Wisława Szymborska, Polish poet, Nobel Prize in Literature (1996) died she was 88
Wisława Szymborska-Włodek was a Polish poet, essayist, translator and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in Prowent, which has since become part of Kórnik, she later resided in Kraków until the end of her life. She was described as a “Mozart of Poetry”.
In Poland, Szymborska’s books have reached sales rivaling prominent
prose authors: although she once remarked in a poem, “Some Like Poetry”
(“Niektórzy lubią poezję”), 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 and Chinese.
(2 July 1923 – 1 February 2012)
Wisława Szymborska was born on 2 July 1923 in Prowent, Poland (now part of Kórnik, Poland), the daughter of Wincenty and Anna (née Rottermund) Szymborski. Her father was at that time the steward of Count Władysław Zamoyski, a Polish patriot and charitable patron. After the death of Count Zamoyski in 1924, her family moved to Toruń, and in 1931 to Kraków, 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 Kraków. There she soon became involved in the local writing scene, and met and was influenced by Czesław Miłosz. In March 1945, she published her first poem “Szukam słowa” (“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 Włodek, whom she divorced in 1954 (they remained close until Włodek’s 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”. Like many
other intellectuals in post-war Poland, however, Szymborska adhered to
the People’s Republic of Poland‘s (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 żyjemy (That is what we are living for), containing the poems “Lenin” and “Młodzieży budującej Nową Hutę” (“For the Youth who are building Nowa Huta“), about the construction of a Stalinist industrial town near Kraków. She became a member of the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party.
Like many communist intellectuals initially close to the official party line, Szymborska gradually grew estranged from socialist ideology and renounced her earlier political work. Although she did not officially leave the 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 emigré 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 Życie Literackie (Literary Life), where she continued to work until 1981 and from 1968 ran her own book review column, called Lektury Nadobowiązkowe.
Many of her essays from this period were later published in book form.
From 1981–83, she was an editor of the Kraków-based monthly periodical, NaGlos (OutLoud). In the 1980s, she intensified her oppositional activities, contributing to the samizdat periodical Arka under the pseudonym “Stańczykówna”, as well as to the Paris-based Kultura. The final collection published while Szymborska was still alive, Dwukropek, was chosen as the best book of 2006 by readers of Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza. She also translated French literature into Polish, in particular Baroque poetry and the works of Agrippa d’Aubigné. In Germany, Szymborska was associated with her translator Karl Dedecius, who did much to popularize her works there.
Wisława Szymborska died 1 February 2012 at home in Kraków, aged 88. Her personal assistant, Michał Rusinek, confirmed the information and said that she “died peacefully, in her sleep”. She was surrounded by friends and relatives at the time. Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski described her death on Twitter as an “irreparable loss to Poland’s culture”.
She was working on new poetry right until her death, though she was
unable to arrange her final efforts for a book in the way she would have
wanted. Her last poetry was published later in 2012.
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.
It is, however, important to note the ambiguity of her poetry. Although
her poetry was influenced by her experiences, it is relevant across
time and culture. 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”.
Szymborska’s poem “Nothing Twice” turned into a song by composer Andrzej Munkowski performed by Łucja Prus in 1965 makes her poetry known in Poland, rock singer Kora cover of “Nothing Twice” was a hit in 1994.
In her last years Szymborska collaborated with Polish jazz trompeter Tomasz Stańko who dedicated his record Wisława (ECM, 2013) to her memory – taking inspiration for the compositions from their collaboration and her poetry.
- 1952: Dlatego żyjemy (“That’s Why We Are Alive”)
- 1954: Pytania zadawane sobie (“Questioning Yourself”)
- 1957: Wołanie do Yeti (“Calling Out to Yeti”)
- 1962: Sól (“Salt”)
- 1966: 101 wierszy (“101 Poems”)
- 1967: Sto pociech (“No End of Fun”)
- 1967: Poezje wybrane (“Selected Poetry”)
- 1972: Wszelki wypadek (“Could Have”)
- 1976: Wielka liczba (“A Large Number”)
- 1986: Ludzie na moście (“People on the Bridge”)
- 1989: Poezje: Poems, bilingual Polish-English edition
- 1992: Lektury nadobowiązkowe (“Non-required Reading”)
- 1993: Koniec i początek (“The End and the Beginning”)
- 1996: Widok z ziarnkiem piasku (“View with a Grain of Sand”)
- 1997: Sto wierszy – sto pociech (“100 Poems – 100 Happinesses”)
- 2002: Chwila (“Moment”)
- 2003: Rymowanki dla dużych dzieci (“Rhymes for Big Kids”)
- 2005: Dwukropek (“Colon”)
- 2009: Tutaj (“Here”)
- 2012: Wystarczy (“Enough”)
- 2013: Błysk rewolwru (“The Glimmer of a Revolver”)
Prizes and awards
- 1954: The City of Kraków Prize for Literature
- 1963: The Polish Ministry of Culture Prize
- 1991: The Goethe Prize
- 1995: The Herder Prize
- 1995: Honorary Doctor of the Adam Mickiewicz University (Poznań)
- 1996: The Polish PEN Club prize
- 1996: Nobel Prize in Literature
- 2011: Order of the White Eagle
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