Wislawa Szymborska

Dean E. Murphy is the Warsaw bureau chief for The Times. He spoke with Wislawa Szymborska in Polish and the conversation was translated by Ela Kasprzycka

Three weeks ago, poet Wislawa Szymborska left her modest two-room apartment in the southern Polish city of Krakow to escape the noise and confusion of remodeling. She slipped away to this pristine mountain resort, a favorite of Polish artists and writers, and took a small room--no bathroom and no telephone--on the second floor of a clubhouse reserved for authors.

Szymborska, a retiring woman with wispy gray hair who cherishes her solitude, passed the days quietly, working on her latest poem. Everything was going according to plan, she says, until Oct. 3, when the world "came crashing down on me." It was on that day that the Swedish Academy in Stockholm announced that the relatively unknown Szymborska had won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature.

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.

Unlike the last Polish poet to win the prize--Czeslaw Milosz in 1980--Szymborska was not a bold, Communist-era dissident; nor did the timing of the honor coincide with a seminal event in Polish history--1980 was the year of the Gdansk shipyard uprising. And unlike the presumed Polish front-runner for this year's prize, poet Zbigniew Herbert, Szymborksa's verse is most admired for its "finely chiseled diction," as the Swedish Academy noted, not its ponderous political metaphors.

That is not to say Szymborska, 73, has escaped the clutch of politics during her 50-year career. In fact, politics provided an immovable backdrop to her work from the very beginning. Several of her early poems glorified communism--a dark period that she now disavows--and she spent most of her later career working for publications that firmly placed her in the anti-communist camp of liberal thinkers. Under martial-law in the early 1980s, she published poems under a pseudonym in Polish underground and exile publications. But since breaking with Stalinism in the early 1950s, Szymborska has steadfastly resisted ideology-driven verse, instead using her own powers of observation to tackle subjects one by one.

A widow with no children, Szymborska despises crowds and public appearances, and refuses to give readings of her poems. Her main contact with the outside world is through a longtime newspaper column, "Non-Compulsory Reading." But, last week, in the sanctity of this favorite creative retreat, she spoke openly and endearingly about her life's work and the burden of instant fame.

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Question: Why is your privacy so important to you?

Answer: Otherwise, I couldn't write. I cannot imagine any writer who would not fight for his peace and quiet. Unfortunately, poetry is not born in noise, in crowds, or on a bus. There have to be four walls and the certainty that the telephone will not ring. That's what writing is all about.

Q: Some of your poems are introspective, others present broad political manifestoes. Do you write with a mission?

A: I don't believe I have a mission. Sometimes I really have a spiritual need to say something more general about the world, and sometimes something personal. I usually write for the individual reader--though I would like to have many such readers. There are some poets who write for people assembled in big rooms, so they can live through something collectively. I prefer my reader to take my poem and have a one-on-one relationship with it.

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: Some critics describe your poetry as detached and aloof, yet you consider it private and personal. Can it be both?

A: Each of us has a very rich nature and can look at things objectively, from a distance, and at the same time can have something more personal to say about them. I am trying to look at the world, and at myself, from many different points of view. I think many poets have this duality.

Q: Is there something uniquely Polish about your work? Would your poetry be the same if you came from a different country?

A: I have no idea. But I would really like it if I could live the lives of many other people, and then compare them.

Q: Which of your poems do you like most?

A: My favorite is the one that I am planning at that moment. I have to like this poem to even start writing it. When it goes into the world, and is already in a book, then I let the poem manage on its own.

Q: Why did you start writing poetry?

A: It just happened. Maybe it was the atmosphere in my home. It was an intellectual kind of house, where we talked a lot about books. We read a lot. Especially my father. I started writing poems when I was five years old. If I wrote a poem--it was children's poetry--that my father liked, then he reached into his pocket, and gave me [some money]. I can't remember exactly how much, but it was a lot to me.

Q: In your early years, you wrote in the social-realist style, praising communism. Why?

A: It is very difficult to explain. Now people don't understand the situation then. I really wanted to save humanity, but I chose the worst possible way. I did it out of love for mankind. Then I came to understand that you should not love mankind, but rather like people. Like, but not love. I don't love humanity; I like individuals. I try to understand people, but I cannot offer salvation to them.

That was a very hard lesson for me. It was a mistake of my youth. It was made in good faith, and, unfortunately, a lot of poets have done the same. Later they would sit in prison for changing their ideology. I was fortunately spared that fate, because I never had the nature of a real political activist.

Q: How has the Solidarity revolution changed your poetry?

A: It hasn't influenced my writing. Beginning in 1954-55 [following the death of Joseph Stalin], I already started thinking differently--the same way I think now. Since then, I haven't changed the way I look at the world. After all of those mistakes, after all that I lived through in the early '50s, my thinking was altered for good. My life as a citizen of this country has changed dramatically since Solidarity, but my life as a poet has not.

Q: Some critics have noted that totalitarianism inspired great literature in Eastern Europe, but democracy has not. You have published only one book since the changes of 1989. Is there a connection?

A: Definitely not. I simply publish one collection every six or seven years. I have always worked that way. And I still write about all different kinds of things--the same way it has been since the 1950s.

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: You value humor, but you also write very sad poetry. Which suits you more?

A: The two things are easily reconciled. You cannot have just one feeling toward the world. Going through this adventure, which I call life, sometimes you think about it with despair, and sometimes with a sense of enchantment. Sometimes the motivation for poetry is being awed by things. As a child I was never surprised by anything; now I am surprised about everything. Every little thing I look at, a leaf or a flower, I say, "Why this? What is this?"

There is also another motivation: Curiosity. I am curious about people, their feelings, what they live through, their fate, what this life means. So this wonderment, curiosity and sadness, all of that comes together for me.

Q: Some of your poems are pessimistic about the state of the world. You have no children: Is the future too gloomy for children?

A: Actually I would like to know how many people there were in the world when I was born, and how many there are now. I suspect the number has doubled. This is something of great concern for me. A small example. I was born in a little town close to Poznan and there was a big lake there. People went fishing, you could take a boat and sail. Now this lake is tiny. Weeds grow in it. It is going to dry up. And if you think about how many such lakes dry up in the world--and there are always more and more people--then you start having thoughts that aren't very pleasant.

There are people who say, "Let more people be born, because the earth can sustain them all." I don't agree with that. We all know how many people die of malnutrition and diseases that should be extinct. I cannot talk about these things with a sense of humor.

Q: Will you emphasize such concerns as a Nobel laureate?

A: I don't know yet. I haven't had time to ponder what I want to say. I simply have not had one moment of time to think. I need about four days of absolute peace and quiet to gather my thoughts.

Q: Perhaps you will draw upon a personal creed? Do you have a philosophy of life?

A: No. I think it comes instinctively. I know, more or less, what is right and what is wrong. I never say that everything I do is right, but I know when I do something wrong. I am aware of it. I have a conscience.

Q: You have a remarkable sense of observation. Where does it come from?

A: I couldn't ask a painter why he paints in this way and not another. I couldn't ask a composer how his music suddenly comes to life. I know they couldn't really explain it. Neither can I. Maybe I was born with it. But of course, you then have to work on it a bit.

Q: How do you write your poems? On a computer?

A: Never on a computer. I need to have a direct connection between my head and my hand. I am not a modern person. I cross things out. I am very old fashioned--I write with a pen.

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 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.

Q: Would you encourage a young person today to take up poetry writing?

A: Everyone has to take that risk on his own. During a certain point in your life, when you come out of childhood, you enter this world of risk and personal responsibility, and there is nothing you can do to avoid it. Write poems and we will see. You have to consider that they may be bad poems, and people will reject them. Or maybe they will be successful.

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