We’re heading to Russia and Eastern Europe in a few days, so I’ve been rereading the wonderful Polish poet, Wisława Szymborska. Here’s a poem of hers that expresses an idea I’ve had about political poetry perfectly. I believe the conference table she’s referring to is the one from the Paris Peace Talks, which were designed to end the Vietnam War in 1968.
Children of Our Age
We are children of our age,
it’s a political age.
All day long, all through the night,
all affairs—yours, ours theirs—
are political affairs.
Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.
Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So either way you’re talking politics.
Even when you take to the woods,
you’re taking political steps
on political grounds.
Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
And though it troubles the digestion
it’s a question, as always, of politics.
To acquire a political meaning
you don’t even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,
or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one?
Meanwhile people perished,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.
Translated by Stansilaw Baranczak and Claire Cavanaugh