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A Few Words on the Soul
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Published: Mon Oct 15 2001
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A Few Words on the Soul

Translated from the Polish by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh


We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It’s picky:
it doesn’t like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won’t say where it comes from
or when it’s taking off again,
though it’s clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.


Wisława Szymborska (1923–2012), born in Bnin, Poland, was the author of over fifteen books of poetry and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Her Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wisława Szymborska was published by W. W. Norton & Co in 2001. She died in February 2012 in Krakow.

Stanisław Barańczak  (1946–2014) was a Polish poet, literary critic, editor, and translator, as well as, for nearly twenty years until his retirement, a lecturer at Harvard University. He translated, among others, Wisława Szymborska (with Clare Cavanagh) and Jan Kochanowski (with Seamus Heaney) into English and published more than forty volumes of English poetry in Polish translation.

Clare Cavanagh is a specialist in modern Russian and Polish poetry. She has won numerous awards for her translation of Polish poetry and is currently working on a biography of the poet Czesław Miłosz. (2010)

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