Wisława Szymborska Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The two key qualities of Wisława Szymborska’s poetry are curiosity and a sense of wonder. She has the ability to look at things as if seeing them for the first time. In her curious eyes, nothing is ordinary; everything is part of the ongoing “Miracle Fair.” Her poetry forces the reader to abandon schematic thinking and to distrust received wisdom. On the level of language, this distrust is expressed through a constant play with fixed phrases and clichés. Both language and thought are turned upside down, revealing new and surprising meanings. Such poetry is very humorous, but it also conveys a sense of profound philosophical discomfort, prompting the reader to probe deeper and to adapt new perspectives. Szymborska’s poems skillfully combine seriousness and play, seemingly opposite categories that, in the eyes of the poet, are of equal value.

Dlatego żyjemy

The earliest poems of Wisława Szymborska, published in newspapers in the years following World War II, dealt with experiences common to the poet’s generation: the trauma of the war, the dead child-soldiers of the Warsaw Uprising, the hope for a new, peaceful future. None of these poems found its way into Szymborska’s first two collections, Dlatego żyjemy (this is why we live) and Pytania zadawane sobie (the questions we ask ourselves). By the 1950’s the political climate in Poland had changed considerably; poetry was to become an extension of state propaganda and a reinforcement of the official ideology. For a time, Szymborska naïvely subscribed to this agenda. Her first two collections give testimony to her youthful political beliefs. Later, the poet would disown her early work; however, the brief period of idealism and the subsequent disillusionment taught her to distrust totalizing ideologies of any kind.

Although the primary theme of Szymborska’s earliest collections was the building of the perfect socialist state, some poems dealt with nonpolitical subjects such as love, intimacy, and relationships between people. Stylistically, these early poems bettered typical products of socialist propaganda and contained a promise of Szymborska’s later achievements. Nevertheless, most critics (as well as the poet herself) prefer to begin discussions of Szymborska’s oeuvre with her third collection.

Wołanie do Yeti

Wołanie do Yeti (calling out to Yeti) marks a turning point in the work of Szymborska and is considered her true literary debut. The poet cuts herself away from the earlier political creed; her former assurance is replaced by a profound distrust. This change of heart is expressed in the poem “Rehabilitacja” (“Rehabilitation”) in which the speaker refers to her deluded head as “Poor Yorick.” By 1957 Szymborska had become a poet of doubtful inquiry and profound uncertainty.

Wołanie do Yeti introduces a number of themes and devices that would become permanent features of Szymborska’s poetics. The poem “Dwie malpy Brueghla” (“Brueghel’s Two Monkeys”) exemplifies both the poet’s characteristic use of the anecdote and her growing interest in looking at the human world from a nonhuman perspective. The speaker in the poem is taking a final exam in “the History of Mankind” while the two monkeys look on:

One monkey stares and listens with mocking disdain,
The other seems to be dreaming away—
But when it’s clear I don’t know what to say
He prompts me with a gentle
Clinking of his chain.

Similarly, the poem “Z nieodbytej wyprawy w Himalaje” (“Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition”) portrays the achievements of humankind, as presented to a nonhuman listener. Characteristically, Szymborska creates a hypothetical, alternative world, thus making possible her imaginative investigations.

These poems mark the beginning of Szymborska’s poetic anthropology: her study of the condition of human beings in the world, as observed and analyzed from various unexpected perspectives. Wołanie do Yeti reveals another seminal feature of Szymborska’s poetics: her skillful use of irony as a cognitive and poetic category.


The publication of Sól (salt) in 1962 was pronounced a major literary event. This collection gives a taste of Szymborska’s mature...

(The entire section is 1795 words.)