Thursday 19 September 2019

Some People a poem by Wislawa Szymborska

Some People a poem by Wislawa Szymborska was referenced in my most recent read, The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay. The epigraph used the final stanza to suggest what the theme of the book would be. I quickly discovered the entire poem on the Poem Hunter site as seen below.


Some people fleeing some other people.
In some country under the sun
and some clouds.

They leave behind some of their everything,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now sees itself reflected.

On their backs are pitchers and bundles,
the emptier, the heavier from one day to the next.

Taking place stealthily is somebody's stopping,
and in the commotion, somebody's bread somebody's snatching
and a dead child somebody's shaking.

In front of them some still not the right way,
nor the bridge that should be
over a river strangely rosy.
Around them, some gunfire, at times closer, at times farther off,
and, above, a plane circling somewhat.

Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or even better, non-being
for a little or a long while.

Something else is yet to happen, only where and what?
Someone will head toward them, only when and who,
in how many shapes and with what intentions?
Given a choice,
maybe he will choose not to be the enemy and
leave them with some kind of life.

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

But then I realised there were more options thrown up by my google search. Which was exciting, as it led me to the original poem in the New Republic Magazine, December 30, 1996 issue.

Joanna Trzeciak translated the version above; the 1996 version was translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. There are subtle differences between the two, but I find the bottom one more graphic, grittier somehow. There is an aggression that feels smoothed over in the version at the top.

I'm fascinated by the very different meaning given to the line about the mirror. One mirror merely reflects, while the other shows off the fire.

In the final stanza we have the choice between someone coming at us (aggression) or someone heading towards us. But is our choice 'given' or only an 'if'?

Personally, I prefer the translation below.


Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.

They abandon something like all they’ve got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.

What happens quietly: someone’s dropping from exhaustion.
What happens loudly: someone’s bread is ripped away,
someone tries to shake a limp child back to life.

Always another wrong road ahead of them,
always another wrong bridge
across another oddly reddish river.
Around them, some gunshots, now nearer, now farther away,
above them a plane sort of circles.

Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or, better yet, some nonexistence
for a shorter or a longer while.

Something else will happen, only where and what.
Someone will come at them, only when and who,
in how many shapes, with what intentions.
If he has a choice,
maybe he won’t be the enemy
and will let them live some sort of life.


Maria WisΕ‚awa Anna Szymborska was born in Poland on the 2nd July 1923. She died on the 1st February 2012. In 1996 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality."

In Oct 1998 Helen Vendler in NY Books, Staring Through the Stitches, wrote that Szymborska’s poem “Some People,”  
Is a list; she likes lists. It is rigorous; she believes in facing the truth. It involves social experience; life for her is rarely one of individual isolation…. It is both objective and subjective, both documentary and empathetic…. Her restless skepticism questions a categorical statement even as she makes it.

And finally, a note on the translation, also from NY Books. Edward Hirsch's Subversive Activities, 18th April 1996:
Szymborska comes through well in translation, but Baranczak and Cavanagh are the first to convey the full force of her fierce and unexpected wit. Their versions reproduce the rhythm and rhyme schemes of some of her early poems. They have come up with deft equivalents for her pervasive wordplay, and have recreated the jaunty, precise, deceptively casual free verse of her late work.

I agree with Ed!

Jennifer @Holds Upon Happiness posts a lovely Poem for a Thursday each week. I enjoy sourcing poems from my recent reads to join in with her whenever I can.


  1. A lovely poem, and it's interesting to see the two versions side by side. I'm with you: I prefer the second.

    1. I'm always fascinated by translation choices. It can make such a difference and this was such a good example of that.

  2. Love this poet...and Wislawa is a feisty woman!
    I saw a documentary about her.
    Your post has inspired me to read one of her poems will be uploaded later today!

    1. I look forward to seeing which poem you select Nancy :-)

  3. Brona, you are leading me into poetry. I prefer the first, I think it has a more even rhythm, but of course I don't know which is more faithfull. Interestingly I read the poem as African, and it was only during your commentary that I looked at the author's obviously Polish name. She would have been 16-25 during WWII. Bill Holloway

    1. When I first read the poem, I thought it was in India/Kashmir, as that is where the book is set. I guess it simply means that the look and effects of war are universal.


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