"...whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing."

I first encountered Szymborska in my entry-level poetry writing workshop taught by Laurie Lamon who introduced her work as "essential." Later, after I expressed interest in Szymborska's poems, I was encouraged to seek out her Nobel Prize speech titled "The Poet and the World." I printed it out at the college library and still have it what must be twelve or thirteen years later. Here's one part I underlined and asterisked:
This is why I value that little phrase "I don't know" so highly. It's small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself "I don't know," the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself "I don't know", she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying "I don't know," and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize. 
Poets, if they're genuine, must also keep repeating "I don't know." Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that's absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying.
Yesterday I sent her poem "Clothes" to my poetry email list with the following comment, "This morning I took her collection View with a Grain of Sand off the shelf. It was an essential collection to me as an undergraduate and one I return to every so often now when I seek a quiet voice with a quiet authority to stir me some...If you don't know her work, I encourage you to seek it out."

In response, one of my friends wrote back saying, "Yes, 'seek' is the word she followed and we should too." I quite like this idea of "seeking" as being an integral part of her work and that it should be our attitude, too, that we ought to seek after poetry. Feels religious to me. It feels consequential and faithful, and rereading and transcribing these poems included below, poems which I'd bookmarked years ago in my copy of View with a Grain of Sand, I am reminded of the necessity of poetic desire and invitation/invocation, and that writing poetry ought to also involve as much hunting and hustling and humor and cleverness and yearning for the unknown depths of the human experience.

_______

The Onion

The onion, now that's something else.
Its innards don't exist.
Nothing but pure onionhood
fills this devout onionist.
Oniony on the inside,
onionesque it appears.
It follows its own daimonion
without our human tears.

Our skin is just a coverup
for the land where none dare go,
an internal inferno,
the anathema of anatomy.
In an onion there's only onion
from its tip to its toe,
onionymous monomania,
unanimous omninudity.

At peace, of a piece,
internally at rest.
Inside it, there's a smaller one
of undiminished worth.
The second holds a third one,
the third contains a fourth.
A centripetal fugue.
Polyphony compressed.

Nature's roundest tummy,
its greatest success story,
the onion drapes itself in its
own aureoles of glory.
We hold veins, nerves, fat,
secretions' secret sections.
Not for us such idiotic
onionoid perfections.



True Love

True love. Is it normal,
is it serious, is it practical?
What does the world get from two people
who exist in a world of their own?

Placed on the same pedestal for no good reason,
drawn randomly from millions but convinced
it had to happen this way--in reward for what? For nothing.
The light descends from nowhere.
Why on these two and not on others?
Doesn't this outrage justice? Yes it does.
Doesn't it disrupt our painstakingly erected principles,
and cast the moral from the peak? Yes on both accounts.

Look at the happy couple.
Couldn't they at least try to hide it,
fake a little depression for their friends' sake?
Listen to them laughing--its an insult.
The language they use--deceptively clear.
And their little celebrations, rituals,
the elaborate mutual routines--
it's obviously a plot behind the human race's back!

It's hard even to guess how far things might go
if people start to follow their example.
What could religion and poetry count on?
What would be remembered? What renounced?
Who'd want to stay within bounds?

True love. Is it really necessary?
Tact and common sense tell us to pass over it in silence,
like a scandal in Life's highest circles.
Perfectly good children are born without its help.
It couldn't populate the planet in a million years,
it comes along so rarely.

Let the people who never find true love
keep saying that there's no such thing.

Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.


Wisława Szymborska
from View with a Grain of Sand



Other Szymborska poems @ Against Oblivion:


"The Joy of Writing"