Pigging Out on Poetry

I’ve often wondered if some of my inability to remember specifics, or even general plots, of literary works I really love is due to the fact that I read them too quickly. This sort of amnesia is especially prominent when short stories and poetry are concerned; for example, I’ve read Joyce’s Dubliners twice now, loved it both times, and couldn’t tell you much at all about it, except that it was grand, and that there’s a married couple and a staircase and some staring out at (I think) snow. I’ll not even begin to get into my Borges haze, even though I regularly reread his stories, know I’ve read them before, and adore them each time, too familiar to feel new and too alien for me to feel as if I’m repeating myself. With short story collections, if you don’t read one piece and let it sit for a while before moving on, it’s easier for one plot to blend into another, for details to get mixed up in a general sense of the author’s style.

Jacques de l'Ange, Gluttony, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jacques de l’Ange, Gluttony, via Wikimedia Commons.

The same goes for poetry collections, even if plot’s not quite what gets lost in the binge-fest. Well aware of this fact, I still challenged myself yesterday to read all of Wisława Szymborska’s Here in one sitting. It’s a short book, but I was hesitant to accept my own demand, wanting to let each poem dwell long enough in my mental space to do everything it should before I moved on to the next separate entity in the collection. But then I just got into it, and let myself fly through everything.

Here’s what I noticed: some welcome quirkiness,* an obvious wonder on the poet’s part at the world around her/us,** and what I’m going to call a Foucauldian gift for stating the obvious. That last item on the list sounds bad, but it’s actually a supreme compliment. Let me elaborate.

In a philosophy seminar long, long ago, the instructor noted with awe that Michel Foucault’s real gift may have been describing how things– societies, cultures, norms, traditions, knowledge, etc.– emerge and function, descriptions about which we’re ready to say, “Well, of course, that’s obvious”– but then we realize that no one before him had ever really provided such descriptions, taken the time to lay out what we thought was common sense and/or the natural run of things– and both by showing up our sort-of laziness and giving us a picture of what’s really going on, we realize what makes up the worlds around us is never as simple– or maybe as beautiful in its complexity– as we’d imagined.

I’ll say the same for Szymborska; her talent for making what should have been obvious surprising is most evident in “Assassins,” where she reminds us that the people who practice the profession of killing have everyday lives that involve “wash[ing] their feet… mak[ing] phone calls while scratching their armpits.” And there’s something about “Foraminifera”s assertion that these little beings “did what they could since they were able” that makes you pause and realize there’s a new possibility of seeing one’s environment in play here, without it being forced upon you, a way of approaching what’s around you that you hope you, too, can adopt.***

But for all that awe, Szymborska’s not naive about the world’s charms or anyone’s/anything’s innocence; even while luring us into loving descriptions of unseen creatures and the cliffs their shells became, she reminds us in “Nonreading” that, standing in our point in time and culture, “We live longer/but less precisely/and in shorter sentences.”**** Will we retain the capacity for wonder, and if so, the attendant ability to interpret it, to really enjoy it to its full? We’ll have to wait and see, and be vigilant, as her poetry seems to be, if that future is to remain, or become, a reality. For my own part, I guess I could start contributing to that project by being more intentional about savoring so many good words, instead of wolfing them down too eagerly.



* My favorite? Her observation, in “Here,” that

Like nowhere else, or almost nowhere,
you’re given your own torso here [on Earth],
equipped with the accessories required
for adding your own children to the rest.
Not to mention arms, legs, and astounded head.

Wisława Szymborska, Here, transl. Clare Cavanagh & Stanisław Barańczak (New York, Mariner Books, 2010), 3.

** There’s a poem, for example, about the curious existential nature of the population of a microscope slide! And one on the single-celled creatures known as Foraminifera! Charles Simic states it best on the back cover when he praises the poet for “her atypical lack of narcissism.” ibid.

*** ibid., 33, 27.

** ibid., 39. There’s also often something about her style that reminds me of the fantastic Lydia Davis. Of course, I should be stating that Davis (who’s most likely read her share of the Polish Nobel laureate) reminds me of Szymborska, but that’s what happens when you compare writers with each other, based on whom you came to first.



  1. Kinga

    I am glad you enjoyed Here! : ) I am on Joyce (again + still). Like Foucault and Szymborska, he also has a gift for the obvious. Modernism can be so pure and direct in its essence. And tender. I have not read much of Foucault though, so perhaps tender is too far fetched to ascribe to him.


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