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Translator's Notes: Consolation

by Clare Cavanagh

Prose can hold everything including poetry,
but in poetry there’s only room for poetry.


So runs Wislawa Szymborska’s gently ironic mock-lament from her poem “Stage Fright” (1986). Her own writing proves time and again, though, that poetry cannot simply hold prose: it can hold it up to scrutiny in ways no novelist could manage. Like the hero of “Consolation,” Szymborska is a great reader—but her choice of material is far more catholic (with a small “c”) than that of the famous naturalist. Happy and unhappy endings alike fall within her purview, as “Consolation” demonstrates. And she takes these endings not only from the Victorian fiction she consumes in Polish translation (she doesn’t read English), but from the guide books, textbooks, mysteries, how-to manuals, histories (natural and otherwise), cookbooks, calendars, and so on, that make up the “non-required reading” she chronicles in the column by that name that has appeared intermittently in various newspapers and magazines over the last few decades. (This series itself met with its own ending—unhappily, at least for me—several years back when Szymborska decided to turn her energies entirely to writing poetry—and, of course, reading.) A great deal of her reading—the majority, I’d guess—is in fact prose, including the prose of Darwin himself, which she uses for her own rather more complicated form of consolation. I’ve said she subjects prose to a kind of scrutiny not available to the prose writers themselves. “Consolation” is a prime example. Why do we humans need narratives to structure our lives both in miniature (the stories we construct and revise in the process of living day to day) and on a global, even cosmic scale, whether by way of religion, science, or some dubious mixture of the two (the Marxist philosophy to which she subscribed briefly in the early fifties)? Darwin, she suggests, used Dickens, Trollope, and their lesser-known contemporaries to compensate for the great evolutionary master plot that apparently did away with the notion of a single, all-encompassing story with a preordained happy ending that invariably placed human beings, Man as Such, in the starring role.

Szymborska herself will happily talk about Anna Karenina, Birds of Poland, or Plots of the Hundred Greatest Operas at great length. But she doesn’t want to discuss her own poetry, not even with her translators. I happened to be working on this particular translation while in Poland, though, and I told her that I loved the poem (even the most modest and reticent poets don’t object to that). I also asked how on earth she’d come up with Fido, since Fido, Rex, or maybe Bowser are the only names that this particular pet could possibly have had. She’d done research, she said. She sent her English-speaking assistant off to read up on the subject, consult the Internet, and so on, until he managed to track down a Victorianist at Oxford or Cambridge who told him that Szymborska had to go with Fido. Another happy ending.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2006

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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