Wislawa Szymborska, “The Three Oddest Words”

The Three Oddest Words (h/t Daniela Olszewska for reminding me of this)
Wislawa Szymborska (tr. S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh)

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no nonbeing can hold.

Comment:

When I first saw this poem, I hesitated not only to write on it but even to read it over again. The middle stanza haunts the other two: how can we say anything? In the case of silence, one must say absolutely nothing in order to have it – not dare to name it. Silence is nothing and seems to be our future. One logically wonders if this poem is about everything.

I suspect this sort of musing ties into the title. Why exactly are these the three oddest words? On the one hand, we are given a very specific reason per word. You can’t say “future” without making the word itself part of the past. Can’t say “silence” without actually destroying silence itself. “Nothing,” pronounced, identifies itself as made by beings. The common thread is that to articulate each of the words – future, silence, nothing – is to demonstrate in each case the power and totality of its opposite. The past, noise and stuff seem to dominate our daily lives.

So maybe these words are odd because they speak to things that are fundamentally alien to us. But that doesn’t really link the words and the concepts they represent in a satisfactory way. Lots of things are alien to us that contain manifold ironies, like these words. “Alien” and “ironic” doesn’t bring us quite to the level of “oddest.” “Oddest,” for me, isn’t just something that remotely and weirdly concerns us. What’s really odd has a logic to its own.

How do these words add up? “Future” and “Silence” point to being undone, being destroyed or destroying. The speaker’s short meditation on “Nothing” is the key. We hurt because we are. That void which we try pronounce is made by us, each of us. The pain we hold speaks to our individuality. Sometimes, the cosmos makes too much sense.

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