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Well-known in her native Poland, Maria Wislawa Anna Szymborska received international recognition when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. In awarding the prize, the Academy praised her “poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.”

Readers of Szymborska’s poetry have often noted its wit, irony, and deceptive simplicity. Her poetry examines domestic details and occasions, playing these against the backdrop of history. Possibilities by Szymborska addresses the topic of human existence. As a result of her experiences during World War II, Szymborska as a native of Poland offers a unique perspective on life. In Possibilities, Szymborska takes on the difficult task of describing the abstract concept of human individuality. Through her wisdom and intellect, she leads the reader into an exploration of individuality.

The philosophies discussed in Possibilities are Existentialism, Relativism, Humanism, Holism and Reductionism. Existentialism is a philosophical theory that people are free agents who have control over their choices and actions. If you believe in relativism, then you think different people can have different views about what’s moral and immoral. Humanism is a belief in the value, freedom, and independence of human beings. For a humanist, all human beings are born with moral values and have a responsibility to help one another live better lives.

Holism (from Greek holos “all, whole, entire”) is the idea that various systems (E.g., physical, biological, social) should be viewed as wholes, not merely as a collection of parts. The definition of holistic is relating to the idea that things should be studied as a whole and not just as a sum of their parts. Reductionism is an approach that is used in many disciplines, including psychology, that is centred on the belief that we can best explain something by breaking it down into its individual parts. If someone believes that you can break complex theories into simple, smaller parts, you can call that person a reductionist.

Wislawa Szymborska

Szymborska shows herself as a humanist in the poem when she says “I prefer myself liking people to myself loving mankind”. She tells that individuals are both unique and real and that each one of them must be given the attention and importance that they deserve. Kindness is a noble quality of humanity and her views on human kindness are permeated with astute detachment.

In the poem, the poet speaks about her preferences. Szymborska creatively uses preferences to create a unique, individualized speaker that the reader can relate to. In line 3, the speaker states, “I prefer the oaks along the Warta.” By mentioning the Warta, a river that runs through Poland, this line suggests that the speaker may be of Polish origin. Although this detail is simple, it serves an important purpose. On Earth, there are billions of other individuals. Most likely, the majority of them do not “prefer the oaks along the Warta”. By characterizing the speaker as someone who does, Szymborska highlights the speaker’s individuality. This preference makes the speaker unique.

Szymborska’s repetition of “I prefer” at the beginning of each line can be observed throughout the whole poem. Through this repetition, the speaker’s vast amounts of preferences are displayed. Each preference offers the reader a glimpse into the life of the speaker. Her preferences are related to everyday life -the simple and tangible objects around us. It includes movies, cats, the oak trees along Warta, the colour green, the old fine-lined illustrations, Earth in civilian clothes, Grimm’s fairy tales, dogs with uncropped tails, light eyes, desk drawers, etc. The poet but doesn’t substantiate reasons for her choices, but only in the case of eyes, she prefers light while she possesses dark ones.

Szymborska has tried to bring out particular things in this poem that makes her world. She mentions her preferences that make her existence in relation to it. She has tried to bring out the ordinary things in everyday life that add to the beauty of human existence. The poet weaves in the machinery of eternity in a momentary experience of the here and now when she says “I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility that existence has its own reason for being”.

In Possibilities, the speaker expresses 31 distinct preferences. Each one of these begins with the statement “I prefer.” Szymborska also uses anaphora to emphasize the speaker’s strong sense of self. By using the words “I prefer,” the speaker claims ownership of her words. This willingness to take ownership demonstrates the speaker’s confidence and a strong sense of self. Throughout the entirety of the poem, the speaker’s uniqueness, individuality, and confidence are emphasized through anaphora.

In this poem, there are only seven examples of enjambment. As a result of this exclusivity, these lines are more significant. In addition to exclusivity, these lines have more significance because they are more meaningful. For example, the speaker’s statement “I prefer myself liking people/to myself loving mankind” (5-6). Compared to the previous un-enjambed line, “I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky,” (4) lines 5 and 6 are much more insightful. While line 4 establishes that the speaker is well-read, it does not reveal any intellect.

The majority of the speaker’s preferences in the poem are more similar to line 4. These un-enjambed lines serve to establish simple characteristics and minor facts about the speaker. For example, lines such as “I prefer movies” (1), “ I prefer cats” (2), and “ I prefer desk drawers” (28) give the reader some information about the speaker but lack depth and meaning. When analyzed as single lines, these lines appear trivial. However, these lines contribute a great amount of significance to the poem when in unison with the remaining lines.

The poem’s lack of stanzas and rhyme schemes create tones that mimic the natural disorder of life, a feeling that Szymborska is very familiar with. Szymborska uses repetition to emphasise the purpose of the poem, which is to convey the message that sacrifices have to be made and one loses possibilities when making a choice. This can be seen in the use of “I prefer”, which can be interpreted that the speaker is simply stating her preferences. However, the more likely purpose is that this repetition is used to show how she realized all of the things she has to sacrifice to have other things.

Szymborska also uses the literary devices of allusion to show that when loving or caring for something, we give up the idea of doing so for something else. This can be seen in the use of “hell of chaos to the hell of order”, where Szymborska alludes to the biblical idea of “hell”. By calling both of the chaos and order “hell”, they are neutralized and are suggested to be of the same worth, even if the reader has preferences for one beforehand. This is not so much simply choose one or the other, but giving up the other automatically, without much of a say in it. She uses juxtaposition in these lines when she places contrasting ideas of “hell of chaos” and “hell of order” close together. All of this can be related to the title, which is slightly ironic in the sense that the poem is not offering possibilities, but eliminating.

Possibilities is a highly expressive poem that delves into the variety and complexity of human preferences, behaviours, and identities. In the poem, Szymborska outlines her preferred ways of being and interacting with the world, stating them as possibilities. This format makes the poem feel like a list or a questionnaire, therefore allowing each reader to contemplate their preferences and identities. The consistent structure of the phrases also contributes to a rhythmic pace, adding to the reflective tone of the poem.

The poem’s language is strikingly straightforward and unadorned, which creates a contemplative, almost meditative, ambience. Despite its simple exterior, the ideas expressed serve as profound observations on the variety, contradictions, and fluidity of human nature. This simplicity in language combined with depth in theme is a characteristic feature of Szymborska’s poetry which makes it universally appealing.

Possibilities recognize the manifold nature of human identity. The poem is not about defining oneself neatly but opening up to a breadth of experiences and ways of being. This recognition of multiple possibilities conveys a dynamic and inclusive view of human identity. It also explores the theme of authenticity and self-discovery, prompting readers to define their likes, dislikes, and routines -pieces that come together to form an individual’s identity. 

Possibilities provide an insightful and rich exploration of individuality, identity, and human nature. The poem’s open-ended nature leaves room for personal reflection and introspection.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.