April is National Poetry Month, an observance deemed necessary because, for various reasons, most people don’t read much poetry on their own.
At least one of those reasons, based on some pretty strong anecdotal evidence, is that a lot of readers find modern poetry austere, distant, almost militantly obscure. To those readers, I’d offer the work of Wislawa Szymborska, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet who died in 2012.
Houghton Mifflin has just published “Map: Collected and Last Poems,” a thick anthology of Szymborska’s best stuff. The good news is that you don’t need any special knowledge of Szymborska or her themes to enjoy her work. As edited by her longtime translator, Clare Cavanaugh, Szymborska comes across as reflective and occasionally somber. But for the most part, she’s witty, humorous, and a lot of fun.
In one of the collection’s best poems, “Thoughts That Visit Me on Busy Streets,” Szymborska wonders whether the world’s supply of individual faces is really infinite – or whether nature, having exhausted all the permutations of nose and lips and cheeks, has started to recycle a few designs from antiquity: "Those passersby might be Archimedes in jeans,/ Catherine the Great draped in resale,' Some pharaoh in briefcase and glasses. "
In “Confessions of a Reading Machine,” Szymborska slyly imagines a computer that can truly read, making a text its own, and so becoming human in the process. What she says, without quite saying it, is that literature is what makes all of us something more than merely mechanical. In “A Contribution to Statistics,” Szymborska pokes fun at all those lifestyle surveys that pop up in the media. “Out of a hundred people,” she says with mock authority, “worthy of compassion – ninety-nine, / mortal / – a hundred out of a hundred./ Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.”
My April evenings with Szymborska have inspired a resolution, one you might like to follow, too. In honor of National Poetry Month, check out a foreign poet in the next couple of weeks. You might be surprised, as I was, by the fresh perspective of a voice from beyond your own borders.
In my favorite Szymborska poem, “Poetry Reading,” she describes a “sweet old man” who’s fallen asleep at her poetry reading, perhaps dreaming of the tarts his wife used to make. It’s her way of saying that poetry can be a form of dreaming, too, and one with pleasure at its core. Not a bad thing to keep in mind as another National Poetry Month greets us on the calendar.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”