Anna Swir was born Anna wirszczyska in Warsaw, Poland, on February 7, 1909. The daughter of an impoverished painter and a local beauty, Anna grew up in her father’s studio and struggled to help support her family by looking for jobs while she was still young. While working her way through college, she studied medieval Polish literature. She drew from this tradition and her interest in visual art as she wrote her first poems, which were published in the 1930’s. Miosz describes these impersonal verses as “sophisticated miniatures” and writes that “the form of the miniature was to return later, while the reticence about her personal life was to disappear.”
Swir became a member of the Resistance after the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, working as a waitress under the occupation while writing for underground journals and participating in clandestine poetry readings. In August and September of 1944, during the Warsaw Uprising, she served as a military nurse, treating soldiers at a provisional military hospital. At one point, she expected to be executed for her Resistance activities, as she recounts in “Waiting to Be Shot” (from Building the Barricade).
In 1970, with the publication of Wiatr (wind), Swir reached her mature style. Having reached her sixties, she was able to write the direct, unadorned poetry of physical experience that characterizes her best work. I’m the Old Woman continued her development as a feminist poet through sharply recollected vignettes of women’s experiences. The publication of Building the Barricade in 1974, thirty years after the events of the uprising, suggests how much internal deliberation was required to create the deceptively simple and straightforward narratives dramatizing the tragedy of the destruction of her city.
In 1984, Miosz, who was in the process of translating a book-length selection of Swir’s poems, wrote to the poet to inform her of the project. Though she told him that she was pleased that he was translating her poetry, she did not disclose that she was in the final throes of the cancer from which she would die in a matter of weeks. Over the following years, her reputation as a poet would grow with the posthumous publication of Rado i cierpienie (suffering and joy), a loving tribute to her relationship with her parents, and an expanding series of translations and criticism.