ⓘ Wisława Szymborska


ⓘ Wislawa Szymborska

Maria Wislawa Anna Szymborska was a Polish poet, essayist, translator and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in Prowent, which has since become part of Kornik, she later resided in Krakow until the end of her life. In Poland, Szymborskas books have reached sales rivaling prominent prose authors: although she once remarked in a poem, "Some Like Poetry", that no more than two out of a thousand people care for the art.

Szymborska was awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality". She became better known internationally as a result of this. Her work has been translated into English and many European languages, as well as into Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, Persian and Chinese.


1. Life

Wislawa Szymborska was born on 2 July 1923 in Prowent, Poland now part of Kornik, Poland, the second daughter of Wincenty Szymborski and Anna nee Rottermund Szymborska. Her father was at that time the steward of Count Wladyslaw Zamoyski, a Polish patriot and charitable patron. After the death of Count Zamoyski in 1924, her family moved to Torun, and in 1931 to Krakow, where she lived and worked until her death in early 2012.

When World War II broke out in 1939, she continued her education in underground classes. From 1943, she worked as a railroad employee and managed to avoid being deported to Germany as a forced labourer. It was during this time that her career as an artist began with illustrations for an English-language textbook. She also began writing stories and occasional poems. Beginning in 1945, she began studying Polish literature before switching to sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. There she soon became involved in the local writing scene, and met and was influenced by Czeslaw Milosz. In March 1945, she published her first poem "Szukam slowa" "Looking for words" in the daily newspaper, Dziennik Polski. Her poems continued to be published in various newspapers and periodicals for a number of years. In 1948, she quit her studies without a degree, due to her poor financial circumstances; the same year, she married poet Adam Wlodek, whom she divorced in 1954 they remained close until Wlodeks death in 1986. Their union was childless. Around the time of her marriage she was working as a secretary for an educational biweekly magazine as well as an illustrator. Her first book was to be published in 1949, but did not pass censorship as it "did not meet socialist requirements".

However, Szymborska adhered to the Peoples Republic of Polands PRL official ideology early in her career, signing an infamous political petition from 8 February 1953, condemning Polish priests accused of treason in a show trial. Her early work supported socialist themes, as seen in her debut collection Dlatego zyjemy That is what we are living for, containing the poems "Lenin" and "Mlodziezy budujacej Nowa Hute" "For the Youth who are building Nowa Huta", about the construction of a Stalinist industrial town near Krakow. She became a member of the ruling Polish United Workers Party.

Although initially close to the official party line, as the Polish Communist Party shifted from the Stalinist communists to "national" communists, Szymborska grew estranged from socialist ideology and renounced her earlier political work. Although she did not officially leave the Communist party until 1966, she began to establish contacts with dissidents. As early as 1957, she befriended Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor of the influential Paris-based emigre journal Kultura, to which she also contributed. In 1964, she opposed a Communist-backed protest to The Times against independent intellectuals, demanding freedom of speech instead.

In 1953, Szymborska joined the staff of the literary review magazine Zycie Literackie Literary Life, where she continued to work until 1981 and from 1968 ran her own book review column, called Lektury Nadobowiazkowe. Many of her essays from this period were later published in book form. From 1981–83, she was an editor of the Krakow-based monthly periodical, NaGlos OutLoud. In the 1980s, she intensified her oppositional activities, contributing to the samizdat periodical Arka under the pseudonym "Stanczykowna", as well as to the Paris-based Kultura. In the early 1990s, with her poem published in Gazeta Wyborcza, she supported the vote of no-confidence in the first non-Communist government; thereby bringing former Communists back to power. The final collection published while Szymborska was still alive, Dwukropek, was chosen as the best book of 2006 by readers of Polands Gazeta Wyborcza. She also translated French literature into Polish, in particular Baroque poetry and the works of Agrippa dAubigne. In Germany, Szymborska was associated with her translator Karl Dedecius, who did much to popularize her works there.


2. Death and last works

Surrounded by friends and relatives, Szymborska died peacefully of lung cancer in her sleep at home in Krakow in 2012, aged 88. Szymborska was working on new poetry at the time of her death, though was unable to arrange her final poems for publication in the way she would have wanted. Her last poetry was published later in 2012. In 2013, the Wislawa Szymborska Award was established in honour of her literary legacy.


3. Themes

Szymborska frequently employed literary devices such as ironic precision, paradox, contradiction and understatement, to illuminate philosophical themes and obsessions. Many of her poems feature war and terrorism. She wrote from unusual points of view, such as a cat in the newly empty apartment of its dead owner. Her reputation rests on a relatively small body of work, fewer than 350 poems. When asked why she had published so few poems, she said: "I have a trash can in my home".


4. Pop culture

Szymborskas poem "Nothing Twice" turned into a song by composer Andrzej Munkowski performed by Lucja Prus in 1965 makes her poetry known in Poland, rock singer Kora cover of "Nothing Twice" was a hit in 1994.

The poem "Love At First Sight" was used in the film Turn Left, Turn Right, starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Gigi Leung.

Three Colors: Red, a film directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, was inspired by Szymborskas poem, "Love At First Sight".

In her last years Szymborska collaborated with Polish jazz trumpeter Tomasz Stanko who dedicated his record Wislawa ECM, 2013 to her memory - taking inspiration for the compositions from their collaboration and her poetry.

Her poem "People on the Bridge" was made into a film created by Beata Pozniak. It was shown around the globe and at a film festival in New Delhi as an award it was screened additionally 36 times in 18 cities in India.


5. Major works

  • 1962: Sol "Salt"
  • 2003: Rymowanki dla duzych dzieci "Rhymes for Big Kids"
  • 1952: Dlatego zyjemy "Thats Why We Are All Alive"
  • 1976: Wielka liczba "A Large Number"
  • 1989: Poezje: Poems, bilingual Polish-English edition
  • 1954: Pytania zadawane sobie "Questioning Yourself"
  • 2013: Blysk rewolwru "The Glimmer of a Revolver"
  • 1969: Wszelki wypadek "Couldnt Have"
  • 1967: Poezje wybrane "Selected Poetry"
  • 1996: Widok z ziarnkiem piasku "View with a Grain of Sand"
  • 1992: Lektury nadobowiazkowe "Non-required Reading"
  • 2012: Wystarczy "Enough"
  • 2009: Tutaj "Here"
  • 2002: Chwila "Moment"
  • 1997: Sto wierszy – sto pociech "100 Poems – 100 Happinesses"
  • 1957: Wolanie do Yeti "Calling Out to Yeti"
  • 2005: Dwukropek "Colon"
  • 1986: Ludzie na moscie "People on the Bridge"
  • 1967: Sto pociech "No End of Fun"
  • 1993: Koniec i poczatek "The End and the Beginning"
  • 1966: 101 wierszy "101 Poems"


6. Prizes and awards

  • 1995: Honorary Degree of the Adam Mickiewicz University Poznan
  • 2005: Gold Medal for Merit to Culture - Gloria Artis
  • 1996: The Polish PEN Club prize
  • 1991: Goethe Prize
  • 1963: The Polish Ministry of Culture Prize
  • 1954: The City of Krakow Prize for Literature
  • 1996: Person of the Year by Wprost
  • 1995: Herder Prize
  • 1974: Knights Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta
  • 1997: Honorary Resident of the Royal Capital City of Krakow
  • 2011: Order of the White Eagle
  • 1996: Nobel Prize in Literature
  • 1990: Koscielski Award


7. Reviews

  • 2006 The Christian Science Monitor: A fascinating journey with two women poets by Elizabeth Lund
  • 2006 Moondance magazine: Stories/Poems. Plain and Simple. – Mapping the Words of Wislawa Szymborska on Her Latest Book, Monologue of a Dog by Lys Anzia
  • 2001 The New Republic: "Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska" by Ruth Franklin
  • 2015 All roads will lead you home Poetic Alchemy: Wislawa Szymborska’s Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wally Swist
  • 1998 Boston Review: Poems – New and Collected 1957–1997 by Francis Padorr Brent
  • 2006 Sarmatian Review: Wislawa Szymborskas Conversation With a Stone – An Interpretation by Mary Ann Furno
  • 2006 Words Without Borders: Monologue of a Dog – New Poems of Wislawa Szymborska by W. Martin