Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska dies at 88


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Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Syzmborska died Wednesday at home in Krakow, Poland.

The 88-year-old poet had been afflicted with lung cancer, the Associated Press reported. Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said on Twitter that her death was an ‘irreparable loss to Poland’s culture.’

When Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996, the committee cited her ‘for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.’


Szymborska published her first book of poetry in 1952; her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. “I prefer the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing poems,” she once said.

Her last collection, ‘Here,’ was published in the U.S. in 2008. The poem ‘Greek Statue,’ our reviewer Dana Goodyear wrote, is ‘a piece that, in gently touching on the great lyric themes of time, death and art-making, shows Szymborska at her subtle best, finds the perfect metaphor for that pause. At once fleeting and frozen, the statue’s torso, she writes, ‘lingers/ and it’s like a breath held with great effort,/ since now it must/ draw/ to itself/ all the grace and gravity/ of what was lost.’ Her most skillful poems — think of them as broken friezes or bits that suggest rather than encompass the whole — do this same work.’

In 1996, after the Nobel announcement, the Times’ Warsaw bureau chief, Dean E. Murphy, spoke to Szymborska -- ‘a retiring woman with wispy gray hair who cherishes her solitude’ -- about her work. ‘The award came as a surprise to Szymborska -- and most everyone else in Poland -- not because she is considered unworthy, but because her poetry speaks mostly to universal themes rather than the parochial political subjects that have distinguished Eastern European verse since World War II,’ he wrote. Selections from that Q&A follow.

Q: Is your poetry an expression of vanity?

A: If you mean, is it a form of exhibitionism, probably it is. I have never really thought about it seriously, but telling one’s feelings to unknown people is a little bit like selling one’s soul. On the other hand, it brings great happiness. All of us have sad things happen to us in our lifetimes. In spite of everything, when those terribly horrible things happen to a poet, he or she can at least describe them. There are other people who, in a way, are sentenced to live through such experiences in silence.

Q: Your friends say you have a great sense of humor, which is often reflected in your poetry. How important is humor in your work? A: I don’t want to brag here, but it seems to me, I have a bit of talent when it comes to friendship. Of course, I am talking about being friends with individual people. I cannot really imagine a friendship that is totally cerebral -- I think that friendship, from the beginning, means you are not only going to worry together, but you are also going to laugh together.


Q: Do you strive to inject this laughter in your poetry?

A: It just comes naturally. I don’t do it intentionally. Sometimes, though, I do write poems just to make others laugh. For example, I write letters using English-style limericks, which I like very much, and my correspondents write back in limericks ....

Q: The Swedish Academy noted that your volume of work is rather modest. Why do you not write more?

A: Sometimes I put something aside, and start on something new. Sometimes I think of a couple of poems at once. They say I have written about 200 poems. I have actually written much more than that. I write more than I publish. You see, I also have this wastebasket. If I write something in the evening, and I read it the next day, sometimes it ends up in the wastebasket. And sometimes it doesn’t.


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-- Carolyn Kellogg