03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Last Poet To Win The Nobel Prize

I've been trying to track down English translations of poems by Herta Muller, the newest Nobel Laureate in Literature, but they are awfully hard to come by (if they even exist). Here in the U.S., Muller is primarily known--when she is known at all--for her fiction, though poetry lovers can take heart that she has published a book of poems (A Lady Lives in the Hair Knot) and that the Nobel committee recognized her for both "the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose." Still, Muller doesn't break the streak of thirteen years since a writer last won the Nobel Prize primarily for poetry. Wislawa Szymborska was the last to achieve it, and the recent Nobel announcements provide a great excuse to revisit her work.

Born in Poland in 1923, Szymborska endured the Nazi occupation during World War II and the oppressive regime of Stalinism that followed. As you would imagine, her poetry often delves into the bleakness of war and oppression. The poem, "The End and the Beginning," is about a land recovering from war. Notice how the violence of Szymborska's images contrasts with her strikingly matter-of -fact tone:

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won't
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it's not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Again we'll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
reasons and causes,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

"And finally as little as nothing." The inevitable process of forgetting--though it feels unjust--allows for a beginning: the dreamer in the last stanza who seems oblivious to the bleakness of the rest of the poem. Also, notice that the poem is relentlessly impersonal. Szymborska chooses not to describe specific people, only someone and someone and someone else.

Another Szymborska poem called "Some Like Poetry" seems to speak to the recent drought of Nobel Prize winning poets:

Some -
not all, that is.
Not even the majority of all, but the minority.
Not counting school, where one must,
or the poets themselves,
there'd be maybe two such people in a thousand.

Like -
but one also likes chicken-noodle soup,
one likes compliments and the color blue,
one likes an old scarf,
one likes to prove one's point,
one likes to pet a dog.

Poetry -
but what sort of thing is poetry?
Many a shaky answer
has been given to this question.
But I do not know and do not know and hold on to it,
as to a saving banister.

"Some Like Poetry" is a playful look at the inchoate nature and power of poetry, as well as a blunt, dispiriting assessment of the dissolving interest people have in it. But as with "The End and the Beginning," Szymborska ends this poem with what I would call a positive turn--focusing on her own reliance on the power of the art. Those who do "like" poetry can relate to her characterization of it as a "saving banister," and they, no doubt, plan to hold on to it.

Both translations by Joanna Trzeciak