Wislawa Szymborska dies at 88; Nobel-winning Polish poet

During a five-decade career, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska had so rarely appeared in public that a newspaper dubbed her the “Greta Garbo of poetry” after the notoriously private actress.

But in 1996, Poland’s most reticent literary icon was forced to open her door to the world: She had won the Nobel Prize in literature and the world was clamoring for her reaction.

The public attention was so incessant that she stopped writing poems for two years, a consequence she later described, only somewhat jokingly, as “the Stockholm tragedy.”

“There’s simply too much fuss about myself,” she told a London newspaper in 2000 after the Nobel “tornado” had begun to quiet. “Everyone needs solitude, especially a person who is used to thinking about what she experiences.”

Szymborska, 88, a heavy smoker who died of lung cancer Wednesday in Krakow, converted her experiences into poetry that the Swedish Academy said evinced the creative ease of a Mozart and the fury of a Beethoven.


Called Poland’s “guardian spirit” by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, she expanded her audience with the publication in English of her collection “View With a Grain of Sand,” in 1995. Her admirers ranged from Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who won the Nobel in 1980, to filmmaker Woody Allen.

“She is able to capture the pointlessness and sadness of life, but somehow still be affirmative,” Allen said in a rare documentary about Szymborska that was broadcast in the U.S. in 2010. The title of the film, taken from a comment she made, was “Sometimes Life Is Bearable.”

Szymborska (whose full name is pronounced vee-SWAHV-ah shimm-BOR-skah), wrote about weighty subjects — the nature of the soul, totalitarianism, death — with beguiling clarity and a sense of wonder.

“Her poetry is hardly political except in the sense it resists the kind of certainty that you would expect from those who want to assert power,” said Robert Faggen, a Claremont McKenna College literature professor who met Szymborska in 2009 and heard her read at a celebration of Milosz’s work in Krakow.

“She was clear and bold without trying to be entertaining or effusive,” recalled Faggen, who has taught courses on Polish poetry. “Her poetry is that way. It’s very clear, it’s bold, it’s surprising but … she avoids the histrionic, the effusive. She always keeps a little distance from her text. I think that gives it a great deal of edge.”

Szymborska, who wrote 400 poems and published about 20 volumes, once described her style this way: “I borrow words weighed with pathos and then try hard to make them seem light.”

Critics noted that her poems often begin with small observations that lead to broader awakenings, as in ''A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth,” in which a toddler unfamiliar with the law of gravity investigates “things that don’t move by themselves.”

They don’t all want to go, e.g., the bookshelf,

the cupboard, the unyielding walls, the table.

But the table cloth on the stubborn table

-- when well-seized by its hems --

manifests a willingness to travel.

And the glasses, plates,

creamer, spoons, bowl,

are fairly shaking with desire

She was also known for her ability to shift perspective, demonstrated in her oft-cited “Cat in the Empty Apartment,” which looks at death from the viewpoint of a cat that has lost its master:

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 has been moved,

but there’s more space.

And at nighttime no lamps are lit.

Although Szymborska, who was once described by Milosz as a “reverse-confessional” poet, was writing about death from a distance, the subtext of “Cat” was highly personal. A friend told The Times it was spurred by the death of a longtime companion with whom she shared the animal.

Szymborska was married twice. Her first marriage, to poet Adam Wlodek, ended in divorce. Her second husband, Kornel Filipowicz, died in the early 1990s. She had no children.

Born in the small west Polish town of Bnin on July 2, 1923, she moved to Krakow when she was 8. Her father gave her pocket money every time she wrote a poem. “You could say I started making my living as a poet from the age of 5,” she told the Washington Post in 1998. “He didn’t notice that sometimes I gave him the same poem twice.”

She lived through tremendous upheavals, including the German occupation in 1939 and the Soviet invasion and repression that followed. In 1945, when she entered Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, she joined a circle of writers and published her first poem.

By 1949 she completed her first collection, but it paid insufficient tribute to the ideals of the postwar Communist regime and was rejected. Her next collection, “That’s What We Live For,” was deemed more politically correct — one critic described it as “agitation-propaganda in a chamber-music manner” — and was published in 1952.

Szymborska later renounced her early poems, calling the social-realist style she had adopted “a mistake of my youth.” A shift in her political thinking was apparent by 1957 when her third volume, “Calling Out to Yeti,” was published. In one of its poems she compared Josef Stalin to the Abominable Snowman.

She reportedly resigned from the Polish Socialist Party in 1966. She worked as a critic for a literary magazine for almost 30 years. In the 1980s she joined an underground magazine and became active in the Solidarity movement that helped topple the Communist government.

“My life as a citizen of this country has changed dramatically since Solidarity,” she told The Times in 1996, “but my life as a poet has not.”

She published a collection every six or seven years, writing by hand in a modest apartment with a view of a parking lot. Though rarely seen on the streets of Krakow, she had a tight circle of friends and wrote them letters in limericks, a form that she delighted in. Her personal secretary, Michal Rusinek, told Polish television this week that she was composing poems until she died.

From her “Poems New and Collected” (2000):

when it comes you’ll be dreaming

that you don’t need to breathe;

that breathless silence is

the music of the dark

and it’s part of the rhythm

to vanish like a spark.