Wisława Szymborska

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1041

Wisawa Szymborska (shihm-BOHR-skah) is one of the most important Polish poets of the post-World War II period. During the second half of the twentieth century, there was a renaissance in Polish poetry, with a number of poets creating work of great breadth and power. Two poets of this era, in fact, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature: Czesaw Miosz in 1980 and Szymborska in 1996.awa}awa}awa}awa}

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Wisawa Szymborska was born in 1923 in the small town of Bnin, near the larger city of Poznan. She lived in Bnin (now part of Kórnick) for her early years and moved to the city of Cracow in 1931; she has lived in Cracow ever since. She was selected for university work and graduated from the prestigious Jagellonian University, where she studied literature and languages, in the midst of World War II. She published her first poem in a Cracow newspaper in 1945. By 1948, she had a collection of twenty-six poems and attempted to have them published as a book. However, Poland was at that time a satellite of Russia, and the communist influence and ideology was very strong. Her proposed book was rejected as presenting a “morbid” rather than heroic treatment of World War II. In addition, it did not celebrate the triumph of the proletariat as communist ideology demanded. She was branded a purveyor of decadent art, and communist leaders began a campaign to undermine her work.

In 1952 Szymborska tried again to publish a book of poems. These poems, in contrast to the aborted collection of 1948, were on themes—such as the need for peace and an anti-Western stance—that the communist establishment found agreeable. However, there was a good deal of criticism of the style of the book; it was described as “agitation-propaganda in a ‘chamber music’ style.” Dlatego yjemy (that’s what we live for) was published in 1952, but Szymborska did not include any of the poems from that book in her collected works. She found a way to accommodate the authorities in this one instance, but it compromised her vision if not her literary technique.

In 1954 Szymborska published another book of poems, Pytania zadawane sobie (questions to put to myself). The poems of this collection directly reject the communist agenda and socialist poetics. The subjects of these poems include love and the consciousness of the self. Her typical wit, a quality for which communist ideology had little use, is always present.

Szymborska found her unique voice in the collection Woanie do Yeti (calling out to Yeti), published in 1957; this collection brought her great popularity in Poland, although she was not well known outside that country. The poems reflect a broad range of subjects, and wit and the use of imaginary worlds are prominent in them. For example, in “From a Himalayan Expedition Not Made,” the speaker contrasts the silence of the Himalayas to the ordinary world which has “ABC’s, bread/ and two times two is four. . . .” She calls to the Yeti to come back to a world where “tears do not freeze,” but he gives no sign of recognition. Another poem on a lost world is “Atlantis,” which is a “plus minus” world made of contradictions. In the same collection is a poem that is closer to statement and social criticism, “Still.” The poem portrays boxcars traveling across the land. They are inhabited by names, such as “The name Nathan” and “name David.” These Jews of the Holocaust are given back their names and their identities by the poem. In addition to criticizing the inhumanity of the Nazis, the poem places blame on those many eastern Europeans who were silent. “Awakened in the night I hear/ cor-rect, cor-rect, crash of silence on silence.”

Sól (salt) was published in 1962, and it continued the witty and ironic technique that Szymborska was making her own. For example, “Museum” looks at the objects in a museum and asks where the human feelings are that once made these objects valued. “Unexpected Meeting” is a love poem that deals with the loss of love. The former lovers meet, only to find that their passion, which is metaphorically represented by such wild animals as tigers and hawks, is now tame and has “nothing to say.”

The poems in Sto pociech (a million laughs, a bright hope), published in 1967, are for the most part written in free verse and deal with such social issues as the Vietnam War. There is, however, also the theme of creation in “The Joys of Writing,” and a poem on Thomas Mann sees him as an archetypal creator. Wszelki wypadek (there but for the grace) balances dreams and reality, as in “In Praise of Dreams.” The poem portrays the speaker as one who can do wonders, such as discovering Atlantis. However, the last line returns the reader to reality as she sees “the day before yesterday a penguin./ With the utmost clarity.” No matter how fanciful Szymborska’s poems may become, there is always that “utmost clarity.”

Wielka liczba (a great number) was published in 1976, and it has poems of sharp wit, a quality central to Szymborska’s work. For example, “Review of an Unwritten Poem” has a harsh critic as a speaker. The critic condemns the “authoress” (itself an archaic and demeaning word) for the same qualities that have made Szymborska such an admired poet: The authoress is “lost in infinitude” and mixes “the lofty with the vernacular.”

Szymborska values her privacy and has never sought the spotlight, although she is far from being a recluse. The announcement that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996 took the literary world by surprise. The award brought her poetry greater worldwide attention. This was very apparent to English-language readers by the number of her collections that were published in English after the mid-1990’s. Most were received with almost unanimous critical acclaim. She continued to write on a variety of topics. In People on a Bridge, she addresses political questions for the first time since Woanie do Yeti, and in Koniec i pocztek her poems are often very private, even elegiac in tone. In her work, readers find a singular contemporary poet who has created some of the most elegant and witty poems of the post-World War II period.

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