The Unthinkable is Thinkable – Stephen Hawking and Wislawa Szymborska


Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), English theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author,

Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours aware of what they mean, Hawking said. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that here on our rock, the universe discovered its existence?

from CNBC, March 19th, 2018

 Plato, or Why

For unclear reasons
under unknown circumstances
Ideal Being ceased to be satisfied.

It could have gone on forever,
hewn from darkness, forged from light,
in its sleepy gardens above the world.

Why on earth did it start seeking thrills
in the bad company of matter?

What use could it have for imitators,
inept, ill-starred,
lacking all prospects for eternity?

Wisdom limping
with a thorn stuck in its heel?
Harmony derailed
by roiling waters?
holding unappealing entrails
and Good—
why the shadow
when it didn’t have one before?

There must have been some reason,
however slight,
but even the Naked Truth, busy ransacking
the earth’s wardrobe,
won’t betray it.

Not to mention, Plato, those appalling poets,
litter scattered by the breeze from under statues,
scraps from that Great Silence up on high…

Wislawa Szymborska, trans. Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczac, from Map – Collected and last Poems, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2015

The day Stephen Hawking died earlier this month aged seventy-six we lost one of the great scientific minds of our time. And not just a mind but a spirit so fierce for life he lived more than forty years past the due date he was given when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in his early twenties.

When I heard about his death I didn’t immediately think about black holes and how his theorems helped define their possibility and over the years further ideas of their physical characteristics. No, I thought of a poet whose vision somehow reminded me of Hawking. I thought of the Polish Nobel Prize Laureate, Wislawa Szymborska.

Polish Nobel Prize Laureate, Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012)

I couldn’t tell you why I made that connection. I hadn’t thought of it before. Was it her ironic detachment so evident in her poems or her amazement that there is any life here on earth let alone anywhere else in the universe or universes? I don’t know. But my hunch was strong enough I began to go through my collection of her poems and sure enough her fierce attachment to the miracle of life, yet also to the incomprehensible vastness of space and time, provided the link to Hawking. Both of them seekers for what lies at the heart of the mystery of space and time.

And this line from her wonderful poem Miracle Fair seemed to capture the essence of a world that could produce minds like those of Einstein and Hawking, the miracle of minds that show the rest of us: the unthinkable/ is thinkable. And her poem Plato, or Why jumped out as a good example of a poem that connects with Hawking’s sensibilities. His mind vigorously searching for clues for what lies behind The Great Silence up on high.

Here, now, two more of Szymborska’s poems, Miracle Fair and The Ball. Along with Plato, or Why I dedicate them to the life and memory of Stephen Hawking.

Miracle Fair

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen.

An ordinary miracle:
in the dead of night
the barking of invisible dogs.

One miracle out of many:
a small, airy cloud
yet it can block a large and heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder tree reflected in the water,
and that it’s backwards left to right
and that it grows there, crown down
and never reaches the bottom,
even though the water is shallow.

An everyday miracle:
winds weak to moderate
turning gusty in storms.

First among equal miracles:
cows are cows.

Second to none:
just this orchard
from just that seed.

A miracle without a cape and top hat:
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and will set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be:
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers,
it still has more than four.

A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.

An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable
is thinkable.

Wislawa Szymborska, trans. Joanna Trzeciak from Miracle Fair, W.W. Norton & Co., 2001

The Ball

As long as nothing can be known for sure,
(no signals have been picked up yet),

As long as earth is still unlike
The nearer and more distant planets,

As long as there’s neither hide nor hair
Of other grasses graced by other winds
Or other treetops bearing other crowns,
Other animals as well grounded as our own,

As long as the local echo
Has been known to speak in syllables

As long as there’s no word
Of better or worse mozarts,
platos, edisons out there,

as long as our kindness
is still incomparable,
peerless even in its imperfection,

as long our heads packed with illusions
still pass for the only heads so packed,

as long as the roofs of our mouths alone
still raise voices to high heavens –

let’s act like very special guests of honour
at the district fireman’s ball,
dance to the beat of the local oompah band,
and pretend that it’s the ball
to end all balls.

I can’t speak for others –
for me this
misery and happiness enough:

just this sleepy backwater
where even the stars have time to burn
while winking at us


Wislava Szymborska from Map – Collected and Last Poems, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2015


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