The Three Oddest Words by Wislawa Szymborska

The Three Oddest Words by Wislawa Szymborska is a six-line, three-stanza poem that addresses peculiarities of language in ways that reflect the peculiarities themselves. “Future,” for instance, is a more blurred concept than “Silence,” so the method of explaining “Future[s’]” bizarreness as a “word” is more complex than that for “Silence.” Each of these “word[s]” is given capitalization, indicating that they are serious concepts to consider for these points, and the overall theme of the poem seems to be an expression of the complexities of language—that “word[s]” may not always be taken at face value, and perhaps that they should be explored for true meaning. You can read the full poem here.

 

The Three Oddest Words Analysis

First Stanza

This poem’s existence in logic is clear from this first stanza when the separation of “syllable[s]” is noted as an example of the passage of time. After all, should a person say “Future,” “the first syllable” is gone before the second one occurs, making it “the past.” This concept seems to be doubled in significance by the presence of “already” in the stanza. Technically, “belongs to the past” could be enough to make the notion clear. By emphasizing the idea with “already,” the stanza takes on a nearly frustrated meaning, as if the narrator is stressed over the idea enough to over-stress the concept.

Logically as well, this concept makes sense because “Future,” “past,” and present are so fluid. The next second is “Future,” but once it’s here, it is in the present. The second following that moment, it is “past.” This is represented in the notation that even “the word Future” cannot be said in a single moment, making “the word” exist somewhere in uncertain territory where one “syllable” can be in “the past” while the other is still coming in the “Future” and the present is just a tiny second of pause between the two. This representation of the present is fitting since it truly is only one individual moment that, while important, passes so quickly that it does not need to gain mention in the poem. In this, though not by name, the author has also given commentary on the smallness of such an important concept as the present.

It is worth noting, additionally, that “past” is not capitalized like “Future” is, even though they are both concepts of time. This is because “Future” is the focal “word” of analysis, meaning “past” is only referenced to gain understanding of the uniqueness of “Future.” This can be seen as commentary as well about time—that a person’s “past” may only matter in regard to how it shapes the “Future.”

That the poet chooses “belongs” as the verb for “the first syllable” is telling as well since it indicates possession. This makes the “Future[‘s]” “first syllable” a dependent concept that contrasts the importance placed on the “Future” itself by capitalization. If this “first syllable” were being treated with the same significance, a verb with more choice and control would have been more fitting. This change from the full word being important enough to capitalize to the single “syllable” being so dependent as to “belong to” something could be an indication that it is the totality of time periods that matter rather than one individual era—as in the entirety of a person’s life is what matters rather than just their present, just their “past,” or just their “Future.”

 

Second Stanza

This stanza begins in the same manner as the first one, and this repetition grounds the work in the feeling of similarity, as if the poet has thought enough on the topic to pick up on a common controversy. This grants the work credibility since, if the poet took the time to organize and catalogue their ideas in such a way, thought has clearly been given to the topic.

The next “word” to comment on is “Silence,” and it makes sense to say that “pronounc[ing] the word” would “destroy it.” This is because voicing anything is noise, rather than “Silence.” The concept is so striking that it is given the verb, “destroy,” which can come with the connotation of utter obliteration. Again, this is reasonable because there is not “Silence” when noise happens.

Little else is expressed about the scenario, but this is fitting for the circumstance. There is no blur of momentary decision like with “past,” present, and “Future” for “Silence,” but a concrete of line of whether or not there is noise. If there is, it is not “Silen[t].” If there is not, it is “Silen[t].” Because of this cut-and-dry concept, the blunt method of delivering the analysis in this stanza is arguably genius.

 

Third Stanza

This stanza continues with the “When I pronounce” solidarity, though this concept refers to “the word Nothing.” According to the poet, saying that “word” “make[s] something no non-being can hold.” This is a very confusing concept while examining the intricacies at play, such as the notation of this referring to “no non-being.” Not only does this seem to be a double negative, grammatically, but it also seems like a very vague notion that does not quite “hold” a specific meaning.

This confusion, as it happens, is quite comparable to “the word Nothing” itself. A person “can hold” “Nothing,” but what it means, essentially, is that there isn’t anything being “h[e]ld.” It is a conundrum, so to speak, because “the word” has meaning—and even connotation with ideas like helplessness, poverty, emptiness—but the meaning is a lack of substance. In this, the confusing description makes sense because the meaning of “the word” is so complex. In fact, it is the most complex description of these “word” scenarios so far to mimic the complexity of “the word” itself.

Let us take a moment, however, to look deeper into what this phrasing could mean, that “no non-being can hold” what has been created by saying “Nothing.” As was noted earlier, if “no non-being” is a double negative, that would presumably make “no” and “non” cancel one another out. If a person “couldn’t not” do something, after all, this would mean that they had no choice but to perform that action. With this logic, it seems that the poet is referring to anything that isn’t a “non-being,” which would be a “being.” At this point in the equation then, we have the understanding that what is created is “something” that a “being can hold.” This makes sense on a figurative level since “Nothing” can be possessed by someone, as in a person has “Nothing,” but not on a literal level since “Nothing” is not something that you “can hold” in your hand.

This concept of true or not true, depending on if you’re referring to the literal explanation or metaphor, is fittingly explored through the convoluted phrasing of these lines that reflects a lack of certainty and an invitation for interpretation. A reader would have to examine these phrases to understand them, as has been the case in this analysis, just as a reader would have to decide if the author means to literally or figuratively “hold” “Nothing.”

Overall, this poem speaks to the ambiguities or quirks of language, as well as how language and meaning can vary from reality, if given thought. Though it is presented as an organized set of thoughts with little presumed moral, it is an interesting enough examination of language to show the reader that “word[s]” are not always what they seem. Perhaps, in that, the reader can extend the concepts to note that life may not always be what it seems either, but this is an inferred meaning from the poem’s language theme.

 

About Wislawa Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska was born in 1923 in Poland, and she was known for her poetry, as well as her editing work. She attended Jagiellonian University and was the recipient of a Nobel Prize, Herder Prize, and Polish PEN Club Prize. She passed away in 2012.

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