We must now hope that this award will stem some of the criticism that many philistine journalists inevitably direct at the worthy Academicians of Stockholm. Much is made of the fact that the secretary to the 18-man awards committee, Professor Sten Allan, is best known for his monumental study of the frequency with which the words "in, that, from, how, is" occur in Swedish writing. How well-qualified is such a man to judge great literature, the philistines ask. (I should remind readers at this point that my own study of the references to household pets in the Victorian novel is still available from specialist bookshops.) And what about the novelist, Kjell Espmark, whose substantial volumes add up to a searing critique of the Swedish Welfare State? What does he of poetry know?
A great deal, it now seems. For it takes enormous discrimination and attention to detail to pluck from obscurity an elderly central European, unknown outside her own country. Not to mention a determination - a magnificent obstinacy even - to discover the obscure. Yet, as the committee has told us, Wissy's poetry is so special because its "ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality". Tears of recognition came to my eyes when I first read this insightful sentence.
At first the announcement of Wissy's award took the world of letters by complete surprise. There was a sudden run on the small number of Wissy's books available in English (regrettably no one thought to ask me for my autographed copies, collected on my various visits to Wissy's hideaway in the Tatra mountains). A first glance led to the suggestion that "her [Szymborska's] work's stylistic variation makes it difficult to translate".
This is clearly untrue. Literary opinion in this country, given but little time to digest the new, but delectable meal, has instantly understood the brilliance of her vision, and the contiguities, between her work and that of other poets such as Borealis and, of course, the Basque master, Xnoitcochea. With a familiarity that would have graced a lifetime's contact with Wissy's wonderful poetry, they have written movingly of her perception and insight.
But, as Wissy herself pointed out to me, in one of her rare e-mails, she is merely in a long tradition of Polish writers who have been content to write for a domestic audience, caring little for international fame. Others have included Henryk Sienkiewicz and Zbigniew (Spotty) Herbert.
But we who love poetry must not rest upon our laurels. The publishing house which brought Szymborska to a stunned British public, offers gems from other neglected parts of the continent. There is poetry from Slovenian writers, capturing (in the original, at any rate) the lakes, mountains and green beans of their native land.
The best, however, is to be found in the collection of Albanian poetry, much of it originally written with flint on rocks in hidden caves, for fear of the dictatorial regime of Enver Hoxha, but now transcribed and published for the first time. The authors were rude peasants, or autodidacts, who inevitably concentrated on the aspects of life that preoccupied them in their battle with the elements, or (sadly, in those feud-ridden days) each other. Nevertheless, I defy even the most pigheaded critic not to recognise the simple beauty of Olle Squpanda's "A Goat on My Table", or the menace in his deadly rival Ander Drax's "Olle, You're Dead". Are they the Nobel Prize winners to come? We can only hope so.Reuse content