Wisława Szymborska, photo: Piotr Guzik / Fotorzepa / ForumWisława Szymborska, photo: Piotr Guzik / Fotorzepa / Forum

Poet and essayist, awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996. Born on the 2nd of July 1923 in Bnin near Poznań (according to her birth certificate, though family lore names Kórnik, the adjacent town). Prominent citizen of Kraków, she died there on the 1st of February 2012.

Table of contents:

Unintentional Celebrity
Youth and Childhood
Poet and Editor
World Popularity
Selected bibliography

Szymborska’s poetical output, though modest in quantity – about 350 published poems, from her volume Calling Out to Yeti (1957) to the posthumously released Enough (2012) – was always highly regarded by critics and readers.

Unintentional Celebrity

Her closest friends remember her as a humble person who enjoyed calm. She neither appreciated questions invading somebody’s privacy nor considered it appropriate to talk about herself. Szymborska did not enjoy ostentation or celebrations – being declared the the Nobel laureate was considered "the Stockholm tragedy" by her friends, as it forced her to give more interviews in a month than she had faced in her life until the Nobel committee's decision in 1996.

The poet did not like to talk about literature or poetic techniques, believing that an author's expression should come solely in her or his work. The childlike sense of humour emanating from her texts accompanied Szymborska in everyday life. She was known for giving cards with her quirky collages or organizing lotteries in which one could win small, delightfully kitschy prizes.

I had quite a happy life, but there was plenty of death and disenchantments in it - the poet said to Anna Bikont and Joanna Szczęsna for the album "Commemorative Junk, Friends and Dreams of Wisława Szymborska" (1997). - But of course I’d rather not talk about personal things, and I wouldn’t like others to talk about them as well. For people, I have a different face, that’s why I’m presented from the anecdotic side, as a happy person, who does nothing besides thinking up games and riddles. (…) When I’m down, worried I don’t go out to people. 

Youth and Childhood

Wisława was Szymborska’s second name. Her first name was Maria, the dimunitive of which is Ichna (from Marychna). Ichna’s poetic talent revealed itself in early childhood, when her father, Wincenty, gave her a  coin for each of her funny poems.

Wincenty Szymborski was a steward for Count Władysław Zamoyski. After the count’s death in 1924, Szymborska’s family moved from Kórnik to Toruń and five years later to Kraków.

The poet became strongly linked to the former royal city below Wawel Castle. She attended the Urszulanki Sisters’ Gymnasium then participated in underground educational gatherings during the German occupation, finishing her secondary school exams in 1941. She became a railway clerk in 1943, to avoid being deported to Germany.

With her unusual artistic talent, Szymborska illustrated a new edition of Jan Stanisławski's textbook "First Steps in English". She kept writing, debuting in Kraków's "Polish Daily" in 1945 with the poem Looking for a Word. She studied Polish philology at the Jagiellonian University a year later, then changed to sociology before financial troubles forced her to discontinue her university education.

Poet and Editor

She married the poet Adam Włodek in 1948. The couple moved to the House of Writers in Krupnicza Street 22, a meeting point for great literary figures. Their marriage ended 1954, but they remained friends after their divorce. Szymborska became involved with the writer Kornel Filipowicz fifteen years later. They never married and lived separately.

Her first volume of poetry, That’s Why We Are Alive, was published in 1952, the year she joined the Polish Writers’ Association. Szymborska did not include poems from this collection in future selections and anthologies, or the work from her second volume, Questioning Yourself, which was also written in the style dictated by that political era. Jerzy Illg, in the book "On Nobel Prizewinners, Cabarets, Friendships, Books, Women" (2009), quoted Szymborska’s reply  concerning her affiliations in these early poems:

Well, I was unfortunate enough to be young, naive and clueless about things I should’ve evaluated properly right away. Some have the right to judge me harshly for that – if they really think that a few poems written back then mean more than all the works I wrote later.

Szymborska headed the poetry department at the periodical "Literary Life" from 1953 to 1966, co-editing the "Literary Post" section with Włodzimierz Maciąg. In her column "Non-required Reading" she published feullietons (1967-1981), later reprinted in other newspapers and magazines and collected in book form. She collaborated with "Tygodnik Powszechny" from 1983, and became involved with the monthly "NaGłos" ("OutLoud"). She joined the PEN Club in 1988 and became an honourary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001.

World Popularity

View with a Grain of Sand, Szymborska's first collection after winning the Nobel prize, was published in an edition of 120,000 in the U.S., where a popular volume of poetry might sell 20,000 copies. The German edition of 60,000, translated by Karl Dedicus, set sales records. The Swedish edition's print run translated by Andres Bodegard, numbered over 10,000 copies.

During a meeting in Vilnius in 2000 that included her fellow Nobel laureates Czesław Miłosz and Günter Grass, as well as Lithuanian poet and scholar Tomas Venclova, Szymborska was surprised when an actress presented a monodrama based on her poems, translated into Lithuanian. Her reaction is described by Jerzy Illg in his book:

My poems shouldn’t be used as a basis for playing, singing or dancing. My poems are to be read and thought about!. Suddenly she became frightened: Jesus Christ, I’ll have to go backstage and thank her, say something! (…) I asked Wisława later: What did you say to the actress? She replied: I told her that I had no idea that you could do something like that with my poetry.

Szymborska was once asked by Marian Stala why she doesn’t like pathos. Her answer may serve as a general artistic statement: "When I write I always feel as if somebody was standing behind me and making funny faces. That is why I always keep focused and I avoid, as much as I may, big words".

Read Szymborska's poetry

Janusz R. Kowalczyk, November 2012.

Recommended for further reading:

  • Małgorzata Baranowska: "Wisława Szymborska – Poetry of Existence"
  • "From the Bottom and From the Top" – Aneta Wiatr on Szymborska’s "Colon", "Twórczość" 02/2006 Wisława Szymborska Foundation

 

Selected bibliography:

  • "That’s Why We Are Alive", Warsaw: Czytelnik 1952
  • "Questioning Yourself", Kraków: WL, 1954
  • "Calling Out to Yeti", Kraków: WL, 1957
  • "Salt", Warsaw: PIW, 1962
  • "Selected Poetry", Warsaw: PIW, 1964
  • "No End of Fun", Warsaw: PIW, 1967
  • "Could Have", Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1972
  • "Selected Poems", Warsaw: PIW, 1973
  • "A Large Number", Czytelnik, Warsaw 1976
  • "Tarsier and Other Poems", Warsaw: KAW, 1976
  • "People on a Bridge", Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1986
  • "Non-required Reading", Kraków WL, 1992
  • "The End and the Beginning", Poznań: a5, 1993
  • "View with a Grain of Sand", Poznań: a5, 1996
  • "Living While You Wait", Kraków: WL, 1996
  • "100 Poems – 100 Happinesses", Kraków: WL, 1997
  • "Moment", Kraków: Znak Publishing House, 2002
  • "New Non-required Reading: 1997-2002", Kraków: WL, 2002
  • "Rhymes for Big Kids", Kraków: a5 Publishing House, 2003
  • "Colon", Kraków: Poetic Library of the a5 Publishing House, 2005
  • "Sense of Participation: Selection of Poems", Kraków: WL, 2006
  • "Nic dwa razy. Nothing Twice" (Polish-English edition), Kraków: WL, 2007
  • "Happy Love", Kraków: a5, 2007
  • "Here", Kraków: Znak, 2009
  • "Silence of the Plants", Kraków: Znak 2011
  • "Enough", Kraków, a5, 2012
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