Some People a poem by Wislawa Szymborska

Some People a poem by Wislawa Szymborska was referenced in my most recent read, The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay. The epigraph used the final stanza of the poem.

Poem Hunter allowed me to read the poem in it’s entirety.

Some people fleeing some other people.
In some country under the sun
and some clouds.
They leave behind some of their everything,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now sees itself reflected.
On their backs are pitchers and bundles,
the emptier, the heavier from one day to the next.
Taking place stealthily is somebody's stopping,
and in the commotion, somebody's bread somebody's snatching
and a dead child somebody's shaking.
In front of them some still not the right way,
nor the bridge that should be
over a river strangely rosy.
Around them, some gunfire, at times closer, at times farther off,
and, above, a plane circling somewhat.
Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or even better, non-being
for a little or a long while.
Something else is yet to happen, only where and what?
Someone will head toward them, only when and who,
in how many shapes and with what intentions?
Given a choice,
maybe he will choose not to be the enemy and
leave them with some kind of life.

Translated by Joanna Trzeciak.

But then I realised there were more translation options thrown up by my search.

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

Which was exciting, as it led me to the 1996 translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh in the New Republic Magazine, December 30, 1996 issue.

There are subtle differences between the two, but I find the second translation below more graphic, grittier somehow. The aggression and menace feels smoothed over in the version above.

I’m fascinated by the different meaning given to the line about the mirror. One mirror merely reflects – passively, while the other preens – showing off the fire in a far more active way.

In the final stanza we have the choice between someone coming at us (aggressive choice of words) or someone heading towards us (which sounds calmer and less threatening). But is this final choice ‘given’ or only an ‘if’? The first poem assume a choice is possible, the second poem is less certain that any choice will be possible.

Personally, I prefer the translation below.

Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.
They abandon something like all they’ve got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.
Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.
What happens quietly: someone’s dropping from exhaustion.
What happens loudly: someone’s bread is ripped away,
someone tries to shake a limp child back to life.
Always another wrong road ahead of them,
always another wrong bridge
across another oddly reddish river.
Around them, some gunshots, now nearer, now farther away,
above them a plane sort of circles.
Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or, better yet, some nonexistence
for a shorter or a longer while.
Something else will happen, only where and what.
Someone will come at them, only when and who,
in how many shapes, with what intentions.
If he has a choice,
maybe he won’t be the enemy
and will let them live some sort of life.

Maria Wisława Anna Szymborska was born in Poland on the 2nd July 1923. She died on the 1st February 2012. Maria lived most of her life in Kraków. She published her first poem in March 1945. Her early work supported the official Socialist Realism ideology, of all art serving the revolutionary cause, she also became a member of the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR).

By the late 50’s though, Maria had become disillusioned by communist politics and sought out new friendships with dissidents, officially leaving the Communist Party in 1966. She later renounced all her Stalin-era work.

In 1996 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” War and terrorism were her most common themes.

After her death, the Wisława Szymborska Award (an annual international literature prize presented by the Wisława Szymborska Foundation) was established in 2013. It is awarded to authors for the best poetry work published the previous year.

In Oct 1998 Helen Vendler in NY Books, Staring Through the Stitches, wrote that Szymborska’s poem, Some People,

Is a list; she likes lists. It is rigorous; she believes in facing the truth. It involves social experience; life for her is rarely one of individual isolation…. It is both objective and subjective, both documentary and empathetic…. Her restless skepticism questions a categorical statement even as she makes it.

And finally, a note on the translation, also from NY Books. Edward Hirsch’s Subversive Activities, 18th April 1996:

Szymborska comes through well in translation, but Baranczak and Cavanagh are the first to convey the full force of her fierce and unexpected wit. Their versions reproduce the rhythm and rhyme schemes of some of her early poems. They have come up with deft equivalents for her pervasive wordplay, and have recreated the jaunty, precise, deceptively casual free verse of her late work.

I agree with Ed!

Jennifer @Holds Upon Happiness posts a lovely Poem for a Thursday each week. I enjoy sourcing poems from my recent reads to join in with her whenever I can.

9 thoughts on “Some People a poem by Wislawa Szymborska

  1. Brona, you are leading me into poetry. I prefer the first, I think it has a more even rhythm, but of course I don't know which is more faithfull. Interestingly I read the poem as African, and it was only during your commentary that I looked at the author's obviously Polish name. She would have been 16-25 during WWII. Bill Holloway

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  2. When I first read the poem, I thought it was in India/Kashmir, as that is where the book is set. I guess it simply means that the look and effects of war are universal.

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  3. Pingback: 2020: The Stats
  4. Browsing your blog this morning I came across this poem – just what I needed to bring home to my circumscribed but comfortable existence what is happening in Afghanistan and my deep shame about high level UK politicians’ part in it.

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    1. Thanks for leaving a comment to also remind me of this poem Christine…and our own Australian high level political involvement. The ‘whatever’ factor displayed this past week or so by our leaders does my head in – Afghanistan mostly being in the mess it is today thanks to Western & Soviet meddling since the 80’s.

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