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Wislawa Szymborska, Poet Of Gentle Irony, Dies At 88by DAVID ORREnlargeCzarek Sokolowski/APPolish poet Wislawa Szymborska in 1996, the same year she won the Nobel Prize in literature. Szymborska, who was born in 1923, died Wednesday in Krakow, Poland.The surest path to international fame as a poet probably doesn’t involve writing short poems about sea cucumbers. Yet for the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (pronounced vees-WAH-vah sheem-BOHR-skah), who won the Nobel Prize in 1996 and died Wednesday, the little things — onions, tarsiers and, yes, sea cucumbers — turned out to be very big indeed. Along with the work of Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz (and from a slightly earlier generation, Czeslaw Milosz), Szymborska’s poems suggest not only the beauty of postwar Polish writing, but also the potential strength of poetry anywhere and everywhere.Like her peers, Szymborska is an ironist. But in Szymborska’s work, irony takes on a very particular character; it becomes playful, almost whimsical, as if the poet were more interested in juggling the ball in her hand than using it to score a goal. Her poems are usually short, they often focus on the quirks of an everyday subject or situation, and her tone stays firmly in the middle ground, well away from the darker pitches of rage, despair or ecstasy. She’s a poet of dry-eyed, athletic precision: an acrobat, not a powerlifter. The beginning of “Under One Small Star” is typical (all quotations are from translations by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh):My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.
My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.And the poem concludes:Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words
then labor heavily so that they may seem light.This is often taken as a statement of principle by Szymborska, whose devotion to lightness extended even to elegies. “Cat in an Empty Apartment” takes the point of view of a dead friend’s cat, left alone; “Funeral (II)” consists of quotes one hears at, well, funerals (“you were smart, you brought the only umbrella”). Each poem is moving, but the sentiment emerges around the lines, rather than being spelled out within them. It’s misdirection as tribute.