LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Wislawa Szymborska “In Praise of Self-Depreciation”

The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with./ Scruples are alien to the black panther / Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions. / The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations. // The self-critical jackal does not exist. / The locust, alligator, trachina, horsefly / live as they live and are glad of it. // The killer whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos / but in other respects it is light.// There is nothing more animal-like/than a clear conscience / on the third planet of the sun.

from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS edited by Czeslaw Milosz (1996). Translated from the Polish by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire

FRAME OF REFERENCE In truth, the inner exploration of the inner does not come upon a univocal innerness but rather to an inward otherness that is more like the opening onto an abyss. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL, 73.

When A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS became available in 1996 I assigned it to a special reading circle at Brown University. We started with Szymborska, whom nobody had heard of. In a few weeks she’d won The Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in Poland in 1923, she died in 2012, having become famous for her poems, whose matter-of-factness enlarged the range of the modern lyric.


Today this poem should be published widely in the US as a definitive statement on the newest member of the Supreme Court. Enough said.

But is it a lyric? It makes no effort to reveal the poet’s innermost self. Look again. It does have a confessional core, however ‘ironic.’ The final lines express a passionate belief in conscience. A very important poem for our nonexistent paideia.

How’d we get there? There’s a narrative — from outer to inner, from low to high— coming to rest at an abyss beyond thought, a perfect paradox of tone that is nothing if it is not lyrical. My heart leaps up whenever I recite it.

The narrative is inscribed in the movement of the examples away from univocal fact to something more like wonder. From buzzard to the expanded stanza— two whole lines!—on the HEART of the killer whale.

The final stanza is perfection in how it changes the point-of-view. We have been moved through the world— well, “the animal kingdom”—to a hyperbolic vantage point from “outer space.” Thus the lyric form of the poem breaks into its own unique voice. The whole thing rings with a crystalline analogy of being. Desmond’s “intimate universal” indeed.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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