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This article is taken from PN Review 216, Volume 40 Number 4, March - April 2014.

Sadness is a Beautiful Category: Wisława Szymborska Gerry McGrath

In a real tragedy, it is not the hero who perishes; it is the chorus…

                    (Joseph Brodsky, ‘Uncommon Visage’, in
            On Grief and Reason: Essays (Penguin, 2011))

If verse does come from rubbish, it’s for criticism to smell the roses. In contrast to the vertiginous conceits of Josef Brodsky’s poetry in potentia, Wisława Szymborska, Brodsky’s near contemporary and fellow Nobel laureate, offers a quite different, equally rare fragrance. Whereas in Brodsky poetic technique is exposed to the active presence of the reader in order to achieve restoration and redemption, Szymborska’s poetry develops according to a quite different modality in which thematic completion and formal revelation function as qualities of an extended imagination that can conceive of, but not contain, otherness.


An odd planet, and those on it are odd, too.
They’re subject to time, but they won’t admit it.
They have their own ways of expressing protest.
They make up little pictures, like for instance this:
    (Wisława Szymborska, ‘The People on the Bridge’, in
               View with a Grain of Sand (Faber, 1995))

The function of irony here is revivalist. It contains and controls a paradox that reduces the world (and the poet’s place in it) to zero. Both are then reimagined and assigned limits that appear unprecedented. This is made possible by the fact that in the new calibration the world and the imagination are understood to be discrete entities, without mutuality. ...

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