Poland in the postwar era was a supremely unlucky nation, but in one respect (and perhaps one only) it was among the world’s luckiest. This unassuming country, generally admired not for its scenery nor its cuisine nor its architecture, produced three of the greatest European poets of the last half-century. The first was Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), born in Lithuania to a Polish family, who defected to France in 1951 and emigrated to the United States in 1960; he was Poland’s geopolitical poet, befitting his perch in exile, and its first poet Nobelist. The second was Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), Poland’s philosophical poet, who refused to collaborate with the Communist regime and wrote his highly intellectual, abstract lyrics in penury for much of his life.
The last was Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012). Though she was Herbert’s contemporary, I place her last not only because she outlived both him and Milosz, but also because her death last week, at the age of eighty-eight, definitively brings to an end the latest brilliant age of Polish poetry. If there were any reason to feel grateful for four-and-a-half decades of Communist rule in Poland, it might be that these three poets emerged from its highly pressurized constraints like diamonds forced from carbon. Although censors would strike any work construed as political or otherwise subversive, writers could defeat them by ingeniously addressing forbidden subjects allegorically or metaphorically—a prime task of poetry under any circumstances. Add to this an adoring public whose appetite for literature was stoked by its unavailability—new poems were distributed in samizdat editions passed eagerly from hand to hand—and you have conditions perhaps ripe for creation.
But communism alone cannot explain this poetic flowering. With the possible exception of the Soviet Union (with a population at least five times greater than Poland’s), no other Eastern bloc country produced a similar body of literature. Assuming that there weren’t any mind-altering chemicals in the run-off from Nowa Huta, the notoriously polluted steelworks outside Krakow (where Szymborska spent nearly her entire life), we can only conclude that Poland’s postwar poetic greatness was largely a historical accident—the collision of a deep and enduring literary culture with Europe’s ghastliest battleground.
The poets were on the ground from the start. Milosz wrote “Campo dei Fiori,” one of his greatest early poems, in Warsaw in 1943, noticing how people went about their business beyond the ghetto walls—flying kites, riding the carousel—while Jews were dying on the other side. It must have been the same when Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, he imagines, with fruit-sellers peddling their wares and taverns filling up again “before the flames had died.” Is it our resilience that allows us to return so quickly to our baskets of olives and lemons—or our ignorance, our lack of empathy for the “loneliness of the dying”? The poet takes the side of those “forgotten by the world”: “Our tongue becomes for them / The language of an ancient planet.” Someday, he hopes, “Rage will kindle at a poet’s word.”
With her characteristic succinctness, Szymborska began one of her most famous poems with the lines, “After every war / someone has to tidy up.” After the war of the century took place in their backyard, the task of tidying up was largely left to Poland’s poets. The Soviet regime often obscured the truth about the events of the war, downplaying the Jewish element of the tragedy and stoking Polish martyrological tendencies. But the real history could be found in the poems. In “Still,” from the 1957 collection Calling Out to Yeti, Szymborska wrote of “sealed boxcars” carrying “names” across the country. The names are all Jewish ones: Nathan, Isaac, Aaron, Sarah, David. “Clouds of people passed over this plain. / Vast clouds, but they held little rain,” the poet reports. Both train and people have long disappeared, but still their “silence … drums on my silent door.” For both Milosz and Szymborska, their own silence in the face of the catastrophe haunts them as much as the silence of the dead.
Szymborska often said that her poems were “strictly not political … more about people and life.” She earned the epithet “the Mozart of poetry” for brief, playful poems that take the quotidian and spin it in an unexpected direction: “Cat in an Empty Apartment” (in which the death of the cat’s owner is experienced from the perspective of his adored pet), “Love at First Sight” (a poem about missed connections that apparently inspired Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film Red), “The Onion” (this one can’t be described; it must simply be read). These poems are the reason why even people who otherwise know little about either poetry or Poland often know Szymborska’s poetry, if not how to pronounce her name. “Her poems may not save the world, but that world never looks quite the same after encountering [her] work,” the American poet Edward Hirsch (who has dedicated at least one poem to Szymborska) has written.
But “people and life” are also political subjects, especially in postwar Poland. And when Szymborska turns her playful intelligence on the disasters of the twentieth century, the resulting defamiliarization is profoundly chilling. “Hitler’s First Photograph” imagines the adorable infant Adolf—“who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?”—and what he might grow up to be: “a tenor in Vienna’s Opera House,” or perhaps he’ll marry the mayor’s daughter. In “Starvation Camp near Jaslo,” the speaker wonders how to write about mass death: “History rounds off skeletons to zero. / A thousand and one is still only a thousand. / That one seems never to have existed …” Of course, in a society dedicated to the collective, in which individuality was devalued, to seek the “one” is an inherently political act.
“In daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases such as ‘the ordinary world,’ ‘ordinary life,’ ‘the ordinary course of events,’” Szymborska said in her Nobel Prize speech, in 1996. “But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.” If that’s not enough to save the world, the fault is the world’s, not the poet’s.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter: @ruth_franklin.