Szymborska, Wislawa (Vol. 99)
Wislawa Szymborska Nobel Prize for Literature
Born in 1923, Szymborska is a Polish poet.
Winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, Szymborska, a private—some would say reclusive—widow, has been described as "the Mozart of poetry … [with] something of the fury of Beethoven." Although she is perhaps Poland's most popular female writer and valued as a national treasure there, she is little known by English-speaking readers, and only three books of her poetry have been translated: Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts (1981); People on a Bridge (1986); and View with a Grain of Sand (1995). "Polish poetry in the 20th century has reached a strong international position on the European continent," observed renowned Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. "Szymborska represents it well." Szymborska emphasizes and examines the chance happenings of daily life and of personal relations in her poetry, which spans five decades. "She is a master at recognizing the importance of the insignificant …," explained James Beschta, "it is the innovative, playful use of language that dominates her style." While Szymborska treats a wide variety of subjects in as many different styles, her method remains constant: her lyrics usually build from some small detail, then expand into revelations about the larger universe. Szymborska published her first poem in 1945, but she later renounced her first two volumes of poetry as attempts to conform to tenets of social realism. The Swedish Academy acknowledged that it awarded the Nobel Prize to her on the basis of her poems written since 1957, when she published her third collection, Calling out to the Yeti, which the Academy cited as a reaction against Stalin. "Of course, life crosses politics, but my poems are strictly not political," Szymborska said in a rare interview. "They are more about people and life." Beata Chmiel concluded that the Nobel was given "to an unknown poet of Poland, but this poet can be very close to people all over the world: men, women, black and white."
Dlatego zyjemy (poetry) 1952
Pytania zadawane sobie (poetry) 1954
Wolanie do Yeti (poetry) 1957
Sól (poetry) 1962
Wiersze wybrane (poetry) 1964
Sto pociech (poetry) 1967
Poezje wybrane (poetry) 1967
Poezje (poetry) 1970
Wybór poezji (poetry) 1970
Wszelki wypadek (poetry) 1972
Wybór wierszy (poetry) 1973
Lektury nadobowiazkowe (lectures) 1974
Tarsjusz i inne wiersze (poetry) 1976
Wielka liczba (poetry) 1976
Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: 70 Poems (poetry) 1981
Poezje wybrane (II) (poetry) 1983
Ludzie na moscie [People on a Bridge] (poetry) 1986
∗Poezje = Poems (poetry) 1989
The End and the Beginning (poetry) 1993
View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (poetry) 1995
∗This work is a bilingual edition.
(The entire section is 88 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Poezje=Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 3, Summer, 1991, p. 519.
[In the following review, Carls detects "a grim reminder of taboos that are still bridling Polish society" in Poezji = Poems.]
Polish publishers have a tradition of publishing original works written in foreign languages. The present volume, a reprint of a 1981 bilingual selection of Wislawa Szymborska's verse (Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems), belongs to that category. Given the present shortage of paper in Poland and the resultant price tag of 2,500 zlotys—a student's entire monthly stipend in the 1970s—such an undertaking can only be justified by Szymborska's status as one of the finest postwar Polish poets and by the desire to acknowledge her popularity abroad.
Surprisingly missing from the Polish edition, however, are the comments and the bibliographic note contained in the American edition; the Polish volume remains silent as well about the translators, on whom a note would have been appropriate, especially in light of the recent death of Magnus J. Krynski, a prominent Polish émigré. The American edition's introduction by the translators has now become the afterword. Its opening lines about Polish critics' unabating praise for Szymborska have been deleted. Later, one paragraph referring to the poems written under Stalinist rule and two paragraphs...
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SOURCE: A review of People on a Bridge, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 163-64.
[In the following review, Carpenter finds People on a Bridge "subtle, witty, and ironic."]
Long recognized in Poland as a leading voice in contemporary Polish poetry, Wislawa Szymborska has not achieved the same popularity in the English-speaking world as other poets of her generation such as Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz. Still, People on a Bridge is not the first introduction of Szymborska's verse to English readers. Czeslaw Milosz included poems by her in his seminal anthology Postwar Polish Poetry (1965), and in 1981 Princeton University Press published a selection of her poems translated by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire. Let us hope that the present volume, a welcome addition to those earlier translations, will help bring Szymborska the recognition that she deserves.
The poems selected by Adam Czerniawski come from four different collections and span a period of twenty years. Rather than adhere to chronology, Czerniawski has grouped the poems according to recurring themes, most prominently the problem of art's relationship to time, death, and reality. Thematic unity is further emphasized by a ring composition. The poems opening and closing the book (the only two given both in English translation and in the Polish original) deal with...
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SOURCE: A review of People on a Bridge, in Choice, Vol. 29, No. 5, January, 1992, p. 752.
[In the review below, Levine briefly compares People on a Bridge to the earlier Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts.]
Szymborska is a distinguished Polish poet, admired for her witty, often wry, coolly intellectual poems—poems that at the same time radiate warmth and, through their attention to the particular, often subvert the intellectual categories through which we view the world. Adam Czerniawski has translated 36 of Szymborska's poems published over the last two decades. The present volume is not the first collection of Szymborska's poems in English translation. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts, a selection of 70 poems (the earliest of them from the mid-1950s) in translations by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire, was published ten years ago (1981). That volume offered a much richer introduction to Szymborska's poetry, having a more varied and therefore more representative selection and an essay by the translators that is both longer and more informative than Czerniawski's crisp five-page evocation of Szymborska's "particular imagination." Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts had the additional virtue of being a facing-page, bilingual edition. Of the 36 poems in People on a Bridge, 20 also appear in Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts. But Czerniawski's translations are more felicitous, and his...
(The entire section is 229 words.)
SOURCE: A review of View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, in Kliatt, Vol. 29, No. 5, September, 1995, p. 29.
[In the review below, Beschta praises View with a Grain of Sand, calling the volume "a joy."]
Although her work has been translated into English before, Szymborska has not been widely recognized here in the States. Here, her selected poems, wonderfully translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, might well change that situation, bringing America into step with Europe, which acknowledges her as arguably Poland's leading female poet. This collection presents 100 poems taken from seven separate volumes. As such, it offers a broad perspective on her career, one which maintains an optimism and sense of wonder about the world while recognizing the trials of reality. In 1957 she says, "We've inherited hope—/ the gift of forgetting …" and in 1993 she points out that
This terrifying world is not devoid of charms,
of the mornings
that make waking up worthwhile.
The grass is green
on Maciejowice's fields,
and it is studded with dew,…
Through the writings of nearly 50 years, her sense of humor is as evident as her sense of wonder, and her urge to speculate, to find alternative...
(The entire section is 276 words.)
SOURCE: A review of View with a Grain of Sand, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1996, p. 29.
[In the review below, the critic briefly considers Szymborska's poetic style.]
"So much world all at once—how it rustles and bustles!" Szymborska is constantly amazed and challenged by life's plenty, and in capturing it in language, her poems employ all the "inventiveness / bounty, sweep, exactitude, / sense of order—gifts that border / on witchcraft and wizardry" that she praises in life itself. Though claiming only to have "borrowed from the truth," Szymborska writes lyrics that build from small details, such as a grain of sand, into visions of the wider universe. Her styles, like her subjects, are many, ranging from satire to elegy, meditation to play. She is especially deft at composing brief, spare allegories that have all the emotional force of extended narratives. In rendering this multi-faceted Polish voice into English, the translators (Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh) deserve high praise. There is nothing strained or awkward here, and lines like, "Oh how grassy is this hopper, / how this berry ripely rasps," work so well in English it's hard to believe they were conceived in any other language. Culling work from between 1957 and 1993, [View with a Grain of Sand] is the third selection of Szymborska's poems to appear in English. One hopes it won't be the...
(The entire section is 227 words.)
SOURCE: "Unfathomable Life," in New Republic, Vol. 214, No. 1, January 1, 1996, pp. 36-9.
[Below, Vendler comments on Szymborska's evolution as a poet and establishes a context for her art.]
"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 [View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems].
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 poems owing to the exceptional gifts of the translators, make it possible to follow Szymborska's career, as she...
(The entire section is 3181 words.)
SOURCE: "Subversive Activities," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIII, No. 7, April 18, 1996, pp. 35-6.
[In the following essay, Hirsch provides an overview of Szymborska's career, analyzing subversive elements in her poetry.]
Wislawa Szymborska, with Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz, is one of the major living Polish poets of the generation after Milosz. Of the four Szymborska is the least well-known in America, perhaps because she has remained in Poland, and because she shuns the public eye. Little is known about her private life; she has rarely been interviewed. Yet, as in the case of Elizabeth Bishop, her reticence is accompanied by considerable literary ambition. Like Herbert, she has mounted in her work a witty and tireless defense of individual subjectivity against collectivist thinking, and her poems, like his, are slyly subversive in a way that compels us to reconsider received opinion. In both, the rejection of dogma becomes the basis of a canny personal ethics.
Szymborska was born in 1923 in the small town of Bnin in the Poznan area of western Poland. She moved with her family to Cracow when she was eight years old and has lived there ever since. She attended school illegally during the German occupation, when the Nazis banned Polish secondary schools and universities, and after the war studied Polish literature and sociology at Jagiellonian University. From 1952...
(The entire section is 2850 words.)
SOURCE: "Pole Wins Nobel Literature Prize," in Wall Street Journal, Vol. CCXXVII, No. 68, October 4, 1996, p. A5.
[In the following essay, Gamerman reviews the themes of Szymborska's poetry.]
In "Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem," Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday, writes of a poet who contemplates the cosmos—and comes up short:
"In her depiction of the sky, one detects a certain helplessness,
the authoress is lost in a terrifying expanse,
she is startled by the planets' lifelessness,
and within her mind (which can only be called imprecise)
a question soon arises:
whether we are, in the end, alone
under the sun, all suns that ever shone."
The authoress's intentions, the narrator confesses, "might shine brighter beneath a less naive pen. / Not under this one, alas."
It seems fitting that in naming its new laureate, the Swedish Academy hailed the 73-year-old Ms. Szymborska as a poet for whom "no questions are of such significance as those that are native." The author of 16 collections of poetry, Ms. Szymborska asks big questions about life, death and the meaning that poetry can claim in the face of them, in language that is direct, lucid and...
(The entire section is 870 words.)
SOURCE: "Reclusive Polish Poet Awarded Nobel Prize," in Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1996, p. A1.
[In the following essay, Murphy relates the reponses of other Polish writers to the announcement of Szymborska's award.]
Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, a reclusive widow whose seductively simple verse has captured the wit and wisdom of everyday life for the past half century, has been awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy announced Thursday in Stockholm.
Unassuming, shy and obsessively protective of her privacy, Szymborska had been considered a longshot for the prestigious prize, which was presented to another poet, Irishman Seamus Heaney, last year. Although she is perhaps Poland's most famous woman writer, Szymborska is often overshadowed in Polish literary circles by poets Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz, both of whom have been mentioned as Nobel contenders.
"She has gone through a long evolution and has reached maturity," said renowned Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, a professor at UC Berkeley, who won the Nobel Prize in 1980. "Polish poetry in the 20th century has reached a strong international position on the European continent. Szymborska represents it well."
Szymborska reacted to news of her award with characteristic humility and humor. She granted several brief telephone interviews from a faraway mountain retreat she...
(The entire section is 950 words.)
SOURCE: "Near a People's Heart," in Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1996, p. B8.
[In the following essay, the critic considers the significance of Szymborska's award to Polish letters.]
"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," Percy Shelley once said. He was speaking from early 19th-century Europe, a world away from 1990s America, where unacknowledged power is more likely to lie with spin doctors and political action committees. What Shelley said, however, largely remains true in Poland today: The country has been carved up so many times by invaders since the late 18th century that its heart has remained whole only in its literature.
This is what makes Wislawa Szymborska, who Thursday was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, both a political and artistic leader. The intellectual Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz may be better known abroad, but Szymborska is the real "people's poet" of her nation.
You wouldn't guess this from the Swedish Academy's amusingly incomprehensible statement that it was honoring Szymborska "for poetry that … allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality." Maybe it was the translation.
But her work speaks for itself. "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself," for instance, begins with this observation of some carefree animals: "The buzzard never says it is to blame …...
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SOURCE: "Szymborska? It Means 'Famous'," in Washington Post, October 4, 1996, pp. F1, F3.
[Below, Streitfield introduces the Nobel Prize winner to English-speaking readers.]
Pronouncing the name of the 1996 Nobel laureate in literature is the hardest part. Once that's done, Wislawa Szymborska's poetry slips down like melted snow. From "Writing a Résumé":
Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.
Landscapes are replaced by addresses,
shaky memories give way to unshakable dates.
Of all your loves, mention only the marriage;
of all your children, only those who were born.
To praise the Polish poet, the Swedish Academy resorted to musical comparisons. It called her a "Mozart of poetry" and said she combined elegance of language with "the fury of Beethoven."
The 73-year-old Szymborska tackles the most difficult subjects—hatred, love, the persistence of memory, the charms of life as well as its ravages—in the simplest language. Her poems affirm what she calls "The joy of writing, / The power of preserving. / Revenge of a mortal hand."
Still, for the English-speaking world, Szymborska qualifies as the most obscure Nobel selection since the Czech Jaroslav...
(The entire section is 1167 words.)
SOURCE: "Polish Poet, Observer of Daily Life, Wins Nobel," in The New York Times, October 4, 1996, p. C5.
[Below, Berlez offers reminiscences of Szymborska from friends and writers in Poland.]
Wislawa Szymborska, a self-effacing 73-year-old Polish poet who collects trashy postcards because she says trash has no pretensions, won the Nobel Prize for Literature today.
This year's prize is the biggest ever, $1.12 million The announcement by the Swedish Academy surprised some in the literary world who had expected the 1996 award to go to a novelist because last year's winner was the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
Ms. Szymborska, whose name is pronounced vees-WAH-wah sheem-BOR-ska, is little known outside Poland, where she is revered as a distinguished poet from the intellectual center of Cracow. She stresses the quirks and unexpected nature of daily life and of personal relations in poetry that spans five decades. Her early work, which she has since renounced, embraced the Socialist Realism of the Stalinist era.
In its award citation the Swedish Academy noted that Ms. Szymborska has been described as "the Mozart of poetry, not without justice in view of her wealth of inspiration and the veritable ease with which her words seem to fall into place."
Word of the prize reached Ms. Szymborska in the southern mountain town of Zakopane, where she was...
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SOURCE: "Competing Versions of Poem by Nobelist," in The New York Times, October 21, 1996, pp. C13-14.
[In the following essay, Smith focuses on the difference between two translated versions of a poem by Szymborska that appeared in both The New Yorker and The New Republic.]
There was a wee contretemps in the literary world last week when The New Yorker and The New Republic inadvertently published the same poem by Wislawa Szymborska of Poland, winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only that but the two translations had subtly different tones, and the endings, depending on how seriously one takes these things, had slightly different meanings in the end, though, the whole matter proved to be something of a post-structuralist's dream.
The poem, called "Some People Like Poetry" in The New Republic and "Some Like Poetry" in The New Yorker, is a gentle riff on the fact that while people cannot agree on a definition of poetry itself, there are those who love it nonetheless.
The New Yorker version was translated by Joanna Trzeciak. The one in The New Republic, which was translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, had been submitted to The New Yorker, but not published, before Ms. Szymborska's recent fame.
Traditionally a magazine prides itself on being the first and only one to...
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SOURCE: "The Reluctant Poet," in The New York Times Book Review, October 27, 1996, p. 51.
[Below, Baranczak discusses Szymborska's poetics, citing the poet's wisdom for realizing "that what attracts people to poetry today is … its art of asking questions."]
"The Greta Garbo of World Poetry," trumpeted a headline in the Italian daily La Repubblica; it has so far been easily the most amusing among the attempts of the news media worldwide to attach some identity tag to this year's Nobel laureate in literature. What makes the comparison genuinely funny is that it's true and untrue at the same time. Those who know Wislawa Szymborska personally will be the first to admit that she indeed has something of the famous Swede's charm and subtlety. Yet her reticence and dislike of being in the spotlight have never turned her into a recluse. Wit, wisdom and warmth are equally important ingredients in the mixture of qualities that makes her so unusual and every poem of hers so unforgettable. We love her poetry because we instinctively feel that its author genuinely (though by no means uncritically) loves us.
I have mentioned reticence, and the 1996 decision of the Stockholm committee represents, among other things, a triumph of quality over quantity. Ms. Szymborska is among the least prolific major poets of our time; there has perhaps been no Nobel Prize-winning poet who has written less...
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Dobyns, Stephen. "Poetry." Book World—The Washington Post (30 July 1995): 8.
Appreciative review of View with a Grain of Sand.
McKee, Louis. Review of View with a Grain of Sand. Library Journal 120, No. 12 (July 1995): 85.
Concludes that "it is about time more readers found the poetry of Szymborska."
"Writing a Résumé for a Nobel Winner." U.S. News & World Report 121, No. 15 (14 October 1996): 32.
Brief account of Szymborska's career.
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