Pen Ultimate / Passerby, Your Thinkpad Prepare

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska's forte is in the way she looks upon the world we live in (and which she has been living in for quite some time, being in her eighties), and her ability to see it through a drop of water and to reflect it in all its simple complexity

Last month's short visit by Wislawa Szymborska, the 1996 Nobel Prize laureate for literature, in Israel, passed by virtually unnoticed by the media (Haaretz and Ha'ir excepted). Some admirers of her poetry - but not all - were lucky enough to attend one of her three public appearances. Some begrudged the media's lack of sensitivity toward and interest in poetry in general, and Szymborska's in particular.

Szymborska herself wrote in one of her poems that the muse is stingy with public applause as far as poetry is concerned. She has no illusions as to the public appeal of poetry, and accepts it with a degree of resignation, as in the poem "Some Like Poetry": Some - / that means not all. / Not even the majority of all but the minority." She looked genuinely modest when she stepped on stage in Beit Ariela in Tel Aviv, to read some of her work, and yet one could see a mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes. In another poem ("Stage Fright"), she writes: "Poets means poetry, writers means prose - / prose includes all, even poetry / but poetry has to be poetic - / according to the poster announcing it, with the `P' adorned and illustrated / with strings of a winged harp."

Szymborska is fully aware that poetry means working with language: "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? ... 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 ... 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?" (from "A Joy of Writing," translated into English by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanaugh).

But in the world of poetry that usually takes itself so seriously, Szymborska possesses a fair measure of zany humor, which shines joyfully through her fairly new (2003) collection in Polish of "Rhymes for Adults," with its limericks, couplets and one-liners, all relishing rhyme without reason, feasting on sounds and impossible puns, for instance: "Mandarins of a dynasty called Ming / Never have heard of "a drink" / when afflicted with pain in the neck / slurped home-made rice wine by the keg / rubbed each other shoulders and cried 'ping.'"

Her forte, for non-Polish speakers, is in the way she looks upon the world we live in (and which she has been living in for quite some time, being in her eighties), and her ability to see it through a drop of water and to reflect it in all its simple complexity, or complex simplicity, all the interwoven threads of world culture reverberating. Her poetry, odd as it may sound, is not dependent on language. This should not diminish the praise due to her all translators, her representative in Hebrew being Rafi Weichert, who has translated and published four collections of poems to date.

In the latest collection, published to coincide with her visit, he translated a short poem called "Epitaph." I looked for its English version, and found a valiant effort, which goes as follows: "Here lies, oldfashioned as parentheses, / the authoress of verse. Eternal rest / was granted her by earth, although the corpse / had failed to join the avant-garde, of course. / The plain grave? There's poetic justice in it, / this ditty-dirge, the owl, the meek cornflower / Passerby, take your PC out, press "POWER," / think on Szymborska's fate for half a minute" (translated by Baranczak and Cavanaugh).

As the title suggests, those are words to be inscribed on a tombstone as in the Greek and Latin tradition, according to which the deceased arrests the attention of a passerby and makes him stop in his tracks and reflect in brief - by reading the inscription - on life's short span, human mortality and the futility of it all. The terse Latin version is "Viator! Quod tu, et ego; quod ego, et omnes" - meaning, "Passerby, what you are now, I have been; what I am now, you all will be." The genre is called "Siste, viator" ("Stop, passerby") and many verses have been composed in that vein, some of them pretty funny, as if to ridicule death and thus conquer the human fear of it.

So I stood for a moment, and read Szymborska's own epitaph, and my reading stumbled on the PC, which somehow seemed to be out of place, in the poem and on a tombstone. I racked my brains and tried to figure it out, then checked the Polish version. There she asks the passer-by to pick up his "mozg elektronowy," or "electronic brain" - an outdated Polish word for "computer," which is pronounced by digital Poles according to their language's pronunciation and sounds like "compooter."

Szymborska makes a point in this poem of being old-fashioned, and she uses an outdated word for a reason: It draws the brain into the game. But in the epitaph context there are some useful technical terms that are part of the up-to-date digital lingo, which could have served the English version of the poem better. For example: "Here lies, like an apostrophe outdated / one who had penned few poems. The deceased / rests in peace, though she was not incorporated / in any literary group, clique or list. / There is nothing more on this grave, so bare / than an owl, a thyme and this rhyme / passerby, your Thinkpad prepare / and of Szymborska's fate think for some time."

In her Nobel lecture, Szymborska said: "I've said very little on the subject [of poetry], next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that I'm not very good at it." And she added: "In the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal." Then she concluded: "It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them."

Siste, Viator.