Wisława Szymborska is widely known as an exceptional poet, yet her personal history yields much more than exquisite poetry. This series of little-known eccentricities reveals a multifaceted mind, a generous heart and a delightful sense of humor.
Szymborska as Humorist
In 1996, Szymborska reflected on her earliest forays into poetry, telling Życie Warszawy,
I was always writing little poems. I even made some money on my first little poems. I wrote them at home and when my father liked one of my poems – and it always had to be witty with none of those lyrical confessions – he would take out his purse and pay me.
Early on, then, Szymborska was attuned to the value of humor in her verse. This appreciation for the light and comic never left her, and Szymborska was an ardent lover of witty jokes and playful poems. She claimed limericks as her favorite poetic genre and loved to compose short comic poems. Katarzyna Kolenda-Zaleska’s 2010’s documentary feature Life is Bearable at Times shows the octogenarian poet wandering the streets of Limerick, Ireland, gleefully improvising (at times rather bawdy) limericks with her companions. The subjects of these short poems vary, but On the Bus offers a glimpse of their playful spirit;
My wife died young. Before her death, she promised that she would be waiting for me. Okay, but I’m an old man now, bald and crippled. I will say “Zosia, Zosia” and she will not recognize me. How will it work? I will carry my ID to my coffin?
While perhaps more subtle in her published poetry, admirers of Szymborska no doubt are familiar with her characteristic wit. Her playful style was made evident to the world when in 1996 she began her Nobel lecture, “They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me, anyway.” Humble, concise, witty – and so very Szymborska.
Szymborska as Artist
Szymborska’s distinctive sense of humor is well known to those familiar with her writing, and her forays into visual arts further underscore the poet’s playful spirit. Szymborska’s postcard collages became an annual project starting in the late 1960s after she decided it was impossible to find any nice postcards to send to friends. Unhappy with available selections, she elected to make her own, turning her Kraków flat into an artist’s studio. Michał Rusinek describes the scene,
“Please don’t visit me for a few days because I’m going to be an artist,’ she would tell her friends once a year, in early November. This was not an expression of a sudden withdrawal of hospitality or onset of inspiration which required isolation from the world. The reasons were quite practical: all over her flat the floor was scattered with cut-outs from newspapers and magazines, which she used to make collages she called wyklejanki or “cut-and-paste-cards.” She made such pictorial compositions every year, for over 40 years.
While the subjects of these “cut-and-paste-cards” vary, they are distinguished by a recognizable juxtaposition of images and texts. In one we find a toothy human grin pasted upon a cut-out of a cat. Another features the head of a dog joined with a woman in polka-dot pajamas. A third playfully depicts two love birds perched with a text bubble reading “sex is a private issue” inserted near ones beak.
Szymborska used the cards for correspondence with her close friends and also was known to send them to other artists whose work she admired – including Woody Allen, who commented of the gift, “this means more to me than the golden statues they give in Hollywood.”
Exhibitions across the globe have been organized to share this side of Szymborska’s creativity with her fans, the most comprehensive of which was organized by MOCAK in early 2014.
Szymborska as Collector
She considered drawers to be the greatest invention of mankind and loved them. The drawer unit in her apartment consisted of 36 drawers in which she kept, among others, a collection of old postcards.
Commenting here on Szymborska’s habit of collecting trinkets in her small Kraków flat, Szymborska’s long time secretary and the president of the Szymborska Foundation, Michał Rusinek underscores the poet’s appreciation of drawers. Filled with various kitschy objects, Szymborska’s apartment was nicknamed “the drawer” by her friends. Such storage housed her collection of quirky objects, many obtained from friends – a pig with a music box in its tail, a lighter in the shape of a submarine, a miniature chest of drawers from Czesław Miłosz. She also collected cuttings for her collage projects, and drawer upon drawer was filled with stacks of cut-out heads, amusing texts, and decorative embellishments. A delightful scene from Kolenda-Zaleska’s Life is Bearable at Times shows Szymborska and her friends rooting through the clutter, searching for the poet’s Nobel medal, which had been lost in the chaos of her “collectables.” A selection from Szymborska’s delightful collection can be seen the Szymborska’s Drawer exhibition in Kraków.
While she delighted in collecting these objects, Szymborska’s primary objective was to obtain objects she could then share with her friends. She held regular “lucky dips” in her living room, where objects from her collection were given as “prizes.” Following her death, a final meeting was held, according to her wishes, and friends received mementos chosen at random.
Given Szymborska’s ability to find value and depth in the everyday and the overlooked, her passion for such things is perhaps unsurprising. In her poem Kitschy, Szymborska celebrates the value of the type of objects she collected, writing, “trash does not pretend to be anything better than it is.”
Szymborska as Muse
Anyone lucky enough to have heard Szymborska read her texts live knows that her words come alive off the page. Referred to by the Nobel Committee as “the Mozart of poetry,” she created verses that were both nimble and innovative, particularly when experienced aurally. Readings are, however, not the only way in which audiences can hear Szymborska’s poetry performed. Her works have long served as inspiration to musicians – both in Poland and abroad.
Łucja Prus, a popular Polish singer of the 1960s and 70s, performed a rendition of Szymborska’s Nothing Twice at the Sopot International Song Festival in 1965. Following Prus’s death from breast cancer in 2002, a series of benefit concerts were organized under the title “Nothing Twice: Campaign for Women with Breast Cancer” – again evoking Szymborska, and Prus’s classic version of her verse. Almost thirty years after Prus’s performance in Sopot, another female icon of Polish music made Nothing Twice her own. Kora Jackowska and Maanam again set Szymborska’s words to music in 1994, delivering them in Kora’s distinctive precise and rapid style over driving electric guitar and drums.
Following Prus’s lead, a number of Polish musicians endeavored to set Szymborska’s verses to song. A fellow Krakowian, Grzegorz Turnau, adapted Atlantis to his characteristic smooth jazz on his 1995 ablum To tu, to tam. Other artists’ takes on Szymborska’s oeuvre were released on a compilation disc included in Kolenda-Zaleska’s Life is Bearable at Times.
Outside of Poland, Szymborska’s growing appeal is evident in Taiwanese singer Hebe Tien’s 2013 single Insignificance. Inspired by Szymborska’s Under One Small Star, the pop song, sung in Mandarin, features a spoken interlude in which Tien recites the following lines in the original Polish,
Prawdo, nie zwracaj na mnie zbyt bacznej uwagi.
Powago, okaż mi wspaniałomyślność.
Ścierp, tajemnico bytu, że nie mogę być wszędzie.
Truth, please don’t pay me much attention.
Dignity, please be magnanimous.
Bear with me, O mystery of existence, that I cannot be everywhere.
Upon the release of Insignificance, Szymborska’s long time secretary, Michał Rusinek, reflected on charges that using the Nobel Laureate’s verse as pop lyrics diminished them. He asserted,
This is a traveler-poem, a poem that doesn’t require footnotes, a universal poem, understandable virtually everywhere. Someone will perhaps think that using such a serious poem, high culture poem in a pop song is profanation. I believe that it speaks well of Hebe that she chose a Nobelist’s poem. Secondly, I think it may lead to more people wanting to read her poems.
Indeed, such adaptations of Szymborska’s verse bring her words to new audiences and we can only wonder what Szymborska would have thought of her poetry incorporated into a Mandarin pop song.
Alongside those who adapt Szymborska’s verses into lyrics, jazz trumpeter Tomasz Stańko’s 2013 album Wisława offers an alternative approach to making music of her poetry. Each track on Wisława alludes to a poem of Szymborska’s and reveals Stańko’s reading of her texts. Of the project he comments,
I was most inspired by Szymborska as a person, her greatness, her singularity, her beauty, her goodness, and of course what she created, but that is somewhat obvious.
This project is not Stańko’s first attempt to render Szymborska’s verse through music. In 2009 he performed with her at the Kraków Opera. “My role was to comment on the poetry, to play short interludes,” he recalls.
Szymborska as Eternally Questioning
Born in 1923, Szymborska witnessed her country fall under the grips of two totalitarian regimes, both of which asserted an absolute claim to knowledge that would guide the world to a better future. She consequently developed a strong skepticism when faced with any position claiming certainty. Both in her verse and her life, Szymborska reveled in complexity and ambiguity. In her Nobel Lecture, she remarked,
All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power…they “know.” They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well know from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.
This is why I value that little phrase, “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended.
Szymborska’s commitment to “I don’t know” is evident throughout her work. Of her poetry, Stainsław Baranczak wrote in the New York Times Book Review,
The typical lyrical situation on which a Szymborska poem is founded is the confrontation between the directly stated or implied opinion on an issue and the question that raises doubt about its validity. The opinion not only reflects some widely shared belief or is representative of some widespread mind-set, but also, as a rule, has a certain doctrinaire ring to it: the philosophy behind it is usually speculative, anti-empirical, prone to hasty generalizations, collectivist, dogmatic and intolerant.
Her1976 poem Utopia highlights this wariness of “perfect futures” and certain answers, evoking a scene where the only path to life in the utopic world is one of escape.
Island where all becomes clear.
Solid ground beneath your feet.
The only roads are those that offer access.
Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.
The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here
with branches disentangled since time immemorial.
The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.
The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:
the Valley of Obviously.
If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.
Echoes stir unsummoned
and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.
On the right a cave where Meaning lies.
On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.
Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.
For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.
As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.
Into unfathomable life. (trans. S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh)
Szymborska as a Poet of Deceptive Simplicity
Szymborska’s nimble use of language, paired with her interest in exploring unusual perspectives on the everyday, may lead some initially to dismiss her poetry as overly simple. To read her directness as indicative of a lack of depth, however, undervalues her genius. Her simplicity is intentional and carefully composed. Her focus on minute objects creates a poetry of scale in which readers “zoom in” or “pan out” to reveal unusual perspectives and unexpected relationships. Szymborska perhaps describes her craft best in her poem Under One Small Star, writing, “I borrow weighty words, / then labor heavily so that they may seem light.”
In Szymborska’s The Onion, for example, what might initially appear to be a playful description of an onion reveals itself as a thoughtful reflection on the contrast between man and nature, wherein the natural onion’s pure externality exposes man’s ever changing consciousness.
The onion, now that’s something else
its innards don’t exist
nothing but pure onionhood
fills this devout onionist
oniony on the inside
onionesque it appears
it follows its own daimonion
without our human tears
Our skin is just a coverup
for the land where none dare to go
an internal inferno
the anathema of anatomy
in an onion there’s only onion
from its top to its toe
unanimous omninudity….(trans. S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh)
Szymborska as Reluctant Nobel Laureate
Interview is the least favorite of my literary genres.
Szymborska was notoriously private and rarely gave interviews. It is thus not surprising that she met the sudden global recognition thrust upon her with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 with great hesitancy, calling it the “Stockholm Tragedy.” Szymborska was at a writers’ retreat in the Polish mountain town of Zakopane when the prize was announced and initially refused to take calls with the news, preferring to instead finish her lunch privately. It was only after a number of calls – including one from her friend and colleague Czesław Miłosz – that she agreed to speak to the press. By the end of that day, however, she’d had enough and retreated to place even more remote, where she hoped she would not be found by reporters.
Though the majority of media coverage of the prize feature quotations from her colleagues, rather than from Szymborska herself, she was, of course, center stage at the awarding of the prize. She admitted to Miłosz that “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.” In the end she delivered one of the shortest Nobel Lectures to date, the beautiful The Poet and the World.
Szymborska as Prose Writer
Though known primarily as a poet, Szymborska wrote short prose pieces throughout her career. She worked as the head of the poetry department at Literary Life from 1953 to 1966. In 1967 she began writing a column Non-required Reading that was printed in a number of newspapers and ran until 1981. Pieces from this column have been collected and published in book form under the title Non-required Reading. Of these works, Szymborska commented, “I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan. Anyone insisting on ‘reviews’ will incur my displeasure.”
This collection of concise pieces finds Szymborska exploring diverse topics – ranging from absent minded professors, to the demonization of smokers in America, to the reason why some civilizations fail. This volume of prose, much like her poetry, allows Szymborska to explore her eclectic interests and approach both big and small questions with her customary curiosity.
Szymborska as a Lover of the Natural World
In 2013, Szymborska’s hometown of Kórnik unveiled a statute in her honor. Depicting the poet dressed for a walk in the park, the memorial also features a cat perched upon a neighboring bench. The memorialization of Szymborska alongside a cat highlights the poet’s lifelong love of animals and nature.
Animals appear throughout her oeuvre, whether as the subject of poems or positioned as the eyes through which the world is described. Her Cat in an Empty Apartment powerfully renders a sense of loss through the naïve malaise of the deceased’s cat,
Die – you can’t do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here
but nothing is the same.
Nothing’s been moved
But there’s more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit…. (trans. S. Barańczak and C. Cavanagh)
Not only interested in the natural world in her verse, Szymborska famously loved to take long walks through Kraków and was an avid angler. She also greatly admired the work of British primatologist Jane Goodall. When Lawrence Weschler of the New Yorker tried to persuade Szymborska, a notoriously wary traveler, to come to the United States, she replied, “I’d come if you arranged meetings with Woody Allen and Jane Goodall.” One need only witness the glee on the poet’s face as she watches footage of Goodall and her primates to understand the depth of her respect and love for the natural world. Such reverence and wonder shaped both her life and her verse. Examining, questioning, and valuing everything, Szymborska brilliantly articulated her perspective on the world in her Nobel Lecture,
Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events”…. But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighted, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud about 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.
Alena Aniskiewicz, June 2014.