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Picks for Poetry Month
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Every day for the month of April, we’ll share a poem that speaks to us. To share your own favorite, email hello@theatlantic.com, and tell us a little bit about why you love it. And to read a daily poem from the Atlantic archives, go here.

Show 27 Newer Notes

Borrowing Weighty Words in Wisława Szymborska’s ‘Under One Small Star’

In 1997’s “Poland’s Blithe Spirit,” our poetry editor David Barber perfectly describes the pleasure of discovering 1996 Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska—“a supremely lucid and sublimely beguiling poet, as accessible as she is ineffable”—and her poems in translation:

With their brisk and bracing wit, vivacious intelligence, and buoyant sense of play, hers are poems of abundant charm—so charming, in fact, that it can take a while to realize just how disquieting they are.

Szymborska in 1996 (Reuters)

A wonderful teacher once broke down the word “translate” into its Latin parts: trans + latus, “to carry across,” to ferry meaning from one side to another. For me, this sparked an interest in how translations vary, how the shift of one word or an alternate choice of phrase can profoundly change the music of the poem, or its resonance.

In one of my favorites, “Under One Small Star” (translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh), Szymborska serves as patron saint of serial apologizers, and of all those who labor with words.  In part:

Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
Pardon me, deserts, that I don't rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.

I love the poet’s humility in the face of the great crushing world, while still asserting a place in it, and the mix of the concrete and the intangible, playful and serious:

My apologies to the felled tree for the table's four legs.
My apologies to great questions for small answers.

Read the full poem here, or find it in Map: Collected and Last Poems.

Compare the patterns and repetitions in English with the untranslated original (“Pod Jedną Gwiazdką”), with its thicket of Polish consonants.  In his essay, Barber precisely identifies the language as “briery,” the exact word for the stroked, accented, and curling-tailed letters, the spiky brambles of lines on the page, and the sweet/sharp images they evoke. I imagine it sounds thorny too, those wild consonantal roses.

Then look at “Under a Certain Little Star,” translated by Joanna Trzeciak (who also translated Symborska’s poems for the Atlantic over the years), or this translation from Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts (Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire). (If you’re really invested, someone even compiled a table of four translations side by side.)

These translators “borrow weighty words,” to use Szymborska’s own phrase, ferry them cross-language, “then labor heavily so that they may seem light.” In this sense all poetry is translation.

April is National Poetry Month, which makes it a good time to celebrate The Atlantic’s literary heritage. As our poetry editor, David Barber, wrote in 2010:

For more than 150 years and counting, The Atlantic has published poetry in virtually every issue. It’s safe to assume our founding braintrust wouldn’t have had it any other way. Among their number were several poets of no uncertain stature, and with no bit part in what we now like to call the national conversation. They aimed to have their say on the pressing matters of the day, but they were equally bent on channeling the literary spirit of the age. They wanted their good gray columns of type to resound with reasoned discourse and enlightened thinking, but they also wanted them to sing.

This month, we’ll honor that history with a daily poem from our archives. And we’ll also honor the poems that speak, or sing, to us now: Each day for the rest of April, we’ll post a poem recommended by one of our staffers on this thread.

We’d like to hear your favorites too: If you’d like to respond to one of our picks, or share one of your own, please send us a note at hello@theatlantic.com. But to start us off, here’s W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby,” which begins:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.