Sunday’s Poem 4/26/09

Wislawa Szymborska – “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself”
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baraczak and Clare Cavanagh

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn’t understand remorse.
Lions and lice don’t waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they’re right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they’re light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

Commentary
Although at first glance this may sound like a cutesy poem, it’s quite a bitter and ironic diatribe.

I like that Szymborska can pull off this effect and have it feel so natural. Of course, what she’s essentially saying here is that guilt is something that sets us apart as humans – and, unless we like thinking of ourselves as killers, that it is a positive thing. Remember, the title is “In Praise of….” This goes beyond the necessity of guilt. I can also see this as a condemnation towards people who she felt were too “bestial.”

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of guilt (having grown up Catholic), but I see Szymborska’s point, and I can’t really argue with the poem (even if I might argue with her over this idea in general). I especially like the line about the killer whale’s heart; like Kundera, she turns lightness into a negative experience.

There are many things we can learn from non-human animals. Sometimes, they can show us where we have gone too far astray from the rest of nature. At others, as here, they can show us what sets us apart as humans – at least, on our good days.

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One Response to Sunday’s Poem 4/26/09

  1. Angele says:

    “Now, I’m not the biggest fan of guilt (having grown up Catholic)…” Guilt does not demand your fandom, only your obeisance. Impossible to escape that early training.

    I see the animals of “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself” (great title) as impure stand-ins for humans–snakes as politicians, for example (“If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean…”)

    “Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton, in every other way they’re light…” I agree with you that like Kundera, Syzmborska makes “lightness” heavy by equating it with disassociation from humanity. It is unbearable detachment that permits the killer whale (gangster/soldier/world leader) to destroy without remorse.

    The last stanza is to me a blunt condemnation of the world’s guilt-denying murderers, torturers, and exploiters:

    On this third planet of the sun
    among the signs of bestiality
    a clear conscience is Number One.

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