Wislawa Szymborska

Nonrequired Reading

“I'm old-fashioned and I think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised.”

“Far too funny to be a poet,” read my initial notes on Wislawa Szymborska’s (1923 – 2012) Nonrequired Reading.

Apparently, my younger self subscribed to the notion “A poem is a place where the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable,” in the words of American poet Mark Strand. And that a poet should, at the very least, jog our pathos like War-poet Wilfred Owen or Romantic epoch greats like John Clare or Coleridge.1

Fortunately, in her last published collection, Here, this Polish Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska, has offered us her own vision of poetry that reconciles her comedic and dramatic abilities.

In fact every poem
might be called “Moment.”
One phrase is enough
in the present tense,
the past and even future;
it’s enough so that anything
borne on words
begins to rustle, sparkle,
flutter, float,
while seeming
to stay changeless
but with a shifting shadow;

From “In Fact Every Poem”

Moments are what Szymborska gives us. And moments—ours—she takes. With arresting language, witty observation, and rare emotional intelligence.2

Szymborska’s book reviews, a bright sampling of which are found in Nonrequired Reading, are as time-bending as her verse.

Like her review of a book on the limitations of antiquarian intrigue:

This exhaustive text is meant primarily for historians, students, teachers, and scholars specializing in related issues. In any case, it’s not for poets. Poets don’t derive any profit from such books. That is, they profit, but not in any way that the learned author intended…. One single human being laments the woeful fate of another single human being. For the poet this is such a momentous weight that it can’t be overlooked in even the most succinct historical synthesis. And as I say, the poet can’t keep up, he lags behind. In his defence I can only say that someone’s got to struggle in the rear. If only to pick up what’s been trampled and lost in the triumphal procession of objective laws.

Review of The History of the Near East in Antiquity by Julia Zablocka, Warsaw Ossolineum, 1982.

I love this vision of poetry and poets scooping up and carrying what is left behind when events move forward. Poetry is a sort of sinuous tissue that connects and humanizes. Alternatively, T. S. Eliot thought poetry was the turning loose of emotion. The two visions aren’t so opposed, I consider poetry the vessel that carries emotion, but intrinsically it depends on us, the reader, to spark that emotion into being.

Or this review of the (rather bland) science of blossoming fruit trees:

This book was written by a distinguished specialist in orchard cultivation, who has eaten the fruits of many a tree, who’s tasted India’s mangoes, the durians of Thailand. Chinese persimmons, American avocados, the tree tomatoes of New Zealand, and breadfruit from Hawaii. I suspect that, if he wished, he could determine with the absolute authority that derives from both theory and practice exactly what fruit was eaten by our disobedient progenitors in paradise—was it a banana, a quince, an apricot, or a pomegranate? The apple is apparently most unlikely… . Szczepan Pieniazek doesn’t gear his book to specialists; it’s intended for the many readers who like to stray from time to time into the unfamiliar fields of knowledge.

Review of When Apple Blossoms Flower by Szczepan Pieniazek, Warsaw: Wiedza Powszechna, 1971.

Flowering fruit tree, Holland Park. Featured in Wislawa Szymborska's "Nonrequired Reading" in the Examined Life Library.
“In the essential prose of things, the apple tree stands up, emphatic among the accidents of the afternoon, solvent, not to be denied.” from Wendell Berry’s “The Apple Tree.” Fruit trees in Holland Park. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

On the edifying humanity of scientists Szymborska has this to say:

Anecdotes about great people make for bracing reading. All right, the reader thinks, so I didn’t discover chloroform, but I wasn’t the worst student in my class, as Liebig was. Of course I wasn’t the first to find salvarsan, but at least I’m not as scatterbrained as Ehrlich, who wrote letters to himself. Mendelee may be light-years ahead of me as far as the elements go, but I’m far more restrained and better groomed regarding hair. And did I ever forget to show up at my wedding like Pasteur?

Review of Scientists in Anecdotes by Waclaw Golebowiez, second edition, Warsaw: Wiedza Powszechna, 1968.

Meanwhile Szymborska’s comments on the unnecessary abundance of non-plagiarized but still hackneyed human mysteries had me laughing aloud:

You don’t have to be an expert in any field of knowledge to write a book like this. You don’t have to travel the globe and seek out personal contact with those who witnessed various astounding events. There’s absolutely no need to follow up on what’s going on with Miss Clarity in Manila who supposedly was battered and bitten by some invisible individual in broad daylight before a crowd of spectators. In order to write this kind of book, you need to read other books along these lines and then update them with the latest information taken from the tabloids. Then you have to shuffle everything, divide it up and tell it in your own words in order to avoid charges of plagiarism.

Review of A Book of Mysteries by Thomas de Jean, three volumes translated by four people, Wydawnictwo Pandora, 1993.

Quite right.

To spare you early bias, I didn’t mention that the point of Nonrequired Reading is to give home to the multitude of books that are offered to publishers and go un-reviewed, unprinted, or printed and later pulped. I.e., in some way, the subject matter of Nonrequired Reading isn’t real.

But by gathering the fragments of what’s left behind, and adding personal reflection, Szymborska makes them real and, what’s more, makes them read.

Like this delicious piece on graphology, the study of handwriting to determine a person’s character.

I don’t know about Poland, but in the West graphologists have got their hands full. Institutions, businesses, and individuals are calling upon their services in ever-increasing numbers. Graphologists advise, adjudicate, resuscitate, and participate. All well and good… This fad will persist as long as we command the skill of writing by hand… Various private businesses in the West call upon the knowledge of graphologists in assessing candidates for important positions. They require a handwritten resume from the candidates, which is then passed on to the graphologist experts. And the most impressive letters, diplomas, and certificates will be useless if the graphologists responds: ‘poor interpersonal skills,’ ‘lack of organisational ability.’ The question remains, though, whether this graphologist has himself been graphologically verified.

Review of The Art of Writing, or You and Your Character by Alfons Luke, translated from German by Krzysztof Uscinski, Wydawnictwo Luna, 1993.

Photo of Wislawa Szymborska for Szymborska's "Nonrequired Reading" in the Examined Life Library.
Wislawa Szymborska.

In his Letters, John Keats once claimed that the poetic character is “everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul of fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.”

There is an exemplified poetic character in Szymborska’s writing that overflows the bands of her words. Give me a moment, she says, and I’ll make you care.

Grab Nonrequired Reading, or any book written by Szymborska, with both hands and open eyes. Wipe away tears of laughter and smile that this wonderful, wonderful woman read books like When Apple Blossoms Flower so that we don’t ever have to.

Illustration of Wislawa Szymborska.