Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012)

Polish author Wislawa Szymborska was thrust into the international spotlight in 1996 upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was one of her country's most popular female writers and is valued as a national treasure, yet Szymborska remains little known to English-speaking readers. By the late twentieth century several of her books were available in English translation, among them People on a Bridge: Poems, View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, and Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces.

(From: "Wislawa Szymborska." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2016).


For a poet who has lived through tumultuous times in a country shaken by World War II, the Holocaust, decades of Communist rule, and democratic transition, Wislawa Szymborska's life has been relatively staid and stable. From 1932 onward she has resided in Kraków in southern Poland, traveling infrequently and reluctantly. Yet, nothing about her poetry is parochial. In fact, hers is an inclusive gaze that extends beyond the local and anthropocentric. Western culture, humankind, and the natural world are the subjects of moral, logical, and aesthetic consideration in her poetry. Szymborska is a poet who finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, the seemingly unimportant and insignificant, only to question the criteria that purport to establish importance and significance. Szymborska is a poet who is read and admired even by people who do not like poetry. Precise in diction, playful and elegant, her poetry presents few barriers to entry. Several major themes emerge: the ironies of love, the parochial human perspective, and the admirable desire to transcend it, the beauty and bounty of nature, the place of humanity in the chain of being, and the human stance toward the natural world. Art is another theme that finds ample room in Szymborska's poetry. She approaches the subject of art with a generous dose of irony: skeptical of the privileged role of the artist and cognizant of the illusory character of art, she is nonetheless aware of the capacity of art to transport humans beyond the constraints of the physical world. As she puts it in "Radooæ pisania" (The Joy of Writing), art is, after all, the "revenge of the mortal hand."

Of all the major Polish poets of the post-World War II generation, Szymborska is perhaps the most skillfully elusive of categorization. Never part of any literary movement, she has no "protégés," and her imitators nearly always slip into parody. Various critics and scholars have tried over the years to trace her poetic genealogy. Some have pointed out the influences of the avant-garde movement in poems that lay bare the poetic devices at work. Others have gingerly tried to establish a connection between Szymborska and Polish women writers of the positivist era, based on the strong presence of the rational element in her poetry. Still others see a kinship with the early-twentieth-century Polish poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, whose late poetry is preoccupied with the passing of the world, human biology, and the mystery of nature. There is a certain concreteness to Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska's love poems that Szymborska's poetry also shares. Yet, despite their disagreements over Szymborska's influences, on one thing the majority of scholars and readers agree: Szymborska is one of the most important twentieth-century poets.

Wislawa Szymborska was born on 2 July 1923 in Kórnik, a small town in central west Poland, to Anna Maria Rottermund and Wincenty Szymborski. Her father managed the estate of the Polish count Wladysl;aw Zamoyski in the Zakopane region of the Tatra Mountains, an important artistic center at the time. Anna Rottermund worked in the chancellery of another aristocrat, Prince Kazimierz Lubomirski. Szymborski and Rottermund, twenty years his junior, met in 1915 when the chancellery office sought refuge on Zamoyski's estate from Prussian troops. The two married in 1917. A daughter, Nawoja, Wisl;awa's sole sibling, was born that same year. In 1923 a heart condition necessitated that Szymborski move to a lower altitude, prompting Zamoyski to transfer him to his estate at Kórnik. Later that year Wisl;awa was born. Upon Zamoyski's death, Szymborski retired, and the family moved to Torun, where they lived for four years. His early retirement allowed him to spend much time with his family, which benefited Wisl;awa and her education. By 1932 the family had moved to Kraków. An avid reader of reference books, Szymborski was particularly passionate about geography and shared his love of encyclopedias and atlases with his daughter. In 1936 Szymborski succumbed to his heart condition, dying at the age of sixty-six. Wisl;awa was thirteen. From September 1935 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939 she attended Gimnazjum Siostr Urszulanek (Academy of the Sisters of the Ursuline Order), a prestigious parochial high school for girls in Kraków. When the Gimnazjum was shut down during the German occupation, she attended underground classes, passing her final exams in the spring of 1941. During the war she began to write short stories, of which she remained critical. After the war Szymborska studied Polish philology and later sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, never completing a degree.

Szymborska's poetic debut, "Szukam sl;owa" (I'm Searching for a Word), appeared in a literary supplement to Dziennik Polski (The Polish Daily) in March 1945. The poem expresses the inadequacy of language in the face of the personal and collective experience of war. More broadly, many of her poems of this period, including "Pamieæ o wrzeoniu" (Remembering September, 1939), "Pamieæ o styczniu" (Remembering January), "Wyjocie z kina" (Leaving the Cinema), and "OEwiat umieliomy kiedyo na wyrywki" (We Knew the World Backwards and Forwards), give voice to the desire to dispel the mirages of collective happiness that arise in the enthusiasm following the end of war. These poems and others of this period were published in newspapers and periodicals, and only a few of them were ever anthologized, generally much later.

Szymborska's poetics during this period drew upon several literary movements, including the Polish avant-garde and the Skamandryci (Skamander formation). The Skamandryci was a group of interwar poets of diverse styles and literary lineages, who shared a commitment to democratizing and expanding the range of poetry and poetic language, writing such "low" poetic forms as cabaret songs, nursery rhymes, and commercial slogans. Like the Skamander poets, Szymborska embraces colloquialism and is especially indebted to Julian Tuwim's poetics of the everyday. Vojciech Igêza pointed to Szymborska's metaphors of this period as evocative of the avant-garde movement, the work of Julian Przyboo in particular. Her later poetry too draws on Przyboo in its laying bare of poetic devices, apparent in such poems as "Akrobata" (1967, The Acrobat).

In 1948 Szymborska assembled a collection of her poetry, which was to be titled simply Poezje (Poems), but the collection never found a publisher; its contents deemed too "bourgeois" and "pessimistic," clashing with the socialist realist aesthetic that was beginning to take hold. One of her poems, "Niedziela w Szkole" (Sunday at School), sparked a campaign against her, in which high-school students were prodded to write letters of protest. She was accused of writing poetry that was inaccessible to the masses and too preoccupied with the horrors of war. A two-year poetic silence followed.

Compared to the work of her contemporary, Tadeusz Rózewicz, whose poetry continues to be haunted by World War II and the Holocaust, there is a perceived paucity of poems that treat the topics of World War II and the Holocaust in Szymborska's work. In part this lack stems from the fact that her 1948 collection was never published. Some of her later poems use motifs from the earlier, uncollected ones. Two poems written after the war that concern the subject are set within nightmares. "Jeszcze" (Still), drawing on an earlier poem, "Transport zydów" (The Transport of Jews), depicts the plight of Jews aboard a train headed for the death camps. The biographically grounded "Sen" (Dream) treats an anxiety raised by never learning the circumstances surrounding the death of a missing lover. These poems were published in the collections Wol;anie do Yeti (1957, Calling out to Yeti) and Sól (1962, Salt) respectively.

In April 1948, at age twenty-four, Szymborska married Adam Wl;odek, a minor poet and literary editor, and joined him at the writers' complex on Krupnicza Street in Kraków. (The marriage ended in divorce in 1954.) Krupnicza played an important role in the literary life of Poland in the postwar period. Following World War II several dozen poets, writers, and translators shared close quarters and dined together at the Krupnicza complex, including Czesl;aw Mil;osz, Jerzy Andrzejewski, poet Artur Miêdzyrzecki, Maciej Sl;omczyñski (Shakespeare translator and author of crime novels under the pen name Joe Alex), poets Konstanty Ildefons Gal;czyñski and Anna Swieszczyñska, and the foremost postwar scholar of Polish literature, Artur Sandauer. Some lived there for a short period of time, awaiting the rebuilding of Warsaw. For Szymborska and others it was home for many years. She left Krupnicza in 1963 after spending more than fifteen years there.

Szymborska's book debut came during the heyday of Stalinism. In 1952 she published her first collection of poetry, Dlatego zyjemy (What We Live For) and was admitted to the Polish Writers' Union (ZLP) and the United Polish Workers Party (PZPR). The onset of a socialist realist aesthetic changed the course of Polish literature. When the Communist Party proclaimed its infallibility, it backed that claim through the use of terror and a system of rewards for those who complied. As party pluralism was forcibly eliminated, a new literature arose that served to illustrate ready-made slogans, culminating in formulaic propaganda. Szymborska was not alone among her contemporaries in joining in the chorus of Communist apologists, accepting the new codes of speech, and selecting topics fit for use as propaganda.

Reflecting an enthusiasm for the socialist utopia, her first volume and its successor, Pytania zadawane sobie (1954, Questioning Oneself), are dominated by politically engaged poetry, with its prescribed anti-Westernism, anti-imperialism, anticapitalism, and "struggle for peace." Critical reaction to these two collections has been varied. Sandauer judged the poems from these two volumes to be nearly indistinguishable from other socialist realist productions of the time. Other reviewers commended Szymborska not only for her ideological correctness but also for her inventiveness in expressing party doctrine. Ludwik Flashen and Leszek Herdege praised the poems in these volumes for their emotional discretion, precise aphorism, stern economy, and semantic and logical playfulness, features for which her later poetry was also praised. Anna Legezyñska calls Szymborska's entire engagement with socialist realism a fruitful mistake that left the poet with a sensitivity toward the suffering of individual human beings and led her to avoid poetic engagement with partisan politics.

Retrospectively, Szymborska's first two collections have raised questions among scholars about whether her poetic corpus is all of a piece, with the evolution of some themes and the extinction of others, or whether the first two collections should simply be excised. Stanisl;aw Balbus, author of the first book-length study of Szymborska, sees in the socialist realist poems, in addition to symptoms of the ideological seduction of a young and passionate person, traces of self-irony. Several of these early poems that are not overtly political prefigure themes found in her later poetry, namely the playful relationship between the sexes and humanity's questionable hegemony over nature.

From early 1953 Szymborska served as the main poetry editor for the periodical Zycie Literackie (Literary Life). She held high standards for the quality of poetry in the journal, soliciting poems from the premier class of Polish poets. In 1955 she published a series of belated debuts by such writers as Miron Bial;oszewski and Zbigniew Herbert, with commentary by established poets and scholars. This run of long-overdue poetic debuts was a bellwether of the coming "thaw," a loosening of restrictions following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 that reached its height in Poland in 1956. Her 1957 volume, Wol;anie do Yeti , is itself considered a literary event of the Polish thaw. Several poems in the collection reflect Szymborska's desire to redefine the role of the poet and to reorient her political stance. "Pogrzeb" (Funeral), originally titled "Pogrzeb Laszlo Rajka" (The Funeral of Laszlo Rajek), mocks the grotesque means used by party reformers to "correct" the past. The target is the reburial of Laszlo Rajek, a Hungarian Communist sentenced to death in a 1949 show trial and rehabilitated posthumously. Censors found the original title of the poem objectionable: while the thaw made it permissible to be critical of a general tendency, to challenge specific present practices was still taboo. In the title poem, "Wol;anie do Yeti," Aesopian in its gist, an analogy is drawn between faith in the existence of a perfect society under Communism and faith in the existence of Yeti. "Obmyolam owiat" (Thinking up the World) concerns the desire to better the world by reimagining it. In a later poem she couches this desire in personal terms: "I prefer myself liking human beings / to myself loving humankind." Wol;anie do Yeti marks a turn in Szymborska's conception of the role of the poet: she distances herself from the demand to speak for others (the worker, the country, the party), electing to speak only in her own subjective voice. Wokanie do Yti has been considered a transitional volume, one in which her basic themes begin to take shape.

In the early 1960s Szymborska started as a columnist at Zycie Literackie (where she continued to work as a poetry editor), becoming a regular contributor of book reviews. From 1960 to 1968 she served in another capacity--as the anonymous co-editor of "Poczta Literacka" (Literary Mailroom). "Poczta Literacka" was a tongue-in-cheek literary workshop in the form of a weekly column, replete with witty barbs and musings on poetry and its craft, as well as advice for beginning poets and playful rebukes to graphomaniacs. The column provides evidence of Szymborska's own poetic ideals: precision in diction, respect for the diversity and complexity of the world, logical consistency, and attention to rhythm and poetic form. A selection of these replies was published as a book in 2000. Szymborska also elected to publish serially in Zycie Literackie the journal of her own grandfather Antoni Szymborski, a fierce opponent of punctuation.

The collection that marks Szymborska's arrival as a major poet is Sól . This volume sketches out central themes in her poetry: the uncertainty of love, the place of humanity in the chain of being, the concern with history, and the open-endedness of both the future and the distant, little-known past. The delicate relationship between the sexes and real and projected love are the themes of such poems as "Chwila w Troi" (A Moment in Troy), "Przy winie" (Drinking Wine), and "Jestem za blisko" (I Am Too Close). A connection has been suggested between Szymborska and Polish women writers of the positivist era, specifically Eliza Orzeszkowa and Zofia Nal;kowska, with whom Szymborska shares a literary strategy of portraying the female protagonist or poetic persona withdrawing into her own microcosm, as Grazyna Borkowska notes. Man's place in the natural order is examined in "Mal;pa" (The Monkey) and "Notatka" (A Note), while the inscrutability of nature is made concrete in "Rozmowa z kamienem" (Conversation with a Rock). The poems "Obóz gl;odowy pod Jasl;em" (Starvation Camp near Jaslo) and "Sen" (Dream) hark back to the horrors of World War II. "Muzeum" (Museum), "Clochard," (Tramp), "Sl;ówka" (Word), and "Elegia podró–na" (Travel Elegy) bear traces of Szymborska's travel experiences.

In 1967 Szymborska published the collection Sto pociech (No End of Fun). Writing in 1968 in the journal Nowe Ksiazki (New Books), poet and critic Przyboo praised this volume as not only Szymborska's best but also the best book of poetry that year, dubbing her the poetic heir to Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska. The thematic interests in the relationship between the sexes and the poetics of surprise Szymborska shared with Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska caught the attention of other scholars as well. The poetics of surprise and an erotic strand also link her to Bolesl;aw Leomian, the only poet she acknowledges as having had any influence on her. Sto pociech has been hailed as the rebirth of meditative poetry, and the reviewers contrasted it with the moralistic streak they perceived in the poetry of Szymborska's contemporaries Bial;oszewski, Herbert, and Rózewicz. Among philosophical influences are the French existentialists and the Pensées (1670) of Blaise Pascal, whom she evokes by name in "Jaskinia" (The Cave). Two poems, "Pejzarz" (Landscape) and "Mozajka Bizantyjska" (Byzantine Mosaic), drew attention for their witty portrayal of paintings as psychological novels, as did "Akrobata" for offering a consilience of description and reflection.

In the late 1960s there were several major developments in Szymborska's life. In 1966, when the philosopher Leszek Kol;akowski was expelled from the ranks of the Communist Party for his "revisionist" views, Szymborska, in an act of solidarity, relinquished her own party membership. After leaving the party she was prodded to resign as head of the poetry section at Zycie Literackie, but she continued as a regular contributor of book reviews composed in a form and style distinctly her own: a page-length paragraph written as if in a single breath. Since 1990 her reviews have appeared regularly in Poland's most prominent newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. Widely appreciated for their whimsy, her book reviews range over a diverse "literary" landscape--from handyman's how-to books to dictionaries of hunter's jargon to catalogues of cacti to ornithological field guides, with the occasional poetry anthology or translation of Michel de Montaigne--a thematic expansiveness rivaling, if not mirroring, that of her poetry. Her book reviews have been published under the title Lektury nadobowiazkowe in several editions (in 1973, 1981, 1992, 1996, and 2002), each time including a slightly different selection of older reviews, enriched by new ones.

Also in the late 1960s Szymborska embarked on another artistic pursuit, making collages in the form of postcards to be mailed to friends. Though her favorite hobby grew out of a creative reaction to postal censorship, allowing her playfully to circumvent surveillance by means of images, it continues to be a significant creative outlet. Her collages were made in series of several dozen, from which she would select one befitting the occasion and the addressee. Making collages was not her first foray into the visual arts. During World War II she illustrated a language book, First Steps in English, by Jan Stanisl;awski, the author of the standard Polish-English dictionary; and in 1948 she illustrated a children's book, Mruczek w butach (Puss in Boots).

Translations, like making collages, afforded Szymborska an indirect means of self-expression that circumvented the censors. Specializing in French poetry, she garnered praise for her translations of Alfred de Musset and Charles Baudelaire, as well as fifteenth- and seventeenth-century poets, including d'Aubigny, Estienne Jodelle, Olivier de Magny, Rémy Belleau, Pontus de Tyard, and Théophile de Viau. Going against the anti-Semitic currents of 1968, Szymborska translated several poems by Icyk Manger for an anthology of Jewish poetry. Those same currents delayed its publication until 1983.

For a poet who considers the trash can her most important piece of furniture, the 1970s were a relatively prolific period. Szymborska produced two volumes of poetry, both marked by a strong existentialist streak. Critics of the 1972 collection Wszelki wypadek (Any Case) highlighted Szymborska's anti-Romanticism and praised her for her skepticism and humanism, sense of wonderment, and cool assessment of the limitations of human cognition, and pointed to her sensitivity and intellectual subtlety. One theme that looms large in the volume is contingency. The title poem treats the contingency of human existence and survival against all odds, while "Przemówienie w biurze znalezionych rzeczy" (A Speech at the Lost and Found Office) and "Zdumienie" (Astonishment) examine the contingent nature of evolutionary sequences. "Urodziny" (Birthday) laments humans' limited ability to take in the abundance and beauty of nature, given the brevity of human existence when measured against the vastness of cosmic time. Framed as a universal apology, "Pod jedna gwiazdka" (Under a Certain Little Star), with its often quoted line "My apologies to chance that I call it necessity . . . ," closes the volume and centers on efforts to cope with the complexity of existence given human limitations.

Published four years after Wszelki wypadek, Szymborska's Wielka liczba (1976, A Large Number) is bracketed by poems meditating on the immense (as in the title poem) and the small yet infinite (as in the closing poem, "Pi"). Interpolated between these magnitudes are the local, mundane, individuated experiences of everyday life. Many of the poems in the collection cast a skeptical eye on man's assumed primacy over nature and the parochial human perspective ("Widziane z góry" [Seen from Above]), not to mention the failure of the grand promise of progress ("Utopia"). Wielka liczba was well received critically from both thematic and stylistic standpoints. Observing that poems in this volume bridge a gap between the world of large numbers and the everyday psychological reality of the individual, reviewers praised Szymborska for the way she domesticates generalization through the use of colloquialism and humor. Pointing out the dignity with which the poems in this volume treat the individual, some reviewers singled out "Zona Lota" (Lot's Wife) as the key poem of the collection, for it emphasizes the contact between the fecundity of possibility and the individual's concrete choice. In contrast to the biblical account in Genesis, which stresses punishment, the poem gives voice to Lot's wife, who offers myriad possible reasons why she may have looked back on Sodom, undercutting any easy moral. Other portraits of individuals in the volume include the solemn "Pokój samobójcy" (The Suicide's Room) and playful "Pochwal;a siostry" (In Praise of My Sister). Szymborska's humanism comes without pathos or grandiloquence and steers clear of anthropocentrism. In poems such as "Sl;once" (The Sun) and "Widziane z góry," she ridicules the hierarchical order that man has erected and tried to impose upon nature. Reviewers of Wielka liczba expressed an appreciation for the craft of Szymborska's poetry (pseudoprosaic language, which is enriched by placing words in unusual combinations) and pointed out that the volume consciously manifests its connection with contemporary life. In choosing the "particularity" of a given human being, Szymborska does not forget about the world of large numbers.

Although her sympathies were aroused by the growing political opposition in the 1970s, Szymborska remained hesitant to adopt the role of spokesperson for political causes, perhaps because of her earlier misplaced trust in the promise of socialism. Supporter and sympathizer rather than organizer of initiatives, she added her signature to the 1978 declaration forming the Society for Scholarly Courses, an informal and independent academic society. In 1980 she received the Polish PEN Club award.

With the emergence of the Solidarity movement in 1980, the Society and similar initiatives found themselves briefly freed from earlier encumbrances. Szymborska began her affiliation with the newly formed Kraków journal Pismo (Writing), the editorial board of which included many of her closest friends, among them fiction writer and poet Kornel Filipowicz, her longtime companion. Following the declaration of martial law on 13 December 1981, the composition of the editorial board and the overall mission of Pismo withered as the government imposed demands on it. Similarly, Szymborska's thirty-year association with Zycie Literackie was terminated. Under martial law, she chose to publish underground and in the émigré press under the pen name Stañczykówna, a feminized derivation from the name of a sixteenth-century court jester noted for his forthrightness.

Although her poems found their way into a few adventuresome literary periodicals, the political climate prevented her from publishing a volume of poetry until after the end of martial law, marking the longest hiatus between her collections. When it was published, Ludzie na moocie (1986, People on the Bridge) garnered her praise and several awards, including one from the Ministry of Culture, which she declined, and the Solidarity Prize, which she accepted. The thoroughgoing naturalism that marked her earlier poetry here extends into the realm of the history of mankind. Clustered in the middle of the collection is a group of poems that focus on history, meditations on the human condition, and the lessons of the century still left unlearned; these poems include "Tortury" (Torture), "Schyl;ek wieku" (The Turn of the Century), and "Dzieci epoki" (Children of Our Era). With this volume the theme of death becomes prominent in Szymborska's poetry, as seen in "O omierci bez przesady" (On Death without Exaggeration), "Dom wielkiego czl;owieka" (A Great Man's House), and "Pogrzeb" (Funeral). An antianthropocentric perspective developed in her earlier volumes finds expression in "Widok z ziarnkiem piasku" (View With a Grain of Sand) and "Nadmiar" (Surplus). "Widok z ziarnkiem piasku" portrays a world fiercely independent of the categories that language attempts to foist upon it. "Nadmiar" describes a gathering of astronomers celebrating the discovery of a "new" star--new to humankind, that is. The title poem, which closes the volume, alludes to "Squall at Ohashi," a nineteenth-century woodcut by Hiroshige Utagawa, and draws attention to the subversive possibilities of art, which is capable of even the flux of time.

Szymborska carefully structures each of her collections; hence, much can be gained by situating the discussion of individual poems with respect to the larger whole of which they are a part. This point is especially true of her 1993 collection, Koniec i poczatek (The End and The Beginning). At the core of the collection lies the issue of the futility of the human effort to demarcate ends and beginnings in a world of temporal and spatial continuity: earth and sky, death and (after)life, war and peace, human history and natural history, the quotidian and the "significant," individual and collective memory, and the particular and the universal.

The architecture of Koniec i poczatek resembles that of Wielka liczba, where meditation on the personal is bracketed by considerations of the immense and abstract. The opening poem of the collection, "Niebo" (Sky), playfully takes issue with the religious worldview, which separates life into worldly and otherworldly existence. Szymborka trades on two meanings of the word niebo, which in Polish designates both sky and heaven. By excising the religious connotation from the word, she naturalizes the supernatural: heaven is nothing more than sky, and sky is nothing more than air, which is everywhere. The title poem uses shifting perspectives to meditate on the fabric of history. Even the most course-altering of events quickly fades from human memory or is reclaimed by organic nature as history and nature stumble forward. "Moze byæ bez tytul;u" (No Title Required) celebrates the importance of the moment, while "Dnia 16 maja 1973 roku" (16 May 1973) laments the moment lost to memory. In "Rzeczywistooæ wymaga" (Reality Demands), biology triumphs over history, leading not to nihilism but to an acceptance of human limitation. And as critics have remarked, Szymborska explores the limits of poetry as a mode of representation in depicting the tension between general history and personal loss as preserved by individual memory. Koniec i poczatek is also in part an elegy to Filipowicz, Szymborska's companion of twenty-three years, who died on 28 February 1990. "Kot w pustym mieszkaniu" (Cat in an Empty Apartment) and "Pozegnanie widoku" (Parting with a View) are the most personal poems of the collection and literally and figuratively occupy the center of the volume.

Despite Szymborska's critical acclaim and her high regard among a large and broad Polish readership, the Communist regime did not shower her with literary prizes. Most of her significant awards came in the 1990s. In 1991 she was honored with the Goethe Award. An honorary doctorate was conferred on her by the Adam Mickiewicz University in 1995, and in that same year she was presented with the Herder Award. In 1996 she again received the Polish PEN Club literary award. Later that year she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Szymborska's receipt of the Nobel Prize sparked a debate in Poland and even personal attacks for her early enthusiasm for socialism, not because her poetry was seen as undeserving of the prize but because some felt her winning the prize decreased the likelihood of its being granted to either Rózewicz or Herbert. The Nobel committee cited her "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality."

In her Nobel lecture, the shortest ever given by a laureate in literature, Szymborska with the grace and wit characteristic of her poetry deflates the role of the poet, suggesting that inspiration is something accessible to all: gardeners, teachers, or any individuals who pursue their work with imagination, passion, and curiosity. Szymborska hails the word "why" as "the most important word in any language on earth, and probably also in the languages of other galaxies." She further demands that the poet "know it and use it adroitly." The simple admission "I don't know," Szymborska claims, brings with it an attitude of humility, an openness to possibility, and an appetite for knowledge, which together provide the spark required for inspired work in any field.

The Nobel Prize left its mark on Szymborska's life--she went from being an intensely private person to a public figure, vigorously pursued by the media. Her first post-Nobel collection--Chwila (translated as Chwila; Moment , 2003)--was published in 2002, nine years after the publication of Koniec i poczatek. Nearly half of the poems in Chwila were composed between 1993 and 1996 and first published in periodicals shortly after Szymborska won the Nobel Prize. Those poems are the pillars of the volume, buttressed by "Chwila," the opening poem, and "Wszystko" (Everything), the poem closing the volume. "Chwila" sets the emotional and philosophic tone of the collection: a sense of wonderment at the abundance found in the simplest and most obvious things, a desire for permanence in a life consisting of moments, and an awareness that the categories people impose on nature are only their own.

Whereas nearly all of Szymborska's earlier volumes, starting with Wol;anie do Yeti, had met with critical praise, the scholarly response to Chwila was not as consistently positive. The more-lukewarm reviewers found Szymborska employing her signature devices and returning to themes familiar from other volumes: contingency ("W zatrzêsieniu" [In Abundance]), nature's indifference to human concerns ("Chmury" [Clouds] and "Milczenie roolin" [Silence of Plants]), and the power of poetry to stop time (the solemn "Fotografia z 11 wrzeonia" [A Photograph from 11 September]). Yet, even those reviewers praised these poems for their formal mastery and found in the collection some new themes and stances: anti-Platonism ("Platon, czyli dlaczego" [Plato, That Is Why]) and a longing for permanence in a human world marked by time and death ("Chwila"). To some (Borkowska, Piotr OEliwiñski) the strength of the volume lies in its gentle, discrete summoning of death, in poems such as "Negatyw" (Negative), "Sl;uchawka" (Receiver), "Spis" (List), "Przyczynek do statystyki" (A Word on Statistics), and "Pierwsza mil;ooæ" (First Love). The elegiac tones struck reviewers as noteworthy--in these poems the poetic persona does not rebel against the biological forces propelling humans inexorably toward death. Rather, she reluctantly accepts them, taking solace in the abundance and beauty of what has been experienced in life. "Wczesna godzina" (Early Hour) and "Notatka" (A Note) are a celebration of a conscious life, which does not take anything for granted. "Mal;a dziewczynka ociaga obrus" (A Little Girl Pulls Off the Tablecloth), both a lyrical snapshot and a philosophical tale, is a study of a moment of exploratory joy, written from the point of view of a child.

On the heels of Chwila came the 2005 volume Dwukropek (Colon). In this collection, the poet of the question mark takes as her point of departure the dual stop of the colon, relying on a mark of punctuation to problematize notions of cessation and continuity. The symbolic value of punctuation lies at the heart of "Okropny sen poety" (A Poet's Terrible Dream), which depicts a nightmarish scenario--a world in which no words are wasted; no parentheses are needed; periods are omnipresent; and neither poetry nor philosophy exists. Rare for her poetry is the self-referential fragment in the last poem of Dwukropek--which opens with the phrase, "Practically every poem / could be titled 'A Moment.'" Dwukropek shares with Chwila the twin motifs of loss and the passing of life. The volume concerns itself with the human subject's multiple orientations to loss and explores the range of emotions evoked in confronting the inevitability of death, the contingency of life, and the subtle perplexities of nonexistence. Vladimir Nabokov once characterized a human life as "a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." In Dwukropek, Szymborska is more concerned with prenatal than postmortem tables turned: "Nieobecnooæ" (Absence) contemplates in a chilling tone a scenario in which the speaker's parents have met and married other people and had other offspring instead of her. "Moralitet leony" (Sylvan Morality Tale) contrasts the harmony of nature with the hostility of the human environment. "Pociecha" (Relief) imagines a Charles Darwin no longer fixated on origins but rather determined to see that things come to a happy end. Perhaps the simplest and strongest poem of the collection, "ABC," in a tone of quiet irony and resignation, tells of the devastation brought by the other abyss, where life is a hopelessly unfinished business to be coped with by imposing alphabetic order on it: "I will never find out, / what A. thought of me. / Whether B. forgave me all the way. / Why C. pretended it was all ok."

What sets Wislawa Szymborska apart from her poetic peers is her insistence on speaking for no one but herself. She refuses to wear the cloak of the prophet and harbors no pretense of changing the world or local political landscape. She writes with the liberation of someone who has renounced the role of sage, preferring instead to play the jester. By subverting parochialism and anthropocentrism, her poetry affords readers the distance to laugh at themselves. Szymborska has drawn attention for her irreverence toward the lofty and self-important and for her exaltation of the lowly and seemingly trivial. She continues to restore the literal meaning to figurative language in subtle and arresting ways.


For more information, incuding the transcript of her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, read the full article:

Trzeciak, Joanna. "Wislawa Szymborska." Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 4, Gale, 2007. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 332.


  • Further Reading
    • Judith Arlt, "'Pisze, wiec jestem--nie bezbronna . . .': O Noblu dla Szymborskiej w Niemczech i w Szwajcarii," Polonistyka, 8 (1997): 461-465.
    • Eva Badowska, "'My Poet's Junk': Wislawa Szymborska in Retrospect," Parnassus: Poetry in Review, 28 (2004): 151-168.
    • Stanislaw Balbus, OEwiat ze wszystkich stron owiata: O Wislawie Szymborskiej (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1996).
    • Balbus and Dorota Wojda, eds., Radooæ czytania Szymborskiej: Wybór tekstów krytycznych (Kraków: Znak, 1996).
    • Edward Balcerzan and Boguslawa Latawiec, "Poeta i etykieta," Arkusz, 1 (1997): 1-2.
    • Anna Bikont and Joanna Szczêsna, "Szymborska usciolona," Arkusz, 4 (1998): 4-5.
    • Edyta M. Bojañska, "Wislawa Szymborska: Naturalist and Humanist," Slavic and East European Journal, 41 (Summer 1997): 199-223.
    • Grazyna Borkowska, "Szymborska eks-centryczna," Texty Drugie, 4 (1991): 45-58.
    • Bogdana Carpenter, "Wislawa Szymborska and the Importance of the Unimportant, " World Literature Today, 71 (1997): 8-12.
    • Tadeusz Chroocielewski, "Trzy grosze w sprawie laureatow Nobla," Akant, 76 (November 2003): 28-29.
    • Tomasz Cieslak-Sokolowski, "Zdziwiona, porownujaca o poznawaniu autorki Chwili,Dekada Literacka, 5/ 6 (2003): 40-47.
    • Zenon Fajfer, "Czas na liberacka nagrode nobla?" Dekada Literacka, 5/6 (2003): 35-37.
    • Darek Foks, "Wiersze Wislawy Szymborskiej i system," Odra, 2 (1997): 69-71.
    • Mal;gorzata Joanna Gabrys, "Transatlantic Dialogues: Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Wisl;awa Szymborska," dissertation, Ohio State University, 2000.
    • Andrzej Glowaczewski, "Babie lata Wislawy," Magazyn Literacki, 1 (1997): 17-19.
    • Barbara Judkowiak, Elzbieta Nowicka, and Barbara Sienkiewicz, eds., Wokól; Szymborskiej, Poznañskie Studia Polonistyczne, Seria Literacka (Poznañ: WiS, 1995).
    • Justyna Kostkowska, "'To persistently not know something important': Feminist Science and the Poetry of Wisl;awa Szymborska," Feminist Theory, 5, no. 2 (2004): 185-203.
    • Piotr Kowalski, "Zycie, czyli pel;ne dramaturgii igraszki z banal;em," Dekada Literacka, 5/6 (2003): 26-32.
    • Roman Kubicki, "W poszukiwaniu straconego mostu," Wiê–, 339 (January 1987): 115-119.
    • Andrzej Lam, "Echa baroku w poezji Wislawy Szymborskiej," Zycie Literackie, 47 (1987).
    • Anna Legezyñska, Wislawa Szymborska (Poznañ: Rebis, 1996).
    • Madeline G. Levine, Contemporary Polish Poetry 1925-1975 (Boston: Twayne, 1981).
    • Wojciech Ligêza, "Historia naturalna: Wedlug Wislawy Szymborkiej," Dekada Literacka, 5/6 (2003): 13-21.
    • Ligêza, O poezji Wislawy Szymborskiej (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2001).
    • Dorota Mazurek, "Flirt z tajemnica bytu--czyli Szymborska," Akcent, 4 (1996): 14-21.
    • Czesl;aw Mil;osz, "Szymborska: I wielki inkwizytor," Dekada Literacka, 5/6 (2003): 7-10.
    • Iwona Mislak, "Zmysl Wzroku Wislawy Szymborkiej," Fraza, 3 (2001): 149-156.
    • NaGl;os, special Szymborska issue, 24 (1996).
    • Leonard Neuger and Rikard Wennerholm, eds., Wislawa Szymborska--A Stockholm Conference, May 23-24, 2006 (Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhets Hisorieoch Antikvitets Akademien, 2006).
    • Polonistyka, special Szymborska issue, 8 (1997).
    • Przekl;adaniec, special Szymborska issue, 10 (2003).
    • Wiesl;aw Rzonca, "Dialektyka nieba--Szymborska i Norwid," Przeglad Humanistyczyny, 6 (2002): 67-79.
    • Artur Sandauer, "Na przykl;ad Szymborska," in his Liryka i logika: Wybor pism krytycznych (Warsaw: Pañstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1969).
    • Piotr OEliwiñski, "Sztuka i zycie," Res Publica Nova (November 2002): 78-80.
    • Adriana Szymañska, "Pomiedzy chwila a wszystkim," Przeglad Powszechny, 12 (2002): 410-413.
    • Teksty Drugie, special Szymborska issue, 4 (1991).
    • Radosl;aw Wioniewski, "Siedem. List, który mial; byæ recenzja . . ." Studium, 5/6 (2002/2003): 100-106.
    • Dorota Wojda, Milczenie slowa: O poezji Wislawy Szymborskiej (Kraków: Universitas, 1996).
    • Andrzej Zawada, "Poezja naturalna jak oddychanie," Nowe Ksiazki, 11 (2002): 40-41.
    • Leszek Zuliñski, "Lekcja Szymborskiej," Literatura (1996): 4-6.