National Poetry Month Poetry Dare: Wisława Szymborska’s “Could Have”

It is difficult to explain good fortune.

I inspected a garage fire last week. I could tell you that I went further into the wreckage than I should have to get a better look at his tool chests. I could tell you that my cell phone rang while I stood under charred rafters that were buckling and broken beneath the weight of the roof. I could tell you that I stepped out of the garage to take the call just in time to hear the roof collapse behind me, onto the very spot where I had been standing just seconds before.

Of course, I could tell you all that and I would be lying, because it only took a couple of could-have-beens for me very early on in my career as an adjuster to decide that for some things, a zoom lens gets me close enough. So, no, the roof didn’t collapse on me. The roof didn’t even collapse. (Though it could have.)

If it had collapsed, we’d be talking about that fortuitous phone call: who it was from, why I broke my own rule about taking calls while on inspection, how it came to be that the person called at just that moment. We’d be talking about what would have happened if the call hadn’t come, if I’d have hit Ignore, if the homeowner had been standing in there with me at the same time.

We’d be trying to explain my good fortune, and I why I was spared being crushed under a roof when the homeowner wasn’t spared the conflagration of his garage. We’d be trying to explain his good fortune that the fire was confined to his garage and didn’t reach his home. And of course, that would take us back to trying to explain why his garage was up for grabs in the first place in this mad game of fates.

It’s difficult to explain good fortune, though that didn’t stop Wisława Szymborska from trying in her poem “Could Have.”


Could Have

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.

You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck—there was a forest.
You were in luck—there were no trees.
You were in luck—a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
a jamb, a turn, a quarter inch, an instant.
You were in luck—just then a straw went floating by.

As a result, because, although, despite.
What would have happened if a hand, a foot,
within an inch, a hairsbreadth from
an unfortunate coincidence.

So you’re here? Still dizzy from another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be more shocked or speechless.
how your heart pounds inside me.


Szymborska has a way with repetition. Her use of cataloguing and contrasting images allows her to articulate the absurdity (just then a straw went floating by) of trying to give a reasonable explanation for something that is not readily explainable, without having to say straight out that there’s no reasonable explanation.

She sets it up in the first stanza with a clipped pace, and by the time I read the first two lines of the second stanza—You were saved because you were the first. / You were saved because you were the last—I’m sold. I can try to explain how I was saved from some impending disaster, but in the very next instance, it’ll be the opposite, and won’t I look ridiculous then: Because it was raining, because of the shade, there was a forest, there were no trees.

By the end, I can’t tell if she was literally moved by a dramatic escape or taking a playful jab at the one who’s made it through one more close shave, slipped through the one hole in the net. I’d like to think she could have gone either way.


And because I think these are things we can’t know, my response to the poem:

What You Couldn’t Have Known

If you’d made the flight,
you’d have argued
with the flight attendant
for two whole minutes
before she sighed
and trucked
your oversized bag
back to the front
past dead-
tired passengers
with carry-ons stowed
securely in the overhead bins.

Two minutes is short
beside a six-hour flight—
just enough time
so the bird
that flew
the engine
could have
been long gone.


I’m reading poems by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska every day in April as part of our National Poetry Month Poetry Dare, and writing my own poems in response. I’ve read little, if any, of her work before, and that’s really the point of the dare: to spend time with a poet that is unfamiliar, and see what happens. Are you reading a particular poet each day? Maybe you are reading an eclectic mix you’ve put together, or the daily offerings of Every Day Poems. What do you find challenging about the daily practice or about your poet? What are you most enjoying? Share with us in the comments. And if you wrote about the dare on your blog, leave us a link.

Read about the National Poetry Month Poetry Dare
Browse more Wisława Szymborska

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Poetry Dare: Tweetspeak Poetry


Photo by David Goehring, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.



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  1. says

    Oh! I do believe this is the very first poem I read of hers (several years ago now). Loved it. Yes, I too was sold.

    Somewhere I have a poem (or maybe I don’t, because sometimes I get rid of the big batch of poor ones) that utilizes the concept of her final line. The idea of someone else’s heart beating inside us is just so cool. (And now I am suddenly remembering that video we ran quite a ways back, about the heart transplant. Cool. :) )

  2. says

    This doesn’t help my fear of flying. At. All.

    But, I do fancy the line about a straw floating by. There I was, deep in the woods, and then I see this straw –maybe it’s a small, red stirring type from a bigCity go coffee. Perhaps it’s a big, clear ‘un from a strawberry milkshake brought to the woods (but why?). Or it could be the first thing I imagined… a piece of straw from a harvested wheat field farther up the river.

    • says

      That line cracked me up. It’s the one line to me that strikes me as random, not somehow joined to her repetitive phrases, and then the image is random on top of it.

      I had pictured a guy hiding in a swamp, and just as his pursuers arrive, the straw floats by and he’s able to duck under the water. Too many old movies in my childhood, I think. 😉 But I really liked the red stirring straw.

      One of you, go ahead and let’s get it poemified. :)

      • says

        *Okay L.L. & Lyla –for the both of ya:

        You were in luck—just then a straw went floating by.

        I do fancy a
        ing straw.

        There I was, deep
        in the wooded thoughts
        of my mind when
        I saw this
        straw –

        Maybe it’s a small, red
        stirring type from a big
        City go
        coffee paper cup.

        Perhaps it’s a big, clear
        ‘un from a strawberry
        shake brought to my
        woods (but why?). Why not
        slurp it inside
        with burgers
        and fries and ketchup lips?

        Or it could’ve been the first
        I imagined, a leftover
        piece of harvest
        ing me
        from yonder wheat
        farther up the

        • says

          love :)

          (I might drop the dialect piece (‘un’), because those things tend to distract).

          I love the question about why it would have been brought to your woods, and then the hesitance… maybe *you* conjured it there either for real or in your imagination.

          Really nice, Darlene.

          • says

            Thank you, L.L.

            I always learn so much from both the articles and the comment box dialogue.

            By the way, the first time I “met” you online, Laura B. referred to you as her poetry teacher. She was doing a book give-away. As fate would have it, I won the book. And I’ve not strayed far from either of you ladies. 😉

  3. Donna says

    Terrific selection, and I love your response poem.
    This is the first I’ve seen it – she beautifully makes the case that we have had more near misses than we can ever, ever know- because, after all, here we are…..that is kind of miraculous to me.

  4. says

    Lyla, your poem reminded me of when Air Florida flight 80 crashed into the Potomac in 1982. My husband was traveling then and could have been on that plane. And I remember my fear when he never showed up at his hotel, and it was forever until I heard from him (no cell phones then.) As it was, he had been shuttled on a bus to somewhere because his own flight couldn’t take off.

    Also, he knew someone who was supposed to be on that flight, but at the last minute, his boss talked him into staying over one more night.

    • says

      The poem came from my fascination with our near-misses, and the idea that because, for instance, we missed the connecting flight, we were spared the crash. But as I thought about it, I realized that every action in such a sequence of events affects all of the others, even in just split-second, hairsbreadth ways. So if the person had not missed the connection? What other links may have been altered in the chain of events? Is it possible it could be just enough that the disaster could have been avoided altogether?

      A heck of a lot we just can’t know when it comes to might-have-beens, whether catastrophic events like storms or crashes, or the big and small life decisions we make every day. For myself, I have found as I’ve gotten older it doesn’t do me a lot of good to ponder the question. Just too many variables.

  5. says

    Love the original and your response! Life is a step-by-step process and occasionally I look back and wonder how very different mine might be if I’d taken a slightly different step along the way.

    I’ve said to friends who mourn some outcome, “You can’t live in the ‘if onlys’. Time moves us forward.” But in fiction the ‘if only’ and ‘what if’ can provide the basis for great story lines.

  6. says

    I can’t help but read this and think how lucky we all are to not have dodged this thing called life. How we all made it through a tiny net to be the pounding heart inside our mothers. It’s really so terribly difficult to bring life into this world . . .


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