Szymborska, Wislawa (1923—)

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Szymborska, Wislawa (1923—)

Polish poet, essayist and translator—one of the leading poets, and the leading woman poet—in post-World-War-II Poland, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature. Name variations: Wisława Szymborska; Wislawa Symborska; (pseudonym) Stanczykowna. Pronunciation: Vee-SWAH-vah Shim-BOR-skah. Born on July 2, 1923, in Prowent-Bnin, Poland; daughter of Wincenty Szymborski and Anna (Rottermund) Szymborska; attended schools in Cracow (Kraków); attended a Polish underground school during German occupation in World War II; granted an undergraduate degree from the Jagiellonian University, Cracow; married Adam Wlodek or Włodek (divorced); married Kornel Flipowicz (also seen as Filipowicz), a poet and prose writer (died 1990).

Published first poem in a supplement to Dziennik Polski (Polish Daily, 1945); published some 30 poems in the Daily (1945–48); worked on the staff of the literary newspaper Życie Literackie (Literary Life, 1952–81); criticized for writing elitist poetry, in violation of Socialist Realism, when she attempted to publish her first book of poems (1948); accepted Stalinistera Socialist Realism and criticized Western countries in Dlatego żyjemy (That's Why We Live (1952) and Pytania zadawane sobie (Questioning Oneself, 1954); repudiated Socialist Realism in Woĺanie do Yeti (Calling Out to Yeti, 1957); completely omitted pre-1956 poems from her collected works of poetry, Poezje (Poetry, 1970); emerged as a mature poet with Sto pociech (A Hundred Laughs, 1967); received the Goethe Award (1991); received the Polish PEN Poetry award (1996); received the Nobel Prize for Literature (1996).

Selected writings:

What We Live For (1952); Questions Put to Myself (1954); Woĺanie do Yeti(Calling Out to Yeti, 1957); Salt (1962); Wiersze wybrane (Selected Poems, 1964); Sto pociech (A Hundred Laughs, 1967); Poezje (Poetry, 1970); Wielka liczba (A Great Number, 1976); Nothing Twice (1980); Ludzie na moście (People on a Bridge, 1986); Koniec i poczķtek (The End and the Beginning, 1993); Widok z ziarnkiem piasku (View with a Grain of Sand, 1996).

Wislawa Szymborska, the leading woman poet in Poland in the 20th century, is a native of a country which has been the focus of much upheaval and tragic events in the last two centuries. Victimized by three powerful neighboring states which divided its land among themselves in the late 1700s, Poland did not exist as a separate, single polity in the 19th century. Although it was restored to its status as a single nation at the end of World War I—in what Polish poets saw as the rebirth of their country—Poland was the first country to be invaded by German troops in World War II. Freed from the Nazi terror by victorious Soviet troops, Poland came under the control of a Soviet-controlled bureaucracy.

[Her poetry] with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.

—Nobel Prize committee

Throughout these catastrophes, Polish poets have represented a continuation of Poland in a cultural guise, even when there was no "Poland" on the map. But they have also carried the burden of speaking for their nation, and especially of speaking for those who perished. Despite these difficulties, the second half of the 20th century proved to be a renaissance of Polish poetry, so much so that a writer for The New York Times has spoken of the "greatness of Polish poetry at the end of the 20th century [which has] much to do with its philosophical and ethical seriousness." Polish poetry, he added, has "come to be admired by other poets during the past 20 years or so for its immense intellectual sophistication, its lucid rejection of tyranny and its humane and democratic values."

Prominent in this renaissance has been Szymborska, considered not only Poland's most eminent woman poet of the 20th century but also one of its three greatest poets of the century, the other two being Tadeusz Różewicz and Zbigniew Herbert. Szymborska belongs to the generation of Polish poets who were tempered in the horrors of the Nazi occupation, when the leaders of Poland's cultural life were largely driven underground by the Nazi control of Poland. Some perished, such as the poets Tadeusz Gajcy and Krzysztof Baczynśki, who died in the Warsaw uprising against Nazi rule in 1944. It is estimated that Poland lost almost a fifth of its population during this period.

Freed by liberating Soviet armies, Poland became a Communist country in the aftermath of the war, and Szymborska's generation also experienced the rigors of this period. Under the dictums of the Communist government's policy of Socialist Realism, the writings of Polish intellectuals were expected to contribute to the building of a socialist society, were expected to be written in a way that made them "accessible" to the masses, and were expected to be "politically constructive" rather than negative toward the regime.

Polish intellectuals, who sometimes bore guilt at being survivors of the Nazi era and keenly felt the burden of speaking in place of those who had not survived, responded in various ways to the demands of the new Communist regime. During this period, some, such as Herbert and Miron Białoszewski, went into "internal emigration," neither writing nor saying anything that might be construed as political. Some, like Czeslaw Miłosz, went into exile in the West, and others, such as Konstanty Gałczynśki, returned to Poland, wrote poetry, and were disappointed that they failed to gain any kind of official recognition from the government.

Szymborska chose a different path. Born in 1923 in Bnin, near the city of Posnan, in central west Poland, and named after Poland's largest river, the Wisla, she was eight years old when her family moved to Cracow. She would become a lifelong citizen of that city. Her first attempts at poetry were encouraged by her father, who gave her money for each poem. She was in her early teens when World War II began and in her early 20s when it came to an end. Szymborska attended illegal, underground classes during the Nazi occupation of Poland and eventually received her degree from Jagiellonian University, specializing in sociology and Polish language studies. Her first poem to be published, "I Seek the Word," appeared in 1945 in a supplement to a Polish newspaper, the Polish Daily (Dziennik Polski), where she eventually published some 30 poems, many of which expressed sorrow for the tribulations of her country and expressed guilt over those who had perished in the Nazi occupation.

In 1952, Szymborska joined the staff of a literary newspaper, Życie Literackie (Literary Life), and remained with the newspaper until 1981, working as its poetry editor and writing a column. From 1967 through 1972, she also published more than 130 book reviews, mostly in the same newspaper, evaluating a diverse mix of books on topics which ranged from music and psychology to do-it-yourself.

A slow writer who has emphasized quality over quantity—one writer has called her the "least prolific of the major poets of our time"—Szymborska has often released a new book of poetry only about every five to seven years. While she has been a careful writer by choice, events in her early career also made her cautious. In 1948, her first attempt at producing a book of poetry—basically taken from the poems that she had published in the Polish Daily—was rejected by the Communist regime. It was said that the poems were too elitist to be accessible to the average worker, and the topics of the poems were said too personal and not universal in scope. A campaign was mounted against her that included even demonstrations by schoolchildren.

Rather than go into "internal exile" or flee the country, Szymborska chose to accept the Stalinist-era, Socialist Realist dictums—sincerely, she said later—and her first two books of poetry, Dlatego żyjemy (That's Why We Live, 1952) and Pytania zdawane sobie (Questioning Oneself, 1954) were filled with themes that met the Communist party's approval: suspicion of the West, an emphasis on the need for peace, and praise for the building of a new workers' society. Among the poems published in these volumes was "Old Working Woman," in which an old woman speaks of the suffering she has endured under the capitalist system, including being fired because she was pregnant; "From Korea," which is presented as an eyewitness account of an American soldier putting out the eyes of a Korean civilian; and "Her Soldier," which condemns the release of war criminals from American, British or French military prisons. "Most of my generation got into Communist ideology at about the same time," she later told a newspaper interviewer. "They had entered Communism as a group, but had to find their own way out."

The quality of Szymborska's poetry in these volumes is considered mediocre at best, and she later in effect disavowed these poems by including only nine in an edition of her collected poems entitled Wiersze wybrane (Selected Poems, 1964), and by including none at all in another retrospective collection, entitled Poezje (Poetry, 1970). "When I was young, I had a moment of believing in Communist doctrine," she subsequently told an interviewer. "I wanted to save the world through Communism. Quite soon I understood that it doesn't work, but I've never pretended that it didn't happen to me."

Following the "thaw" year of 1956, Szymborska broke with Socialist Realism when she published a volume of poetry entitled Woĺanie do Yeti (Calling Out to Yeti, 1957). In these poems, the Yeti or Abominable Snowman is compared to Communism, or possibly to Joseph Stalin himself, in apparent references to institutions and individuals who, like the Yeti, provide neither humane direction nor comfort for artists and poets. Included in the volume is her groundbreaking poem "Rehabilitation," in which she strove to explain why so many writers had followed government dictums for an area—literature—that was properly the realm of individuals and not institutions. Regarding her earlier acquiescence in Communist artistic standards, Szymborska noted, "Since 1955, I haven't written a single poem using 'we,' only 'I.' I decided that I had to do something with myself, and my own problems. I wanted to make my own thoughts orderly. I finished speaking on anyone's behalf but my own."

Since the appearance of Calling Out to Yeti, Szymborska has occasionally dealt with political themes but generally has chosen to keep politics and poetry separate. The mature Szymborska has said in an interview that she largely relinquished political themes because she is not certain that poetry can adequately deal with them. When she commented on the Vietnam War in "Vietnam," the poem never specified the nationality or political beliefs of an American interrogator but focused instead on sympathy for the victims of misfortune and suffering.

Szymborska has shown greater willingness to comment on political developments which have affected individuals whom she has known. In "Rehabilitation," she deals with the case of the Hungarian Communist leader Laslo Rajk, who was executed on a charge of treason in 1948, during a Soviet campaign against the independent-minded Communist government of Yugoslavia. "Rehabilitation" cites the case as an example of human beings' willingness to destroy the reputation of others. It especially condemned attempts to wipe Rajk's name off the history books, pretending that he had never existed. In this poem, Szymborska also expressed deep sorrow that she had, at the time, believed that such accused individuals were really traitors. Central to this poem is a sense of frustration that the world of poetry cannot rectify injustices; in the realm of politics, poets are sometimes helpless.

Only on a few occasions has Szymborska been politically active. In the late 1970s, she joined a movement to block attempts to amend to the Polish constitution of 1952 in ways that would have created closer ties with the Soviet government. She has also been a participant in the Flying University movement in Poland, consisting of courses which are intended to correct "Communist distortions" of Polish society and history.

Combined, the Nazi and Soviet periods in Poland caused Polish poets to re-examine their roles, raising questions about the goals and practical effects of poetry. Szymborska seems to believe that the disasters of the recent past demand a "simpler, very brash language," making it necessary to have a "poetry without artifice" or without elevated language. She is suspicious of poems that rest only on descriptions of beautiful scenes, faked emotion, or sentimentality. Her style has been described as concise, "terse," and "ironic" rather than passionate. She loves puns, and her poems often explore what is possible with the use of language.

Calling Out to Yeti and her next volume of poems, Sto pociech (A Hundred Laughs, 1967), marked her emergence as an individual, indeed iconoclastic, poet who is difficult to classify, and even to place in what is often called the "Polish school of poetry." Her post-Stalinist era poems have been quite different from her early work and are generally characterized by an assertion of the autonomy of the individual against threats from determinism, from utopian systems, and from collectivist ideas. Generally starting from simple observations, her poems often explore contradictions in human thought and social life, using a tone of irony that has been described as "ironic moralism." The themes of many of her poems are the earth itself, the creation of it, and the objects on it. The poems often celebrate life and the creative process, asserting that humans are part of a phenomenon that is nature—a grand, wonderful, intriguing world that should elicit praise, wonderment, and astonishment.

Much of Szymborska's poetry deals with deep philosophical questions in witty ways. One of her best-known poems in Calling Out to Yeti, entitled "Two Monkeys by Bruegel," works on two levels. Two monkeys speak intelligently of the history of humanity, and find it to be depressing. As the poem progresses, it becomes clear that these are supposed to be the same two animals portrayed in the famous Bruegel painting, kept in chains by humans and considered to be a lower life form than humans. "Any Event" examines the uselessness and futility of language, providing a long list of words which are used to substitute for a true understanding of things. Words, particularly explanations which are contradictory, can pretend to be truth.

When Poland was under martial law during the 1980s, Szymborska published in a Polish exile journal in Paris, and her work also appeared in the underground press in Poland under the pseudonym Stanczykowna. The name appears to be a reference to the most famous court jester in Polish history, Stanczyk, who had the reputation of being able to recite unwelcome truths while seeming to play the clown.

The range of her poems has been astonishing, from the question whether humans can stop the flow of time ("People on a Bridge"); whether humans are really better adapted to nature than creatures, like dinosaurs, that have become extinct ("A Dinosaur's Skeleton"); of how real is reality ("Reality Riddle"); to the question of life after death ("Elegiac Account"). Animals have frequently been a major theme in her poems. "Seen from Above" argues that animals are not on earth for man to use or misuse, and that even the death of a beetle should be given respect. In some of her work, memory and dreams are presented as being essentially the same thing, because both are seen as attempts to regain things that are lost in the past (as in her poems "Memory at Last" and "In Praise of Dreams"). A frequent theme in her poems is a focus on the dark side of human beings, such as the human urge for self-destruction ("Discovery"); terrorism ("The Terrorist: He Watches"), the ability of human beings to become savages ("The Hunger Camp near Jaslo"); or the use of drugs to combat despair and feelings of abandonment ("Advertisement").

Noting that she was trained in the scientific method, Szymborska has said that in preparation for much of her poetry, she reads a wide variety of material, ranging from books on the sciences to travel books. Subjects for her poems, she insists, are never lacking. Her goal is to make each of her poems distinctive and different from the others that she writes, and she spends a large amount of time shaping them. What she wants to avoid, she confesses, is being the kind of person who spends an entire lifetime essentially writing the same poem over and over, each time trying to improve on the previous attempt. Her later poetry, which has tended more toward free verse, has also carried a tone of skepticism, a mocking tone which humorously balances out the very serious subjects that she often explores. For many of her readers, according to one writer, her poems represent a kind of "joy arising from the play of intellect and the imagination."

Szymborska's poems are tempered by a kind of rationality that is lacking in the work of many other Polish poets, some of whose verses harken back to the Romantic school of the 19th century, with its emotional descriptions of patriotism or religion. Her outlook has been compared to the Enlightenment, the historical period preceding Romanticism which is sometimes termed the "age of reason." Yet attempts to compare Szymborska's work to the Enlightenment have also been challenged by critics who point out that her poetry is usually imbued with wit and feelings and is certainly not "academic" in tone.

Many of her poems since 1957 have used a woman's viewpoint to make philosophical observations about nature and human emotions such as loneliness or isolation, and historical figures such as Mary Stuart do appear in her work, but very few of her poems clearly advocate feminism. One of the best-known exceptions is "Portrait of a Woman," which praises women's ingenuity and ability to adapt. Generally, however, since Polish grammar identifies the gender of the speaker, it is clear the speaker in many of her poems is a woman character. "Should someone classify my work as 'women's work,' I would not be too upset," she told an interviewer, "but I am not concerned to make an issue out of this fact."

Some of her later poetry has been lyric poetry celebrating love, although even here Szymborska has included philosophical questions, such as the inevitability of some degree of "emotional distance" between two humans, even if lovers. Some critics think, however, that her most successful love poems have been ones which gently mock the subject, such as "Buffo," in which one of the lovers speculates on how they would be viewed 100 years later and wonders if actors might stage a comedy based on their relationship.

As Szymborska's reputation grew during the 1960s and 1970s, sales of her books increased. Wielka liczba (A Great Number, 1976) sold some 10,000 copies in Poland. Szymborska has also occasionally translated French poetry, and although she has reportedly written short stories, she has not published them. Szymborska's awards, from both within and outside of Poland, have included the Gold Cross of Merit, the Order of Polonia Restituta, the Goethe award, the Herder Award, and the Polish PEN club award.

Szymborska's poetry has appeared in foreign editions, in Russian, Czech, French, German, Dutch, Hungarian, and English. Selections of her poems were also translated into Swedish and published in volumes in 1980 and 1989. It is believed that these translations helped bring Szymborska's work to the attention of the Swedish Academy and may have contributed to her eventual selection as a Nobel laureate.

When it was announced in 1996 that Szymborska had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, newspaper reporters who were eager to interview Szymborska had difficulty locating the reclusive poet, who has seldom been willing to discuss details of her personal life. Ensconced in a small town named Zakopane in the mountains of Poland, she managed to elude most of the press and spent her time in seclusion crafting her Nobel acceptance speech. Szymborska dislikes the public spotlight, a fact that has moved one writer to dub her the "Greta Garbo of Poland."

When Szymborska became a Nobel laureate—the fifth Pole to win the literature award—there was recognition in her native country that her poetry has moved beyond Polish issues and increasingly has dealt with universal themes. In the view of Piotr Sommer, a fellow Polish poet, giving the Nobel prize to her means giving it to a poet who has not tried to be put on any "special 'Polish pedestal.'" Yet Szymborska chose to return much of her prize money to her native country, telling reporters that she planned to donate the entire sum, exceeding $1 million, to charity.

In her Nobel acceptance speech, Szymborska noted that when she travels, government officials and other travelers generally act unbelieving or even alarmed when they discover that they are talking with a poet. Speculating that philosophers "probably get the same reaction," Szymborska noted that few films are produced about poets, but there are "very many" motion pictures about great scientists or artists, and that there are even "spectacular" films about painters.

In the case of poets, Szymborska added, there is nothing very inspiring about seeing them at work. A poet "sits down or sprawls across a sofa," or stares around the room, looking at a wall or ceiling, and then after a while writes down a few lines. "Who could stand to sit and watch such a process?," she asked. Worse, Szymborska insisted, was the fact that once a word has "hit the page," the poet starts to think that the answer is makeshift, and the poems, often the object of "self-dissatisfaction" by their creators, are eventually "frozen in time" and clipped together by "literary historians" who call them a writer's "oeuvres."

At the end of her acceptance speech, Szymborska noted that the "wonder of the world" is central to her poetry. "Our world is astonishing," even if the unlimited size of the universe scares people, or the limits of human ability depress people, or the suffering of "people, animals, or even plants" causes bitterness. Therefore, she predicted, there will always be work for poets.


Gajer, Ewa. "Polish Poet Wislawa Szymborska," in Hecate: A Women's Interdisciplinary Journal. Vol. 23, no. 1, 1997, pp. 140–142.

Levine, Madeline G. Contemporary Polish Poetry 1925–1972. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1981.

Szymborska, Wislawa. People on a Bridge: Poems. Introduced and translated by Adam Czerniawski. London and Boston: Forest Books, 1996.

——. Poems: New and Collected, 1957–1997. Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1998.

——. Sounds, Feeling, Thoughts: Seventy Poems. Translated and introduced by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

——. View with a Grain of Sand. Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

suggested reading:

Baranczak, Stanislaw, and Clare Cavanagh, eds. and trans. Polish Poetry of the Last Two Decades of Communist Rule: Spoiling Cannibals' Fun. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991.

Czerniawski, Adam, ed. The Mature Laurel. Chester Spring, PA: Dufour, 1991.


Other than Szymborska's own selections of poems for her two collections, Wiersze wybrane (Selected Poems, 1964) and Poezje (Poetry, 1970), there are also untranslated versions of her book reviews in Lektury nadobowiazkowe (Recommended Reading, Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1973).

Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois