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.
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.
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.
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.