Wisława Szymborska lived a simple life.
Her home was a three-bedroom flat in a fifth-floor walk-up not far from the center of Kraków, Poland. There she collected tacky postcards, wore old sweaters, and enjoyed herring and vodka. Szymborska kept to herself, associating with a small group of close friends.
Every few years, she released a collection containing a small number of poems. By the mid-1990s, she’d published nine volumes. Her total poetic output was about 400 or so poems spread across books and periodicals.
But everything changed on Oct. 4, 1996. That’s when the Nobel Academy announced that Szymborska had won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
As the news broke, the media scrambled to find information about the little-known Polish poet.
Wisława Szymborska, the Nobel Prize winner
Meanwhile, Szymborska was in the ski resort town of Zakopane, Poland. She was there on a writing retreat when her winning the Prize came out.
Reporters, friends, and others tried to reach Szymborska by phone. She declined to take many calls, but she did accept one from friend and fellow poet Czesław Miłosz.
Szymborska told Miłosz she was apprehensive about receiving the Nobel Prize.
“I’m a private person,” she said. “The most difficult thing will be to write a speech. I will be writing it for a month. I don’t know what I will be talking about, but I will talk about you.”
Miłosz, though, was excited. He saw Szymborska’s win as helping secure for Polish poetry a place on the world’s bookshelf.
“I have been saying that Polish poetry is strong and distinguished upon the background of world poetry by certain traits,” Miłosz wrote in The New York Review of Books in Nov. 1996. “Those traits can be found in the poems of a few eminent Polish poets, including Wislawa Szymborska. Her Nobel Prize is her personal triumph but at the same time it confirms the place of the ‘Polish school of poetry.’”
That school of poetry developed in a country racked by war, the Holocaust, and a dictatorial regime. The school’s practitioners, such as Szymborska, Miłosz, and Zbigniew Herbert, put the anguish they felt into their poems. What they and their compatriots, including those who did not survive, endured served as the foundation for their art.
As Szymborska said, “It was not possible to use the same language as before.”
It was not possible to use the same language as before.”Wisława Szymborska
Ascending from World War II
Szymborska was a child in Kraków when the Nazis invaded. The Germans banned formal Polish education, so she attended a secret school.
After the war, Szymborska studied literature and sociology at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She was a student when her first published poem, “Szukam słowa” (“I Seek the Word”), appeared in a local newspaper.
Szymborska released her first two collections in 1952 and 1954. Szymborska was an ardent Communist at the time, which showed in her work. But Szymborska’s views soon started changing. In 1957, she gave up Communism and disavowed her early poems.
Years later, Szymborska remembered this transformation.
“When I was young, I had a moment of believing in the Communist doctrine,” she said. “I wanted to save the world through Communism. Quite soon, I understood that it doesn’t work.”
Szymborska later participated in the Solidarity movement that fought to overthrow Poland’s Communist regime.
Giving up Communism freed Szymborska. By the 1960s, she was producing poems that probed deep, existential questions. Szymborska often did so by inhabiting unique perspectives.
For example, Szymborska wrote about death in her poem, “Cat in an Empty Apartment.” But the piece’s voice comes not from a person but from a cat whose owner has died.
Or, in “Lot’s Wife,” Szymborska takes on the Biblical tale of Lot and his wife. The wife, unnamed in the Bible, defies God by looking back on Sodom’s burning city. God then deems it necessary to turn the woman into a pillar of salt.
In her poem, Szymborska approaches the story from the perspective of Lot’s wife. The piece opens:
They say I looked back out of curiosity,
but I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
So I wouldn’t have to keep staring at the righteous nape
Of my husband Lot’s neck.
From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
He wouldn’t so much as hesitate.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Checking for pursuers.
Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind.
Szymborska’s unique style helped attract the Nobel Academy’s attention.
In giving her the Nobel Prize, the Academy said Szymborska wrote: “poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.”
Szymborska spent weeks in seclusion in the mountains of southern Poland, working on her Nobel lecture. Then, she delivered it in Stockholm in Dec. 1996.
Speaking in Polish, Szymborska started the talk by saying, “They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me, anyway.”
The Nobel winner then discussed the poet’s life. “In the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal,” Szymborska said. “Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world. It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.”
Things weren’t easy for Szymborska after winning the Nobel. For years, she struggled to write. Her friends referred to her winning as “the Nobel curse.”
Unlike when she won the Nobel Prize, many of her books are still available in English.
- Born on July 2, 1923, in Bnin, Poland.
- Died on Feb. 1, 2012, in Krakow, Poland.
Books by Wisława Szymborska
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- “Three Polish Poets, Two Nobel Prizes.” John R. Carpenter. The Kenyon Review. Vol. 20, No. 1, 1998.
- “On Szymborska.” Czeslaw Milosz. The New York Review of Books. Nov. 14, 1996.
- “A Poetry That Matters.” Edward Hirsch. The New York Times Magazine. Dec. 1, 1996.
- “Wislawa Szymborska – Nobel Lecture.” NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media.
- “Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel-Winning Polish Poet, Dies at 88.” Raymond H. Anderson. The New York Times. Feb. 1, 2012.
- “Wisława Szymborska biography.” The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. June 28, 2020.
- “Wisława Szymborska biography.” Poetry Foundation.
- “Wislawa Szymborska – Facts.” NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media.
- “Wislawa Szymborska biography.” Academy of American Poets.
- “Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West.” Clare Cavanagh. Yale University Press. 2009.
- “Polish Poet, Observer of Daily Life, Wins Nobel.” Jane Perlez. The New York Times. Oct. 4, 1996.