
Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.
From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.