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An Opinion on the Question of Pornography

There's nothing more debauched than thinking.
This sort of wantonness runs wild like a wind-borne weed
on a plot laid out for daisies.

Nothing's sacred for those who think.
Calling things brazenly by name,
risque analyses, salacious syntheses,
frenzied, rakish chases after the bare facts,
the filthy fingering of touchy subjects,
discussion in heat--it's music to their ears.

In broad daylight or under cover of the night
they form circles, triangles, or pairs.
The partners' age and sex are unimportant.
Their eyes glitter, their cheeks are flushed.
Friend leads friend astray.
Degenerate daughters corrupt their fathers.
A brother pimps for his little sister.

They prefer the fruits
from the forbidden tree of knowledge
to the pink buttocks found in glossy magazines--
all the ultimately simple-hearted smut.
The books they relish have no pictures.
What variety they have lies in certain phrases
marked with a thumbnail or a crayon.

It's shocking, the positions,
the unchecked simplicity with which
one mind contrives to fertilize another!
Such positions the Kamasutra itself doesn't know.

During these trysts of theirs the only thing that's steamy is the tea.
People sit on their chairs and move their lips.
Everyone crosses only his own legs
so that one foot is resting on the floor,
while the other dangles freely in midair.
Only now and then does somebody get up,
go to the window
and through a crack in curtains
take a peep out at the street.

-Wislawa Szymborska

Okay, what more could anyone ask for than a Nobel-Prize-winning poet (1996) writing about porn? How about this write up for the PornQuest? I’ll bet a few are thinking, “No, wait! How come we can't include the fruits from the forbidden tree of knowledge and the simple-hearted smut? “

When most readers finish reading the poem they are sure that it's about pornography. Their guesses have been assured by the many metaphors of sexuality and sensuality that provokes one to instantly attach them to the lustfulness of the topic, like “degenerate daughters corrupt their fathers” or “the filthy fingering of touchy subjects”. Perhaps there is an aha! moment by the sixth stanza when Kama Sutra is mentioned acting as proof of the reader’s predictions. But by the time one hits the last stanza the topic has been derailed with a sharp turn. "Generally speaking, life is so rich and full of variety; explains Wislawa Szymborska, you have to remember all the time that there is a comical side to everything,” Irony comes in “countless shades of the color gray” causing reservations with its explicit forms and levels of passion. In this instance it serves as a weapon to secure the individual's right to individuality, distrust, and opposition. On one hand the poem appears to condemn these attitudes however the poet employs a dramatic speaker with a point of view that is directly opposite to the author’s and the aim is to make the speaker discredit himself and the beliefs he represents. In the course of the monologue the speaker maintains with deadly importance that “there’s nothing more debauched than thinking.” He has become the enemy of art and in his opinion; art subverts the order of the world.

Wislawa Szymborska’s take on the role of the artist in society is one of “stopping time” and manifesting humanity’s helplessness beside unending resistance. Her brilliance lies in how it averts the intricacy and cunning of its revelations, the way it nonchalantly breaks down modern apprehensions under the pretext of debonair banter and occasionally Szymborska will avail herself of pointed parody, "(H)er customary method," says David Barber in his essay Poland's Blithe Spirit , "is to let the freighted import of those touchy subjects insinuate itself through her expert shadings and siftings of subtext.”

Born in 1923, Szymborska moved to Krakow, Poland when she was eight years old. Living under the Communist regime for most of her life Szymborska published her first collection of poems based around socialist realism in 1952 titled That's What We Live For. Two decades later, in the early spring of 1977, The Black Book of Polish Censorship comprised of nearly 700 pages of confidential papers dated from 1974 to 1977 was smuggled out of People's Poland to Sweden. The documents had a deep impact upon the Polish intelligentsia, predominantly writers, who were astonished by the draconian measures. Underground publishers and publications had already begun to emerge from the mid-1970s and expanded enormously with the rise of Solidarity. “Following the declaration of Martial Law,” notes Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, “the state authorities imposed a severe clampdown, which however didn't eradicate underground publishing entirely.”

By the 1980s Poland politics were in turmoil. The worker's strikes in Gdansk was well on its way to the formation of the Solidarity movement and Lech Walesa was elected chairman of the reform movement. Accountability and transparency of censorship were one of the demands made by Solidarity in the Gdansk Agreement of August 1980. The following year the Polish government declared marital law and established a military rule. Trade unions were outlawed; Walesa and other leader were imprisoned. "Strict rules were set in the city." said one eye-witness, "No one could leave town and everyone must be in their house by six o'clock." Solidarity went underground, and persisted in pressing for reform.

It was during the eighties when Poland's censored publications ran commentaries on whether to make pornography legal. During this period Wislawa Szymborska appeared as one of the country's foremost poets and composed this poem, putting "an opinion on the question of pornography" into the mouth of a fictional regime supporter of law and order who views pornography less subversive than thinking. She struck at the heart of what was wrong in Poland during its years of communist rule.

After Poland's terrible century, Szymborska's verse about "Nothing's sacred for those who think” addressed the Poles of the 1980s with a dry wit encouraging them with comparisons about the kinds of people who "prefer the fruits/from the forbidden tree of knowledge/to the pink buttocks found in glossy magazines." By zeroing in on the uses of such words as "positions," "fertilize" and "trysts"; words with sexual connotations, she aimed her pointed parody at the politics of the era. She offers contextual clues about what has gone before, who are these people with "positions" and hints at what these “positions" are about noting that it is a mind that is doing the fertilizing. The poem seems to end off-kilter, but her audience of the 1980s Poland would know exactly why someone would "go to the window/and through a crack in curtains/take a peep out at the street."

Then arrives the question, “What really is pornography?” Maybe the true pornography is not the dialogue on the forbidden theme or the staging of sexually explicit materials, but the within the eye of the reader and their ideas. Imagination is the spout of the shocking and the sensational. No one can censor the risky or dangerous thoughts inside humanity’s mind. Szymborska telegraphs her message from behind the mask of a masterful verse successfully trapping readers in their own imaginations. Dig deep and the reader can reveal the power of imagination and the multiple meanings of pornography.

Since this is a translation, Western readers can never be fully aware of what is missing in poems that are this sidelong and covert, but one can come away with the indisputable feeling that even in her own language Szymborska is a will o' the wisp, markedly skilled at evading everyday sentiment and explicit statement, constantly dancing just beyond the reach of understanding.

The poet who survived the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Poland continues to tell of war and dislocation with a feather touch that lingers. Called the Greta Garbo of the poetry world, Szymborska shuns the spotlight in a superstar-sodden era. Today the octogenarian still lives in Krakow where the age of communism allowed her to indirectly observe the oddities and ironies of subsistence without bringing out official repression. Billy Collins writes in a foreword to her recent collection of poetry, “Szymborska's first book was blocked from publication by the authorities, not because it was counterrevolutionary, but because it was deemed to be obscure.”


Alone with the Greta Garbo of verse:
Accessed July 30, 2006.

Cross currents. (External link) Selected Poems (Volume 7(1988), pp. 211-216) Szymborska, Wislawa:
Accessed July 30, 2006.

“Imagination” in poetry of Wallace Stevens and Wislawa Szymborska
Accessed July 30, 2006.

Shapiro, Alan. THE POWER OF NONVIOLENT ACTION: South Africa & Poland
Accessed July 30, 2006.

View with a Grain of Sand by Wislawa Szymborska, Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh ,"A Harvest Original" Harcourt & Brace & Co. New York 1993.

Wisława Szymborska:
Accessed July 30, 2006.

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