Thursday 7 April 2011

People on a Bridge

Regular SiaB-readers will know that I rarely read poetry. Indeed, few of the bloggers I peruse seem to mention poetry much - or perhaps, if they do, I skim over those posts owing to lack of interest. I'm aware that the failing is with me, rather than the form - but I very rarely manage to engage with poetry. Perhaps because I naturally read quite fast, and poetry has to be read slowly (or preferably, I find, aloud) to be appreciated? I don't know. But at the bloggers' meet-up book-swap we held months and months ago, Peter (aka Dark Puss aka Morgana's Cat) gave me People on a Bridge by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Adam Czerniawski. I entertained myself for ages saying 'Szymborska' over and over to myself - it is a very satisfying word - and then put it to one side, intending to read it later. Later eventually came, and I was rather surprised to find that I loved the collection.

Before I say why, I thought I'd type out the title poem of the collection. It think it is about the cover image, 'Squall at Ohashi' by Hiroshige, but I can't find any definite confirmation of this - he is mentioned in the poem:

People on a Bridge

A strange planet with its strange people.
The yield to time but don't recognise it.
They have ways of expressing their protest.
They make pictures, like this one for instance:

At first glance, nothing special.
You see water.
You see a shore.
You see a boat sailing laboriously upstream.
You see a bridge over the water and people on the bridge.
The people are visibly quickening their step,
because a downpour has just started
lashing sharply from a dark cloud.

The point is that nothing happens next.
The cloud doesn't change its colour or shape.
The rain neither intensifies nor stops.
The boat sails on motionless.
The people on the bridge
run just where they were a moment ago.
It's difficult to avoid remarking here:
this isn't by any means an innocent picture.
Here time has been stopped.
Its laws have been ignored.
It's been denied influence on developing events.
It's been insulted and spurned.

Thanks to a rebel,
a certain Hiroshige Utagawa
(a being which as it happens
has long since and quite properly passed away)
time stumbled and fell.

Maybe this was just a whim of no significance,
a freak covering just a pair of galaxies,
but we should perhaps add the following:

Here it's considered proper
to regard this little picture highly,
admire it and thrill to it from age to age.

For some this isn't enough.
They even hear the pouring rain,
they feel the cool drops on necks and shoulders,
they look at the bridge and the people
as if they saw themselves there
in the self-same never-finished run
along an endless road eternally to be travelled
and believe in their impudence
that things are really thus.

I am so used to writing about novels that I don't quite know how to discuss poetry. But what I loved about this collection is what I love about my favourite novels. Szymborska doesn't use overly-fancy or 'poetic' words (or, at least, her translator does not). There is a sense of the familiar and domestic running through the collection, with quiet, subtle emotions held up for close (but not voyeuristic) examination. Although the poem I've typed out is about a painting, it is still about people. Many of the poems are about little incidents - someone dialing the wrong number; waiting at a train station. One of my favourites, 'The terroist, he watches' tells the more extraordinary tale of a terroist watching a bar in which he has planted a bomb. Some poems touch upon philosophy and even ontology, but always with a personal touch that makes the writing absolutely accessible and engaging.

Of course, I am reading in English. Quite a different translation of 'People on a Bridge' can be found here, if you scroll down - reminding me how much of a translated work is in the hands of the translator. Well, I thank Adam Czerniawski (and Peter, of course) for enabling Szymborska's work to get into my hands - and reminding me to widen occasionally my reading horizons.


  1. I think it's called "A Sudden Shower at the Great Bridge". I bought a print of it in the 60s. Which translation do you prefer?

  2. I'm so glad you were given this and enjoyed it so much. I'm a lover of poetry, but your post has made me pause and wonder about my own reactions to poetry in translation. Every single word matters in poetry so much that I'm quite dissatisfied reading it in translation. Good for a taster, but it just feels wrong to try to memorize lines or a verse. It feels like you're reading a filtered paraphrase by a critic not the real thing. Am I being too fussy? It's this feeling of getting only at most 40% of the experience the poet wanted me to have: I'd prefer to read in the languages I can at least approximate 80% or better. Still loving a collection is surely the main thing. Maybe I should be more flexible. Thanks for food for thought anyway!

  3. Simon, I'm very pleased this was a successful gift; it is a copy that belonged to my late father who was very fond of poetry.


  4. I do like this poem but I must confess I am slightly on the side of ramblingfancy here -- I used never to read anything in translation and I still do have bit of a problem with poetry for those exact reasons. However if the person translating it has a real feeling for it, I guess they are transforming it into another (though undoubtedly different) poem.

  5. I like it, but I do like to dip into poetry every now and then. I don't think I've ever read any translated before (unless you count the Psalms). Thanks for sharing this one.

  6. Kristi - I think I prefer the one I've posted here, but I did read the other quite quickly - and, of course, the second translation one reads always seems like it's changed from the 'original', even though it might be closer to the actual Polish.

    Donna - I think you're right, but somehow I like the haziness that comes through reading in translation - through a glass darkly and all that.

    Peter - I didn't realise that; the provenance makes it an even lovelier gift - thank you.

    Harriet - I often love novels in translation, but poetry is such a different kettle of fish. You're right that it's a different poem from the original - it does necessitate a translator who is also a poet, really.

    Susan - true, I suppose I've been reading poetry in translation for years, with Psalms! Psalm 51 remains one of my favourite poems - simply beautiful, and so refreshing.

  7. Having a very slow day at work I was reading some of the older posts. And wow! What a pleasant surprise! Wisława Szymborska! I adore Szymborska, sadly I read much less poetry than I used to. You are right saying she doesn’t use ‘poetic’ words and I am glad to see that the translator doesn’t either. My granddad, who is very fond of Szymborska used to say that her poems are simple but not ignorant. Polish word for “simple” (prosty) is very similar to “ignorant” (prostacki) and lots of people have difficulties to see the difference.
    It’s true that translation can change the original poem, but I think Szymborska’s works translated into English are quite accurate because she uses quite a simple language. I compared original “People on the Bridge” with both translations and I don’t think there are many differences but I know this might not be the case with every poem.
    And, just to give this comment a nice finishing touch :), here is one of my favourite Szymborska’s poem (a poem about poetry). You can also find it if you follow the link in the post, but here it is translated by Stanisław Barańczak (another Polish poet) and Clare Cavanagh. I personally think this translation is slightly better.

    Some People Like Poetry

    Some people--
    that means not everyone.
    Not even most of them, only a few.
    Not counting school, where you have to,
    and poets themselves,
    you might end up with something like two per thousand.
    but then, you can like chicken noodle soup,
    or compliments, or the color blue,
    your old scarf,
    your own way,
    petting the dog.
    but what is poetry anyway?
    More than one rickety answer
    has tumbled since that question first was raised.
    But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
    like a redemptive handrail.

    1. Thanks so much for this wonderful and interesting comment, Agnieszka - how wonderful to be able to compare original and translations at the drop of a hat. And I do like that poem a lot - I must find more of her work, because she does seem like the anti-poet poet, which is right up my street. I'm glad that the same simplicity is there in her poems in their original language, and I love your grandfather's astute comment on them. Thanks, Agnieszka!


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