On Szymborska


What does the poetry of Szymborska, marked as it is by such a lightness of touch, skeptically smiling, playful, have to do with the history of the twentieth, or any other, century? In its beginnings, it had much to do with it, but its mature phase moves away from images of linear time rushing toward utopia or an apocalyptic catastrophe, as the just-ending century liked to believe. Her dimension is personal, of one person who reflects on the human condition. It is true that her reflection goes together with a remarkable reticence, as if the poet found herself on a stage with the decor for a preceding play, a play which changed the individual into nothing, an anonymous cipher, and in such circumstances to talk about oneself is not indicated. Szymborska’s poems explore private situations, yet they are sufficiently generalized, so that she is able to avoid confessions. In her well-known poem about a cat in an empty apartment, instead of complaint about the loss of the husband of a friend, we hear: “To die/one does not do that to a cat.”

more from Czeslaw Milosz’s 1996 essay at the NYRB here.