By Wislawa Szymborska


Possibilities” is a compelling poem by the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. This poem, like much of Szymborska’s work, delves into the themes of human experience, reflecting on the personal choices and diverse paths that life might take. Szymborska, known for her keen observation and philosophical depth, often writes with a lightness of touch and a unique perspective on seemingly mundane details.

📖 Contextual Background: Wislawa Szymborska (1923–2012) was a poet, essayist, and translator, whose work is characterized by its precision, clarity, and thoughtful questioning. Her poetry often explores philosophical and existential questions, drawing on everyday experiences and making profound observations about life, society, and humanity.

Possibilities” stands out as a reflective piece, where the poet lists a series of personal preferences and dislikes, subtly crafting a portrait of an individual’s identity through choices, each with its own implications and possibilities. The genre of the poem could be classified as lyrical poetry, as it expresses personal emotions and thoughts in a brief but deeply reflective manner.

Meaning of Possibilities

Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymborska captures the poet’s musings on personal preferences and the hypothetical paths these choices suggest. The poem is segmented into an opening, middle, and concluding section, each adding depth to the theme of personal and philosophical choice.

Opening Section: In the beginning lines of the poem, Szymborska introduces a series of personal preferences, such as liking “the feel of rough materials” and preferring “oaks along the Warta.” These choices are not just aesthetic or superficial; they hint at deeper values and the textures of personal experience. This opening sets the tone for the poem, emphasizing individuality and the quiet significance of personal tastes.

Mid Section: As the poem progresses, the preferences become more introspective and revealing. For example, Szymborska writes, “I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.” This line might suggest a readiness to repair, a hint at resilience, or a metaphor for keeping relationships or oneself intact. The middle section weaves through a mix of mundane and existential preferences, painting a broader picture of the narrator’s worldview.

Concluding Section: In the final lines, the poet reflects on broader themes, like preferring the time of insects to the time of stars, subtly suggesting a preference for life’s fleeting, buzzing moments over the distant, perhaps unreachable celestial. The conclusion ties back to the poem’s title, emphasizing the endless possibilities that arise from each personal choice and preference.

Throughout the poem, Szymborska uses simple language to communicate complex ideas, making profound observations about life’s infinite possibilities through the lens of personal choice.

In-depth Analysis

Possibilities” is structured as a series of statements that offer a glimpse into the poet’s preferences and, indirectly, her identity and view of the world. This section will dissect each stanza and analyze the poem’s use of literary techniques, syntax, diction, and figurative language.

Stanza 1:

  • Technique: Enumeration
  • Analysis: Szymborska begins the poem with a list of preferences, immediately establishing a pattern of specificity and personal choice. This enumeration draws the reader into a contemplative space, reflecting on the significance of each choice.

Stanza 2:

  • Technique: Imagery and Contrast
  • Analysis: The poet uses vivid imagery (“oaks along the Warta”) contrasted with more abstract preferences (“time of insects over the time of stars”). This juxtaposition highlights the poet’s grounding in both the tangible and the philosophical realms.

Stanza 3:

  • Technique: Allusion
  • Analysis: References to historical or cultural items, like “the era of legends,” invoke a sense of nostalgia and depth, suggesting a preference for times or stories that shape human understanding.

Stanza 4:

  • Technique: Paradox
  • Analysis: The preferences sometimes contain paradoxes, revealing the complexity of human desires and thoughts. For example, preferring “the time of insects” while acknowledging the allure of “the time of stars” showcases a conflict between the immediate and the eternal.

Stanza 5:

  • Technique: Metaphor
  • Analysis: Some preferences serve as metaphors for broader life philosophies, such as “keeping a needle and thread on hand,” which symbolizes preparedness and the ability to mend or maintain.

Stanza 6:

  • Technique: Irony
  • Analysis: The poet’s choice to prefer certain mundane or unusual things often carries an ironic undertone, subtly critiquing societal norms or expected preferences.

Themes and Symbols —

  • Personal Identity: Each preference reveals aspects of the poet’s identity and her way of interacting with the world.
  • Choice and Freedom: The poem itself is a celebration of individual choice, suggesting a broader theme of freedom in personal preferences.
  • Temporal Reflections: The recurring references to time (e.g., “time of insects,” “time of stars”) symbolize the fleeting nature of life and the vastness of the universe, respectively.

The analysis demonstrates Szymborska’s skillful use of simple language to explore complex themes and her ability to infuse each line with multiple layers of meaning through sophisticated poetic devices.

Poetic Devices used in Possibilities

In “Possibilities,” Wislawa Szymborska employs a variety of poetic devices that enrich the text and deepen the thematic content. Here’s a table showcasing the top 10 devices used in the poem:

Poetic DeviceDescriptionExample from Poem
1. EnumerationListing items sequentially to build a comprehensive picture.“I prefer cats. I prefer oak leaves…”
2. ImageryUsing descriptive language to create vivid pictures in the reader’s mind.“oaks along the Warta”
3. ContrastPlacing differing elements side by side to highlight their differences or enhance their qualities.“I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.”
4. AllusionA reference to another piece of literature, event, or cultural element, adding layers of meaning.“the era of legends”
5. MetaphorA figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true.“keeping a needle and thread on hand”
6. ParadoxA statement that contradicts itself but holds a truth, highlighting the complexity of the subject.“I prefer the condition of the unfinished.”
7. IronyExpressing meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, often for humorous effect.Preferences that are unexpectedly mundane.
8. RepetitionRepeating words, phrases, or structures to emphasize a point or theme.“I prefer…” used throughout the poem.
9. PersonificationAttributing human characteristics to non-human objects or abstract ideas.Not explicitly in the poem but can be interpreted in the personalization of time and preferences.
10. SymbolismUsing symbols to represent ideas or concepts.“needle and thread” symbolizes repair and readiness.

Possibilities – FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions about Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Possibilities,” designed to aid students in an advanced placement language course.

What is the central theme of ‘Possibilities’?

  • Answer: The central theme of “Possibilities” revolves around individuality and personal choice. Through listing her preferences, Szymborska explores how these choices reflect deeper philosophical and existential questions, highlighting the unique nature of each person’s life and decisions.

How does Szymborska use poetic devices to enhance the poem’s message?

  • Answer: Szymborska employs various poetic devices such as enumeration, imagery, metaphor, and irony to deepen the impact of her reflections on personal preferences. These devices help illustrate the subtleties of her thoughts and the profound implications behind seemingly simple choices.

What role does contrast play in ‘Possibilities’?

  • Answer: Contrast in “Possibilities” serves to highlight the differences between seemingly minor choices and their broader existential meanings. For example, contrasting “the time of insects” with “the time of stars” emphasizes a preference for the mundane and immediate over the vast and eternal, which in turn reflects on human life’s fleeting nature versus the universe’s constancy.

Can you explain the significance of repetition in the poem?

  • Answer: Repetition is a key stylistic device in “Possibilities,” used primarily through the repeated phrase “I prefer.” This repetition not only structures the poem but also emphasizes the personal nature of the text. It allows the poet to build a rhythm that reflects the contemplative process of considering one’s preferences and the impact of these choices on one’s identity.

What does Szymborska achieve by listing her dislikes as well as her likes?

  • Answer: By listing both likes and dislikes, Szymborska presents a fuller and more nuanced portrait of her persona. This technique allows her to explore the concept of identity not just through attraction but also through aversion, thereby providing a more complete picture of how personal preferences can define us.

Possibilities Study Guide

In this study guide exercise, students are encouraged to analyze a specific verse from Wislawa Szymborska’s “Possibilities” to identify and list the poetic devices used. This task will enhance their analytical skills and deepen their appreciation of the poem’s craftsmanship.


  1. Read the following verse from “Possibilities”:
    • “I prefer the color green. I prefer not to maintain that reason is to blame for everything.”
  2. List all the poetic devices used in this verse. Explain briefly how each device contributes to the overall impact of the poem.


  1. Color Symbolism:
    • Device Explanation: The color green often symbolizes growth, freshness, and fertility. By stating her preference for green, Szymborska may be subtly expressing a preference for these qualities in life.
  2. Negation:
    • Device Explanation: By using negation (“I prefer not to maintain”), the poet emphasizes her choice to reject certain common beliefs or assumptions, in this case, the supremacy of reason. This negation highlights her value of emotion or other forms of cognition over strict rationality.
  3. Contrast:
    • Device Explanation: The contrast between a simple color preference and a philosophical stance against rationalism broadens the scope of the poem from concrete likes to abstract ideas, enriching the reader’s understanding of the poet’s complex identity.

These poetic devices, alongside the content of the preferences themselves, create layers of meaning that invite readers to reflect on their own choices and the values these represent.