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Szymborska, Wislawa

Wislawa Szymborska

While celebrated in her native Poland since the 1960s, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (born 1923) did not become well known internationally until she received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. Since then, Szymborska's works have been translated widely and the reclusive writer has been thrust into the public eye. Following the award, the English translation of her 1995 poetry collection View with a Grain of Sand, became one of the top–selling poetry books in America. Szymborska continues to shun the spotlight, however, rarely granting interviews or making public appearances.

Szymborska was born on July 2, 1923, in the western Polish town of Bnin (now Kornick), the second child of Anna Rottermund and Wincenty Szymborski. Her older sister, Maria, was born in 1917. The family moved to Torun in 1926, and Szymborska began elementary school there. The family moved to Krakow in 1931, where Szymborska completed elementary school and continued her education at a convent school. Szymborska's interest in writing was encouraged at an early age by her father, who died in 1936. "Maybe it was the atmosphere in my home," she remarked in the Los Angeles Times when asked about her beginnings as a writer. "It was an intellectual kind of house, where we talked a lot about books. We read a lot. Especially my father. I started writing poems when I was five years old. If I wrote a poem—it was children's poetry—that my father liked, then he reached into his pocket and gave me [some money]. I can't remember exactly how much, but it was a lot to me."

German forces occupied Krakow in the 1940s during World War II, but Szymborska's mother refused to leave the city. Since the city's Polish residents were barred from the public schools, Szymborska continued her studies at an underground school and also joined an underground theater, where she worked as a prompter. In 1943, she worked for a railroad company in order to avoid being transferred to a labor camp in Germany. After the war ended, in 1945 she enrolled at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where she studied Polish literature and sociology. During this time, she married Adam Wlodek and the couple lived in a tenement house at 22 Krupnicza Street that became a hub for writers. She left the university in 1948 without graduating. Szymborska and Wlodek divorced in 1954.

Began to Publish

Szymborska published her first poem, "Szukam slowa" (I Seek the World), in the newspaper Dziennik Polski in 1945. She finished her first collection of poems three years later but the post–war government in Poland blocked its publication because the poems did not advance a Communist agenda. Szymborska changed the tone of the poems to reflect support for the socialist state and her first collection Dlagtego zyjemy (That's What We Live For) was published in 1952. "During the period of captivity, it was the duty of the poet to speak for the nation," Szymborska told The Washington Post in 1998. Szymborska told the Los Angeles Times that her actions made sense given the political climate of the time and the hope many Eastern Europeans placed in Communism. "Now people don't understand the situation then," she said. "I really wanted to save humanity, but I chose the worst possible way. I did it out of love for mankind. Then I came to understand that you should not love mankind, but rather like people. . . . That was a very hard lesson for me. It was a mistake of my youth. It was made in good faith, and, unfortunately, a lot of poets have done the same. Later they would sit in prison for changing their ideology. I was fortunately spared that fate, because I never had the nature of a real political activist."

Szymborska joined the staff of the magazine Zycie literackie (Literary Life) in 1953. A second poetry collection, advancing similar themes as the first, Pytania zadawane sobie (Questions Put to Myself), was published in 1954. Szymborska's growing discontent with Communism was reflected in her next collection, Wolanie do Yeti (Calling Out to Yeti), published in 1957. In this work she advances deep–seated humanitarian concerns and, displaying what was to become a trademark blend of tragedy and humor, compares Soviet Communist leader Joseph Stalin to the Abominable Snowman. Sol (Salt) was published in 1962 and is largely regarded as Szymborska's first mature work. "Since then, Szymborska's popularity and critical acclaim have grown with every volume," remarked Joanna Trzeciak in Publisher's Weekly. The collection established Szymborska as a poet interested less in political issues as in poignant assessments of broad human emotions and acute observations of everyday objects and occurrences. The lack of political content in her later work set her apart from other well–known Polish writers such as Zbiegnew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz. Yet to examine one's inner life was an inherently political act in post–war Poland, argued then–United States Poet Laureate Robert Hass on PBS' Newshour. "It's one of the reasons that Poland has produced so many interesting poets I think—not that you'd wish this way of producing interesting poets on anybody—is that from 1939 to the early 1980s it was a country in which it was very hard to say the truth in public. And it produced an ironic, thoughtful poetry, fierce about the independence of everybody's private life, and of the privacy of thoughts. And a lot of the Polish poets made a music out of that—seems like a strong human response to the terrors of the 20th century."

Szymborska continued to publish volumes of poetry through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and became one of the best–known poets in Poland. Her work is taught regularly in the nation's schools and she received several local and national prizes. She remained politically committed as well, even while keeping such concerns separate from her work. In the 1980s, she joined Poland's growing democratic Solidarity movement and resigned from her position at Zycie literackie after her editor expressed opposition to the movement. She also published under the pen name Stanczykowna in the Paris–based exile journal Kultura paryska and the Polish underground magazine Arka. Szymborska told the Los Angeles Times in 1996 that her political life had no bearing on her poetics. "Beginning in 1954–55, I already started thinking differently—the same way I think now," she said. "Since then, I haven't changed the way I look at the world. After all those mistakes, after all that I lived through in the early '50s, my thinking was altered for good. My life as a citizen of this country has changed dramatically since Solidarity, but my life as a poet has not."

Awarded Nobel Prize

Szymborska's work began to be known to the English–speaking world in 1981, with the publication of Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska, an English translation of several of Szymborska's poems by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire and published by Princeton University Press. In 1993, Szymborska published Koniec i poczatek (The End and the Beginning), a volume that focuses on themes of presence and absence which served largely as an elegy for her long–time partner Kornel Filipowicz, who died in 1990. A second English–language collection, View with a Grain of Sand, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clair Cavanagh, was published in the United States by Harcourt Brace in 1995. The volume features poems written by Szymborska between 1957 and 1993. Szymborska's popularity continued to grow in her home country as well, with one of her poems serving as the inspiration for Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's celebrated film Red. and another later becoming lyrics for a song by the Polish rock band Cora.

Sales of View with a Grain of Sand escalated immensely after Szymborska was announced the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. The announcement came as a surprise to many, as Szymborska was still little–known outside Poland and her work, unlike that of many Nobel Laureates before her, eschewed political themes. "In Wislawa Szymborska, the Swedish Academy wants to honor a representative—and a representative of unusual and unyielding purity and strength—of a poetic outlook. Of poetry as a response to life, a way of life, of the word–work as thought and responsibility," Birgitta Trotzig stated in her presentation speech, published on the Nobel Prize website. The publicity surrounding the award thrust the fiercely private Szymborska begrudgingly into the spotlight. "I am very happy, I am honored, but at the same time stunned and a little bit frightened with what awaits me," Szymborska told Poland's Radio Zet following the award, as quoted in the Houston Chronicle. "I'm afraid I will not have a quiet life for some time now, and this is what I prize most."

In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Szymborska stressed the importance of the poet approaching the world with a sense of naiveté. "[I]nspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists," she said. "There is, there has been, there 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. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners—I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous 'I don't know.' "

Szymborska told The Washington Post in 1998 that she aimed for a sense of duality in her work, relating the story of two back–to–back poetry readings. "After the first reading, someone said, 'Why are your poems so sad? We need some consolation, some humor in life,' And at the other reading, with the same poems, someone said, 'Why are your poems so happy and funny, when life is so sad?' I concluded that this is what I was aiming at—poems that are ambiguous, that are both happy and sad, like a coin with two sides."

Szymborska has continued to write and publish into the new millennium. In addition to several Polish–language collections, Harcourt Brace published the English–language volumes Poems, New and Collected, 1957–1997, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clair Cavanagh, in 1998, and a collection of book reviews, Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces, in 2002.


Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press, 1998.

Nobel Lectures, Literature 1995–2000, World Scientific Publishing, 2002.


Guardian, (UK), July 15, 2000.

Hecate, Issue 1, 1997.

Houston Chronicle, October 4, 1996.

Los Angeles Times, October 13, 1996.

Publishers Weekly, April 7, 1997.

Washington Post, September 1, 1998.


"Nobel Poetess," PBS Online Newshour, (December 6, 2004).

"The Nobel Prize in Literature 1996," Nobel Prize Website, (December 6, 2004).

"Wislawa Szymborska," Biography Resource Center, (December 6, 2004).

"Wislawa Szymborska–Biography," Oracle ThinkQuest Education Foundation, (December 6, 2004).

"Wislawa Szymborska–Nobel Lecture," Nobel Prize Website, (December 6, 2004).

"Wislawa Szymborska," Pegasos–A Literature Related Resource Site, (December 6, 2004).

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"Szymborska, Wislawa." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Szymborska, Wislawa." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 17, 2017).

"Szymborska, Wislawa." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from

Szymborska, Wisława

Wisława Szymborska (wēswä´vä shĬmbôr´skä), 1923–2012, Polish poet, b. Bnin, studied Jagiellonian Univ., Kraków (1945–48). Although highly acclaimed in her homeland, Szymborska was largely unknown in the West until she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. She wrote Dlatego zjemy [that's why we are alive] (1952) and Pytania zadawane sobie [questions put to myself] (1954) under Stalinist pressure and later repudiated them. Szymborska turned to philosophical observation in Wołanie do Yeti [calling to the yeti] (1957), and in that work, Sól [salt] (1962), and Sto pociech [a barrel of laughs] (1967) she explored human isolation and celebrated poetic creation. Szymborska, who often emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual, has been called an ironic moralist. Her verse is deceptively simple; her language colloquial, precise, and contained; and her tone detached and dryly sardonic. Collections of her poetry in English translation include Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems (1981), View with a Grain of Sand (1995), Poems New and Collected, 1957–1997 (1998), Here (2011), and Map: Collected and Last Poems (2015). Szymborska also was an accomplished translator, literary critic, and essayist.

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"Szymborska, Wisława." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Szymborska, Wisława." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 17, 2017).

"Szymborska, Wisława." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from