By Wisława Szymborska
See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape—
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.
It’s not like other feelings.
At once both older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons
that give it life.
When it sleeps, it’s never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won’t sap its strength; it feeds it.
One religion or another –
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another –
whatever helps it get a running start.
Justice also works well at the outset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy…
Hatred is a master of contrast-
between explosions and dead quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
of its leitmotif – the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.
It’s always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it’s blind. Blind?
It has a sniper’s keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.
It is not an easy thing, to live under a cruel and unjust system of rule. To constantly be on guard, to watch every word you say, to always be afraid, to know that a single mistake could cost you your very life. This is how I felt when I lived in Alabama, especially when I was teaching school. One wrong word, a gesture, the way I walked, and many other things I had to guard against for fear of losing my job because someone found out I was gay. Had they ever found out, I know I would have lost my job within a week, if not within a day. I grew up in rural Alabama where homophobia and racism were very strong. There are areas of Alabama that aren’t as conservative, but much of the state is. It is a state filled with hate and hateful people. However, there are some wonderful and loving people in the state as well.
Wislawa Szymborska was born on July 2, 1923, in Bnin, a small town in Western Poland. Her family moved to Krakow in 1931 where she lived most of her life. She was forced to face a different type of hatred, not once, but twice in her life. Szymborska was unfortunate enough to have lived through both Hitler’s reign of terror and Communist rule. She seems to have been greatly affected by these experiences, as can be seen through her poetry, which frequently deals with such topics as death, loss of self, and war. An excellent example of a poem that tangles with these topics would be “Hatred,” first published in her 1993 book The End and the Beginning.
In “Hatred,” Szymborska looks at the circular nature of hatred, grimly observing that “It gives birth itself to the reasons that give it life.” She then further reinforces this statement by describing these reasons in greater detail, justice and religion and a macabre pleasure-each one guiding the heart toward thoughts of bloodshed and ruin. In the poem, Szymborska writes, “Only hatred has just what it takes.” Only hatred has such a talent for destruction.
This is perhaps, rendered more understandable by the sheer devastation that she describes the fury and hate of war as causing, the endless slaughter and torment. Every word fairly drips with harsh sarcasm as she speaks of the “Magnificent bursting bombs” and “splendid fire-glow.” Perhaps most chilling is the poem’s complete lack of hope for a better future. There are no last minute words of comfort. War remains coldly merciless, for how could it not? It is the tool of hatred, which has “a sniper’s keen sight, and gazes unflinchingly into the future.”
Szymborska studied Polish literature and sociology at Jagellonian University from 1945 until 1948. While attending the university, she became involved in Krakow’s literary scene and first met and was influenced by Czeslaw Milosz. She began work at the literary review magazine Życie Literackie (Literary Life) in 1953, a job she held for nearly thirty years.
While the Polish history from World War II through Stalinism clearly informs her poetry, Szymborska was also a deeply personal poet who explored the large truths that exist in ordinary, everyday things. “Of course, life crosses politics,” Szymborska once said “but my poems are strictly not political. They are more about people and life.”
Well-known in her native Poland, Wisława Szymborska received international recognition when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. In awarding the prize, the Academy praised her “poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” Collections of her poems that have been translated into English include People on a Bridge (1990), View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (1995), Miracle Fair (2001), and Monologue of a Dog (2005).
Readers of Szymborska’s poetry have often noted its wit, irony, and deceptive simplicity. Her poetry examines domestic details and occasions, playing these against the backdrop of history. In the poem “The End and the Beginning,” Szymborska writes, “After every war / someone’s got to tidy up.” Wislawa Szymborska died on February 1, 2012, at the age of eighty-eight.
Thank you, Susan, for suggesting this thought-provoking poem.