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.