What a sad season this silly St Valentine's month is turning out to be, with the disappearance of two unforgettable female voices. And I'm not referring to Whitney Houston. The death of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska on 1 February and that of American lyricist Dory Previn on St Valentine's Day didn't draw nearly as much media attention, but the loss to lovers of wise and honest voices is immeasurably greater.
It might seem facetious to compare a 'serious' Nobel Prize winning poet to a more 'superficial' singer-songwriter with strong Hollywood ties, but let's leave literary snobbery aside and look at the words they left us. Both these women, both in their late eighties when they died, spent a long lifetime obsessively looking for the right word. In fact, Szymborska's very first published poem (in a daily newspaper in 1945) was titled 'Looking for a word'. And who can ever forget Previn's delectably witty song 'Yada Yada (La Scala)' about the frustration of too many words? In case you don't know it, here's an excerpt:
Let's stop talking, talking, talking, wasting precious time,
just a lot of empty noise that isn't worth a dime,
words of wonder, words of whether,
should we, shouldn't we be together, yada yada yada (...)
So we sit at a restaurant table,
discussing reasons we're unable
That's not it...
And Szymborska, in one of her early poems from the fifties, 'Classifieds', which already contained the wit and wonder and ironic distance for which she would later become famous, stated:
I TEACH silence
in all languages
through intensive examination of:
the starry sky,
the Sinanthropus' jaw,
the grasshopper's hop,
an infant's fingernails...
While Szymborska wrote with dry self-mocking about her profession, producing small marvels such as 'Some people like poetry', 'Evalation of an unwritten poem' and the absolutely delightful 'Poetry reading' (Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare - / it's time to start this cultural affair. / Half came inside because it started raining, / the rest are relatives. O Muse.), Previn's songs about love and longing are rawer, more gut-wrenching, but often not without humour, albeit a very black humour. An excerpt from 'Lady with the braid':
Would you care to stay till sunrise?
It's completely your decision.
It's just the night cuts through me like a knife.
So would you stay a while
and save my life?
I don't know what made me say that,
I have this funny sense of humour,
You know I couldn't be down-hearted
if I tried.
Szymborska, as could be expected from a great poet, often wrote about death and mortality, but even when she tackled such very serious subjects, she maintained her ironic distance and her sense of wonder. One of her more recent poems from the nineties, 'Among the multitudes', ends with this sharp 'self-portrait': Fate has been kind / to me thus far. / I might never have been given / the memory of happy moments. / (...) I might have been myself minus amazement, / that is, / someone completely different. Indeed. Wislawa Szymborska 'minus amazement' wouldn't have been Wislawa Szymborska.
Previn, perhaps more unexpectedly for someone who was 'only' a folk singer, didn't shy away from the topic of death either. In 'The new enzyme detergent demise of Ali Mcraw' she delivers the news of her own death in the following way: Mine was a Wednesday death. / One afternoon at approximately three fifteen / I gave up and died. / Nobody cried. / Mine was a bloodless death, / not grim, not gory, / more like Ali McGraw's new enzyme detergent demise / in Love Story, / neat and tidy / unlike Christ's on Friday.
Szymborska even dared to write her own 'Epitaph' while she was still in her thirties: Here lies, old-fashioned as parentheses, / the authoress of verse. Eternal rest / was granted her by earth, although the corpse / had failed to join the avant-garde, of course. (...)
Both Previn and Szymborska wrote movingly about suicide too, Previn in a song about Mary C Brown who jumped off the letter H of the Hollywood sign because she had not become a star (and then was finally mentioned in the press, in the obituary columns), and Szymborska in 'The suicide's room' with the mournful ending: You think at least the note must tell us something. / But what if I say there was no note - / and he had so many friends, but all of us fit neatly / inside the empty envelope propped up against a cup.
I could go on singing the praises of these two artists, separately and together, but I'm hoping that by now you're tempted to rediscover them for yourself. And if you don't know them yet, believe me, you're in for a treat. Since they both wrote a poem/song with the evocative title of 'Going home', I'll end by quoting Previn one last time: Going home is such a ride. Isn't going home a long and lonely ride? Let's hope they're both finally home.