The Universal Lessons of Wislawa Szymborska

How did the Germans invade Poland?
The soldiers lined up at the border and marched
in backwards so everyone thought they were leaving!

Aw c'mon, it's just a little ethnic humor. No harm, no foul. No real offense intended. And of course it's been done to others. I grew tired of hearing gorilla jokes, always set in deep, dark Africa. I'd chuckle every now and then, until I replaced "gorilla" with another, more American, target. Yes, the N-word kind of brought it all home.

Nevertheless, the Polish people have put up with a lot throughout history, including invasion by Germany and control by the Soviet Union. And the jokes. When an object lesson in stupidity was offered, and when use of blacks or some other ethnic or religious minority was inconvenient, just use those stupid Poles. Hey, even the Polka brings derisive smiles to the face.

My theory has been that great beauty is borne of suffering. I've seen it among blacks in America. I definitely hear it when listening to the music of South Africa over the last twenty--five years. And now, I've found it in the words of Wislawa Szymborska, a 73 year old poet who lives in Cracow, and who just happened to win the 1996 Nobel Prize for Poetry.

She writes with such stunning simplicity, directness and clarity, that only her words do her justice. To wit, my favorite,

In Praise of Self-Deprecation

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, trichina, horsefly
live as they live and are glad of it.

The killer-whale's heart weighs one hundred kilos
but in other respects is light.

There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.

Wislawa Szymborska

I don't know about you, but the concept of self-deprecation is high on my list of virtues. And Szymborska is very high on my list of poets. You can find more of her poems on the web sites listed below. Check her out and see why I'm declaring a new ethnicity: Afro-Polish (and I ain't talking about shining no shoes, neither!)

Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska
Translated and Introduced by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire
1981. 261 pages. illustrations.
Paperback ISBN 0-691-01380-2
$12.95 in U.S. and £9.95 in UK and Europe
Related Links:

Press Release regarding Nobel Prize in Literature
Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts on the Web
Links and Poems

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