Conversation with a Stone
Conversation with a Stone
"Conversation with a Stone" is one of the most widely read poems by 1996 Nobel Prize winner Wisława Szymborska. Published in 1962 in a collection called Salt, the poem is one of her earlier works. But it is often seen as a strong example of Szymborska's resistance to political and social ideologies, her accessible language, questioning poetic style and her detached lyric voice. Szymborska enjoys wild popularity in her native Poland.
The idea of the self confronting the external world is played out in "Conversation with a Stone" by means of an imaginary dialogue between the speaker of the poem and a stone. The speaker knocks on the stone's door and asks the stone to see inside of it, and the stone refuses. Essentially, the speaker represents the human desire to know each detail of the world around us, and the stone represents the impossibility of knowing. For the stone, we find, has no door.
"Conversation with a Stone" appears in Stanizław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh's 1995 award-winning translation of Szymborska, View with a Grain of Sand, published by Harcourt Brace & Company.
Szymborska was born on July 2, 1923 in a town in western Poland called Bnin (now Kornick.) Her family moved to Kraców in 1931, and
Szymborska has remained there since—throughout the occupation of Poland during World War II and under the Soviet Communist state that controlled Poland until the mid-1980's. Much of her poetry reflects on the pain and political oppression of those years.
Szymborska studied literature and sociology at the Jagiellonian University from 1945 to 1948. She made her literary debut in 1945 with her poem "Szukam Slowa" ("Searching for a Word"), published in the daily Dziennik Polski.
Dlatego żyjemy ("That's What We Live For"), Szymborska's first collection of poems, appeared in 1952. It consisted of a highly revised version of a manuscript she had submitted four years earlier that had been rejected on the basis of being insufficiently socialist. Her second collection, Pytania zadawane sobie ("Questions Put to Myself"), was published in 1954. These earliest two books are often dismissed as mediocre attempts to conform to socialist realism, the officially approved literary style of Poland's Communist regime, and Szymborska herself has since rejected these collections. In fact, poems from neither of these collections are included in the most widely read English translation of her selected poems, A View with a Grain of Sand (1995), translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh.
Szymborska joined the Communist Party in 1952 out of genuine ideological commitment. In a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she said: "I really wanted to save humanity, but I chose the worst possible way. I did it out of love for mankind. Then I came to understand that you should not love mankind, but rather like [individual] people." Szymborska remained in the party much longer than most of her fellow writers, who left in the mid-1950's, finally defecting in 1966 as a gesture of protest against reprisals raised against the prominent philosopher Leszek Kotakowska.
In 1957, when censorship had loosened its stronghold in Poland, Szymborska released her third collection of poems, Wolanie do Yeti ("Calling out to Yeti"). This collection is considered the beginning mark of Szymborska's true poetic intentions. Underlying its poems is a running critique of Stalinism, and by extension, any collective ideologies.
"Conversation with a Stone" appeared in the author's fourth volume, called Sól ("Salt," 1962). The poem is her most widely anthologized, perhaps because it embodies her method of questioning the world around her.
Szymborska has since published eleven volumes of poetry. Her poems have been translated (and published in book form) in English, German, Swedish, Italian, Danish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Czech, Slovakian, Serbo-Croatian, Romanian, Bulgarian and other languages. They have also been published in many foreign anthologies of Polish poetry.
In 1996, Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She is also the Goethe Prize winner (1991) and Herder Prize winner (1995). She has a degree of Honorary Doctor of Letters from Poznan University (1995). In 1996, she received the Polish PEN Club prize.
In one sense, the title, "Conversation with a Stone," neatly describes the plot of the poem itself. However, it is also somewhat ironic in that, while there are two voices in the poem, the poem's speaker seems to remain deaf to the meaning of the stone's words throughout much of the poem.
In the first stanza, the speaker of "Conversation with a Stone" repeatedly knocks at the front door of a stone. This speaker seems to see herself as innocent or insignificant, which is implied by the repeated phrase: "It's only me." She seems to feel justified in her desire to enter the stone. Indeed, the phrase "have a look around" seems innocent enough. But the speaker's strong desire to possess a complete knowledge of the stone is indicated by the phrase "breathe my fill," which indicates the wish to procure something from the stone for her own gratification.
The voice of the stone replies in the second stanza. This signals that the poem is not merely a speaker's meditation on an inanimate stone, but that an actual dialogue will take place. The stone denies the speaker entrance, noting the physical impossibilities of the request. This denial serves to dampen the lightheartedness of the first stanza.
In the third stanza, after the first two lines of the poem are repeated, the speaker continues her part of the dialogue. Again, the speaker paints her mission as innocent, using the word "pure" to signify her lack of ulterior motives. However, she not only insults the stone's dignity by ignoring his resistance to her entry, but she then hurries him, citing her mortality in relation to the stone's immortality. The use of the word "should" in the last line is significant in that it implies that, if the stone were just, it would comply with her wishes (out of pity for her mortal state) and that the speaker is under the presumption that she and the stone exist on the same planes of meaning.
The stone however, is not shaken by the speaker's insinuations. Its rebuttal of the speaker is harsher here than in the second stanza, as though it is tiring of her persistence. To the stone, the speaker's assumption that it "should" be touched is laughable.
After the refrain of "I knock at the stone's front door. / ‘It's only me, let me come in,’" the speaker again attempts to offer persuasive reasons as to why she should be allowed to enter. The speaker's suggestion that the stone's beauty is "in vain" because it does not share it with the rest of the world is undeniably self-centered. She seems to see herself as speaking from a place higher in the natural hierarchy when she taunts the stone, urging it to "admit" what she supposes it does not know.
In the sixth stanza, the stone delivers the first of several of its seeming contradictions. For in terms of human logic, something that is "great and empty" would necessarily have room. However, the stone reasserts that the speaker will "never know" it. The stone seems to be implying that there is no use arguing with it.
Nevertheless, the speaker continues to argue that she ought to be allowed entrance. Because of her refusal to simply listen to the fact that the stone does not want her to enter, it seems that the speaker has come up with reasons in human terms of why it might not want her to visit. She denies that she will set up camp inside the stone; she will not be one of those guests who seem to stay forever. Also, she essentially declares that she is not a thief, as if the stone is afraid that she will steal from it. However, in presenting the stone with this mundane reasoning, she reveals her deafness to the stone's voice more than ever.
Continuing with this line of thought, the speaker assures the stone that, by leaving "empty-handed," she will not be able to prove that she has entered the stone. Furthermore, "no one will believe" she has done so because all she will have to show for it is her "words."
The ninth stanza contains what is perhaps the stone's most poignant reply of the poem. The stone has essentially leveled the notion of natural hierarchy by positing that it possesses a sense that a human cannot. The stone makes clear that its existence is so vastly different from the speaker's that its way of being cannot even be imagined. The stone also calls into question the power of imagination, which humans tend to hold in high regard. For even with the "all-seeing" eyes of a god, the stone's sense of being will still be unreachably remote from human existence.
In the following stanza, the speaker remains unmoved by the stone's words. She persists in asking to be let in, often using phrases identical to, or almost identical to, those she has used before.
As in stanza four, laughter strikes the stone as the appropriate response to the speaker's ignorance in stanza eleven. Again, the difference between the stone's existence and that of the speaker is highlighted by the stone's contradiction. It is untroubled by the fact that it laughs without knowing how. In fact, it is this very confidence in and acceptance of contradiction that makes the stone's voice resonate so powerfully.
The speaker responds by once again knocking at the stone's door and repeating: "It's only me, let me come in." It is as if she has run out of excuses. Rather than engaging in fair argument, she falls back, in a childlike manner, to merely restating her desire, almost as if she were begging.
In the last line of the poem (the only one-line stanza throughout), the stone simply replies: "I don't have a door." Both the speaker and the stone seem to have worn themselves out by their inability to communicate. The poem ends at an impasse, nothing has actually changed or happened.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Pick an inanimate object that interests you and write down an imagined conversation with it. What "naive questions" would you ask of it? What would its answers signify? Consider what the implications of that dialogue are in more abstract political terms. Then, using the same themes of the conversation in your first dialogue, write another between two political or religious figures.
- Research various totalitarian states of the twentieth century. How has the world changed or not changed in reaction to these states in the past twenty years? In an essay, connect your ideas with Szymborska's idea that "not knowing" is the responsibility of any political, cultural, scientific or literary thinker.
- Consider various debates of Postmodernist theory, some of which lament the loss of an age of truth and some of which embrace the inclusiveness and plurality of voices in postmodern culture. Comment on how one group's objective truth might become another group's source of oppression. Do you feel that objective truth is real and attainable? Break your class into two sides for a debate on this question.
- Poland has had a tumultuous history involving invasions, revolutions, and significant bloodshed. Research Poland's history and consider the fact that Poland has one of the most vibrant literary cultures and one of the highest rates of poetry readership in the world today. Then, think of a time when you were treated unfairly by a force or authority larger or more powerful than yourself. Write a lyric poem about that time or incident.
As Szymborska's speaker in "Conversation with a Stone" tries to persuade the stone to allow her to enter it, she is confronted with its complete foreignness. Not only does the stone cite the impossibility of allowing her to physically enter ("Even if you break me to pieces, / we'll all still be closed"), it seems to work on a whole different plain of logic and existence ("‘Great and empty [are my insides], true enough,’ says the stone, / ‘but there isn't any room.’" Within the human system of reasoning, if something can be said to have an inside, then it should be possible to enter that inside. If something has great and empty insides it can be said to be roomy. The speaker lacks a certain "sense of taking part" that the stone presumably has. The tendency to view humans as the top of the natural hierarchy is upset here by the fact that a stone possesses a quality that the human speaker cannot comprehend. This makes the stone, the other (i.e., any person or thing outside our normal realm that we cannot understand), even more mysterious. The stone serves as a metaphor for all that is incomprehensible to us that we might wish to learn about.
In historical and literary theory, the concept of "the other" has most often been used to designate how a dominant, particularly an imperialist, culture views other cultures. Dominant cultures tend to see others both as inferior and as exotic simply because the former do not understand the latter. Dominant cultures have often invaded other cultures in order to study (often in ways causing suffering for those being studied) and exploit under the guise of seeking knowledge and truth. Echoes of the rhetoric of the imperialist view of "the other" reverberate throughout "Conversation with a Stone."
Szymborska seems to be confronting here how humans are to deal with the other. It is natural to be curious about the other, as the speaker in the poem is about the stone. But Szymborska submits that our curiosity does not justify invasion. The borders and wishes of "the other" may be sought, but they must be respected.
The Naive Question
It is often presumed that the quest for knowledge and truth are inherently noble. It is also often presumed that, while humans certainly don't know everything, there are some authoritative facts out there. Szymborska would disagree with both of these presumptions. Wary of totalitarian ideologies, Szymborska submits that knowledge is never set, and must constantly be questioned and revised. However, one must go about seeking knowledge cautiously, as so often in human history, knowledge has been gained only at the expense of vast human suffering.
In her writing, her method of conducting these discoveries of new knowledge has come to be known as naive questioning. In her poem, "The Century's Decline," she writes:
‘How should we live?’ someone asked me in
I had meant to ask him
the same question.
Again, and as ever,
as may be seen above,
the most pressing questions
are naive ones.
The method involves confronting each object, person, or idea one encounters without assumptions of prior knowledge. Or, as Szymborska has done in many of her poems, the naive question is put to some culturally dogmatic opinion, exposing, through her interrogation, either its insufficiency or its error.
In "Conversation with a Stone," Szymborska confronts the very idea of the human desire to gain knowledge. The subtext of the poem seems to ask, How does one recognize the other's border? When is curiosity about another innocent, and when does it offend? How does one deal with the incomprehensibility of the other? Humans face these questions everyday and unfortunately, as history shows, the human tendency is to view what it cannot understand as inferior. Szymborska, dissatisfied with this tendency, sets out to examine the ways in which knowledge is acquired through human-to-nature and human-to-human interactions through looking at something as seemingly simple as a stone.
Modern regimes in which the state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private behavior are known as totalitarian. These regimes maintain their political power by means of a secret police force, propaganda disseminated through the state controlled mass media, and the regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism.
Szymborska came of age as a writer under a totalitarian state and even participated in it as a party member. It would take her some years before she realized the immense dangers of limiting free speech and enforcing ideologies on groups of people. However, when this realization did come it had a profound affect on Szymborska's views and writing. Her mistrust of political ideologies and suspicion of all generalities has led her to question any and all accepted cultural, social, or political dogma. She now strives to examine each individual person, object, or idea on its own merits rather than resorting to preconceived notions of political or ideological correctness.
For Szymborska, there can be no generalizations of meaning. A naive question must be put to each and every idea. It is this resistance to generalizations that necessitates a conversation with a stone.
Lyric poems are short poems with a single speaker who speaks directly to the reader (as opposed to the more public forms of epic and dramatic poetry). The subject of the poem is not usually a story that is told but rather an expression of the evolution of complex thoughts or feeling. Put simply, lyric poems involve a single voice working out an idea through language.
As Clare Cavanagh notes, in her essay "Poetry and Ideology: The Example of Szymborska," in the last decades lyric poetry has come under attack because "It [supposedly] privileges personal voice over postmodern textuality; it seeks to circumvent history through attention to aesthetic form; it turns its back on the public realm in its quest for private truths." It is difficult to imagine that Szymborska would view any of these criticisms, especially the last, as particularly bad things. The individual viewpoint takes precedence in all of her poems as a direct result of her suspicion of and resistance to public ideologies. The form therefore suits her task.
Szymborska's form of the lyric poem differs only from the traditional form in that her poems do not strike the reader as autobiographical. They involve an individual speaker addressing a reader, but it seems in most of Szymborska's poems that a created persona is speaking. By creating a persona, she is establishes an ironic distance between herself and the speaker who supposedly represents herself. It's as if she wants to show that she does not hold even herself beyond questioning. Certainly this is the case in "Conversation with a Stone." Szymborska would seem to be ambivalent toward her speaker. On one hand the speaker's curiosity, her "mortality," draws sympathy, but the speaker obviously pushes the stone too far in her quest for knowledge. It is almost as if, for Szymborska, there is a voice behind the lyric speaker of the poem saying "Look at yourself! Look how you offend. Even while you try to learn, you are full of presumption." Her lyric speakers act as vehicles for self-meditation, both for Szymborska and for readers.
As noted above, Szymborska's poems are lyrical. Like many modern Polish poets, she employs a common, everyday diction in her poetry. This is fitting, given that most often her subject is the common, everyday person/object/idea. In "Conversation with a Stone," the speaker and the stone use the type of language that two friends might use at a cafe; there is nothing lofty or obscure in their words. In fact, the phrase "it's only me, let me come in," which is repeated throughout the poem, resonates with readers as something they might say at the door of any ordinary acquaintance. By way of this technique, the reader is brought into the poem because she can identify with its tone and language. It is therefore easier to place herself in the shoes of either the speaker or the stone which in turn allows her to more fully grasp the meaning of the conversation.
There is more to this common diction, however, than matching one's tone to one's subject matter or drawing the reader in. Edward Hirsh notes in his essay "After End of the World," "The radical accessibility of contemporary Polish poetry has sometimes bewildered advanced American readers who often miss the point that for these poets stylistic clarity is a form of ethics. One might say that the very clarity of this poetry is a response to ideological obfuscations, political double-talk." For Szymborska, a lack of clarity signals deception. That is partly why she chooses to make questions in her poems naive—she fears that any obscure language might confuse and thus deceive the reader.
Szymborska repeats the first two lines of "Conversation with a Stone" ("I knock at the stone's front door. / ‘It's only me, let me come in’") five times following their initial appearance. It is likely that she uses this device of repetition (also known as anaphora) to invoke the feeling of incantation. Incantation is a form of repetitious chanting deemed to have magical or moving power and is often associated with strong spiritual feeling. Perhaps the incantatory repetition is used by the speaker to persuade the stone of her primal desire to enter, as well as to cast a spell over the stone which might cause it to change its mind and allow her to enter.
Szymborska's poems in both the original Polish and English translations are in the form of unrhymed free verse. Free verse is a term for the style of poems that do not use formal meter or rhyme. The use of repetition, symmetry, alliterative sounds, near or half rhyme and varying line lengths are just a few of the devices used in free verse poems which make them recognizable as poems.
Free verse is suitable to the tone and task of "Conversation with a Stone." The imposition of formal poetic structure might serve to undermine the naturalness of the dialogue between the speaker and the stone. For, one's every day conversational tone does not come out fully crafted and metered. Formal meter and rhymed verse tends to lend the feeling of a crafted song to the reader. Szymborska is not, however, setting forth what she has already established; she is not singing what she knows for certain. Rather, she is depicting a struggle for understanding between two entities. She shows this struggle through the use of repetition, as discussed above. Also, the varying lengths of the lines serve to show changes in the moods of the speaker and the stone, as well as shifts between efforts at engagement in the conversation and attempts to pull away from it.
Pre-World War II Romanticism
Before World War II, much of Polish poetry could be classified as Romantic, meaning that it stressed emotion as a source of aesthetic experience and placed much emphasis on the awe experienced before the sublimity of nature and the world. Romanticism also legitimized the individual imagination in literature, giving credence to the lyric voice as a critical authority. However the inevitability of natural and historical progress was also stressed. Poets such as Julian Tuwim and Julian Przybos advocated a formal poetry and shared an aesthetic of sonorous, elaborate diction. Pre-war Polish poets also tended to hold strong nationalistic beliefs and shared optimism about the imminent progress of the twentieth century.
World War II
Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union in the fall of 1939, early in the second World War. Although the Polish government in exile never formally surrendered, the Nazi regime occupied the country throughout the war. The Auschwitz concentration camp was established late in 1939, only about thirty-five miles from Kraców where Szymborska lived. Six million Polish citizens died during the war; this was nearly a fifth of the country's population at the time.
The Soviet occupation of Poland during World War II created a state of terror. The Soviets, who claimed about fifty percent of Polish territory, imprisoned 1.5 million Poles, most of whom died of famine or exhaustion. Polish military officers, who had been called to service at the beginning of the war, and numbered around 15,000 people, were systematically murdered.
The German side of the occupation of Poland was arguably worse. Any Polish civilian who resisted the occupation or who was thought capable of resisting, as determined by social status, was killed or sent to a concentration camp. Tens of thousands of government officials, former army officers, landowners, and members of the intelligentsia were killed in mass murders. Operation Tannenberg, the name of one of Hitlers' extermination plans for Poland, identified 61,000 Polish activists and intelligentsia who were to be killed. During September and October of 1939, over 20,000 of those on the list were murdered.
Also part of Hitler's plan to destroy Polish culture was to create a generation of completely uneducated Poles. This plan aimed to foster a Polish race of serfs for German use. The Germans closed or destroyed all schools, universities, museums and libraries in Poland. However, almost immediately so-called "secret universities" sprang up all throughout Poland. Hundreds of lecturers met secretly with groups of students in apartments throughout the country at the risk of deportation or death. Indeed, Szymborska attended an underground university during the war.
Survivors as Writers
World War II had a profound affect on the writers of Poland. They had lived through what, to many, seemed like the Apocalypse and had witnessed the mass genocide. Romantic optimism was rejected in the face of collective guilt. Czesław Milosz, a Polish poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980, poignantly notes in an essay called "On Szymborska": "Szymborska, like Tadeusz Rozewicz and Zbigniew Herbert [two other major post-war Polish poets] writes in the place of the generation of poets who made their debut during the war and did not survive." The burden of loss, and of speaking for those who could not, resulted in Polish writers feeling a resistance to any lack of linguistic clarity, especially that of flowery elevated dictions and false sentiments. Edward Hirsh notes in his essay "After the End of the World" that "It was as if poetry had to be reinvented again from the ground up." Polish poets were acutely aware of their responsibility to the reality, historical and political, around them.
Post-War Poland and Social Realism
After the war, the Soviet Union forced Germany out of Poland. At the Yalta Conference in 1945, the People's Republic of Poland, a Soviet satellite state, was formed. No Polish representation was allowed at the conference, and the handing over of Polish territory by the Allied forces to Soviet control was, and is still today, seen by many as a betrayal of Poland for the benefit of Britain and France in appeasing the Soviet leader, Josef Stalin.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1940s: Socialist Realism is introduced as the mandated style of all literature in Poland. Szymborska will publish her first collection of poetry, This is What We Live For in this style, based on her faith in, and optimism about, the possibility of Socialist ideology creating a utopian reality.
1990s: Szymborska makes the claim in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech that "Poets, if they're genuine, must … keep repeating ‘I don't know.’" This indicates her rejection of her earlier adherence to Socialist Realism.
Today: Socialist Realism can still be found in the literature of North Korea.
- 1940s: Literary Modernism, which celebrated metanarratives (narratives that attempt to encompass all human experience) of ultimate truth, reason, and possible redemption, all while emphasizing the importance of weaving literary tradition into one's work, reaches its peak.
1990s: Postmodernism is one of the major literary discourses of the decade, emphasizing society's incredulity toward metanarratives and denouncing metanarratives as inherently false and useless. Szymborska, in her poem "We're Extremely Fortunate," writes: "We're extremely fortunate / not to know precisely / the kind of world we live in." This signifies her opinion that all ideologies that promise ultimate understanding or knowledge must be treated as suspect.
Today: Postmodernism continues to exercise considerable influence, though a reaction to its scepticism and relativism has given rise to what some critics have called post-postmodernism.
- 1940s: Poland is under the power of both the Soviets and Nazi Germany. Poland is ultimately abandoned by the West to Soviet control.
1990s: Poland emerges from the Cold War as an independent democratic state, peacefully transitioning from being a Soviet Satellite State to become the Third Polish Republic.
Today: Poland has been a member of the European Union since 2004.
The Stalinist regime imposed many harsh oppressions on Polish cultural, educational and religious institutions. One of these oppressions mandated that all art and literature adhere to the rules of Socialist Realism. Socialist realism is a style of realistic art that had its roots in pre-Soviet Russia, in which all art and literature was subject to censorship. Its main requirement is that all art and literature further communist and socialist ideologies. Szymborska published
her first volume of poetry, That's What We Live For in the Socialist Realism style. She later rejected this work.
Following Stalin's death in 1953, restrictions became less severe in Poland, and a period of comparatively liberal government arrived, known as "the thaw." This thaw marked the end of Socialist Realism. Periods of harsh oppression recurred intermittently throughout the following decades. But restrictions on literature progressively fell away. Most Polish writers were left with a strong distaste for collective thought; they felt resistance toward any public or ideological pressure to speak for anyone but themselves.
Remembrance and Forgetting
In her 1993 collection, The End and the Beginning, Szymborska begins her poem "Reality Demands" with the lines: "Reality demands / we also state the following: / life goes on." After World War II, survival guilt and the ethical responsibility to reality were the pressing, almost crushing, issues in Polish poetry. Many poets, including Milosz, considered elegy their most important duty. Even then, however, Szymborska recognized the need to move forward. She, perhaps even more than her contemporaries, saw an additional responsibility to continue to grow as a poet and as an individual. Stephen Tapscott and Mariusz Pryzbytek in their essay "Sky, the Sky, a Sky, Heaven, the Heavens, a Heaven, Heavens: Reading Szymborska Whole," note: "Szymborska argues that progress [as opposed to constant remembrance] might also consist in ‘not knowing’—in strategic forgetting in order to make room for continuity, for new growth, even for liberated daydreaming." For Szymborska, this growth involves the continual push to rediscover meaning from an individual perspective. In doing this, she honors those lost to the atrocities committed in the name of collected ideologies in her own important way.
Critical interpretation of Szymborska's work in English is sparse. This is due partly to the fact that her work has been translated into English for less than twenty years. It is also due to the fact that she has a relatively small oeuvre (less than three hundred published poems), especially considering her lengthy career of over fifty-five years of writing. And finally, the paucity of critical work may also have to do with Szymborska's own reticence on the subject of poetry, her own or others'. She rarely gives interviews, and although she does review popular books, she does not engage in academic critical writing. Therefore the critics have only her small body of poems to work with.
Critics who have written about her work generally agree that her first two collections of poetry differ widely from the rest of her body of work given Szymborska's efforts in them to conform to the style of Socialist Realism, the main requirement of which is to further the goals of socialism and communism. Critic Edward Hirsh, in regard to Szymborska's first two volumes, noted in the American Poetry Review: "Those poems make discouraging reading today." Most critics agree that her third volume, Calling Out to Yeti, marks a clear departure from her earlier works and heralds the emergence of the questioning lyric style that she still employs today.
Stanizław Barańczak, a contemporary of Szymborska's and one of her English translators, has written more widely about her and perhaps with the greatest importance. Barańczak was the first critic to make the important observation of the concept of the naive question as the driving force behind the majority of Szymborska's poems. In an article titled "The Reluctant Poet," he writes: "The typical lyrical situation on which a Szymborska poem is founded is the confrontation between the directly stated or implied opinion on an issue and the question that raises doubt about its validity." In an earlier essay, "Eastern Europe: The Szymborska Phenomenon," Barańczak notes that Szmborska's success "stems from the fact that these [naive questions] are ‘questions’ she actually asks." Barańczak separates Szymborska from poets who might use a question simply as a poetic device or frame for their poem in which they might then expand upon an answer of which they already feel sure.
Most critics agree on Szymborska's fair-minded ambivalence toward her poems' subjects. Discussing "Conversation with a Stone" in her essay "‘My Poet's Junk’: Wisława Szymborska in Retrospect," Eva Badowska notes that "The poem distinguishes between intellectual and sensory knowledge, clearly favoring the latter, which remains outside the human supplicant's reach (after all the stone is ‘made of stone’)." Others might argue that Szymborska favors neither intellectual nor sensory knowledge, but rather merely has shown the reader the uncrossable border between the two separate but equal beings. It seems most critics would concur with Edyta M. Bojanowska, who writes in her essay "Wisława Szymborska: Naturalist and Humanist" that "Szymborska denounces the hierarchical order we impose on the world as our own ridiculous construct." The critical consensus is that Szymborska does not submit authoritative opinions for the readers' consideration but rather asks her naive questions and explores possible answers through the framework of her poems.
Reardon holds an M.F.A. in poetry. She writes poetry, fiction, and criticism. In the following essay, Reardon considers how the lyric form of "Conversation with a Stone" functions within the context of postmodern discourse.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Poems New and Collected by Wisława Szymborska was published by Harvest Books in November 2000. This volume includes all poems from the 1995 award-winning collection View with a Grain of Sand as well as a selection of Szymborska's most recent work.
- New and Collected Poems by Czesław Milosz was published by Ecco Press in 2003. In this hefty volume of works by Szymborska's contemporary and fellow Nobel Prize winner, Milosz, one can gain a sense of the literary world in which Szymborska emerged and has flourished. Milosz is widely considered one of the best poets of our age.
- The Burning Forest: Modern Polish Poetry, which was edited and translated by Adam Czerniawski, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 1988. This anthology presents an important selection of the work of Szymborska's contemporaries.
- Breathing under Water and Other East European Essays by Stanizław Barańczak was published by Harvard University Press in 1992. This book of essays by Barańczak, Szymborska's main English translator and a contemporary poet himself, depicts the political and cultural scene of Eastern Europe.
Postmodernism is a literary and cultural discourse that describes contemporary society as a fragmented pastiche of voices, opinions, and information. The modernist movement it succeeded holds that both society and the individual were alienated from an established "Truth" or "Knowledge" by the isolating effects of industrial society. Modernist theory posits that abstract truths or systems of knowledge do exist; society is unable to grasp them only because it has become so remote from them. In postmodernist theory, which takes into account the age of information overload, the disintegration of notions of family and community, and the difficulty of grasping a unified reality, there is no single or established truth. For some critics, the postmodern represents an age of surface, of depthless, dehistoricized bits of information that have no authentic basis of meaning. Others see it as a kind of ethical utopia involving a plurality of voices endowed with equal validity, in which one group's "truth" can not stamp out another's.
In either case, the search for individual meaning and knowledge is problematic because both notions assert that there are no authoritative facts to be trusted and nothing can be taken for granted. Humans, however, tend to crave some sort of order and fixed knowledge as a means of coping with the chaotic nature of life. This essay examines the ways in which Szymborska uses the inherent ordering function of lyric poetry as a means of grappling with the problem of the human desire for meaning and the ethics of realizing a plurality of truths in her poem "Conversation with a Stone."
In the acceptance speech for her 1996 Nobel prize, Szymborska said:
Any knowledge that doesn't lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society. That is why I value the phrase, ‘I don't know’ so highly."
This stance that a collective fixed truth or knowledge is an impossibility fits decidedly well within postmodern cultural thought. It seems that Szymborska would admit that the external world, (i.e. nature, politics, any thing "other"), is per se unknowable. However, she is not willing to give up her hunt for individual meaning. For, while postmodernist theory would submit a lack of any over-arching truths to impose on others, it offers no valuable alternative, thus leaving the individual without a path to meaningful existence.
"Conversation with a Stone" depicts this scenario of an individual, represented by the poem's speaker, confronting the otherness of the external world, which is represented by the stone. In one sense the speaker, who repeatedly knocks at the stone's door, is a sympathetic figure, in that she seems to see herself as innocent. In the third stanza, she says "I've come out of pure curiosity. / Only life can quench it. / I mean to stroll through your palace, / then go calling on a leaf, a drop of water." It is difficult to blame someone for being curious. However, the speaker's inquiry seems to lack depth. Clearly she desires an ordering of knowledge for herself. But it is as if that is all she desires, as if she yearns to discover whatever truth the stone might hold only so that she may put a stamp on it and check it off her list of truths to learn, before moving on to the next thing and doing the same. The desire for a quick fix of truth contributes to postmodern superficiality in that it discounts the complexity of the other. It is tantamount to one person meeting another for the first time for five minutes and walking away with the feeling that she knows who the other person is, what that person is like.
Despite the stone's protests that it is impossible for the speaker to enter it, either physically or metaphysically, the speaker persists in asking to be let in for a quick peek. But the stone will not hear of being reduced to being used like an empty hall that may simply be entered, observed and left. The ninth stanza begins: "‘You shall not enter,’ says the stone. / ‘You lack the sense of taking part. / No other sense can make up for your missing sense of taking part.’" And two lines later, the stone continues: "You shall not enter, you have only a sense of what that sense should be, / only its seed, imagination." The speaker (the individual self) and the stone (the other) are on two different planes of logic. Although they may have a dialogue, the idea of them knowing each other as each knows itself is impossible. The stone finally makes this undeniably clear to the speaker in the last line of the poem when, after the speaker has yet again asked to be let in, the stone says "I don't have a door."
In an interview and commentary titled "Wisława Szymborska: The Enchantment of Everyday Objects," Joanna Trzeciak quotes Szymborska as commenting that "All the best [writers] have something in common … a regard for reality, an agreement to its primacy over the imagination. … Even the richest, most surprising and wild imagination is not as rich, wild and surprising as reality." In "Conversation with a Stone" the speaker is so fixated with her preconceptions of the stone that she does not even take the time to listen to what the stone is trying to say about their differences. The speaker says "‘I hear you have great empty halls inside you / unseen, their beauty in vain.’" The stone's enigmatic replies (e.g., "‘Great and empty, true enough,’ says the stone, / ‘but there isn't any room’") are fascinating to the reader, especially because they are spoken with such confidence. But the speaker is interested in little besides accomplishing her goal of entering. She seems to want the ease of having what she has already heard or imagined about a stone's insides to be the stone's reality. For not only is reality more rich, wild and surprising than imagination; it is infinitely more complex and therefore takes much more patience and effort to understand.
Drawing away from the text of the poem a bit, it is notable that Szymborska, as the writer, could have imagined an entrance into the stone. However, it seems that, for Szymborska, it is not the actual knowledge of the other that is important, but rather gaining an understanding of the nature of the border between the self and the other. For if, as the stone implies, it is not possible to fully understand the other, then any imagining on the part of the self that she does understand the other is necessarily false. Eva Badowska, in her essay "‘My Poet's Junk’: Wisława Szymborska in Retrospect," writes:
[Szymborska] highlights moments and fragments from the earliest volumes, underlining the distance between "us" and [the other], for such barriers can only be "describe[d]—they cannot be traversed by any effort of the imagination or bridged by any act of empathy. Paradoxically, what poetry can do is only protect "them" against facile and spendthrift sympathies.
In a postmodern context in which objective truth is nonexistent and any source of knowledge is suspect, the self cannot even trust her own empirical experience of the other. And so, instead of adding falsehoods based on her impressions to the postmodern debris of baseless knowledge, she can only learn how to relate to the external other, where the borders lie and what they signify—not what the other is.
The question arises, then, of how one goes about writing a poem that has no didactic aim and only aids the self in learning about her relation to the world. In a 1996 interview with Dean E. Murphy in the Los Angeles Times, Szymborska commented: "There are some poets who write for people assembled in big rooms so they can live through something collectively. I prefer my reader to take my poem and have a one-on-one relationship with it." Given that Szymborska realizes the danger in accepting neatly packaged external knowledge, she knows that the search for meaning must take place through a private process of questioning and observation. In "Conversation with a Stone," she creates a circumstance in which the reader may observe the interaction between the speaker and the stone as though it is taking place between two external entities, or she may place herself in the shoes of one or the other of the "characters" in the poem. For in order to understand how one may go about confronting the foreignness of the other, one must consider both how it feels to be the other and also how one's seemingly innocent curious imaginings can risk trivializing reality and creating false knowledge. That, anyway, is what Szymborska has worked out for herself in the poem. The reader is free to participate in the poem as much or as little as she wishes.
Lyric poetry is generally characterized by a single speaker directly addressing the reader. In an essay simply titled "Poetry," Gregory Orr calls the lyric poem "an expression of [one's] experience of disorder and [one's] need for order. It will be in the form of a poem, an unfolding interplay [of] disorder and order." In order to avoid being caught up in or overwhelmed by a postmodern flood of unreliable facts, one must first acknowledge the disorder and choose a place to define order for oneself. Orr goes on to write:
In the personal lyric, the self encounters its existential crises in symbolic form, and the poem that results is a model of this encounter. By making such a dramatized, expressive model of its crisis, the self is able to acknowledge the existence, nature and power of what is destabilizing it, while at the same time asserting its ultimate mastery over disorder by the power of its linguistic and imaginative orderings.
Szymborska chooses the area in which to define order and dramatizes this area in "Conversation with a Stone" by way of creating a confrontational dialogue between the self and the other. Therefore, although she does not know anything more about the other per se, she has worked out a system of what this confrontation means to her.
The lyric is suitable to Szymborska's suggestion that the phrase "I don't know" is the most important phrase for a writer or thinker because, as Orr notes, it places the origin of meaning within the self. In doing so, the lyric subtly undermines the significance of societal ideologies or any fixed systems of knowledge that may be imposed on the self. However, the voice of lyric poetry is usually at least ostensibly autobiographical. In "Conversation with a Stone," this is not the case. The speaker is a bit narrow-minded, when clearly, Szymborska, who crafted the poem, is not. And one gets the sense that the confident voice of the stone is not necessarily the poet's voice either. Clare Cavanagh, in her essay "Poetry and Ideology: The Example of Wisława Szymborska," views Szymborska's lyrical poetry as "philosophical meditation on what it means to have an individual viewpoint, and what is lost or gained each time we take up this or that angle of vision." Szymborska must engage postmodern plurality on some level, by virtue of the simple fact that she is part of postmodernist culture. She does this not by holding a lens to the "true" facts or details of her own life, but by finding how the unstable self relates to the world around it. And in doing so, she shows the reader how to find meaning of her own.
Source: Emily Reardon, Critical Essay on "Conversation with a Stone," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.
Mary Ann Furno
In the following essay, Furno presents a straightforward nearly line-by-line explication of "Conversation with a Stone." The essay also delves into the etymology of the diction, or the history of the changing meanings of the words used throughout the poem. This method invites a deeper interpretation of "Conversation with a Stone," and Furno ultimately characterizes the theme as an attempt to achieve wisdom through folly.
"Throughout the Middle Ages … the stone remained the main symbol of folly-hard, impenetrable, stolid. … It was above all a metaphor which demonstrated well-nigh mythologically the intrinsically foolish nature of human beings." References are found to the surgical removal of stones as a method of curing someone of his folly.
In "Conversation With A Stone," Wislawa Szymborska gives "her" stone a voice; further, she allows a dialogue with an unidentified speaker who remains quite insistent throughout that this stone should allow entrance to its "insides" so as to "have a look around." Quite a bit of folly takes place here as the ensuing exchange develops. But then, Szymborska is a poet, and she considers it her business to rekindle Memory with its original Understanding that reality is not what it appears to be. Let us also remember that until the sixteenth century, Folly was often the voice of Wisdom.
We come in on this "conversation" not knowing what led up to it. It does seem that a familiarity between speaker and the stone has already been established, immediately placing us in this novel situation and relationship:
I knock at the stone's front door
"It's only me, let me come in"
Szymborska lets us know that the speaker has somehow come to "know" about—imagines—this "other side" of the stone, its "insides." This poem will function as metaphor insofar as metaphor is understood as a radical—at its roots—mode of conceiving and experiencing reality. The ongoing conversation between stone and speaker captures this fundamental alteration of consciousness with irony as its driving force. Szymborska's "Conversation With A Stone" becomes a "pleasurable corrective to the ordinary single-visioned world."
A radical transformation of the stone's reality is forcefully presented to the speaker, as we can infer from the speaker's wish to "breathe my fill of you." The stone is "more" than what is ordinarily seen or presented in reality, as the speaker has already sensed, albeit "out of pure curiosity": "I mean to stroll through your palace."
Momentum builds with the speaker's growing insistence to be allowed inside the stone, which offers only resistance:
"Even if you break me to pieces,
we'll all still be closed.
You can grind us to sand,
we still won't let you in."
It is not about "great empty halls" or a beautiful palace—at least, not as far as the stone is concerned. A stone that speaks. The dialogue has begun, and Szymborska immediately thrusts us into a "world that loses its footing," and where irony takes hold. And herein, the significance of this "conversation" is brought to bear on our senses. The speaker urges that "only life can quench" this curiosity, further appealing that
"I don't have much time
My mortality should touch you."
Life is only possible in a voice which, in this "conversation," is the voice of folly; a stone that in response, reaffirms that it is
"made of stone …
and must therefore keep a straight face."
The irony of this reply reflects the speaker's impenetrability. The speaker's concern with mortality—a search for certainty about reality—is entirely misplaced. The speaker will, in any event,
"then go calling on a leaf, a drop of water."
missing the stone's point, as reflected in the speaker's inexorable refrain of
I knock at the stone's front door,
"It's only me, let me come in."
Only senses predominate for the speaker, whose deluded thinking the stone confronts:
"great and empty halls …
beautiful perhaps, but
not to the taste of your poor senses."
The conversation takes a turn with potential for the speaker's self-understanding through conversation with a stone—another ironic twist wrought by Szymborska. The stone observes:
"You may get to know me, but you'll never
know me through
My whole surface is turned toward you,
all my insides turned away."
The speaker maintains a division in its relationship to the stone—as though the stone, as stone, did not exist:
"You'll never know me
through" [italics mine, MAF]
Thoughtless insistence rooted in misunderstanding continues as the speaker retreats into self-doubt, perhaps despair, in the search for self understanding, reassuring the stone instead that
"I'm not unhappy.
I'm not homeless
My world is worth returning to.
I'll enter and exit empty-handed,
And my proof I was there
will be only words,
which no one will believe."
The stone responds with its most poignant volley:
"You shall not enter …
You lack the sense of taking part.
No other sense can make up for your missing
sense of taking part.
Even sight heightened to become all-seeing
will do you no good without a sense of taking
You shall not enter, you have only a sense of
what that sense should be,
only its seed, imagination."
"It's only me, let me come in" still stands as what has become the speaker's contrived reply. The reality of "I haven't got two thousand centuries" reveals the speaker's growing angst about "mortality" uttered at the outset of this conversation; while hyperbole, that intends its opposite, hints that a denouement with understanding is possibly drawing near. The stone now mentions believing:
"If you don't believe me …
just ask the leaf, it will tell you the same.
Ask a drop of water, it will say what the leaf
And, finally, ask a hair from your own head."
These words hit close to home. Laughter is even closer:
"I am bursting with laughter, yes laughter,
although I don't know how to laugh."
This stone is in a state of ecstasy that only irony can produce, an ecstasy that is recaptured in its original meaning: "to put out of place," "to drive a person out of his wits" (Oxford English Dictionary). The stone's "insides" are truly not about "great empty halls" or a "palace," but about its "inner life"—the place where folly inheres, along with laughter—in each and every bit and piece, and grain of sand. The speaker's response:
"I knock at the stone's front door.
It's only me, let me come in."
The stone's conclusive reply:
"I don't have a door."
Szymborska leaves us to ponder "[a]bsurdity brought to a halt." One can almost hear the "door" slam, leaving the speaker shaken, hopefully.
That the speaker continues relating "over and against" the stone is unsustainable. That the stone is otherwise bursting with laughter, at this point, suggests an unendurableness which will confound the speaker. Having "only the seed of imagination" inhibits understanding the stone's true nature, Szymborska seems to suggest. It is the "sense of taking part" that is critical to any understanding and through which the stone's "interior" is recognized. The stone's "I don't have a door" undermines the speaker's presumption throughout the conversation that the stone has a door—and with that, the speaker "is thrown back upon [him/her]self and the problem of [his/her] own reality and truth." Szymborska quite aptly chooses laughter as the "stuff" through which the stone shakes itself "out of place," which we will believe has similarly shaken the speaker "out of place." Szymborska's laughter "bursts"—"breaks forth into a sudden manifestation of inner force … Chiefly said of things possessing considerable capacity for resistance" (Oxford English Dictionary)—from conceptions founded in the "seed of imagination," leading us instead to ponder a "sense of taking part." We could leave it at that, but Szymborska's choice of "burst" truly leads us to ponder further. In its more "obscure origin burst is associated to umbilicus," (Oxfoxd English Dictionary) as in "to burst the navel" (Shipley's Dictionary of Word Origins).
Life becomes the predominating association with respect to this stone's image, once the "front door" disappears. But Szymborska's choosing a stone in and of itself suggests the natural force of irony which she humanizes with a voice—a sign of life. The images of the stone as having inner/outer (demarcated by the "front door") now "burst" one into the other: what is inner, is now outer; what is outer, is now inner. The speaker's perception of reality is shaken.
What was overlooked (the stone in its very appearance) and what was marginally imagined (palaces and great halls) collapse into each other, giving us an experience of stone as stone. "The great joke, Hegel wrote in a personal note, is that things are what they are." The world we call reality becomes "inverted" once "I'm made of stone and must therefore keep a straight face" voices "I am bursting with laughter, yes laughter, vast laughter, although I don't know how to laugh." Szymborska's "voice" acts as a metaphor that captures the irony of inverted reality: understanding "interior difference", its necessity of stone remaining a stone. Hence, "conversation": two voices participating in life force whenever the speaker "must needs" enter into a "sense of taking part" with the stone's "insides," "know[ing]" them "through" as his/her very self and "exit[ing]" "quenched" in a mutual self-recognition that reaps self-understanding. Szymborska gives us a "double vision that is only learned by the art of inversion … [and] folly is the example of this art." In her poem, we discover inner life through a conversation. Folly is not a stranger to poets who keep close company with the Muses. In "Conversation With A Stone" Szymborska, a contemporary poet, acts as interlocutor for the Muses. Her perhaps unwitting "choice" of a stone, an object sometimes identified with the beginning of time and which, in its mythological heyday, was "associated with eternal, immutable, divine powers … often understood as an expression of concentrated force … and generally … as life giving" seems to make it so. The "conversation" one almost hears, along with the "burst" of laughter and the closing of the "door," "dispelling self-delusion"—all "point ironically to a different order of meaning" that Szymborska simply but dramatically speaks from.
Poets, along with philosophers, who were once in their close company, understand the significance of memory that only the language of poets now points to. Szymborska reminds us of the folly of language in its capacity for irony. With that, she is right in line with the Muses, whose eloquence is voiced through poets' "double vision" of reality. Irony foils ignorance. If there is a need or wish to draw some "conclusion," one might be inclined to say that in "Conversation With A Stone" Szymborska reminds us that stones of folly lie deep within us, "the link to our primordial heritage," and they are at risk in a world growing increasingly "single-visioned." The Muses also impart Wisdom. Wisława Szymborska will need to continue to give us many more "conversations" of folly and illusion, lest we forget.
Source: Mary Ann Furno, "‘Conversation with a Stone’: An Interpretation," in Sarmatian Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, January 2006, pp. 1192-96.
Edyta M. Bojanowska
In the following excerpt, Bojanowska investigates Szymborska's poetical treatment of consciousness—that which appears in mankind, and that which appears to be lacking in inanimate objects. Although Bojanowska solely refers to the poems "View with a Grain of Sand" and "The Apple Tree" here, given the topic, her findings are certainly relevant. For instance, Bojanowska remarks upon what Szymborska's critics have defined as the "‘naive question’ strategy"; a device that can certainly be seen in "Conversation with a Stone."
Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. … [E]ven if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this. Thus all our dignity consists in thought.
Pascal's famous notion of man as a "thinking reed" resounds throughout Szymborska's poetry. She shares Pascal's notion of consciousness as man's defining characteristic and plays with it in her "View with a Grain of Sand". (PB; [Ludzie na moscie; People on a Bridge]). The poem ponders the idea that whatever names, values, states, or actions we ascribe to nature, they are all but outgrowths of our consciousness, human imputations, rather than nature's inherent characteristics. Nature remains unaware, as it were, of its own nature.
We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
incorrect, or apt.
Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.
It doesn't feel itself seen or touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.
Although the poet does not doubt the real, material existence of the world, its aesthetic and sensual values exist, according to her, only in our perceptions of them:
The window has a wonderful view of a lake,
but the view doesn't view itself.
It exists in this world
soundless, odorless, and painless.
The poem describes the pace of time as also a human invention, since the three seconds that have passed in viewing the landscape are "three seconds only for us."
"View with a Grain of Sand" may be seen as an elaboration of Ruskin's notion of pathetic fallacy, the poetic convention of endowing nature with human feelings, the overuse of which he criticized. Szymborska broadens the bounds of this "fallacy" to include the very act of perceiving nature. The poem underscores the idea that any observation is first and foremost an experience of the perceiving subject, and that the sole indisputable truth it conveys is the blueprint of the viewer's perspective, his ways of seeing. The insistent focus on the human-specific lens foregrounds Szymborska's exploration of the epistemological value of individual perception vis-à-vis objective reality.
Indeed, the poem questions the ability of human perception to accurately comprehend the world. Our perception yields refractions rather than reflections, cognitive skepticism being Szymborska's and Pascal's common trait. At the same time, our human viewpoint so thoroughly pervades and determines how we think about nature and verbalize our thoughts that occasional falsification is inevitable. The poem paints an image of human speech as a fossil that bears the imprints of our past cognitive blunders:
And all of this beneath a sky by nature
in which the sun sets without setting at all
and hides without hiding behind an unminding
The wind ruffles it, its only reason being
that it blows.
Scientific facts constitute an important underpinning of the poem. Science has demystified some of our cherished assumptions about nature. There really is no "sky," there is only air. A "sunset" is only an illusion created by the earth's rotation. Clouds cannot possibly "hide" the sun: they can merely intrude on our line of vision. Yet while deconstructing this non-referential idiom, the poet demonstrates its indispensability in describing the world. The impasse is not merely linguistic. The poem paints an image of man's complete alienation from nature: on the one hand—the inscrutable Ding an sich, on the other—man's persistent, if quixotic, quest to comprehend it.
Szymborska differs from Pascal with respect to the value of human consciousness. The French philosopher considers it a sign of greatness that man realizes his wretchedness, while a tree—though just as wretched—lacks this awareness (Pascal 29). In contrast, Szymborska's position as evident in "View with a Grain of Sand" is essentially ambivalent. She carefully avoids asserting that consciousness elevates us over "consciousless" nature and merely notes it as a point of difference, which is in keeping with her anti-anthropocentric views. Szymborska does not concern herself in this poem with the question of whether a grain of sand is any worse off by virtue of not knowing its name or realizing where it fell.
She does take up this question in another poem, "The Apple Tree" (LN [Wielka liczba; A Large Number]). Szymborska's choice of a tree in the context of the theme of consciousness is reminiscent of Pascal's "wretched tree" metaphor, which might suggest that Szymborska's polemic with Pascal is indeed intended, The apple tree's lack of consciousness is conveyed, as in the previous poem, by a series of negatives. This lack, however, hardly implies a deficiency. The apple tree's "conscious-less-ness" allows it to maintain freedom, peace, and a harmonious union with nature (incidentally, the diminutive in the poem's title, "Jablonka," unlike its neutral equivalent "jabloñ," has a homey, peaceful ring to it). By contrast, the poem's human protagonist—encumbered by consciousness—feels "imprisoned" and restless. She revels in the soothing conscious-lessness of the apple tree that
… brims with flowers, as with laughter;
that is unaware of good and evil,
shrugs its branches about it;
that is no one's, whoever may say mine
burdened with the foreboding of fruit only;
that is uninterested about which year it is,
which planet, and whereto it circles;
[…] carefree about whatever happens,
shivering with patience with each of its
The comparison of the tree with a human being hinges on a clever transformation of common idioms that usually refer to human emotions. For example, the tree shrugs its branches just as people shrug their shoulders. Yet this nonchalant gesture is juxtaposed with moral categories ("good and evil"), which for humans usually represent a cause for grave concern. The state of "shivering," usually associated with fear, excitement, or anticipation, is combined here with a quite incongruous patience. Furthermore, the natural semantic pull of the word "foreboding" anticipates an object that will signify something bad or harmful. Instead, the tree has a foreboding of fruit, of life. Thus the word "burdened," which at first seems to denote psychological distress, returns to its original meaning of "encumbered with physical weight" when it becomes related to the expectation of heavy fruit. The context of fruit and expectation, in turn, draws attention to the root "-ciaz-," which the word "burdened" (obciazona) shares with the word "pregnancy" (ciaza). Thus within one line the initially negative ring of the word "burdened" becomes returned twice: into a neutral and then positive tone. In sum, the tree's lack of consciousness actually betokens a benefit. Even more—it recalls prelapsarian bliss: the apple tree is unaware of good and evil and inhabits "may paradise." Grammatically speaking, the poem consists of one sentence without a predicate. Its main clause, interrupted by an extended description of the tree, expresses the speaker's wish to remain in its shadow instead of returning home, since "only prisoners wish to return home." As Wojciech Ligeza rightly notes, consciousness in Szymborska's poetry appears as both a curse and a blessing (1993, 5). In "The Apple Tree" it appears as the former.
Interestingly, a poem that presents the opposite view, "In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself" directly follows "The Apple Tree" in the volume (LN). This proximity of the negative and positive views of consciousness may imply that the poet considers them inseparable and equally valid. "In Praise" contains an encomium to conscience, itself a corollary of consciousness, characteristic of humans but unknown in the animal world:
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their
hands were clean.
… Though hearts of killer whales may
weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.
On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.
Pascal believed man to be great because he knows himself to be wretched. Szymborska's poem gives Pascal's idea a significant twist: man is great because he realizes that his actions cause others to be wretched, while piranhas and killer whales do not. Although the poem clearly applauds the human experience of pangs of conscience, as even the title suggests, Szymborska's criticism of remorselessness sounds a muted tone, so characteristic of her poetry in general. To call a clear conscience "bestial" may imply fierce condemnation, but in the context of the poem it may also suggest a mere statement of fact: a clear conscience is characteristic of beasts, that is, animals (the Polish word "zwierzece" functions more freely on both these levels than its English counterpart). This tension between the idiomatic and literal meanings of words and phrases greatly contributes to Szymborska's "muted" quality.
Temperamentally and ideologically, Szymborska is a poet of moderation and skepticism. She prefers understatement to confident assertion, ambivalence to resolve, doubt to dogmatism, concreteness to abstraction, particularity to typicality, and exceptions to rules. Moderation and skepticism also characterize her portrayal of nature and man, which maintains her typical dynamic of "on the one hand" / "on the other hand." Her affinity with Pascal emerges here again, since he believed each thing partly true and partly false, and considered contradiction no more a sign of falsehood than lack thereof an indication of truth (54). Szymborska's penchant for dwelling on contradictions to generally accepted truths and her refusal to commit herself entirely to one side of an issue inspires her extensive use of a "naive question" strategy, as Stanislaw Barańczak has brilliantly observed. This technique "always brings the ‘dogmatic opinion’ down to the level of an individual exception that contradicts the general rule and by the same token renders it, if not invalid, then at least suspect" (1994: 264). I would add that Szymborska does not presume to propose new truths or to entirely deconstruct the ones she "naively questions." Rather, she attempts to reconstruct a full picture, which for her—as for Pascal—includes at once the truth and falsity about each thing. Szymborska does not create her own version of the world, she merely "adds glosses ‘on the margin’ of the established version of reality" (Ligeza 1983, 89).
Source: Edyta M. Bojanowska, "Wislawa Szymborska: Naturalist and Humanist," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2, Summer 1997, pp. 199-223.
In the following essay, Carpenter presents a comprehensive overview of Szymborska's body of work, including a brief discussion of "Conversation with a Stone." The essay also provides readers with a more profound understanding of the poem's ‘meaning in light of the recurring symbols and themes that appear throughout Szymborska’ oeuvre. Ultimately, Carpenter finds that Szymborska is a poet who favors the use of the ordinary as a means of exploring the extraordinary.
I am no longer certain that what is important
is more important than the unimportant.
—"No Title Required"
For the second time in sixteen years, a Polish poet has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is not a coincidence: the decision of the Swedish Academy to bestow the world's most prestigious literary award on Czeslaw Milosz in 1980 and on Wislawa Szymborska in 1996 is tribute to the exceptional vitality and prominence of contemporary Polish poetry. More than anyone else, it is Czeslaw Milosz who gave Polish poetry its international visibility, both as a poet and translator and its enthusiastic promoter in America. It is Milosz's seminal anthology Postwar Polish Poetry, first published in 1965, that contained—together with twenty other poets—the first English translations of Szymborska's verse. But Milosz's significance is even deeper, and lies in the impact he has had on the shape of postwar Polish poetry. More than any other twentieth-century poet, Milosz has created a model and a yardstick against which younger poets have to measure themselves. Wislawa Szymborska is the one who has done so with the greatest success.
To most readers outside Poland, Szymborska's Nobel Prize came as a surprise. Long recognized in her native country as a leading voice in contemporary poetry, Szymborska has not achieved the same popularity in the English-speaking world enjoyed by other poets of her generation such as Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Rozewicz, and Miron Bialoszewski. Not a political poet (though some of her early poems were written according to the precepts of socialist realism), Szymborska drew little attention at a time when Western interest in Eastern Europe had a largely political motivation. She defied the "mold" used to describe literature "behind the iron curtain." However, a number of English translations of her poetry had appeared: Milosz's anthology was followed in 1981 by the translations of Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire, published as Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems; Adam Czerniawski brought out People on a Bridge in England in 1990; and in 1995 there appeared the comprehensive collection View with a Grain of Sand, a set of award-winning translations by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. It is only with this most recent publication that Szymborska's poetry came fully into the view of the English-speaking audience.
In contrast, Szymborska's reputation in Poland has been steadily growing ever since her third volume, Wolanie do Yeti (Calling Out to Yeti), appeared in 1957. The publication of each successive volume—Sol (Salt; 1962), Sto pociech (No End of Fun; 1967), Wszelki wypadek (Could Have; 1972), Wielka liczba (A Large Number; 1976), Ludzie na moscie (1986; Eng. People on a Bridge), and Koniec i poczatek (The End and the Beginning; 1993)—has been an important poetic event, winning the author an ever-widening audience. Szymborska's ability to speak in simple language has made her poetry accessible and attractive to an unusually broad spectrum of readers.
Paradoxically, Szymborska's very simplicity and directness present the greatest challenge to a critic, and probably also account for a relative dearth of studies about her poetry. The analytic language of literary criticism often seems powerless and inadequate when dealing with these deceptively transparent poems; it is heavy-handed and clumsy in comparison with the lightness and agility of the poetic lines. Attempts at description and analysis frequently end in a frustrating realization of failure and the necessity to go back to the poems themselves, to let the poet speak with her own voice and defend herself against the awkward approximations of the critic. An important and integral part of her poetics, Szymborska's apparent ease conceals a conscious and determined effort. Her simplicity is careful, a result of struggle, and is hard to trace since the poet covers her tracks: "I borrow weighty words, / then labor heavily so that they may seem light."
Szymborska is a poet of philosophical reflection. Like most Polish poets of her generation, she avoids personal effusions and an emotional tone. Absent as a person, she is nevertheless strongly present as a voice—a voice which is unmistakably her own and impossible to confuse with that of any other poet. It is a voice of a Cartesian consciousness and of a cognitive subject, a voice that narrates and at the same time reflects upon the meaning and implications of its own narrative. Often the very structure of Szymborska's poems reproduces the cognitive process, and the poems become a direct and unrhetorical form of "thinking aloud."
It has come to this: I'm sitting under a tree beside a river on a sunny morning.
And since I'm here I must have come from somewhere, and before that I must have turned up in many other places.
They may search memory, as in "May 16, 1973": "One of those many dates / that no longer ring a bell. // Where I was going that day, / what I was doing,—I don't know." Most often, they pose a question: "Maybe all this / is happening in some lab? / Under one lamp by day / and billions by night?"
Szymborska's reflection rarely takes the form of categorical statements, and this is especially true of her later poetry. Reluctant to provide definitive answers, the poet prefers a margin of uncertainty. It is the initial premise of Descartes's formula, the "dubito" that describes best her philosophical attitude. But unlike the French philosopher, the Polish poet is unwilling to cross the threshold of uncertainty and step into the bright light of certitude: "certainty is beautiful, / but uncertainty is more beautiful still," she admits. Szymborska's reluctance is not the result of a lack of moral determination, but rather an expression of openness. It is an awareness that truth is complex and ambiguous, that reality is thick and consists of a myriad details, all of which need to be taken into account. In Szymborska's version of the well-known biblical story, Lot's wife looks back not only out of curiosity but with a number of different motives: regret, fear, anger, shame, the desire to go back. The poet shuns the didactic clarity of the biblical account in favor of a more tentative conclusion, but one closer to the complexity of psychological truth: "It's not inconceivable that my eyes were open. / It's possible I fell facing the city."
In another poem Szymborska praises ignorance: "We're extremely fortunate / not to know precisely / the kind of world we live in." What appears to be an ironic, tongue-in-cheek statement has in fact a deeper meaning, for the choice of ignorance is tantamount to an acceptance of the human condition, together with all its temporal, spatial, and cognitive limitations. It is a choice of the human over the inhuman, the concrete over the abstract, the particular over the universal. Szymborska's island of Utopia, where "all is elucidated" and dominated by "Unshaken Confidence," is uninhabited. Footprints point toward the sea, "As if all you can do here is leave / and plunge, never to return, into the depths." Written in the 1970s, the poem can be read as an allusion to communist ideology and a depiction of the totalitarian state. It functions beyond its political context, however, and expresses the author's dislike of easy solutions and categorical assertions. Avoiding anything that might smack of dogmaticism or didacticism, Szymborska prefers to conclude her poems with an admission of ignorance or doubt: "I am," she says, "a question answering a question."
This philosophical option explains also her predilection for paradox, a stylistic figure that undermines accepted truths and leaves questions open. For example, "To change so that nothing changes," reads a line from the poem "A Feminine Portrait." Elsewhere we find: "You expected a hermit to live in the wilderness, / but he has a little house and a garden, / surrounded by cheerful birch groves, / ten minutes off the highway. / Just follow the signs." In "Elegiac Calculations," a metaphysical poem about death, each statement is followed by a parenthetic clause in the conditional mode.
How many of those I knew (if I really knew them), men, women (if the distinction still holds) have crossed that threshold (if it is a threshold) passed over that bridge (if you can call it a bridge)—
The poem concludes on a note of uncertainty: "I've been given no assurance / as concerns their future fate."
One of the most striking features of Szymborska's poetry is that reflections are prompted not by abstract ideas but by concrete and ordinary experiences: the sight of the sky, sitting on the shore of a river, looking at a painting, a visit to the doctor. Like Bialoszewski, although in a different idiom, Szymborska extols the everyday and the ordinary: her "miracle fair" is made up of barking dogs, trees reflected in a pond, gentle breezes, and gusty storms—the world "ever-present." At the theater she is moved by a glimpse of actors caught beneath the curtain more than by tragic tirades. The very triviality of these experiences betrays a philosophical parti pris on the part of the poet, who questions and at the same time reverses the accepted opinion of what is important and what is unimportant. The usual hierarchies are stood on their head. Is the death of an insect less important than our own? Only if seen from "high above," that is from a human perspective, according to which "important matters are reserved for us." Metaphysics are not above everyday reality, and need not be sought in the "starry night" of the philosophers; they pervade every aspect of our existence. In a series of paradoxes, Szymborska questions the division into the high and the low, the meta- and the physical, the earth and the sky.
Even the highest mountains are no closer to the sky than the deepest valleys. There is no more of it in one place than another. The sky weighs on a cloud as much as on a grave. A mole is no less in seventh heaven than the owl spreading her wings. The object that falls in an abyss falls from sky to sky.
In Szymborska's poetry, reality is "democratized," and "anniversaries of revolutions" are much less prominent than "ants stitching in the grass" and "the pattern of a wave." Szymborska pitches ontology against history and politics, the private and the individual against the public and the collective, and here she reveals a deep affinity with Czeslaw Milosz. Common and humble reality is put forward at the expense of history and politics: "Even a passing moment has its fertile past, / its Friday before Saturday, / its May before June. / Its horizons are no less real / than those that a marshal's field glasses might scan."
For Szymborska, man's life is short and marked by suffering and death. No historical event can alter or has altered this basic existential condition: "Nothing has changed. / The body still trembles as it trembled / before Rome was founded and after, / in the twentieth century before and after Christ." On the contrary, history has only added to human suffering through wars and oppression. In her early and well-known poem "Breughel's Two Monkeys" she wrote:
This is what I see in my dreams about final
two monkeys, chained to the floor, sit on the
the sky behind them flutters,
the sea is taking its bath.
The exam is History of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.
One monkey stares and listens with mocking
the other seems to be dreaming away—
but when it's clear I don't know what to say
he prompts me
with a gentle clinking of his chain.
History is not a manifestation of the human spirit, or an extension of the individual and man's projection into time, but a force inimical to man. A deeply humanistic poet, Szymborska sees history as the principal source of evil. Disrespectful of human life, it fails to account for the number of its victims, as it "rounds out skeletons to the nearest zero" ("A Hunger Camp at Jaslo"). It provides fertile ground for hatred, as in the poem "Hatred": "Gifted, diligent, hard-working. / Need we mention all the songs it has composed? / All the pages it has added to our history books? / All the human carpets it has spread / over countless city squares and football fields?"
The sharpest edge of Szymborska's irony is reserved for politics. In an age which she ironically describes as "political," everything becomes "food" for politics.
To acquire a political meaning
you don't even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,
or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one.
A pacifist, Szymborska sides with ordinary people against history: "I prefer the earth in civilian clothes. / I prefer conquered rather than conquering countries. / … / I prefer Grimm's fairy tales to the first pages of newspapers" ("Possibilities").
Szymborska has a deep respect for reality and a sense of wonder at its diversity and inexhaustible richness. This once again brings her close to Milosz: "So much world all at once—how it rustles and bustles!" This is accompanied by a realization that there is a disparity between the unlimited vastness of reality and the limitations of the poetic imagination: "Four billion people on this earth, / but my imagination is still the same."
The mathematical value of [Pi] comes closer to expressing the infinite richness of the universe than does the poetic imagination: "It can't be comprehended six five three five at a glance, / eight nine by calculation, / seven nine or imagination, / not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison." Art can seize only individual facts and existences, a fraction of reality.
On the hill where Troy used to be seven cities have been discovered. Seven cities. Six too many for a single epic poem. What can be done with them? What can be done? The hexameters are bursting.
The poet describes her own imagination as one that is moved not by "large numbers" but by what is particular, by that which can be described only in the singular. Even her dreams, she concedes, are not populous and "hold more solitude than noisy crowds." With a touch of irony, she speaks of herself as "a mouse at the foot of the maternal mountain," as a "jester" who prefers "Thursday over infinity." Poetry, marked by insufficiency and imperfection, is a selection, a renunciation, a passing over in silence, and a "sigh" rather than a "full breath." Like anyone else, the poet is unable to step outside her own "I," her own particular existence. Being herself, she cannot be what she is not: "My apologies to everything that I can't be everywhere at once. / My apologies to everyone that I can't be each woman and each man. / I know I won't be justified as long as I live, / since I myself stand in my own way."
Faced with a task that is impossible, Szymborska makes a choice—to describe what is immediate and accessible, the ordinary and the small: "Inexhaustible, unembraceable, / but particular to the smallest fiber, / grain of sand, / drop of water— / landscapes." After all, every particle reflects the whole, every drop of water contains the entire universe: "A drop of water fell on my hand, / drawn from the Ganges and the Nile, // from hoarfrost ascended to heaven off a seal's whiskers, / from jugs broken in the cities of Ys and Tyre."
In the opposition between reality and art, life and intellect, the poet declares herself on the side of reality and life. Ideas are most often pretexts to kill, a deadly weapon whether under the guise of an artistic experiment ("Experiment"), a political Utopia ("Utopia"), or ideological fanaticism ("The Terrorist, He Watches"). Even poetry is "a revenge of a mortal hand" ("The Joy of Writing"). Szymborska sides with reality against art and ideology, and this choice situates her in the mainstream of postwar Polish poetry alongside Milosz, Herbert, and Bialoszewski.
Despite its familiarity and ordinariness, Szymborska's poetry is neither relaxing nor comforting. It is permeated by a consciousness of death, temporariness, and human vulnerability.
Nothing's a gift, it's all on loan.
I'm drowning in debt up to my ears.
I'll have to pay for myself
with my self,
give up my life for my life …
Every tissue in us lies
on the debit side.
Not a tentacle or tendril
is for keeps.
The inventory, infinitely detailed,
implies we'll be left
not just empty-handed
but handless, too.
Not only do we live on credit, but life is a constant improvisation, a rehearsal in an unfamiliar setting, a play without a script. What is more, the rehearsal is also the only performance we are granted, and all our actions—regardless how tentative—acquire the permanence of a perfective tense: "And whatever I'll do, / will turn for ever into what I've done" ("Instant Living").
In Szymborska's world, man is alone and distinct from the world of nature and objects; the division between the human and nonhuman world is unbridgeable, as in "Conversation with a Stone."
I knock at the stone's front door.
"It's only me, let me come in.
I want to enter your insides,
have a look round,
breathe my fill of you."
"Go away," says the stone.
"I'm shut tight.
Even if you break me to pieces,
we'll all still be closed.
You can grind us to sand,
we still won't let you in."
The ontology of objects is beyond man's reach, and giving them anthropomorphic features is a misunderstanding. Consciousness is a human attribute; nature is unaware of itself. The sense of time, place, and purpose, colors, shapes, sounds, and names are products of human consciousness alone.
We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
incorrect, or apt.
Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.
It doesn't feel itself seen and touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.
There is a contrast between nature's pure externality and its lack of self-awareness, on the one hand, and man's tortured consciousness on the other: "Our skin is just a coverup / for the land where none dare go, / an internal inferno, / … / In an onion there's only onion / from its top to its toe." Because it lacks consciousness, nature is spared existential despair and metaphysical anxiety, and seems to us to be edenic. The communication between man and the external world is one-way, from human consciousness toward external reality, from man to objects. But the two realms remain distinct and strange to each other.
Szymborska's poetry is one of existential terror, but what makes it even more terrifying is that it avoids spectacular decorations and a tragic tone. Szymborska's tone is matter-of-fact, constantly kept in check: "if joy, then with a touch of fear; / if despair, then not without some quiet hope." The tragic content is attenuated by humor, wit, and an abundance of verbal games and puns: "Life, however long, will always be short. / Too short for anything to be added." The situations are trivial, and the effect is often a result of contrast between the triviality of the scene and the metaphysical dimension of the event.
A dead beetle lies on the path through the
Three pairs of legs folded neatly on its belly.
Instead of death's confusion, tidiness and
The horror of this sight is moderate,
its scope is strictly local, from the wheat
grass to the mint.
The grief is quarantined
The sky is blue.
Death is banal and inscrutinable in its mystery. The room of a suicide gives no clues to the man's tragedy.
I'll bet you think the room was empty.
Wrong. There were three chairs with sturdy
A lamp, good for fighting the dark.
A desk, and on the desk a wallet, some
A carefree Buddha and a worried Christ.
Seven lucky elephants, a notebook in a
You think our addresses weren't in it?
In one of her most popular and finest poems, "Cat in an Empty Apartment," the poet describes grief—and the sense of emptiness after the death of someone close—from the perspective of a cat.
Die—you can't do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against furniture?
Nothing seems different here,
but nothing is the same.
Nothing has been moved,
but there's more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.
Wislawa Szymborska is not a prolific writer, and her poetic oeuvre consists of only some two hundred poems. Each poem, however, is a masterpiece. In crystalline and carefully wrought language, with a tone that is unpretentious, this poetry speaks to everyone and is about everyone. The ostensibly "unimportant" questions it poses prove to be the only questions that truly matter.
Source: Bogdana Carpenter, "Wislawa Szymborska and the Importance of the Unimportant," in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter 1997, pp. 8-13.
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Anders examines the subject of remembrance in Szymborska's work, and also her emphasis on being able to move on from the burden of history.
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Czerwinski discusses Szymborska's wide use of metaphor and irony as a means of reaching philosophical summation.
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Jameson examines how postmodern discourse inspires both passionate advocacy and seething opposition from both political reactionaries and progressives in every possible permutation.
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Orr examines how a variety of subjects ranging from the Holocaust to medicine relate to the evolution of the personal lyric.
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Vendler discusses Szymborska's evolution as a poet. She marks the universality of suffering as Szymborska's major theme.
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Worozbyt explores how the self-effacing nature of Szymborska's tone achieves an intimacy with her audience.