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Poetry Papers

Mixed Emotions and Experiences in the Poetry of Wislawa Szymborska

In her 1996 Nobel lecture, Szymborska said that she values the phrase I don’t know. She said it is small, but flies on mighty wings, and then reminded listeners of the contributions of people who said I don’t know at crucial moments and went on to further investigate mysteries. It may be her willingness to view the mysterious world and express her own bafflement at what she experiences that provides her poetry with its consistently obvious and well woven combinations of humor and heartbreak, pessimism and optimism, and hope and despair. Her poems reflect a deep understanding and appreciation of her own subjective mixed emotions as she experiences life, which also contains its own mix of contradictions and ambiguities. Her generously and clearly communicated thought progressions reveal subjective and objective opposites that sometimes compete and sometimes compliment each other, reflecting this universally experienced aspect of reality.

Pessimism and optimism are one pair of opposites that Szymborska balances in her work. Individual poems can include both outlooks, sometimes even represented within one line, and larger patterns emerge as a reader surveys an entire collection of poems.

One poem that contains elements of pessimism and optimism is the poem True Love. She begins the poem by asking the question: 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? She scatters additional questions throughout the poem like True love. Is it really necessary? and about people in love: Couldn’t they at least try to hide it, fake a little depression for their friends’ sake? Szymborska is going back and forth between two sets of opposite attitudes in this poem. First, she is questioning whether there is such thing as true love, and secondly, she is questioning whether or not that is something for people to be happy about, whether they have it or not. While she keeps mentioning something beautiful that is inherently a cause for optimism, true love, she continuously shoots down that optimism by reminding everyone of the despair felt by onlookers who lack such a gift. Even her final conclusion includes a mix of negative and positive attitudes. She states that true love couldn’t populate the planet in a million years, which simultaneously is a lamentation and a praise of the rarity of true love. Then, her closing statements 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, also offers a bright side and a dark side to the way the speaker perceives reality. These last few statements assert that there is such thing as true love, and though it is rare, people who are missing out on that for whatever reason can find hope. However, this hope she mentions is supposedly to be found in their false faith that there is no such thing. It is an interesting commentary on the mixed emotions and experiences on the planet, and an interesting expression of the speaker’s emotions and experiences while perceiving that world. Her vacillation between pessimism and optimism throughout the entire poem is appropriately both grim and playful the whole time.

Another poem that includes a complex relationship between hope and hopelessness is her somewhat dark poem Four A.M. The poem comes across as mostly bleak, describing four A.M. as the hour between night and day, the hour between toss and turn, and an empty hour. Hollow. Vain. Rock bottom of all the other hours. These lines conjure images of someone lying awake in restlessness or even agony at four A.M. She goes on to say that no one feels fine at 4. A.M. This is, on the surface, and really well beneath that, not a very pleasant view of this time of night. But a closer look at the poem reveals that there really are some hints of pleasant thoughts and glimpses of hope. Even within the subject of the poem, the dreaded hour of Four A.M. contains the letters A.M. which symbolize morning. Though it is the middle of the night, technically it is an hour in the morning, and morning traditionally symbolizes hope and new beginnings. Her mention of roosters crowing and ants feeling fine add to these brief mentions of things to feel hopeful about, and even her most grim lines conveying bitterness include something good to keep in mind during moments of despair. One such line is the hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace. Well, that is certainly a sad thought to think about- the idea that the entire earth might go back on its word, and all of a sudden take back its goodwill and affection. But then, it’s also a declaration that there is such thing as a warm embrace from the earth. A warm embrace from the entire earth? That such a thing could ever happen, no matter how figuratively that may be, is certainly a reason to keep on living until five A.M. That is her last line: And let five A.M. come if we’ve got to go on living. It is definitely a downward way to end the poem, but it still speaks of keeping on, and ends with words of life and not death. No matter how reluctant the decision to keep going is, it is a still a decision based on an outlook of hope.

While Szymborska frequently alternates between descriptions of grim and cheery perceptions and realities within individual poems, she does have poems that lean more heavily on one side or the other, which causes these contradictions to be represented on a more macro scale when her work is viewed as a whole. She has entire poems that reflect a more playful approach to life and death, like her poem, On Death Without Exaggeration, and poems that firmly convey feelings of sorrow and despair, like the ones in her poem The Century in Decline.

Throughout the poem, On Death, Without Exaggeration, Szymborska mocks death, consistently minimizing it and affirming life’s continual triumph over it. The poem is similar to John Donne’s poem, Death Be Not Proud, in which Donne also personifies Death and proceeds to chastise it for keeping such bad company as poison, war, and sickness. He reminds Death of its inferiority by telling it that it is a slave to fate, chance, wars, and desperate men. Szymborska berates death in a similar way, pointing out the irony of death not being able to do death related tasks like digging a grave or making a coffin. One of her most convincing and creative insults to death is the way she playfully points out that flies and caterpillars have outsmarted death, and even proven themselves stronger by getting away from flyswatters or outcrawling death. Szymborska then lists some of the smallest and most common things on earth that actually represent immensely miraculous and continual defeats of death: hearts beating inside eggs, babies’ skeletons growing, and seeds, hard at work that sprout their first tiny pair of leaves and sometimes even tall trees far away. As she nears the end of her poem, Szymborska uses an argument similar to the heart of John Donne’s argument against death, which is that it is destroyed and made obsolete by eternal life. Their approaches are different. Donne focuses on people waking up to life eternal after dying, and Szymborska claims that immortality can be found even in moments on earth. Her argument is similar to the lines in the Whitney Houston song sung at the 1984 Olympics One Moment in Time which includes the lines Give me one moment in time/When I'm racing with destiny/Then in that one moment of time/I will feel/ I will feel eternity, also suggesting that there are moments on earth so full of life that time is transcended and moments become eternal. Szymborska ends her poem with the beautiful lines As far as you’ve come can’t be undone. These lines affirm existence and suggest that accomplishments and experiences in life are permanent, and the lines communicate this in a way that reaches beyond mere optimism and becomes thoroughly inspirational.

Her poem The Century’s Decline, is as bleak and grim as Death Without Exaggeration is humorously hopeful and encouraging. The title immediately introduces the cheerless topic of decline, and Szymborska then uses the entire poem to describe what the speaker obviously views as an utterly hopeless situation. The first lines of the poem convey complete confidence that there is no possibility for redemption of the entire twentieth century. She says Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others. It will never prove it now. Using the word never is an irreversible poetic decision that she doesn’t even attempt to take back later in the poem. Too many things have happened that weren’t supposed to happen, she says, and follows it with Happiness and spring, among other things, were supposed to be getting closer. This line implies that spring and happiness never came and never will. Line after line, she mentions problems she sees no solutions for, like war, hunger, and stupidity, and she offers no hopeful images in between. Some of her most despairing lines of the poem are the lines that say God was finally going to believe in a man both good and strong. These lines shoot down hope in several ways. First, she has inverted the typical and appropriate understanding that it is man who hopes and trusts in God, who is true and good. By doing this, she removes the main source of hope from the picture, and instead suggests not only that God is the one who believes or disbelieves in man, but that He has somehow lost his faith, and she further darkens the view by implying that man is not good and strong. Her last lines, Again, and as ever, as may be seen above, the most pressing questions are naïve ones, play off of her first use of the word never, and result in the sad, hopeless statement that the twentieth century could never get better, and really, never was okay to begin with. The use of these words never and ever present hopelessness going in both directions, spanning all the way into both the past and the future.

The way Szymborska relates the complexities of pleasant and unpleasant feelings and circumstances within individual poems and throughout her entire collection of work suggests an intimate knowledge of and history with the corresponding experiences in life and the world. Over and over again, using a wide range of poetic tools, she captures a wide range of human emotion and experience. She doesn’t ignore the horrors and disappointments of life, but she also insists on finding hope-giving glimpses of beauty, joy, and redemption. For someone who so eagerly embraces not knowing, Szymborska skillfully captures the mysterious contradictions within the vast range of human experience as someone who seems very familiar with the world’s overwhelming mix of joy and suffering.

Works Cited

Szymborska, Wislawa. Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997. New York: Harvest, 2000.

Donne, John. Death Be Not Proud Poem Hunter website. retrieved Jan 23, 2011. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/death-be-not-proud

Nature Imagery in Selected Poems by Mary Ruefle

In her collection, Selected Poems, Mary Ruefle has included over two hundred references to animals and plants. About 130 of those are mentions of animals. She mentions exotic birds, horses, cows, a cedar waxwing, deer, a fly on a purple grape, small black eggs, bees, cats, bullfrogs, a mouse, salmon, a particular chicken, monkfish, teenage mutant ninja turtles, black squirrels, geese, six dressed kittens, mosquitos, dogs, spiders, parrots, wolves, loons, cranes, a lama duck, loggerhead turtles, ninety thousand birds captured and killed for their orange and yellow wings, a hummingbird, insects, a robin, a sheep, a bear, fish, oysters, a rabbit that ran away, another bird, a pug named Cowl, a dead wasp, a pony, a woodchuck, a waddling rodent, moths, frogs, seagulls, a yellow jacket, salmon, a crow sea creatures, a snail, plankton, bloated gray mice, a snow flea, orange birds, a pig, grasshoppers, owls, more horses and birds, red lizards, a hairy ape, a boar, a bluebird, a little black dog, polar bears, penguins, bears, sea monsters, a hawk, a beetle, a porcupine, trout, a goat, more insects and geese, a partridge, swans and dogs, yet more birds, one-eyed bats, a tribunal of frogs, and a baby duckling. Ostriches, elephants, and kangaroos are conspicuously absent.

Her descriptions of trees, flowers, and fruit are just as colorful. She includes a rainforest, bare trees, an iris, cherry blossoms, a hart’s-tongue fern, a crocus, fruit trees, apples, grass, a walnut, a purple grape, a willow branch, daffodils, onions, peaches, plums, a tiger lily, tiny whit flowers, lichen, jasmine, a forest, pears, logs, roses, carnations, baby’s breath, flowers, pollen, a plum, a pineapple, a coconut, a birch, the roots of a monstrous tree, a bamboo bridge, roses, sweetpeas, grapes, a meadow, petrified trees, wild cabbage, rolling stumps of birch, a wild rose bush, more roses, peeling bark, a peony, parsley, a fruit stand, a lemon, potatoes, mushrooms, lime blossoms, bluebonnets, wild azalea, a crustacean rose, an oak coffin covered in vines, a bunch of violets, buttercups, a lily, a peeled orange, more lilies, a hard peach, hay bales, an old leaf, spinach, sunflowers, more pineapples, a piece of straw, strawberry leaves, fronds, a wild tree, the leaf of a camellia, sunflowers in a pot, love plums, persimmons, wheat, an orange, a seed, a flower, chopped wood, pine needles, and white lilacs. The moon, water, fire, and weather also show up in a great deal throughout Ruefle’s poems. So does food.

That is a lot of nature for one collection of poetry. But aside from a few poems like Chilly Autumn Evenings, where the speaker builds a bonfire and thinks about woodchucks and stars, and The Great Loneliness, a poem in which the speaker thinks about the implications of hay bales broken open in March, nature is not usually the main subject matter. Whether they could be called nature poems is debatable. They are not poems about two roads diverging in a yellow wood, or a frog jumping in an old pond, or someone having a bobolink for a chorister and an orchard for a dome. Mary Ruefle does not address a louse in her poems. Her poems are about memories, experiences, human interactions, and the mysterious mix of every day life and miraculous beauty and wonder. Her poems include lines like I was given a new pair of potholders for my birthday, and This is the story of why my shoes lie in a row at the bottom of my closet. Her poems are reflections and musings that can include references to literature, religion, and history. She mixes the ordinary with the extraordinary, using philosophical tangents to weave them together in a way that makes them almost indistinguishable. However, even with the subject matter in her poetry centering so much around human experience, speculation, and perception, nature is an overwhelming force throughout her entire Selected Poems collection. Brief, vivid nature imagery permeates almost all of her poems. A poem might just mention a wild cabbage or a waddling rodent, hardly enough to define the whole poem, but cumulatively, these shout-outs to the wilderness succeed in calling it forth to emerge in the reader’s mind.

Aspects of nature are used as minor similes, as starting places, destinations, or re-routing points for trains of thought, or as simple distractions, a chance for the reader to look away from what’s already going on in the poem. Sometimes they are tangential, but they are always relevant. A representative minor simile might be the one at the end of the poem The Beginnings of Idleness in Assisi. The simile comes at the end of a long train of thought, mostly speculation about St. Francis, and how birds chatter to one another that one day, St. Francis will come to his senses, and sitting down, the whole world will settle in his lap like the statue of a cat. It is just the statue of a cat, and not even a real cat, but the simile still relies on the fact that the statue is a cat, appropriately an animal, and appropriately an animal known for its grace.

Often, Ruefle simply mentions an image, draws the reader’s attention to some colorful glimpse of life, and then moves on. Her trains of thought take the scenic and indirect route, stopping by purple mandarin ducks and abruptly changing direction to follow orange birds jumping in puddles, but only for a second, and then it’s on to the next idea. In Cold Pluto, Ruefle starts with the image of a moon, stops by a picture of Jesus crying, and eventually ends up in China, by way of family memories and world history. Midway through the poem is an exclamation Mosquitos! which appropriately precedes an image of an angry human crowd. Ruefle uses nature in a similar way in her poem Nutshell, starting off with the speaker leaning back in a canoe and looking at a bluebird, then suddenly switching to the contrasting image of a smashed human skull.

The quick, surprising glances at nature are some of the most appealing. Ruefle’s poem The Cart, starts off with the speaker observing an empty grocery cart rolling across an empty parking lot, and all of a sudden the cart’s rolling is compared to Marlon Brando’s hypothetical behavior, and somehow this triggers heavy thoughts about somewhere a woman being swathed in black veils, and of course, the speaker worries What if a hummingbird enters her mouth? It is really hilarious. A person looks at a grocery cart and worries that a hummingbird might fly into some unknown woman’s mouth. The thought progression is unexpected and entertaining, and the hummingbird entering the mouth is the most vivid and maybe most important image in the poem, yet it somehow retains its smallness as well. Again, it’s hardly a nature poem, but it is one more example of nature’s small but crucial presence in these very thought-oriented poems.

Many of these short phrases and even single word mentions of nature as necessary as they are brief. Several poems depend on these images for the poem’s ideas to be fully understood, yet this is accomplished with what almost seems like an afterthought. The poem When Adults Talk, is a beautiful example of this. The whole idea of a child perceiving the meaningless communication of the adults around her is finally, tragically summed up with the final lines When my rabbit ran away, it was a great relief. I could not say so- who would understand?- so I cried for a week. The idea of the poem is much greater than a pet dying or adults not seeming to understand, and obviously this poem is not a poem about a rabbit. But it matters that it was a rabbit, and the rabbit is absolutely necessary and carries the entire weight of the poem and the grief expressed in it.

The plants and animals scattered throughout these poems do different things in different poems, bear more significance in some poems than others, and impact the reader in various ways. But no matter what their role or impact is, together, they have an additional impact the reader. The abundance of these images and their strategic scattering makes the reader more aware of nature’s presence throughout the whole collection.

The fruits, flowers, and animals aren’t usually the main subject matter for the poems, they’re not background scenery for narratives, and for the most part, they’re not even metaphors. Instead, they are exactly what they are: fruits, flowers, and animals. The continual brief mention of them suggests that nature has been a source of nourishment that can sustain someone though all the human experience described in the poems, and it becomes an immediate source of mental sustenance and nourishment for the reader. It also suggests a oneness with nature: not necessarily the kind where someone goes to live at Walden pond, not the kind where a Native American uses a whole deer without wasting gizzards, and not even the kind of oneness with nature you get as an activist living in a tree so no one will cut it down. Instead, there is an integration of wilderness and human interaction even within the poet’s thoughts. This makes all of the poems seem full of life, both individually and as a collection.

Works Cited

Ruefle, Mary. Selected Poems. Seattle: Wave, 2010.

Jane Hirshfield’s Appreciation in Given Sugar, Given Salt

Jane Hirshfield edited a collection of spiritual poetry called Women In Praise of The Sacred. In a way, her own poetry, particularly the aptly titled collection Given Sugar, Given Salt is also poetry that praises the sacred, only her poetry does so in a more indirect way. Throughout her poetry in Given Sugar, Given Salt,, Hirshfield marvels at the world around her in a way that invites the reader to join her in seeing the radiance and miraculous value of things that many people take for granted. With an artistic combination of childlike wonder and wise reflection, she writes about a button, chairs, a hand, and various human creations and accomplishments, each time unveiling mystery and wonder that is often overlooked. She brings long overdue attention to the not-always-celebrated details of life by choosing them as topics in the first place, by the intellectually advanced and superior quality of her thoughts about them, and by her accurate, reality-grounded praise that is rooted in the truth and essence of these objects.

Hirshfield’s second poem in the collection, Mathematics, is a humble salute to those who make useful contributions to others, and it serves as almost a summary and introduction to what she continues to do throughout the collection. This poem’s title, Mathematics, is very appropriate, since the poem really does raise the topic of quantifying value. The speaker is overwhelmed by the value of human creations- simple things, like shoes and furniture, and she is wondering about both the value of her own creations, and the impact of her creation on the value of those other things. She starts off the poem with a declaration of admiration and even an admission of envy for people who make certain contributions to the every day lives of others: I have envied those/ who make something/ useful, sturdy-- / a chair, a pair of boots./ Even a soup, rich with potatoes and cream./ Or those who fix, perhaps/a leaking window:/strip out the old cracked putty,/ lay down clearly the line of the new. Hirshfield continues explaining her feelings, sharing appreciation for her apartment, its wallpaper, a building with creative design, and a pen that she holds with her unhandy hand. Then, wondering about her own contributions as a poet, she asks the question "Does a poem enlarge the world, or only our idea of the world?" This question is the perfect question to ask in this poem, and especially at the beginning of this collection, because it is really a question relevant to most of the poems that follow. Is her attention to all of these objects and details of life just a subjective experience that she shares with others, or are these things already inherently valuable and poem-worthy? Is she shining a light on nonglowing things, or do they already radiate with the brilliance of existence? And does her recognition of these things as being worth thinking and writing about actually add even more value to them? The only thing really minimized in the poem is her own contribution, and symbolically, her hand, but this is all countered three pages later with her poem called A Hand, where she spends a whole poem examining a hand and asking what it is and isn’t.

The poems that follow continue to be celebrations of the so-called ordinary aspects and objects of life. The very fact that she chooses these things as topics suggests that she has special regard for them. She even uses the names of these things as titles, like "Red Berries, The Room, Apple, The Hand, Leather, Button, Patched Carpet, Pillow,Muslin, The Shard, Bone, Rock, Five Legged Chair, Tree, Silk Cord, Clock, and Ink. The title of one poem, In Praise of Coldness," seems to say it all, though its premise is also soundly elaborated on by the actual poem. Though the poem, which begins with a Chekov quote, is really about a more figurative coldness found in life and literature than it is about literal temperature, the metaphor is still rooted in the original meaning of the word, and the poem’s inclusion with the other poems in this book does contribute to an overall consistent effort to offer praise to things seldom praised, and sometimes not noticed at all.

With her unpredictability and surprising uses of imagination and language, Hirshfield silences the silence of those