Wisława Szymborska Szymborska, Wisława - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Dlatego zyjemy 1952

Pytania zadawane sobie 1954

Wołanie do Yeti 1957

Sól 1962

Wiersze wybrane 1964

Poezje wybrane 1967

Sto pociech 1967

Poezje 1970

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

Poezje/Poems 1989

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 Cavanagh] 1998

Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska [translated by Joanna Trzeciak] 2001

Lektury nadobowiazkowe (reviews) 1973

Magnus J. Kryński and Robert A. Maguire (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John Freedman (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Felicity Rosslyn (essay date May–June 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Helen Vendler (review date 1 January 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Carlin Romano (essay date 3 October 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Wisława Szymborska and Dean E. Murphy (interview date 13 October 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Michael Glover (review date 8 November 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Czeslaw Milosz (essay date 14 November 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Ewa Gajer (essay date May 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

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....

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George Gömöri (review date spring 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Edward Hirsch (essay date spring 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Jacqueline Osherow (essay date spring 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 30 March 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

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”;...

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Graham Christian (review date 1 April 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Jaroslaw Anders (review date 17 May 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

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Lavinia Greenlaw (review date 26 April 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Stephen Tapscott and Mariusz Przybytek (essay date July 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John Blazina (essay date January 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Ruth Franklin (essay date 4 June 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

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:...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

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