BORN: 1923, Prowent-Bnin, near Poznan, Poland
GENRE: Poetry, essays
Calling Out to the Yeti (1957)
Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts (1981)
People on a Bridge (1986)
View with a Grain of Sand (1995)
Winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, Wislawa Szymborska is a private—some would say reclusive—widow. She has been described as “the [Wolfgang] Mozart of poetry … [with] something of the fury of [Ludwig van] Beethoven,” and although she is perhaps Poland's most popular female writer and is valued as a national treasure there, she has only slowly made her way onto the radar of English-speaking readers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life in Krakow Wislawa Szymborska was born on July 2, 1923, in the small town of Bnin (which is now part of Kórnik). She spent her early childhood there, ne!r the city of Poznan, the industrial and cultural center of the western part of Poland. Her father, Wincenty
Szymborska, served as the steward of the Count Wladyslaw Zamoyski's family estate until taking a generous early retirement in the 1920s. In 1932, when Szymborska was eight, her family moved to the historic city of Krakow—as much the informal capital of southern Poland as Poznan is of its western reaches—to settle down for good. Since then, Szymborska's entire life, except for her infrequent and usually short travels, has been spent in Krakow.
From September 1935 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Szymborska attended Gimnazjum Siostr Urszulanek (Academy of the Sisters of the Ursuline Order), a prestigious parochial high school for girls in Krakow. When the Gimnazjum was shut down during the Nazi German occupation of the city, 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 has remained critical. After the war Szymborska studied first Polish philology and then sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow but never completed a degree.
The Postwar Years The war had a profound effect on Szymborska. Her poetic debut, “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 “Remembering September, 1939,” “Remembering January,” “Leaving the Cinema,” and “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.
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 were deemed too “bourgeois” and “pessimistic,” clashing with the socialist realist aesthetic that was beginning to take hold. Socialist realism was a movement promoted by the government of the Soviet Union as a way to ensure that all art contributed positively to society; to this end, the movement emphasized optimism and pride in communist ideals and cultural triumphs. The movement also worked against those artists who sought to question those in power or the current state of society. One of Szymborska's poems, “Sunday at School,” even 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.
Krupnicza Also in 1948, at the age of twenty-four, Szymborska married Adam Wlodek, a minor poet and literary editor, and joined him at the writers' complex on Krupnicza Street in Krakow. (The marriage ended in divorce in 1954.) Krupnicza Street 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 Czeslaw Milosz, Jerzy Andrzejewski, poet Artur Miedzyrzecki, Maciej Slomczynski (Shakespeare translator and author of crime novels under the pen name Joe Alex), poets Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski and Anna Swieszczynska, and the foremost postwar scholar of Polish literature, Artur Sandauer. Some lived there for a short period of time, awaiting the rebuilding of Warsaw, but for Szymborska and others it was to be home for many years.
Szymborska worked as an assistant editor in publishing houses until 1953, when she became the editor of the poetry section of the Krakow-based weekly Zycie Liter-ackie (Literary Life), a position she held until 1968. She remained on the board as a regular contributor until 1976.
A New Direction As time passed, Szymborska became disillusioned with communism as it was practiced in Poland and the Soviet Union. This point is evident in the contrast between the title of her first collection, That's What We Live For (1952), and that of her second, Questions Put to Myself (1954). In the semantic gap between these two titles is the first glimpse of the fully original voice that emerged with Szymborska's third collection, Calling Out to Yeti (1957). Calling Out to 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. Calling Out to Yeti has been considered a transitional volume, one in which her basic themes begin to take shape.
Solidarity and Support During the 1970s, Polish protesters held mass anticommunism demonstrations. Although her sympathies were aroused by the growing political opposition, Szymborska remained hesitant to adopt the role of spokesperson for political causes, perhaps because she felt she had earlier misplaced her trust in the promise of socialism. For Szymborska, the 1970s were a relatively prolific period. She produced two volumes of poetry, both marked by a strong existentialist streak. Critics of the 1972 collection 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.
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 Krakow 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 December 13, 1981, the composition of the editorial board of Pismo shrank as the government imposed demands on it, and Szymborska began to distance herself. Similarly, Szymborska terminated her thirty-year association with Zycie Literackie during this period. Under martial law, she chose to publish underground and in the émigré press under the pen name Stanczykowna, a feminized derivation of the name of a sixteenth-century court jester noted for his forthrightness.
Awards and Fame Although Szymborska's poems found their way into a few adventuresome literary periodicals during the 1980s, 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, People on the Bridge (1986) garnered her praise and several awards, including one from the Ministry of Culture, which she declined, and the Solidarity Prize, which she accepted.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Szymborska's famous contemporaries include:
Václav Havel (1936–): Renowned playwright and author, Havel was both the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the independent Czech Republic.
Lech Walesa (1943–): Walesa was the leader of Poland's primary resistance movement under authoritarian rule (Solidarity), winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and first president of Soviet-free Poland (from 1990 to 1995).
Tom Wolfe (1931–): Cofounder of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s (incorporating literary techniques into reporting), Wolfe is renowned for his fast-paced, technically brilliant nonfiction chronicles of contemporary society.
W. G. Sebald (1944–2001): Sebald has been hailed by many as the greatest German writer of the postwar period; his novels are known for their lucid but surreal shifts in perspective and style.
Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982): After Joseph Stalin, Brezhnev was the longest-serving general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He was political leader of the authoritarian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1964 until his death in 1982.
Szymborska won her most prestigious award, the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1996. Despite, or perhaps due to, giving the shortest acceptance speech in literary Nobel history, she went from being an intensely private person to a public figure, vigorously pursued by the media. Since then, however, Szymborska has continued to be known for her quiet way of life and unwillingness to embrace the status of a celebrity. She shuns public gatherings, rarely travels abroad, hates being photographed or interviewed, and, except for her human rights and democratic reform activities, refuses to be involved in partisan politics. She is nevertheless quite involved in the cultural landscape of Krakow and maintains lively contacts with a small circle of friends. Her dislike of being in the limelight is by no means a sign of antisocial inclinations. Rather, it stems from her recognition that the larger part of a writers' public functioning is an empty ritual and an unnecessary waste of their inner resources.
Works in Literary Context
Skamander Szymborska's early work 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.
Simple Details Szymborska emphasizes and examines the chance happenings of daily life and of personal relations in her poetry. “She is a master at recognizing the importance of the insignificant,” explains James Beschta, continuing, “It is the innovative, playful use of language that dominates her style.” Indeed, what sets 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 illusions about changing the world or even the local political landscape with her poetry. As a result, she writes with the liberation of a jester. Szymborska has drawn attention for her irreverence toward the lofty and self-important and for her exaltation of the lowly and seemingly trivial.
A Poet of Socialism? Szymborska's book debut came during the heyday of Stalinism. In 1952 she published her first collection of poetry, What We Live For, and was admitted to the Polish Writers' Union (ZLP) and the United Polish Workers Party (PZPR). With this involvement, she participated in the socialist-realist aesthetic that changed the course of Polish literature. As party pluralism was replaced by the authoritarian, single-party state, a new literature arose that served to illustrate ready-made slogans, culminating in formulaic propaganda. Szymborska was far from 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, Questioning Oneself (1954,), are dominated by politically engaged poetry. That is, they are filled with anti-Westernism, anti-imperialism, anticapitalism, and “struggle for peace.”
A politically Political Poetry Szymborska later renounced her first two volumes of poetry as ignoble, however, criticizing herself for attempting to conform to the tenets of socialist realism. The Swedish Academy awarded her the Nobel Prize in 1996 on the basis of poems from her third collection, Calling Out to the Yeti, and thereafter. The Academy saw this collection as a reaction against Stalin, but Szymborska has challenged that interpretation of her work. “Of course, life crosses politics, but my poems are strictly not political,” she noted in a rare interview. “They are more about people and life.”
As a Polish poet gaining international prominence during the most frigid years of the cold war, she sought to write poems about people, about a common and simple humanity. This very emphasis on the human, however, has been identified as a part of an “apolitical politics” in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Eastern bloc countries. That is, in totalitarian political systems, where even the most mundane activities and everyday life itself are “for the Party,” an insistence on humanness and connection without politics was itself a political statement.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
More than perhaps any other poet of her generation, Szymborska has an eye for the small and the everyday. Here are a few other poets and authors whose reputation rests in part on their ability to see complexity in simplicity:
The Little Prince (1943), a children's story by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. The simplicity of this children's story lines up with a complex but unspoken philosophy of the world.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923), a poem by William Carlos Williams. This poem is a quick sketch of a red wheelbarrow. It has captured the fancies of generations and has been seen as reflective of the imagist philosophy.
Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), a novel by Willa Cather. This historical novel portrays two French priests setting out to establish a diocese in New Mexico.
Works in Critical Context
Wislawa Szymborska was thrust into the international spotlight in 1996 after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. The reclusive and private Szymborska was described by the Swedish Academy as writing “poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” Her poetry, in the words of Los Angeles Times critic DeanE. Murphy, is “seductively simple verse … [which has] captured the wit and wisdom of everyday life for the past half century.”
Sounds, Feeings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems Although still not widely read outside her native Poland, Szymborska received critical acclaim for the first collection of her work to appear in English translation, Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems. “Of the poetic voices to come out of Poland after 1945, Wislawa Szymborska's is probably the most elusive as well as the most distinctive,” writes Jaroslaw Anders in the New York Review of Books. Anders comments further: “Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts contains poems from [Szymborska's] five books written since 1957, comprising more or less half of what the poet herself considers her canon. Its publication is of interest not only because of Szymborska's importance as a poet, but also because her work demonstrates that the diversity of poetic modes in Poland is much greater than is usually perceived.” Alice-Catherine Carls, in a review of Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts in Library Journal, calls the work “one of those rare books which put one in a state of ‘grace.”’ Robert Hudzik, also in Library Journal, claims: “This volume reveals a poet of startling originality and deep sympathy.”
View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems The 1995 collection View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems was also praised by the critics, who lauded Szymborska's directness and distinctive voice. For the Washington Post Book World, Stephen Dobyns praises both the humor of Szymborska's work and the imaginative integrity of this translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Celebrated proponent of the idea of “cultural literacy” Edward Hirsch agrees, arguing in the New York Review of Books that the volume reveals “the full force of [Szymborska's] fierce and unexpected wit.” Louis McKee, in a Library Journal review, also praises the “wonderfully wicked” wit of Szymborska. Dobyns concludes his review by noting, “The poems are surprising, funny and deeply moving. Szymborska is a world-class poet, and this book will go far to make her known in the United States.”
Responses to Literature
- Choose four poems from View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems and discuss a common theme in these poems. Discuss why Szymborska opted to anthologize these poems together. Do the different poems reflect on one another in some ways?
- Discuss Szymborska's representation of the unexpected within daily life. What sorts of details draw her attention? What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking on a perspective such as hers?
- Find an example of a poem where Szymborska uses a small and apparently insignificant detail to reflect on a large and important issue. What are some of the effects of this technique?
- In The Century's Decline, Szymborska writes, “The most pressing questions are naive ones.” What do you think she means by this? What are some of the “naive” questions Szymborska poses in her poetry?
Gabrys, Malgorzata Joanna. “Transatlantic Dialogues: Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Wislawa Szymborska.” PhD diss., Ohio State University, 2000.
Levine, Madeline G. Contemporary Polish Poetry 1925–1975. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Neuger, Leonard and Rikard Wennerholm, eds. Wislawa Szymborska—A Stockholm Conference, May 23–24, 2006 Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhets Hisorieoch Antikvitets Akademien, 2006.
Badowska, Eva. “‘My Poet's Junk’: Wislawa Szymborska in Retrospect.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 28 (2004): 151–68.
Bojanska, Edyta M. “Wislawa Szymborska: Naturalist and Humanist.” Slavic and East European Journal 41 (Summer 1997): 199–223.
Carpenter, Bogdana. “Wislawa Szymborska and the Importance of the Unimportant.” World Literature Today 71 (1997): 8–12.
Kostkowska, Justyna. “‘To Persistently Not Know Something Important’: Feminist Science and the Poetry of Wislawa Szymborska.” Feminist Theory 5, no. 2 (2004): 185–203.
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.
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Pseudonym: Stancy Kowna. Nationality: Polish. Born: Prowent-Bnin, 2 July 1923. Education: Jagellonian University, Kraków, 1945-48. Family: Married 1) Adam Wlodek (divorced); 2) Kornel Flipowicz (died). Career: Poetry editor and columnist, Zycie Literackie (literary weekly magazine), 1953-81. Awards: Kraków literary prize, 1954; Gold Cross of Merit, 1955; Ministry of Culture prize, 1963; Goethe prize, 1991; Herder prize, 1995; Polish PEN Club prize and Nobel prize for literature, both in 1996; poet laureate of Poland, 1997. Knight's Cross, Order of Polonia Resituta, 1974. Address: Office: Zwigzel Literalow Polskich, ul Krolewska 82m 18, 30-079, Kraków, Poland.
Wiersze wybrane. 1964.
Wybor wierszy. 1973.
Dlatego zyjemy [What We Live For]. 1952.
Pytania zadawane sobie [Questions Put to Myself]. 1954.
Wołanie do Yeti [Calling Out to Yeti]. 1957.
Sol [Salt]. 1962.
Sto pociech [A Hundred Joys]. 1967.
Poezje wybrane: Wybór i wstep autorki. 1967.
Poezje [Poems] (selections). 1970.
Wszelki wypadek [There but for the Grace]. 1972.
Wielka liczba [A Great Number]. 1976.
Tarsjusz I inne wiersze [Tarsius and Other Poems]. 1976.
Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems (selections in English). 1981.
Poezje wybrane (II) [Selected Poems II]. 1983.
Ludzie na moscie. 1986; as People on a Bridge: Poems (selections in English and Polish), 1990.
Poems (selections in English and Polish). 1989.
Wieczor autorski: Wiersze [Authors' Evening: Poems]. 1992.
Koniec I poczatek [The End and the Beginning]. 1993.
With a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems. 1995.
Zycie na poczekaniu: Lekcja literatury z Jerzym Kwiatowskim I Marianem Stala (with criticism). 1996.
Widok z ziarnkiem piasku: 102 Wiersze. 1996.
Nothing Twice: Selected Poems (in English and Polish). 1997.
Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997 (selections in English). 1998.
Nothing's a Gift (in English, Polish, Yiddish, German, and Hebrew). 1999.
Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska. 2001.
Lektury nadobowiazkowe [Non-Compulsory Reading] (collection of book reviews). 1973.
Wislawa Szymborska Nobel lecture 1996: The Poet and the World. 1996.*
"Mozartian Joy: The Poetry of Wislawa Szymborska" by Krzysztof Karasek, in The Mature Laurel: Essays on Modern Polish Poetry, edited by Adam Czerniawski, 1991; "Eastern Europe: The Szymborska Phenomenon" by Stanislaw Baranczak, in Salmagundi, 103, Summer 1994, pp. 252-65; "Wislawa Szymborska and the Importance of the Unimportant" by Bogdana Carpenter, in World Literature Today, 71(1), Winter 1997, pp. 8-12; "Wislawa Szymborska: Naturalist and Humanist" by Edyta M. Bojanska, in Slavic and East European Journal, 41(2), Summer 1997, pp. 199-223; "Poetry and Ideology: The Example of Wislawa Szymborska" by Clare Cavanagh, in Literary Imagination, 1(2), Fall 1999, pp. 174-90; "Parting with a View: Wislawa Szymborska and the Work of Mourning" by Charity Scribner, in Polish Review, 44(3), 1999, pp. 311-28; "Sky, the Sky, a Sky, the Heavens, a Heaven, Heavens: Reading Szymborska Whole" by Stephen Tapscott and Mariusz Przybytek, in American Poetry Review, 29(4), July/August 2000, pp. 41-47; "Szymborska's Two Monkeys: The Stammering Poet and the Chain of Signs" by John Blazina, in Modern Language Review (United Kingdom), 96(1), January 2001, pp. 130-39.* * *
Wisława Szymborska is one of the leading poets of postwar Poland. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 and named poet laureate of Poland in 1997. Born in western Poland in 1923, she moved to Kraków when she was eight years old. She studied Polish literature and sociology from 1945 to 1948, and her poetic debut dates to 1945, when she published her first poem. She had a volume of poems ready for publication as early as 1948, but it did not pass the test of political acceptability. She revised her work to make it conform to the exigencies of socialist realism, and a collection entitled Dlatego zyjemy ("What We Live For") was published in 1952, when Stalinist tendencies in literature had reached their peak in Poland. This volume, and to a lesser extent her next one, have dogged her reputation ever since, because in them she has responded to the muse of political expediency as well as that of poetry. Despite her repudiation of this early work, she has been accused by many of a lack of integrity in connection with it, although there has been little attempt to determine her real political inclinations at the time. Comparisons with poetic hacks and careerists are hardly defensible, however, since even the second collection overcame many of the deficiencies of the first. It is noteworthy that her poetry and career since the mid-1950s have been largely unmarked by political events. This is not to say she has not taken principled stands at critical moments in Polish history, but she has done so quietly and largely outside of her poetry.
Since 1957, when she published her third collection, Wołanie do Yeti ("Calling Out to Yeti"), the number of volumes she published rose to about 20 by the end of the twentieth century. From 1953 to 1981 she worked for the important weekly Zycie Literackie (Literary Life), where she was poetry editor and wrote a book review column, the only other literary form she has practiced. These reviews have been collected and published in four separate volumes. She has also translated French poetry, mainly of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, into Polish.
Szymborska has been as reticent to discuss her biography as to discuss theoretical aspects of her poetry. In one poem she asks what poetry is and replies firmly, "I don't know and I don't know and I hold on to that/like to a life raft." Her work is characterized by humility, a wry and frequently ironic sense of humor, and a profound sense of the joy and tragedy inherent in individual human existence and in the collective history of the species. Commentators generally agree with her that there is no need to know anything of her life to appreciate or understand her poetry. This is one of the few theoretical questions on which her position is unambiguously known, and while it may not apply equally well to all poets, it does seem to hold true for her work. Each of her poems successfully creates its own world, and there is little to connect them beyond some stylistic and methodological consistency. This makes it diffi-cult to locate her views of the Holocaust within her opus, although some patterns do emerge. Three poems that bear directly on the Holocaust are "Hunger Camp near Jaslo," "Still" ("Jeszcze"), and "Hitler's First Photograph." Each of them manifests key elements of her poetic technique and fixes the reader's attention on the subject matter with a sense of urgency and newness, despite the familiarity of the thematic material. In "Hunger Camp near Jaslo," besides identifying the important role to be played by poets in addressing such atrocities, she tries to remove the numbing effect of large numbers by forcing our attention onto the importance of each individual and the tactile and personal elements of their existence. She has written a number of poems about numbers, including "Pi" and "A Large Number," where she says, "Four billion people on this earth,/but my imagination is still the same./It's bad with large numbers./It's still taken by particularity."
In "Still" she employs an extended metonymy, another frequently encountered technique in her work. She describes prisoners in a train headed for a concentration camp as if they were names only. The obvious Jewishness of these names marks them and sets them apart from their Slavic neighbors, making it easier for bystanders to ignore their situation. She describes with remarkable force the "crash of silence on silence." This poem, from the mid-1950s, carries a strong charge of shared complicity disguised as passivity: "and will they ever get out,/don't ask, I won't say, I don't know." "Hitler's First Photograph" is one of the most chilling poetic inspections of the psychopathological phenomena associated with its namesake and Nazism ever written. By describing Hitler in his first year of life from the perspective of his parents (any parents), she jolts us out of our complacency around the question of how this could have happened: "And who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?/That's tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers' little boy!" She prods us to question whether the signs were there and, if they were not, to ask what gives rise to such abominations and to recognize the need to be vigilant.
In these poems Szymborska explores aspects of the Holocaust in the same way as she approaches the minutiae of daily life, probing common details with phenomenological thoroughness to force us to reintegrate our experience of them with greatly increased and intensified awareness of their complexity, richness, and power.
See the essays on Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997.
SZYMBORSKA, Wislawa. Also writes as Stancykowna. Polish, b. 1923. Genres: Poetry. Career: Poet and critic. Poetry editor and columnist, Zycie literackie (literary weekly magazine), 1953-81. Publications: POETRY: Dlatego zyjemy (title means: That's Why We Are Alive), 1952; Pytania zadawane sobie (title means: Questions Put to Myself), 1954; Wolanie do Yeti (title means: Calling Out to Yeti), 1957; Sol (title means: Salt), 1962; Wiersze wybrane (collection), 1964; Sto pociech (title means: A Hundred Joys), 1967; Poezje wybrane (title means: Selected Poems), 1967; Poezje (title means: Poems), 1970; Wybor poezje (collection), 1970; Wszelki wypadek (title means: There But for the Grace), 1972; Wybor wierszy (collection), 1973; Tarsjusz i inne wiersze (title means: Tarsius and Other Poems), 1976; Wielka liczba (title means: A Great Number), 1976; Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems, trans. by M.J. Krynski and R.A. Maguire, 1981; Poezje wybrane (II), (title means: Selected Poems II), 1983; Ludzie na moscie, 1986, trans. by A. Czerniawski as People on a Bridge: Poems, 1990; Poezje = Poems (bilingual edition), trans. Krynski and Maguire, 1989; Wieczor autorski: wiersze (title means: Authors' Evening: Poems), 1992; Koniec i poczatek (title means: The End and the Beginning), 1993; View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, trans. by S. Baranczak and C. Cavanagh, 1995; Poems: New and Collected 1957-1997, 1998. OTHER: Lektury nadobowiazkowe (collection of book reviews; title means: Non- Compulsory Reading), 1973. Translator of French poetry. Work represented in anthologies. Contributor, under pseudonym Stancykowna, to Arka (underground publication) and Kultura (exile magazine; published in Paris). Szymborska's works have been translated into Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, and other languages. Address: Ul. Krolewska 82/89, 30-079 Cracow, Poland.