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by Bamber Gascoigne

Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012)


Polish poet and translator, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, at the age of seventy-three. Szymborska is one of the few woman poets who have received the prize. Her early works were born more or less within the straitjacket of the Socialist Realism. While skepticism marked Szymborska's views of the human condition, it did not stop her from believing in the power of words and the joy arising from imagination. Szymborska often used ordinary speech and proverbs but gave them a fresh and arresting meaning, sometimes with an unexpected twist of humor.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?
The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

(from 'The Joy of Writing,' 1967)

Wislawa Szymborska was born in Bnin (now part of Kórnik) in western Poland. In 1931 her family moved to Krakow, where they lived near the railway station. From the kitchen window Szymborska watched with enthusiasm trains coming and going. However, she never left Poland, but lived in the city her whole life. At the age of nine she become interested in films – especially those which were forbidden to her. With her friends she created a theater game based on the works of Henryk Sienkiewicz. Karl Freund's Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff, inspired Szymborska to visit a history museum, which had two mummies in its care. During World War II, when German occupied Poland, her mother refused to leave Krakow.

Szymborska attended illegal classes and joined an underground theater, where she worked as a prompter. In a wartime writing she stated, that "Hitler gives the Germans something to be enthusiastic about and offer up their lives for that, for those Germans, Hitler is great. Don't you understand that the power of a movement depends on the human beings it produces?" After the war, from 1945 to 1948, Szymborska studied Polish literature and sociology at the famed Jagiellonian University. From 1953 to 1981 she worked for the Krakow literary magazine Zycie Literacia as poetry editor and columnist. "I'm old-fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised," she once said.

As a poet Szymborska made her debut with the poem 'Szukam slowa,' which was published in the newspaper Dziennik Polski (Polish Daily) in March 1945. Three years later she finished her fist collection of poems, but this work was not published. The Communist had gained power tightening their cultural policy and Szymborska's expression was considered too complex and unintelligible to the masses. She returned to the manuscript, made it more political and at the same time revised her entire manner of writing. Her first collection Dlagtego Zyjemy (That's What We Live For), came out in 1952. It was followed by Pytania zadawane sobie (1954, Question Put to Myself), which gave less attention to political issues, the "struggle for peace," etc.

Like many Poles, Szymborska became disillusioned with communism. 'I looked back in terror where to step next...' In her later work, she expressed her pessimism about the future of mankind. Though her writing was more personal and relatively apolitical, she once noted "Apolitical poems are political too" in 'Children of This Age'. Wolanie do Yeti (1957 Calling out to Yeti), marked her break with socialist-realist literature. In 'Still Life with Toy Balloon' she said: "Fly off through the open window, / fly off into the wide world, / let someone cry out: Oh! / so I can weep."

Sto pociech (1967, A Million Laughs, A Bright Hope) is considered Szymborska's first work of her mature period. When Communism claimed it was the final answer to the question about ideal form of society, Szymborska admitted that she has no knowledge of Utopia, but only an ironic view of it as an "island where everything comes clear." Her role in the society she saw as vague: "I am ignorant of the role I perform. / All I know is it's mine, can't be exchanged."

Szymborska avoided literary gatherings, and looked at life from her own special point of view (with a cigarette in her fingers and a with a cup of coffee on the table) through the political upheavals of her country – the rise of Solidarity movement, General Jaruzelski's declaration of martial law in 1981, and the fall of the Communist regime. A supporter of the Solidarity, she published poems underground and in the émigré press under the pseudonym Stańczykówna. Although not a poet of the masses, Szymborska's emphasis on individual experience struck a chord with her readers. Wielka liczba (1976, A Large Number), which had a printing of 10,000 copies, was sold out within a week. Her work stood in stark contrast to the ideas of collective society and was inherently in opposition to the political system.

Writing was painstaking for Szymborska: she threw away at least ninety percent of what she put on paper. Following a change in the political climate, she publisheda new collection of poems, Ludzie na moście (1986, People on the Bridge) after a long silence. This prized work received an award from the Ministry of Culture that she declined, and an award from Solidarity that she accepted.

Szymborska also translated poems from the French and wrote a number of literary columns, most of which first appeared in Zycie Literacia. She reviewed books from all genres by Polish and non-Polish writers, from history to humor and from popular science to the arts. After the Nobel award she retreated to Zakopane to escape reporters and well-wishers and to write her acceptance speech. "I'm a private person," she told in a telephone conversation to Czeslaw Milosz, her countryman, who had won the prize in 1980, and emigrated to the United States. "... inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination... Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."'(from Nobel Lecture, 1996) Szymborska's two poems published in the magazine Orda (1/2000) recorded her concerns about aging and strangeness – she saw that we are only visitors in a cosmic party.

Chwila (2002), which appeared when Szymborska was 79, contained 23 poems. Her writing in Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (2002) was misleadingly casual – her incisive views on scientists, gardening, fairy tales, fashion, and other subjects stand up for repeated readings without losing their freshness. Dwukropek (2005, Colon), dealing with the questions of determinism and contingency, was Szymborska's second collection of poems after the Nobel Prize. Szymborska died peacefully, asleep in her home in Krakow, on February 1, 2012. Her first husband was the poet and editor Adam Wlodek (1922-1986), whom she married in 1948; they divorced after six years. The writer Kornel Filipowicz, her long-time companion, died in 1990. 

For further information: 'Wisława Szymborska: "Writing a Résumé"' by Giovanna Tomassucci, in The Routledge World Companion to Polish Literature, edited by Tomasz Bilczewski, Stanley Bill, and Magdalena Popiel (2022); World Under Revision: The Poetry of Wisława Szymborska by Wojciech Ligęza; translated by Mikołaj Gołubiewski (2019); Wislawa Szymborska’s Poetry: Choice of Essays, ed. by Anna Nasilowska (2015); Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces by Wisawa Szymborska, Clare Cavanagh (2002); View with a Grain of Salt (1995); The Mature Laurel, ed. by Adam Czerniawski (1991); 'Szymborska, Wislawa.' in World Authors 1980-1985, ed. by Vineta Colby (1991); Encounter May (1988); Rialto Winter (1987/1988); Cambridge Quaterly 16 (1987); New York Review of Books, October 21 (1982); Contemporary Polish Poetry 1925-1975 by M.G. Levine (1981) - Other Polish born Literature Nobel Prize winners: Henry Sienkiewicz (1905), Wladyslaw Reymont (1924), Czeslaw Milosz (1980), Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978); Olga Tokarczuk (2018). Other prominent modern Polish poets: Zbiegniew Herbert (1924-1998), Tadeusz Rosewicz (b. 1921), Adam Zagajewski (b. 1945). Suomeksi Szymborskalta on julkaistu Ihmisiä sillalla (1998), runoja vuosilta 1957-1966 , Sata Szymborskaa (2003), suom. Martti Puukko ja Jarkko Laine ja Täällä (2012), suom. Martti Puukko.

Selected works:

  • Dlatego zyjemy, 1952
  • Pytania zadawane sobie, 1954
  • Wolanie do Yeti, 1957
    - Calling Out to Yeti (in Poems, New and Collected 1957-1997, 1998)
  • Sól, 1962
    - Salt (in Poems, New and Collected 1957-1997, 1998)
  • Wiersze wybrane, 1964
  • Sto pociech: wiersze, 1967
    - No End of Fun (in Poems, New and Collected 1957-1997, 1998)
  • Poezje wybrane, 1967
  • Poezje, 1970
  • Wszelki wypadek, 1972
    - Could Have (in Poems, New and Collected 1957-1997, 1998)
  • Wybór wierszy, 1973
  • Lektury nadobowiazkowe, 1973-81
    - Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (translated by Clare Cavanagh, 2002)
  • Wielka liczba, 1976
    - A Large Number (in Poems, New and Collected 1957-1997, 1998)
  • Tarsjusz i inne wiersze, 1976
  • Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska, 1981 (edited by Magnus J. Krynski, Robert A. Maguire)
  • Poezje, 1977 (2nd ed.)
  • Poezje wybrane II, 1983
  • Ludzie na moście, 1986
    - People on a Bridge (translated by A. Czerniawski, 1990) / The People on the Bridge (in Poems, New and Collected 1957-1997, 1998)
  • Poezje - Poems, 1989 (bilingual edition, translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)
  • Koniec i poczatek, 1993
    - The End and the Beginning (in Poems, New and Collected 1957-1997, 1998)
  • Widok z ziarnkiem piasku. 102 wiersze, 1966
  • View With a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, 1995)
  • I Don't Know: The 1996 Nobel Lecture, 1997
  • Nothing Twice: Selected Poems, 1997 (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)
  • Poems New and Collected 1957-1997, 1998 (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)
  • Nic darowane=Keyn shum masoneh=Nothing's a gift=Nichts ist geschenkt=Me'um lo nitan be-matahan, 1999 (polyglot)
  • Poczta literacka, czyli jak zostać (lub nie zostać) pisarzem, 2000
    - How To Start Writing (And When To Stop): Advice For Writers (edited, translated, and with an introduction by Clare Cavanagh, 2021) 
  • Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska, 2001 (translated by Joanna Trzeciak, foreword by Czeslaw Milosz)
  • Nowe lektury nadobowiazkowe: 1997-2002, 2002
  • Chwila 2002
    - Chwila = Moment (translated by Clare Cavanagh, Stanislaw Baranczak, 2003)
  • Rymowanki dla duzych dzieci, 2003
  • Dwukropek, 2005
    - Colon (in Collected and Last Poems, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, 2015)
    - 'Läsnäolemattomuus,' 'Tapahtuma,' 'Lohtu,' 'Perspektiivi,' 'Labyrintti,' 'Oikeastaan jokainen uskoo' (suom. Martti Puukko, teoksessa Täällä, 2012)
  • Zmysl udzialu wybór wierszy , 2006 (illustrated by Barbara Gawdzik-Brzozowska)
  • Monologue of a Dog: New Poems, 2006 (translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak)
  • Tutaj, 2009
    - Here (translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, 2010)
    - Täällä (suom. Martti Puukko, 2012)
  • Milczenie roslin, 2011 (photographs by Joanna Gromek-Illg) [The Silence of Plants]
  • Wystarczy, 2011
    - Enough (in Collected and Last Poems, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, 2015)
  • Map: Collected and Last Poems, 2015 (translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak; edited by Clare Cavanagh)
  • Wszystkie lektury nadobowiązkowe, 2015
  • Collected and Last Poems, 2015 (translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak)
  • Ludzie na moście, 2016
  • Miłość od pierwszego wejrzenia, 2019
    - Love at First Sight: from Map: Collected and Last Poems (translated from Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak; illustrated by Beatrice Gasca Queirazza, 2022)
  • Wszelki wypadek, 2020

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