Wislawa Szymborska Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wislawa Szymborska 1923-

(Also rendered as Wisława Szymborska; has also written under the pseudonym Stanczykowna) Polish poet, critic, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Szymborska's career through 2002. See also Wislawa Szymborska Criticism (Volume 99) and Wislawa Szymborska Poetry Criticism.

Szymborska is considered one of the most accomplished European poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Her unsurpassed popularity in her native Poland evolved into international recognition in 1996 with her receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature. While her literary output is relatively slight, including little more than two hundred poems published over five decades, Szymborska is nevertheless regarded as a leading figure of contemporary European letters. In her measured and elegant verse, Szymborska celebrates the miraculous qualities of the ordinary and seemingly insignificant events. Offering concrete images that suggest their own universality, Szymborska's poems evince her skeptical philosophy, often aided by her sense of humor and Socratic pose of the naïve questioner, stripping away clichés to uncover hidden truths.

Biographical Information

Szymborska was born on July 2, 1923, in Prowent-Bnin, near Poznań, Poland. Her family moved to Kraków when she was eight years old, and Szymborska has lived in Kraków ever since. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Szymborska defied official sanctions and secretly attended a banned Polish secondary school. After World War II, she entered Jagellonian University, studying Polish literature and sociology. In 1948 she married fellow poet and editor Adam Wlodek, but their marriage ended in divorce six years later. In 1952 Szymborska joined the editorial staff of the cultural periodical Zycie literackie, devoting most of her attention to literary criticism. Selections of her reviews were subsequently collected in Lektury nadobowiazkowe (1974; Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces), which shares its title with the column Szymborska continued to write until 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 were met with the disapproval of communist censors. Her first poetic collection, Dlatego zyjemy, was not published until 1952, followed soon after by Pytania zadawane sobie (1954). Marked by a strong socialist realism, both works were later rejected and renounced by Szymborska in the post-Stalinist era. In the ensuing decades, Szymborska has achieved an unparalleled level of popularity for a woman poet in Poland. A reclusive and exacting writer, she has published small volumes of verse every three to five years for the remainder of the century. Her first major collection to appear in English, Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems, was published in 1981. During the early 1980s, however, Poland became a nation under martial law. Szymborska was forced to assume the pseudonym “Stanczykowna” and print her poetry in such dissident and exile publications as the Polish magazine Arka and the Parisian journal Kultura Paryska. The political situation in Poland and the subsequent fall of Soviet communism had little effect on Szymborska's popularity within Poland—in 1995 her poem “Nothing Twice” was transformed into a hit Polish rock song. The following year, the intensely private poet, largely unrecognized outside of Poland, achieved overnight international recognition by being named as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Szymborska's subsequent worldwide acclaim has inspired several reprints of her past volumes as well as new translations of her poetry into English and numerous other languages.

Major Works

Excluding only Szymborska's self-renounced pre-1957 poems, View with a Grain of Sand (1995) collects English translations of verse from Szymborska's seven major volumes of poetry published prior to her Nobel award—ranging from such early works as Wolanie do Yeti (1957) and Sól (1962) to such later works as Ludzie na moście (1986; People on a Bridge) and Koniec i początek (1993). The collection includes the noted poem “Calling out to Yeti,” in which the speaker stands in the icy Himalayan Mountains, speaking to the Abominable Snowman and metaphorically addressing former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The speaker cries out: “Yeti, not only crimes / are possible among us. / Yeti, not all words / are death sentences.” Another well-known piece, “Brueghel's Two Monkeys,” which originally appeared in Wolanie do Yeti, opens with an image from a famous Brueghel painting in order to question the relationship between language and reality. Commentators have observed that personal memory is a significant thematic and structural principle in several of Szymborska's poetic works, particularly in Koniec i początek, which features one of Szymborska's most oft-cited poems, “Cat in an Empty Apartment.” In the poem, Szymborska displaces her narrative perspective on the death of a loved one onto the mind of the deceased's household pet, following the thoughts of the perplexed creature as it petulantly vows to teach its master a lesson when he returns. “A Great Number,” from Wielka liczba (1976), also illustrates several of Szymborska's underlying poetic themes, including the relationship between the individual and the universal, humankind's fleeting grasp of memory and knowledge, apprehension at the essential randomness of the universe, and a belief in the potential of poetry to offer 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. Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska (2001) is a retrospective collection of Szymborska's poetry that includes selections from her first two volumes—many of them being translated into English for the first time. In the title poem, “Miracle Fair,” Szymborska celebrates the small miracles of life that occur every day, but which typically escape our distracted attention. Offering a near comprehensive selection of Szymborska's poetic oeuvre, Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997 (1998) includes the poem “Under a Single Star,” a work that captures the humble stance of the poet as she apologizes to language itself for her clumsy attempts to relay understanding through words.

Critical Reception

Although her first poems were heavily influenced by the dominant socialist realism of the early Stalinist era in Poland, Szymborska has denounced her early verse, commenting that she made the “mistake” of loving mankind rather than loving the individual human being in her work. Though these initial publications have been largely ignored by critics, Szymborska's post-1957 poetry has attracted nearly unanimous praise, culminating in her 1996 Nobel Prize. Several of her peers have been equally forthcoming in their esteem for Szymborska's verse. Fellow Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz has been somewhat reserved in his praise of Szymborska's poetry, though he has complimented the insight and strength of her poems. Milosz has stated that, “[f]or me, Szymborska is first of all a poet of consciousness. This means that she speaks to us, living at the same time, as one of us, reserving her private matters for herself, operating at a certain remove, but also referring to what everybody knows from one's own life.” Observers have noted that Szymborska frequently opens poems with a seemingly innocent question, and through the body of the poem, uncovers a series of harsh truths. Commentators have consistently lauded Szymborska's wit, wisdom, irony, and adept use of simple and straightforward language. Acknowledging that Szymborska's poetry is extremely focused on the everyday and the manifestly realistic, reviewers have maintained that her works embody a universal appeal that demonstrates her poetic joy in life's miraculous potential, tempered by her strong skepticism of easy solutions and her acute awareness of suffering. This all-encompassing worldview, coupled with her precise language, has facilitated the conveyance of concepts when Szymborska's works undergo translation. Critics have noted that, although translations vary in quality, due to Szymborska's concise language and understated lyricism, very little of her original ideas are lost in translation, though some commentators have acknowledged that Szymborska's puns and play on words are often difficult to render in another language.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dlatego zyjemy (poetry) 1952

Pytania zadawane sobie (poetry) 1954

Wolanie do Yeti (poetry) 1957

Sól (poetry) 1962

Wiersze wybrane (poetry) 1964

Poezje wybrane (poetry) 1967

Sto pociech: wiersze (poetry) 1967

Poezje (poetry) 1970

Wybór poezji (poetry) 1970

Wszelki wypadek (poetry) 1972

Wybór wierszy (poetry) 1973

Lektury nadobowiazkowe [Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces] (essays and criticism) 1974

Tarsjusz i...

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Jaroslaw Anders (review date 21 October 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Anders, Jaroslaw. “The Revenge of the Mortal Hand.” New York Review of Books 29, no. 16 (21 October 1982): 47-9.

[In the following review, Anders compliments Szymborska's attention to the often overlooked aspects of life in Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems, commenting that Szymborska's emphasis on the fleeting nature of memory sets her poetry apart from the works of other notable Polish poets.]

Of the poetic voices to come out of Poland after 1945 Wislawa Szymborska's is probably the most elusive as well as the most distinctive. She defies the usual categories (“classicist,” “political”) used to describe writers on the Polish postwar...

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Krzysztof Karasek (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Karasek, Krzysztof. “Mozartian Joy: The Poetry of Wislawa Szymborska.” In The Mature Laurel: Essays on Modern Polish Poetry, edited by Adam Czerniawski, pp. 191-98. Wales, U.K.: Poetry Wales Press, Ltd/Seren Books/Dufour, 1991.

[In the following essay, Karasek examines how Szymborska is able to portray “the totality of art” within her poetry and argues that “each of [Szymborska's] poems is an autonomous world, a world in itself.”]

In the twentieth century the Word has become—like it or not—a dramatic battleground. At the same time, a shrinking of art's domain and the annexation of this area by knowledge (in the case of the...

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Stanislaw Baranczak (essay date summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Baranczak, Stanislaw. “The Szymborska Phenomenon.” Salmagundi, no. 103 (summer 1994): 252-65.

[In the following essay, Baranczak praises Szymborska's skillful use of language throughout her works of poetry, exploring both her popularity in Poland and the questioning nature of her verse.]

More than three decades ago, in 1962, a slim book of poems bearing the monosyllabic and hardly soul-stirring title of Sól (Salt) came out in Poland. Its author, a woman then in her late thirties, had apparently considered it fitting to include in her collection, among other poems, her own verse epitaph. Obviously a tongue in cheek performance, this piece...

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Helen Vendler (review date 1 January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. “Unfathomable Life.” New Republic 214, no. 1 (1 January 1996): 36-9.

[In the following review, Vendler analyzes the recurring thematic elements in View with a Grain of Sand and discusses the irony, simplicity, and universality of Szymborska's poems.]

“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...

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Czeslaw Milosz (essay date 14 November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Milosz, Czeslaw. “On Szymborska.” New York Review of Books 43, no. 18 (14 November 1996): 17.

[Milosz is a Polish Nobel Prize-winning poet and essayist. In the following essay, Milosz analyzes the dominant thematic motifs in Polish poetry, commenting on Szymborska's place within the Polish literary community and how her poems focus on the mundane moments that are universal to the human experience.]

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...

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Wislawa Szymborska (essay date 7 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Szymborska, Wislawa. “I Don't Know: The 1996 Nobel Lecture.” World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 5-7.

[In the following transcript of Szymborska's Nobel Lecture, originally delivered on December 7, 1996, the author claims that poetic inspiration surrounds everyone and is captured in the quest to gain understanding of the world.]

They say that the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come—the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line—will be just as hard, since I'm supposed to talk about poetry. I've said very little on the subject—next...

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Bogdana Carpenter (essay date winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carpenter, Bogdana. “Wislawa Szymborska and the Importance of the Unimportant.” World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 8-12.

[In the following essay, Carpenter highlights the realist and nonemotional elements in Szymborska's poetry, noting the importance that Szymborska places in common, everyday events and experiences.]

I am no longer certain
that what is important
is more important than the unimportant.

—“No Title Required”

For the second time in sixteen years, a Polish poet has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is not a coincidence: the decision of the Swedish Academy to bestow the world's...

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Wislawa Szymborska and Joanna Trzeciak (interview date 7 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Szymborska, Wislawa, and Joanna Trzeciak. “Wislawa Szymborska: The Enchantment of Everyday Objects.” Publishers Weekly 244, no. 14 (7 April 1997): 68-9.

[In the following interview, Szymborska discusses her personal history, her writing career, translations of her works, and authors she admires.]

“I'm drowning in papers,” exclaims Wislawa Szymborska, pointing to piles of mail in the study of her fifth-floor, three-room walk-up in Kraków. Since receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in December, this reluctant literary celebrity, previously little known to readers outside of Europe, has found that her sparsely furnished apartment is growing...

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Edyta M. Bojanowska (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bojanowska, Edyta M. “Wislawa Szymborska: Naturalist and Humanist.” Slavic and East European Journal 41, no. 2 (summer 1997): 199-223.

[In the following essay, Bojanowska studies Szymborska's interpretation of mankind's importance and placement in nature, drawing particular emphasis to Szymborska's focus on man's inevitable attempts to assert themselves as the masters of nature's hierarchy.]

Wisława Szymborska (b. 1923), the author of nine slim volumes of poetry that span nearly half a century, is a foremost figure in contemporary Polish poetry. Her recognition was slow in the coming. Unlike such established giants of post-war Polish poetry as Czesław...

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Alice-Catherine Carls (review date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carls, Alice-Catherine. Review of De la mort sans exagérer, by Wislawa Szymborska. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 617-18.

[In the following review, Carls examines the French translations of Szymborska's poetry presented in De la mort sans exagérer.]

Before discussing yet another translation of the 1996 Nobel Prize laureate, one should pay homage to the early translators of Wisława Szymborska, particularly the German Karl Dedecius, who published a first volume of her works in 1973, and the team of Magnus J. Kryński and Robert A. Maguire, who introduced her to the American public in 1981. French readers had to wait until 1995, despite...

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John R. Carpenter (essay date winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carpenter, John R. “Three Polish Poets, Two Nobel Prizes.” Kenyon Review 20, no. 1 (winter 1998): 153-56.

[In the following excerpt, Carpenter evaluates the underlying themes in Szymborska's poetry and studies the subtle differences between translations of her poems.]

When the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in late 1996, [Czeslaw] Milosz was one of the first to congratulate her, telephoning from California. Szymborska's work was not well known in the West, but soon after the announcement of the prize, several translations of her poetry were published to fill the gap. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by...

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Theodore Worozbyt (review date summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Worozbyt, Theodore. Review of View with a Grain of Sand and Selected Poems, by Wislawa Szymborska. Prairie Schooner 73 (summer 1999): 197-202.

[In the following review, Worozbyt notes the subtle differences between the English translations of View with a Grain of Sand and Selected Poems, arguing that each translation provides valuable insight and retrospection on Szymborska's verse.]

Few tasks present the reviewer more difficulty than assessing a poet's work in translation. Add to this reviewer's dilemma a total unfamiliarity with the language of original composition, in this case Polish, and the resulting stewpot of critical and...

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Clare Cavanagh (essay date fall 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cavanagh, Clare. “Poetry and Ideology: The Example of Wislawa Szymborska.” Literary Imagination: The Review of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics 1, no. 2 (fall 1999): 174-90.

[In the following essay, Cavanagh analyzes the political and often apolitical themes in Szymborska's writing, exploring Szymborska's ironic portrayal of modern humanity's feelings of intellectual and moral superiority.]

For a frequently conquered country speaking an obscure language in which every other letter seems to be z, Poland has established an enviable track record in poetry. To the unhappily marginalized poets of the West, Poland must epitomize what Seamus...

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John Blazina (essay date January 2001)

(Contemporary Literary 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 offers a critical reading of Szymborska's poem “Brueghel's Two Monkeys,” emphasizing how the poet uses the image of the two monkeys to symbolize “two aspects of her own ‘marginal’ voice.”]

Like the hero of folktales, the speaker of ‘Brueghel'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...

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Virginia Quarterly Review (review date autumn 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Miracle Fair: Selected Poems, by Wislawa Szymborska. Virginia Quarterly Review 77, no. 4 (autumn 2001): 146-47.

[In the following review, the critic applauds the content and arrangement of Szymborska's poems in Miracle Fair: Selected Poems.]

In this collection [Miracle Fair: Selected Poems], the Nobel Prize winning poet presents an array of poems that date back into the 1950's. While they are culled from more than 40 years of work, Szymborska's preoccupations are consistent over time. In fact, Joanna Treciak who translated the pieces from the Polish, has assembled the pieces according to theme and not chronology and that proves to be the...

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Peggy Rosenthal (review date 24 April-1 May 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosenthal, Peggy. “Grave Dreams.” Christian Century 119, no. 9 (24 April-1 May 2002): 8.

[In the following review, Rosenthal discusses how Szymborska's poem “Plotting with the Dead” illustrates the poet's insistence that all individuals have bonds with, guilt for, and responsibility to the dead.]

Wislawa Szymborska, a Nobel Prize winner, makes poetry out of unusual materials: lists of instructions, clothes items, apologies or questions. Her tone can be wry or playful or chilling. Her purpose is to shake us awake to how human history gets assembled from the smallest movements—impulsive or thoughtful, random or rational—of our minds and hearts....

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Nancy R. Ives (review date 1 November 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ives, Nancy R. Review of Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces, by Wislawa Szymborska. Library Journal 127, no. 18 (1 November 2002): 91.

[In the following review, Ives offers a positive assessment of Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces, arguing that the essays showcase Szymborska's wit, social concerns, and mastery of language.]

Unknown to most Americans until she won the 1996 Nobel Prize in literature, Polish writer Szymborska is primarily a poet. This collection of short prose pieces [Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces] features book reviews she wrote while working as a columnist. Addressing a wide range of subjects, from the ancient Romans to...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Franklin, Ruth. Review of Miracle Fair: Selected Poems, by Wislawa Szymborska. New Republic 224, no. 23 (4 June 2001): 58-61.

Franklin remarks on the elements of humor in Miracle Fair: Selected Poems, noting that several of Szymborska's poems appear in English for the first time in the collection.

Freedman, John. “The Possibilities and Limitations of Poetry: Wislawa Szymborska's Wielka liczba.Polish Review 31, nos. 2-3 (1986): 137-47.

Freedman interprets the title poem of Wielka liczba as representative of Szymborska's dominant themes and techniques.


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