Wisława Szymborska and the Importance of the Unimportant


‘I am no longer certain

that what is important

is more important than the unimportant.’


Szymborska's ability to speak in simple language has made her poetry accessible and attractive to an unusually broad spectrum of readers.


Fellow Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz stated that, “Szymborska is first of all a poet of consciousness … she speaks … as one of us … referring to what everybody knows from one's own life.” Szymborska frequently opens poems with a seemingly innocent question, and through the body of the poem, uncovers a series of harsh truths. Commentators have consistently lauded Szymborska's wit, wisdom, irony, and adept use of simple and straightforward language. Acknowledging that Szymborska's poetry is extremely focused on the everyday and the manifestly realistic, reviewers have maintained that her works embody a universal appeal that demonstrates her poetic joy in life's miraculous potential, tempered by her strong skepticism of easy solutions and her acute awareness of suffering. This all-encompassing worldview, coupled with her precise language, has facilitated the conveyance of concepts when Szymborska's works undergo translation.


Paradoxically, Szymborska's very simplicity and directness present the greatest challenge to a critic, and probably also accounts for a relative dearth of studies about her poetry. The analytic language of literary criticism often seems powerless and inadequate when dealing with these deceptively transparent poems; it is heavy-handed and clumsy in comparison with the lightness and agility of the poetic lines. Attempts at description and analysis frequently end in a frustrating realization of failure and the necessity to go back to the poems themselves, to let the poet speak with her own voice and defend herself against the awkward approximations of the critic.


An important and integral part of her poetics, Szymborska's apparent ease conceals a conscious and determined effort. Her simplicity is careful, a result of struggle, and is hard to trace since the poet covers her tracks: "I borrow weighty words, / then labor heavily so that they may seem light."


Bogdana Carpenter (extract)