Wisława Szymborska 1923-
(Has also written under the pseudonym Stanczykowna) Polish poet and critic.
Szymborska is considered one of the outstanding poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Her unsurpassed popularity in her native Poland became international recognition in 1996 with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. While her literary output is small, including somewhat more than 200 poems published during more than five decades, Szymborska is nevertheless recognized as a leading figure of contemporary European literature. In her elegant verse, Szymborska celebrates the miraculous qualities of the ordinary and seemingly insignificant. Offering concrete images that suggest their own universality, Szymborska's poems evince her skeptical philosophy, often aided by her surprising humor and Socratic pose of the naïve questioner who strips away cliché to discover a hidden, ironic truth. Szymborska's poems reflect her celebration of human dignity amid suffering and despair, and signal her efforts to conceive in verse a world she acknowledges can at best only be incompletely represented or understood.
Szymborska was born in Prowent-Bnin, near Poznań, Poland, in 1923. Her family moved to Kraków when she was eight years old, and Szymborska lived there through the remainder of the twentieth century. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, she defied official sanctions in order to attend a banned Polish secondary school. After World War II, she entered Jagellonian University, studying literature and sociology. In 1952, Szymborska joined the editorial staff of the cultural periodical Zycie literackie, devoting most of her attention to book reviews. Selections of her criticism were subsequently collected in Lektury nadobowiazkowe (1973), which shares its title with the column she continued to write up to 1981, “Recommended Reading.” Approximately thirty of Szymborska's earliest poems appeared in the Kraków newspaper Dziennik Polski in 1945, but her initial attempts to publish a collection in 1949 met with the disapproval of Communist censors. Her first poetic collection, Dlatego zyjemy (which can be translated as That's Why We're Alive), did not appear until 1952. It was followed by Pytania zadawane sobie (1954; which can be translated as Questioning Oneself). Marked by a strong socialist realism, both works were later rejected by Szymborska in the post-Stalinist era. In the ensuing decades, Szymborska achieved an unparalleled level of popularity for a woman poet in Poland. A reclusive and exacting writer, she published a small volume of some two or three dozen verses every three to five years for the remainder of the century. Her first major collection to appear in English, Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems, translated by Magnus J. Kryński and Robert A. Maguire, was published in 1981. By the early 1980s, however, Poland was a nation under martial law and Szymborska was forced to assume the pseudonym “Stanczykowna,” and to print her poetry in dissident and exile publications, such as the Polish Arka and Parisian Kultura Paryska. A change in the Polish situation by the end of the decade openly demonstrated that Szymborska's popularity was unaffected. Indeed, the lines of her poem “Nothing Twice” were transformed into a hit Polish rock song in 1995. The following year, the intensely private poet, largely unrecognized outside of Poland, achieved near instantaneous international recognition by being named the recipient of that year's Nobel Prize for Literature. Worldwide critical acclaim followed in the next half decade, as Szymborska's poetic works were translated into English and a number of other major world languages. Meanwhile, the much-praised Szymborska expressed her hope that she would be able to return to her quiet life in Kraków and continue to write.
Excluding only Szymborska's self-renounced, pre-1957 poems and her work from the late 1990s and beyond, View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (1995), translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh, contains verses from Szymborska's seven major volumes published prior to her Nobel award: works ranging from Wołanie do yeti (1957) to Koniec i poczatek (1993). The speaker of the poem “Calling Out to Yeti,” from the early collection, stands in the icy Himalayas addressing the abominable snowman and, critics add, metaphorically speaks to the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, saying “Yeti, not only crimes / are possible among us. / Yeti, not all words / are death sentences.” Another well-known piece originally from Wołanie do yeti, “Bruegel's Two Monkeys” begins with an image from a famous painting in order to question the relationship between language and reality. Commentators observe that personal memory is a significant thematic and structural principal of the collection Koniec i poczatek (which can be translated as End and Beginning). The volume features one of Szymborska's most famous and oft-cited poems, “Cat in an Empty Apartment.” In it, Szymborska displaces her narrative perspective on the death of a loved one to the mind of the deceased's household pet, following the thoughts of the perplexed creature as it vows to teach its master a lesson when he returns; but of course, he never will. Another poem from the collection, “We're Extremely Fortunate,” wryly celebrates the limitations of human knowledge. “A Great Number,” the English rendering of the title poem from Szymborska's collection Wielka liczba (1976), is thought to illustrate several of her underlying poetic themes, including the relationship between the individual and the universal, an apprehension of the essential randomness of the universe, and a belief in the humble potential of poetry to offer some understanding and consolation. In such pieces as “Children of Our Age” and “The Century's Decline,” Szymborska turns her ironist's view to the hollow rhetoric of a political era and to the unfulfilled promises of Marxism in the modern age. Other poems by Szymborska are even more direct in their attacks—as in “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo,” which concerns a southern Polish death camp of the Nazi era, or “Reality Demands,” a poetic tour of notorious battlefields—yet she invariably treats her themes with a subtle, ironic inversion of reader expectations, critics acknowledge. Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wisława Szymborska (2001; translated by Joanna Trzeciak) is a retrospective collection of Szymborska's poetry in English that includes selections from her first two volumes, many of them previously untranslated. In its title poem, “Miracle Fair,” Szymborska thrills in the small wonders that occur every day, but which escape our distracted attention. Offering a near comprehensive selection of Szymborska's poetic oeuvre, Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997 (1998; translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh) includes the poem, “Under a Single Star,” a work that captures the humble stance of her poetry as she apologizes to language itself for her clumsy attempts to achieve understanding through words.
Although her earliest poems were heavily influenced by the dominant socialist realism of the early Stalinist era in Poland, the pieces that make up Szymborska's first two collections where later rejected by the author, who commented on the ‘mistake’ of loving humankind rather than human beings in her work. For her poetry written in 1957 through to the end of the twentieth century, however, Szymborska has earned nearly uninterrupted praise, culminating in her 1996 selection by the Nobel Academy in Sweden for the world's most prestigious literary award. Many of her peers have since been equally forthcoming in their esteem. Fellow Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who has nevertheless expressed a more reserved estimation of her writing, has observed, “Szymborska's poems are built through juggling … the components of our common knowledge; they surprise us with its paradoxes and show the human world as tragicomic.” Other critics have expressed similar estimations. Acknowledging that Szymborska's poetry is very much focused on the everyday and commonplace with subject matter that is manifestly realistic, they have argued that her works offer a universal appeal that demonstrates her poetic joy in life's miraculous potential, tempered by her strong skepticism of easy solutions and acute awareness of suffering. Indeed, scholars have acknowledged that Szymborska summed up her dualistic approach to poetry quite accurately in her lyric “Sky,” which states, “My identifying features / are rapture and despair.” These qualities, coupled with wit, wisdom, and an ironic use of language, are thought to mark Szymborska as one of the twentieth century's finest and most insightful poets. English criticism on Szymborska's early poetic work, prior to her Nobel prize, has been sparse due to translation difficulties.
Dlatego zyjemy 1952
Pytania zadawane sobie 1954
Wołanie do Yeti 1957
Wiersze wybrane 1964
Poezje wybrane 1967
Sto pociech 1967
Wybór poezje 1970
Wszelki wypadek 1972
Wybór wierszy 1973
Tarsjusz i inne wiersze 1976
Wielka liczba 1976
Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems [translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire] 1981
Poezje wybrane (II) 1983
Ludzie na moscie [People on a Bridge: Poems] 1986
Wieczor autorski: wiersze 1992
Koniec i poczatek 1993
View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems [translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh] 1995
Widok z ziarnkiem piasku: 102 wiersze 1996
Nothing Twice: Selected Poems [translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh] 1997
O asmierci bez przesady [De la mort sans exagérer] 1997
Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997 [translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare...
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SOURCE: Kryński, Magnus J., and Robert A. Maguire. “Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: The Poetry of Wisława Szymborska.” Polish Review 24, no. 3 (1979): 3-4.
[In the following excerpt, Kryński and Maguire acknowledge Szymborska's popularity in Poland and her significance to world literature despite being relatively unknown outside her homeland.]
Wisława Szymborska is a contemporary of such important Polish poets as Tadeusz Różewicz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Miron Białoszewski. She was born in 1923 in Kórnik (the Poznań region), but moved to Cracow at the age of eight and has lived there to this day. Her first published poem dates from 1945. As with most Polish writers who made their debuts after World War II, much of her early work was infused with the ideology of socialist realism as then forcefully propagated by the Communist Party. These poems were collected in the volumes Dlatego żyjemy (That's What We Live For, Warsaw, Czytelnik, 1952), and Pytania zadawane sobie (Questions Put to Myself, Cracow, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1954). In retrospect, the best that can be said about them is that they are not so strident in tone as similar exercises produced at the time, and that they do contain a few personal lyrics. It was in 1957, with the volume Wołanie do Yeti (Calling Out to Yeti, Cracow, Wydawnictwo Literackie), that Szymborska abandoned overtly political...
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SOURCE: Freedman, John. “The Possibilities and Limitations of Poetry: Wisława Szymborska's Wielka liczba.” Polish Review 31, nos. 2-3 (1986): 137-47.
[In the following essay, Freedman interprets the title poem of Szymborska's collection Wielka liczba—translated as “A Great Number”—as a work representative of the poet's principal themes and techniques.]
Wisława Szymborska's poetry is—above all—marked by a striking universality which allows for widely variant readings. In his review of Szymborska's 1976 collection,1A Great Number (Wielka liczba), Stanisław Barańczak primarily stressed the sociological aspect of her poetry as it is revealed in her use of language. Her language and images, he argues, are nearly always concrete and situational. In his introduction to her 1977 Poetry (Poezje), a retrospective collection, Jerzy Kwiatkowski, relying heavily on a vocabulary sprinkled with philosophical terminology, presents her primarily as an existentialist poet, though he does admit, “… that doesn't mean at all that Szymborska's poetry is some kind of theoretical treatise on the various possibilities of the means of being laid out in verse.”2 Czesław Miłosz, who once wondered whether she might be a poet of limited range, now also ranks her as a philosophical poet whose “conciseness is matched only by Zbigniew...
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SOURCE: Rosslyn, Felicity. “Miraculously Normal: Wisława Szymborska.” PN Review 20, no. 5 (May-June 1994): 14-19.
[In the following essay, Rosslyn describes Szymborska's apparent indifference to feminism, her fundamental skepticism, her rejection of cliché, and her discovery of the miraculous in the everyday.]
As the Polish literary world also adjusts to free market conditions and old reputations are revalued, one thing is becoming clear: the importance of Wislawa Szymborska. She has always been respected, but now she is hugely so, and in the new atmosphere it seems obvious that she stands alongside Herbert as the second great poet of that generation. If critics in the west have been slow to follow this assumption, they have the excuse that she has not always been well translated. The witty tension of her lines hangs rather loose in Czerniawski's recent collection People on a Bridge; her precision is better caught by Krynski and Maguire in their major collection Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts of 1981. (The other place to find her well translated is in Baranczak and Cavanagh's 1991 anthology, Spoiling Cannibals' Fun.) But there is also a problem with the poems themselves. Can anything this light and graceful, one might genuinely ask, be important?
One sign that Szymborska deserves her Polish reputation is that her grace emerges under evident pressure....
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SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. Review of View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, by Wisława Szymborska. New Republic 214, no. 1 (1 January 1996): 36-39.
[In the following review of View with a Grain of Sand, Vendler observes Szymborska's capacity to universalize as she details life's perplexing balance of joy and suffering.]
“Again, and as ever, … the most pressing questions / are naïve ones.” The remarkable poet Wislawa Szymborska closes, with this remark, a late poem, “The Century's Decline,” on the collapse of Marxist utopian hopes, after uttering one of her deliberately “naïve” questions: “How should we live?” Szymborska, one of a generation of notable Polish poets (she was born in 1923), was brought to American attention by Czeslaw Milosz in his history of Polish poetry, by two slim collections of translations, and by Stanislaw Baranczak in Spoiling Cannibals' Fun, his recent anthology of Polish poetry of the last two decades of Communist rule. Now Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, his collaborator in that anthology, have brought out the largest selection of Szymborska—100 poems—in English.
They draw from seven of Szymborska's volumes, ranging from Calling Out to Yeti, her third collection, which appeared in 1957, through The End and the Beginning, which appeared in 1993. Their admirable versions, most of them readable as English...
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SOURCE: Romano, Carlin. “Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska, 73, Wins Nobel Prize for Literature.” Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (3 October 1996): 100.
[In the following essay, Romano collects responses to Szymborska's 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature and touches on her principal poetic themes.]
Wislawa Szymborska, a 73-year-old Polish poet whose bittersweet lines have inspired punk-rock lyrics and an enigmatic movie, was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday in Stockholm.
Called the “Mozart of Polish poetry,” Szymborska is perhaps Poland's most famous female writer, but before now had been relatively unknown outside her homeland.
In awarding the prize to the shy and reclusive widow, the Swedish Academy in Stockholm praised the “ease with which her words seem to fall into place.”
They are words that the late director Krzysztof Kieslowski drew upon when he made Red, his mysterious film about a judge, a model and two young lovers, based on the poem “Love At First Sight.”
Polish rock singer Cora put another of Szymborska's poems, “Nothing Twice,” to music last year.
In its proclamation, the Academy alluded to the “Mozartian” character of Szymborska' poetry, adding that it also found, amid the “ironic precision” of her poems, “something of the fury of...
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SOURCE: Szymborska, Wisława, and Dean E. Murphy. “Creating a Universal Poetry Amid Political Chaos.” Los Angeles Times (13 October 1996): M3.
[In the following interview, Murphy questions Szymborska about how and why she writes poetry.]
Three weeks ago, poet Wislawa Szymborska left her modest two-room apartment in the southern Polish city of Krakow to escape the noise and confusion of remodeling. She slipped away to this pristine mountain resort, a favorite of Polish artists and writers, and took a small room—no bathroom and no telephone—on the second floor of a clubhouse reserved for authors. Szymborska, a retiring woman with wispy gray hair who cherishes her solitude, passed the days quietly, working on her latest poem. Everything was going according to plan, she says, until Oct. 3, when the world “came crashing down on me.” It was on that day that the Swedish Academy in Stockholm announced that the relatively unknown Szymborska had won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature. The award came as a surprise to Szymborska—and most everyone else in Poland—not because she is considered unworthy, but because her poetry speaks mostly to universal themes rather than the parochial political subjects that have distinguished Eastern European verse since World War II. Unlike the last Polish poet to win the prize—Czeslaw Milosz in 1980—Szymborska was not a bold, Communist-era dissident; nor did the...
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SOURCE: Glover, Michael. Review of View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, by Wisława Szymborska. New Statesman 125, no. 4309 (8 November 1996): 48.
[In the following review of View with a Grain of Sand, Glover notes Szymborska's relative obscurity in the English-speaking world prior to her 1996 Nobel award.]
There were two kinds of response to the news that the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska had won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. One was outrage, ably expressed by the Swedish literary agent who said that the whole notion of the prize had by now been debased if it could be awarded to so “insular” and obscure a figure. The other was an audible gulp on the part of literary editors, followed, half an hour's meagre research later, by obsequious endorsement expressed in suitably opaque mumbo-jumbo—opacity was, of course, necessary because very few of them had ever read a word written by the woman.
If the charge of obscurity means that Szymborska is a difficult poet to understand, that would be quite the opposite of the truth—as anyone will discover who reads this excellent Harper and Row edition of her selected poems, now published here by Faber. Szymborska is enlightened, humorous, sceptical, humanistic—but never hermetic (which is at least one of the meanings of obscure).
Another meaning is just as pertinent: that we've never heard of...
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SOURCE: Milosz, Czeslaw. “On Szymborska.” New York Review of Books 43, no. 18 (14 November 1996): 17.
[In the following essay, Milosz emphasizes the tragicomic quality of Szymborska's private but unconfessional verse and calls her “first of all a poet of consciousness.”]
I have been saying that Polish poetry is strong and distinguished upon the background of world poetry by certain traits. Those traits can be found in the poems of a few eminent Polish poets, including Wisława Szymborska. Her Nobel Prize is her personal triumph but at the same time it confirms the place of the “Polish school of poetry.” Perhaps it is not necessary to recall that the language of that poetry is the language of a country where the crime of genocide was perpetrated on a mass scale. Links between the word and historical experiences can be of various kinds, and there is no simple relationship of cause and effect. And yet a certain fact is not without significance: Szymborska, like Tadeusz Rożewicz and Zbigniew Herbert, writes in the place of the generation of poets who made their debut during the war and did not survive.
What does the poetry of Szymborska, marked as it is by such a lightness of touch, skeptically smiling, playful, have to do with the history of the twentieth, or any other, century? In its beginnings, it had much to do with it, but its mature phase moves away from images of...
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SOURCE: Gajer, Ewa. “Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska.” Hecate 23, no. 1 (May 1997): 140-42.
[In the following essay, Gajer offers a concise overview of Szymborska's poetic career, culminating in her 1996 Nobel Prize.]
On October 30 1996, 73-year-old Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature ‘for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.’1
Szymborska is the fifth Pole to win the prize. In 1905, the novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz won it for the book Quo Vadis which depicted the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome. Wladyslaw Stainslaw Reymont (who influenced some of Katharine Susannah Prichard's writing) got the prize in 1924 for The Peasants, an epic description of Polish country life. Fifty-four years later, Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish-Jewish writer living in the US, won the prize for his portrayal of the Jewish community in Poland. The poet Czeslaw Milosz, also living in the US, became the laureate in 1980.
Wislawa Szymborska was born on 2 July 1923 in Bnin near Poznan. She studied Polish literature and sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow where she now lives. She published her first poem ‘I Seek the Word’ in 1945 while still a student. In her first two collections of poetry, published in the early 1950s,...
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SOURCE: Gömöri, George. Review of View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, by Wisława Szymborska. World Literature Today 71, no. 2 (spring 1997): 415.
[In the following review of View with a Grain of Sand, Gömöri generally approves of Stanisław Barańczak's and Clare Cavanagh's English translations of Szymborska's “conceptualist” poems.]
The award of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature to Wisława Szymborska took most people by surprise. Outside her native Poland relatively few poetry lovers—or even critics for that matter—had heard anything about Szymborska, although two of her verse collections had been translated into English. In England, Forest Books published People on a Bridge in 1990, and in the United States Harcourt Brace was responsible for a 1995 collection which has now been reproduced in paperback form by an eminent British publishing house. View with a Grain of Sand provides the best introduction in English to the poetry of Szymborska, an introduction which, one presumes, will attract many new readers to her work.
Szymborska's first book was published in a less than auspicious time for poetry: in 1952, when Polish cultural life still suffered Stalinist regimentation. Young people had to wait until 1956 to publish nonaffirmative and nonpolitical verse, and Szymborska probably regards her first two collections as somehow compromised...
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SOURCE: Hirsch, Edward. “Wisława Szymborska.” Wilson Quarterly 21, no. 2 (spring 1997): 110-11.
[In the following essay, Hirsh encapsulates Szymborska's poetic work, considering its irony, skepticism, subjectivity, clarity, and wit.]
The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in literature, is a canny ironist and rapturous skeptic. She writes a poetry of sardonic individualism, and comes at common experiences from her own angle, with her own perspective. “Four billion people on this earth, / but my imagination is still the same,” she confesses in her poem “A Large Number”; “It's bad with large numbers. / It's still taken by particularity.” Szymborska is all too aware of how the world keeps escaping our various formulations about it: “But even a Dante couldn't get it right,” she admits, “Let alone someone who is not. / Even with all the muses behind me.”
Despite her modesty, Szymborska has mounted in her work a witty and tireless defense of individual subjectivity against collectivist thinking, and her poems are slyly subversive in a way that compels us to reconsider received opinion. No sooner does a familiar idea come her way than she starts turning it around to see what it will look like from different directions. She manages to question herself even as she exposes general assumptions and undermines political cant. Indeed, the rejection...
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SOURCE: Osherow, Jacqueline. “‘So These Are the Himalayas’: The Poetry of Wisława Szymborska.” Antioch Review 55, no. 2 (spring 1997): 222-28.
[In the following essay, Osherow takes delight in Szymborska's poetic imagination and view of the commonplace.]
Let me begin by making a peculiar confession: I love reading poetry in translation. I suppose this has to do with the way you experience what you're reading as inaccessible, so that the poem, elusive as it necessarily is, becomes, itself, almost an object of poetic longing. But there are also less heady reasons for reading poems in languages we don't know. One can go on and on about what is not translatable in poetry—and certainly no dearth of eloquence has been expended on this subject—but I want to focus here (as indeed I must, since I don't know Polish) on what isn't lost in translation. It seems to me that we in America—especially as we scramble to find places for ourselves in the line-up from, say, language poetry to new formalism—put far too much weight on a poem's surface. What the pleasures of poems in translation prove—and Wislawa Szymborska's do this exquisitely—is that there is something essentially poetic that does not inhere merely in a poem's surface. Call it substance. Call it thought. Call it wild association. What poetry does with these—and so many other—imaginative possibilities is at least as interesting as...
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SOURCE: Review of Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997, by Wisława Szymborska. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 13 (30 March 1998): 77.
[In the following review of Szymborska's Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997, the critic praises the work's expert translation and comprehensiveness.]
“Whatever else we might think of this world—it is astonishing,” writes the Krakow native in her 1996 Nobel Lecture, and her poems continually testify to this astonishment at the world's good and evil, which she often juxtaposes. Expertly translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, this edition collects, as they note, “virtually all of Szymborska's work to date”; in sheer quantity and in quality, it supplants all others. Like her compatriots Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz, Szymborska is intensely aware in her seven books (from Calling Out to Yeti in 1957 through The End and the Beginning in 1993) of her own belatedness in writing about the Holocaust—particularly in the bitter, uncompromising “Still” and “Hitler's First Photograph”—and of other atrocities of 20th-century Europe. Nonetheless, she can still imagine a humane “Utopia,” albeit one that is uninhabitable, “as if all you can do here is leave / and plunge, never to return, into the depths, // Into unfathomable life.” The 7 new poems extend Szymborska's range of responses to life and language, as in...
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SOURCE: Christian, Graham. Review of Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997, by Wisława Szymborska. Library Journal 123, no. 6 (1 April 1998): 92-93.
[In the following review of Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997, Christian finds Szymborska's collected works in English an “essential” volume.]
“I'm working on the world,” says Polish poet Szymborska. In this new retrospective collection of her works, a “revised, improved edition.” It may seem superfluous to praise a Nobel Laureate in literature, but Szymborska is a splendid writer richly deserving of her recent renown. While it seems likely that the academy noticed her for her unflinching examination of torture and other wrongs inflicted by repressive regimes, what seems extraordinary about Szymborska is her humility, her openness to wonder. Her motto, she says in the Nobel lecture included in this volume, is “I don't know,” a surprisingly fruitful starting point. She is capable of stunning lyrical images (“0 swallow, cloud-borne thorn, / anchor of the air, / Icarus improved, / coattails in Assumption”), but she is less interested in poetic showiness than in miracles of survival: “I'll die with wings, I'll live on with practical claws.” She has no counterpart in English verse, except perhaps Stevie Smith, who shared with her a knowledge of the exhilarating power of a kind of serious laughter. This gathering in English of...
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SOURCE: Anders, Jaroslaw. Review of Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997, by Wisława Szymborska. Los Angeles Times Book Review (17 May 1998): 7.
[In the following review of Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997, Anders highlights the extraordinary depth and diversity found in Szymborska's complete oeuvre of roughly 200 poems.]
Wislawa Szymborska, who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996, must be one of the most reticent or most self-discerning poets of today. Of the literary career spanning more than half a century, she is willing to acknowledge only some 200 of her poems collected in eight slender volumes. This sparse body of work, however, displays unusual diversity and polychromy. Szymborska can be simultaneously highly sophisticated, pursuing involved philosophical questions in what she herself calls “essay poems,” yet also be accessible to the extent that some of her poems have been used as lyrics of popular songs. She struggles for the utmost precision of expression, yet engages in complicated linguistic games employing rich polyphonies of her native tongue, unexpected rhymes, puns, mixtures of “high” and “low” poetic styles. Most important, she is a poet of modern experience, who often hides behind a mask of an “innocent” still capable of asking “naive” questions about the origins and nature of evil. One should be grateful to Szymborska's long-standing...
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SOURCE: Greenlaw, Lavinia. Review of Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997, by Wisława Szymborska. New Statesman 128, no. 4433 (26 April 1999): 47-48.
[In the following excerpted review of Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997, Greenlaw mentions the dark humor, simplicity surrounded in artifice, and tantalizing wisdom of Szymborska's poetry.]
Wislawa Szymborska was little known but widely admired when her reputation was dramatically consolidated by a Nobel prize in 1996. As a child, she attended illegal classes in Nazi-occupied Krakow and she later worked on a Polish literary journal for almost 30 years, so it shouldn't be surprising to see what a conscientious writer she is. Her poems appear so open, so friendly, that it's hard to grasp the length to which she goes to remind us of their artifice. It's like being captivated by a picture while the artist is trying to direct your attention towards the frame. The effect is rarely stultifying; more, a reminder of her receptiveness. She wants us to see what more there is to see and to show that her view is only passing—“mine as long as I look”.
The props and devices Szymborska brandishes at us include running commentaries on language and grammar, theatricals, history and myth. At the same time, she is fascinated by the imaginative potential of classified ads, yetis and supersonics; of lost objects, the small hours and...
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SOURCE: Tapscott, Stephen, and Mariusz Przybytek. “Sky, The Sky, A Sky, Heaven, The Heavens, A Heaven, Heavens: Reading Szymborska Whole.” American Poetry Review 29, no. 4 (July 2000): 41-47.
[In the following essay, Tapscott and Przybytek analyze Szymborska's Koniec i poczatek, focusing on the poetic collection's thematic structure and tensions between history and memory, limitation and signification.]
“In my end is my beginning”: in the aftermath of World War II, T. S. Eliot meditates about the relations among place, collective history, memory, and identity, Placing himself in personal, historical and mystical time, throughout The Four Quartets (1940-2) Eliot finds continuity and psychic permanence in a circling, ritual sense of ends and beginnings. Historical pattern locates, reveals, and affirms personal identity through signification—my ends and my beginnings, made articulate. It's worth recalling Eliot's sense of time and history, his memorializing as an act of personal and cultural ritual, in part because Eliot's influential example memorably summarizes for many English-language readers a familiar late-Modernist, mid-century relation to history—personal, psychological, questing, circling around the historicized self, circling in toward place.
In the same period, Central Europe has had a different set of historical contingencies to...
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SOURCE: Blazina, John. “Szymborska's Two Monkeys: The Stammering Poet and the Chain of Signs.” Modern Language Review 96, no. 1 (January 2001): 130-39.
[In the following essay, Blazina explicates Szymborska's poem “Bruegel's Two Monkeys,” considering the work's imagery, irony, use of language, and theme of “an identity of opposites.”]
Like the hero of folktales, the speaker of ‘Bruegel's Two Monkeys’, by Wisława Szymborska, is confronted by a test, an interrogation. She is taking her graduation exam, experiencing a rite of passage marking the transition from schooling to life, and she is failing. She stammers and falls silent when asked about the history of humanity. Answering a question or writing a poem about human history, in Poland after Auschwitz, cannot be easy. What is there to say if she can no longer parrot the party line of progress toward utopia? But help is at hand. As so often in folk tales, an animal offers help to the heroine. A monkey rattles its chain, uses its chain as a sign, and a conversation begins.
‘Bruegel's Two Monkeys’ appeared in the literary weekly Zycie Literackie in June 1957, and again in July, in Szymborska's third collection, Waiting for the Yeti1. In 1956 workers' riots and student demonstrations led to the crisis and compromise of October when, with Soviet troops massed along the border, Poland narrowly...
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SOURCE: Franklin, Ruth. Review of Miracle Fair: Selected Poems, by Wisława Szymborska. New Republic 224, no. 23 (4 June 2001): 58-61.
[In the following review of Miracle Fair, Franklin remarks on the humor of Szymborska's poetry and mentions a number of her poems that appear in English for the first time in this collection.]
It is Wislawa Szymborska's custom to dress up the serious in the costume of comedy. Even her Nobel Lecture began with an ars poetica disguised as a joke. “They say that the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest,” she said. “Well, that one's behind me.” But in fact escape is not so easy, she continued:
I have a feeling that the sentences to come—the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line—will be just as hard, since I'm supposed to talk about poetry. I've said very little on the subject—next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that I'm not very good at it. This is why my lecture will be rather short. Imperfection is easier to tolerate in small doses.
“Imperfection is easier to tolerate in small doses” could be said to be Szymborska's motto. The Nobel Lecture is titled “The Poet and the World,” and it is the imperfect world that she expounds and interprets in her poems, in...
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Carls, Alice-Catherine. Review of Dans le fleuve d'Héraclite, by Wisława Szymborska. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 617.
Mentions a bilingual (French and Polish) volume of Szymborska's selected poetry.
———. Review of De la mort sans exagérer, by Wisława Szymborska. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 617-618.
Briefly comments on the delicate balance and subtle humor of Szymborska's poetry.
Karasek, Krzysztof. “Mozartian Joy: The Poetry of Wisława Szymborska.” In The Mature Laurel: Essays on Modern Polish Poetry, edited by Adam Czerniawski, pp. 191-98. Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan, Wales: Seren Books, 1991.
Characterizes Szymborska's poetic sensibility, including her concentration on the commonplace in which she finds joy and universalizing truths.
Kirsch, Adam. Review of Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997, by Wisława Szymborska. Washington Post Book World 28, no. 14 (5 April 1998): 8.
Kirsch calls Szymborska's work “a poetry of resistance” that blends joy and despair, and compares it stylistically to that of John Donne.
Olson, Ray. Review of Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997, by Wisława Szymborska. Booklist 94, no. 16 (15 April 1998): 1414....
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