Writers often rise from the ashes of wars. Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska’s (1923-2012) works exemplify how conflict and its aftermath can influence writing.
When WWII came to Poland in 1939, Szymborska became part of the underground education circles. Under German occupation, all universities were closed, and education in the Polish language was punishable by death. In order to continue learning and to preserve their culture, people like Szymborska furthered their educations in secret. After the war, Szymborska quickly began to publish her poetry and other writings and did so until her death in 2012. Throughout her life, she earned many awards including the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Order of the White Eagle, and the Goethe Prize.
‘The End and the Beginning’ is one of Szymborska’s best known works. In it, she describes how war does not really end after the cessation of conflict. The remnants of it, the shells that litter the streets, the destruction, still remain, and people who are often overlooked have “to push the rubble/to the side of the road,/so the corpse-filled wagons/can pass.”
Despite the dark imagery present, the poem finishes with a moment that is simultaneously hopeful and foreshadowing. Those who know “as little as nothing” about the war take the place of “those who knew.” The danger is that people who are unaware of the horror of war can cause it to happen again, but the beauty is that innocence does return to the worlds and that people can once again relax in the grass “gazing at the clouds.”
I also want to share one of Szymborska’s poems in its entirety. This is a blog about writing after all, so it seems appropriate to share ‘The Joy of Writing’ here.
The Joy of Writing Why does this written doe bound through these written woods? For a drink of written water from a spring whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle? Why does she lift her head; does she hear something? Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth, she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips. Silence - this word also rustles across the page and parts the boughs that have sprouted from the word "woods." Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page, are letters up to no good, clutches of clauses so subordinate they'll never let her get away. Each drop of ink contains a fair supply of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights, prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment, surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns. They forget that what's here isn't life. Other laws, black on white, obtain. The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say, and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities, full of bullets stopped in mid-flight. Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so. Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall, not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof's full stop. Is there then a world where I rule absolutely on fate? A time I bind with chains of signs? An existence become endless at my bidding? The joy of writing. The power of preserving. Revenge of a mortal hand.
Poem Attribution: “Wislawa Szymborska – Poetry: The Joy of Writing”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 10 Sep 2016. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1996/szymborska-poems-5_en.html>