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View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems

View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems

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View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems

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Mar 17, 2015


From one of Europe’s most prominent and celebrated poets, a collection remarkable for its graceful lyricism. With acute irony tempered by a generous curiosity, Szymborska documents life’s improbability as well as its transient beauty to capture the wonder of existence. Preface by Mark Strand. Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, winners of the PEN Translation Prize.
Mar 17, 2015

Sobre el autor

WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA (1923–2012) was born in Poland and worked as a poetry editor, translator, and columnist. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996.

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View with a Grain of Sand - Wislawa Szymborska

Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents



Brueghel’s Two Monkeys

Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition

Nothing Twice



A Moment in Troy



Travel Elegy

An Unexpected Meeting

Rubens’ Women


Bodybuilders’ Contest

Poetry Reading

The Tower of Babel


Conversation with a Stone


The Joy of Writing


Family Album

The Railroad Station


Soliloquy for Cassandra

A Byzantine Mosaic



Returning Birds

Thomas Mann


The Acrobat

A Palaeolithic Fertility Fetish

No End Of Fun


Could Have

Theatre Impressions


The Letters of the Dead


Going Home


Dinosaur Skeleton


Allegro ma non troppo


Frozen Motion

The Classic

In Praise of Dreams

True Love

Under One Small Star


A Large Number

Thank-You Note


Lot’s Wife

Seen from Above



The Terrorist, He’s Watching

A Medieval Miniature

In Praise of My Sister


Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem


The Onion

The Suicide’s Room

In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself

On the Banks of the Styx





View with a Grain of Sand


On Death, without Exaggeration

In Broad Daylight

Our Ancestors’ Short Lives

Hitler’s First Photograph

The Century’s Decline

Children of Our Age


Plotting with the Dead

Writing a Résumé


An Opinion on the Question of Pornography

A Tale Begun

Into the Ark

Miracle Fair

The People on the Bridge



No Title Required

The End and the Beginning


Reality Demands

Elegiac Calculation

Cat in an Empty Apartment

Parting with a View


Love at First Sight

May 16, 1973

Maybe All This


Nothing’s a Gift

One Version of Events

We’re Extremely Fortunate

About the Author


© Copyright Wisława Szymborska 1993

© Copyright by Wisława Szymborska, Warszawa 1985

Czytelnik, Warszawa 1976

Czytelnik, Warszawa 1975

Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1967, 1962

Copyright © 1995 by Harcourt, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.



The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:

Szymborska, Wisława.

[Poems, English. Selections]

View with a grain of sand; selected poems/Wisława Szymborska; translated from the Polish by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh.

—1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-0-15-100153-8

ISBN-10: 0-15-100153-7

ISBN-13: 978-0-15-600216-5 (pbk.)

ISBN-10: 0-15-600216-7 (pbk.)

1. Szymborska, Wisława—Translations into English. I. Barańczak, Stanisław, 1946. II. Cavanagh, Clare. III.Title.

PG7178.Z9A222 1995

891 8'517—dc20 94-36112

eISBN 978-0-547-54629-2





Brueghel’s Two Monkeys

This is what I see in my dreams about final exams:

two monkeys, chained to the floor, sit on the windowsill,

the sky behind them flutters,

the sea is taking its bath.

The exam is History of Mankind.

I stammer and hedge.

One monkey stares and listens with mocking disdain,

the other seems to be dreaming away—

but when it’s clear I don’t know what to say

he prompts me with a gentle

clinking of his chain.

Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition

So these are the Himalayas.

Mountains racing to the moon.

The moment of their start recorded

on the startling, ripped canvas of the sky.

Holes punched in a desert of clouds.

Thrust into nothing.

Echo—a white mute.


Yeti, down there we’ve got Wednesday,

bread and alphabets.

Two times two is four.

Roses are red there,

and violets are blue.

Yeti, crime is not all

we’re up to down there.

Yeti, not every sentence there

means death.

We’ve inherited hope—

the gift of forgetting.

You’ll see how we give

birth among the ruins.

Yeti, we’ve got Shakespeare there.

Yeti, we play solitaire

and violin. At nightfall,

we turn lights on, Yeti.

Up here it’s neither moon nor earth.

Tears freeze.

Oh Yeti, semi-moonman,

turn back, think again!

I called this to the Yeti

inside four walls of avalanche,

stomping my feet for warmth

on the everlasting


Nothing Twice

Nothing can ever happen twice.

In consequence, the sorry fact is

that we arrive here improvised

and leave without the chance to practice.

Even if there is no one dumber,

if you’re the planet’s biggest dunce,

you can’t repeat the class in summer:

this course is only offered once.

No day copies yesterday,

no two nights will teach what bliss is

in precisely the same way,

with exactly the same kisses.

One day, perhaps, some idle tongue

mentions your name by accident:

I feel as if a rose were flung

into the room, all hue and scent.

The next day, though you’re here with me,

I can’t help looking at the clock:

A rose? A rose? What could that be?

Is it a flower or a rock?

Why do we treat the fleeting day

with so much needless fear and sorrow?

It’s in its nature not to stay:

Today is always gone tomorrow.

With smiles and kisses, we prefer

to seek accord beneath our star,

although we’re different (we concur)

just as two drops of water are.





Here are plates but no appetite.

And wedding rings, but the requited love

has been gone now for some three hundred years.

Here’s a fan—where is the maiden’s blush?

Here are swords—where is the ire?

Nor will the lute sound at the twilight hour.

Since eternity was out of stock,

ten thousand aging things have been amassed instead.

The moss-grown guard in golden slumber

props his mustache on Exhibit Number . . .

Eight. Metals, clay and feathers celebrate

their silent triumphs over dates.

Only some Egyptian flapper’s silly hairpin giggles.

The crown has outlasted the head.

The hand has lost out to the glove.

The right shoe has defeated the foot.

As for me, I am still alive, you see.

The battle with my dress still rages on.

It struggles, foolish thing, so stubbornly!

Determined to keep living when I’m gone!

A Moment in Troy

Little girls—

skinny, resigned


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  • (5/5)
    Szymborska writes beautiful, accessible poetry. This collection includes 100 poems sampled from seven works, from Calling Out To Yeti (1957) through The End and The Beginning (1993), a time period spanning the Cold War in Poland as a Soviet satellite, the Solidarity movement, and the fall of communism. Szymborska was 34 when the first set was published and 70 at the end of the collection; she continued writing until her death in 2012, picking up a well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature along the way. Constant throughout her life and work was her sense of wonder, her playful use of words, and her simple way of touching on the deepest truths about love, life, and the world. She often took everyday events or observations, and through them communicated timeless profundity. She is truly a joy to read.My favorites:MuseumA Moment in TroyVocabularyAn Unexpected MeetingThe AcrobatThe Letters of the DeadTrue LoveWarningUtopiaOn Death, Without ExaggerationThe End and the BeginningHatredCat in an Empty ApartmentParting with a View
  • (4/5)
    Krakow-born Wislawa Symborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. She survived WWII in Poland, and the long Russian occupation after that. Yet her calm, probing voice is not filled with anger, or self-pity. Sometimes taking on a different persona, she eloquently invites us to see the surface we often take for granted and look beneath it for greater meaning. This can take the form of revealing moments in our daily lives, some as seemingly mundane as stripping for the doctor, some as elusive as the significance of love. But what she has gone through provides the propulsion.Here's the ending of one I liked a lot, titled "Landscape":I don't know the games of the heart.I've never seen my children's father.I don't see the crabbed and blotted draftthat hides behind the Song of Songs.What I want to say comes in ready-made phrases.I never use despair, since it really isn't mine,only given to me for safekeeping.Even if you bar my way,even if you stare me in the face,I'll pass you by on the chasm's edge, finer than a hair.On the right is my house. I know it from all sides,along with its steps and its entryway,behind which life goes unpainted.The cat hops on the bench,the sun gleams on a pewter jug,a bony man sits at the tablefixing a clock.She sarcastically attacks "True Love" as an affront to our humanity (an excerpt):True love. Is it normal,is it serious, is it practical?What does the world get from two peoplewho exist in a world of their own?* * *Look at the happy couple.Couldn't they at least try to hide it,fake a little depression for their friends' sake!Listen to them laughing - it's an insult.* * *It's hard even to guess how far things might goif people started to follow their example.* * *Perfectly good children are born without its help.It couldn't populate the planet in a million years,it comes along so rarely.Let the people who never find true lovekeep saying there's no such thing.Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.Conversely, she writes a humorous "Thank-you note" to those she doesn't love: "I owe so much/ to those I don't love." They're so much easier to live with.The title poem, "View with a Grain of Sand", is about how meaningless we are to the non-human world around us, despite our belief in our importance, and how our naming means nothing to the named.We call it a grain of sand,but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.It does just fine without a name,whether general, particular,permanent, passing,incorrect, or apt.That's a refreshing observation in a book filled with naming, all of it apt. The poem ends:Time has passed like a courier with urgent news.But that's just our simile.The character is invented, his haste is make-believe,his news inhuman.She is often very funny and self-deprecating, like when she compares a small turnout at one of her readings ("Half come inside because it started to rain./The rest are relatives. O Muse.") to the packed attendance at a boxing match.The translators deserve a big tip of the hat. There is a lot of wordplay and many complex concepts, and the translators, Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, make it seem as if we are reading this in its original language. Many thanks to Paul Cranswick for suggesting I read her poetry. Her often-surprising topics (e.g. Hitler when he was still an innocent child), and novel perspectives, combined with her strong voice and fluid eloquence, make this one a standout.
  • (5/5)
    Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and with good reason. These are beautiful poems, sometimes cold and epic-feeling, but more often small, warm, and true.
  • (4/5)
    Any fault I find with these poems I ascribe to the vagaries of translation. I wish I could read these in the original Polish. Whatever pale echoes these might be, they are yet powerful and true. "This terrifying world is not devoid of charms..."
  • (4/5)
    An exciting and revealing collection of poems by the Nobel Laureate. These poems were fluid, responsive, and expansive. I felt like there was much to learn and gather here, twigs from the consciousness of Szymborska that could be used to better one's outlook on life, art, beauty, death, and reality. A very pleasing collection, it has merit and deserves to be acknowledged.4 stars.
  • (4/5)
    Since they'd never met before, they're sure
    that there'd been nothing between them.
    But what's the word from the streets, staircases, hallways--
    perhaps they've passed by each other a million times?

    My recent bouts with verse have been belabored, not in terms of complexity or allusion but because, so often, the stanzas were heavy. The weight of history and personal affectation gave each phrase a heft. Imagine how disoriented I was when encountering Szymborska. This collection nearly bursts with a wild-eyed wonder. There is a freshness to almost every observation. There is a youthful lightness which appears to almost float from one stanza to the next.

    It shouldn't be assumed then that this collection is childish, not without first accepting a subtle weary edge. My favorite line is "My faith is strong, blind and without foundation." That disconnect creates an opening, a fissure of sighs where wonder goes to molt.
  • (4/5)
    As difficult as I find it to read and appreciate books of poetry, I would have thought that a work in translation would be even more alienating. This selection of Nobel Prize winner Szymborska's work from 1957-93 is rendered beautifully into English. The poems wrestle with life and love and death and they do so with wit and grace. A charming collection.
  • (5/5)
    This volume is filled with gems. She addresses a very broad range of themes in these poems --– the folly of reductionism, randomness and contingency in human experience, the propensity to cruelty and injustice and virtually every modern irony you can think of. She uses simple, sure rhythms, and deliciously quirky, smart, playful and ironic imagery. The tone of these poems is consistent, but hard to describe -- passionately detached? Exuberantly ambivalent? Naively sophisticated? The power of these poems is not so much the novelty of the ideas she expresses, but her ability to make us see and appreciate the wonderful ironies of common experience anew. Perhaps that’s the definition of the poet’s calling. That these poems are translated from the Polish seems incredible to me. I have no way to judge the faithfulness of the translation to the original Polish, but these poems are absolutely brilliant in English.