Szymborska’s Poems: New and Collected

I’ve nearly finished Wistawa Szymborska’s Poems: New and Collected, a book featured recently by Wood s lot. Even though Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996 I’d never heard of her before. Although I’ve 220 pages I’d be hard pressed to name any major themes in her poetry, though I’ve marked over 30 poems that I liked and considered worth further study. I suspect in a few years I’ll still remember a few of her poems but will be unable to remember much more. She reminds me a lot of W H Auden whose poems like “The Unknown Citizen” have stuck with me over the years. I suspect poets like Auden and Szymborska could sit down and write a poem on any topic that caught their interest, which might be exactly what they did.

One of the earliest poems that caught my attention was:


Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.

Even if there is no one dumber,
if you’re the planet’s biggest dunce,
you can’t repeat the class in summer:
this course is only offered once.

No day copies yesterday,
no two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with exactly the same kisses.

One day, perhaps, some idle tongue
mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
into the room, all hue and scent.

The next day, though you’re here with me
I can’t help looking at the clock:
A rose? A rose? What could that be?
Is it a flower or a rock?

Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It’s in its nature not to stay:
Today is always gone tomorrow.

With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.

This wasn’t a new idea to me; in fact, it reminded me of Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel I read several years ago and hadn’t thought of since, even though I was quite impressed when I read it. Looking back, the theme of this poem seems quite similar to Kundera’s, “We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”

That’s a challenging concept for a perfectionist like myself who used to, and occasionally still does, obsess over getting things right. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that failing. Being a high school teacher for 30 years it was hard not to realize that fear of mistakes often caused students to making more mistakes while making it harder to improve. I’m less demanding of myself now, though, because in retrospect it’s easier to see it was impossible to get through life without making mistakes.

The bad news is we’re bound to make mistakes; the good news is we don’t have to be preoccupied with those mistakes. Instead of feeling stupid or guilty, we have to continue to make the most of our lives because “this course is only offered once.” What’s the use of torturing ourselves with “needless fear and sorrow?” Leave guilt and regrets behind and focus on making the most of the moment.