Apr 04 2011

Wislawa Szymborska – A Contribution to Statistics

Published by at 8:47 am under Poetry

A Contribution to Statistics
by Wislawa Szymborska

English version by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak

Out of a hundred people

those who always know better
— fifty-two

doubting every step
— nearly all the rest,

glad to lend a hand
if it doesn’t take too long
— as high as forty-nine,

always good
because they can’t be otherwise
— four, well maybe five,

able to admire without envy
— eighteen,

suffering illusions
induced by fleeting youth
— sixty, give or take a few,

not to be taken lightly
— forty and four,

living in constant fear
of someone or something
— seventy-seven,

capable of happiness
— twenty-something tops,

harmless singly, savage in crowds
— half at least,

when forced by circumstances
— better not to know
even ballpark figures,

wise after the fact
— just a couple more
than wise before it,

taking only things from life
— thirty
(I wish I were wrong),

hunched in pain,
no flashlight in the dark
— eighty-three
sooner or later,

— thirty-five, which is a lot,

and understanding
— three,

worthy of compassion
— ninety-nine,

— a hundred out of a hundred.
Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.

— from Poems New and Collected, by Wislawa Szymborska / Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak

/ Photo by byrne7214 /

I always knew statistics had a poetic heart. After such terrible abuse by advertisers and politicians, statistics will redeem themselves in great and painful art.

Of course, even the best-natured of statistics exist to taunt us, to challenge us. Then again, that’s what those irascible poets do too…

Wislawa Szymborska, Wislawa Szymborska poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Wislawa Szymborska

Poland (1923 – )
Secular or Eclectic

Wislawa Szymborska (pronounced vis’wava sim’borska) was born in Prowent, Poland in 1923. When she was still a child, in the early 1930’s, her family moved to Krakow.

When World War II broke out, Wislawa Szymborska was still a student, and had to continue her education in secret. Toward the end of the war she found work with the railroads, protecting her from being deported to the forced labor camps in Germany. She also found occasional work as an illustrator.

With the end of the war, she began her university studies, focusing on language, literature, and sociology. It was then that she connected with the Polish writing scene and published her first poems.

Because of difficult finances, she eventually had to drop out of school. She married in 1948 (and later divorced, in 1954). During this time she worked as a secretary and illustrator for a magazine.

With the rise of Soviet influence over Poland in the post-war era, Wislawa Szymborska, like many artists and intellectuals, initially embraced or, at least, accepted the new Soviet-style society. But she gradually distanced herself from official ideology which increasingly showed itself to be foreign-dominated bureaucratic totalitarianism and not supportive of the people. By the 1980s she was contributing material for underground samizdat publications in opposition to official ideology.

She spent much of her career as a columnist for a Polish literary review magazine, and many of her essays have been gathered together and published in book form.

In 1996 Wislawa Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Although her poetry is loved throughout the world, she has published fewer than 250 poems.

More poetry by Wislawa Szymborska

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Wislawa Szymborska – A Contribution to Statistics”

  1. Ana Holubon 04 Apr 2011 at 11:09 am

    Hi Ivan,

    Once again, thanks so much for being You and for giving us Poetry Chaikhana. I loved the poem today, and your bio and thoughts…all are incredible, on a consistent basis. You are a gem! Hope you are feeling great today…


    PS – just renewed my subscription, too. put it where it goes…

  2. janet bradleyon 05 Apr 2011 at 4:24 am

    Hi Ivan, I have been enjoying your site so much and will be contributing as soon as I can. I don’t want you to go away! I am so sorry that you have not been well. I think that you have so many important things to say. I am an artist and writer and years ago (I was living in Boulder!) I was very sick and my friend said to me “Janet, maybe this means that you are just supposed to paint! I had been a fairly serious athlete but thanks to my friends words, I accepted my new hat. Now I am living in London and working on an MA in Book Arts. We have been away from the US for 11 years mostly in France. Here is my coment on today’s poem:

    “Remember that writing began with statistics over 3000 years ago in Sumer (now Iraq, Iran) with the Cuneiform tablets which were used to keep track of the number of animals, beer etc!!

    Thank you for your inspiration.

    With kindness,

  3. Michael Skeldingon 05 Apr 2011 at 9:50 am

    It is seven years since we lost our son but it could have been yesterday. Statistics brought to mind a poem written not long after he died. Would like to share it.


    We had two children
    now there’s only one

    so say the said statistics
    forms and files

    statistics say
    that one of them has gone

    but they do not relate
    to how we feel.

    For he is with us
    every break of day

    he’s with us when
    the day turns into night

    he lives in every heartbeat
    in between

    not to be seen
    but never out of sight.

    Michael Skelding.

  4. Ivan M. Grangeron 05 Apr 2011 at 10:19 am

    Heartbreaking but lovely. Thank you for sharing your poem, Michael. And much love to you…

  5. Michael Skeldingon 06 Apr 2011 at 9:20 am

    Thanks Ivan.
    Looks like I am going to enjoy your site.
    Love to you too.

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