Poland’s 1996 Nobel poet Szymborska dies at 88 (2024)

WARSAW, PolandWARSAW, Poland— Poland’s 1996 Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska, whose simple words and playful verse plucked threads of irony and empathy out of life, has died. She was 88.

Szymborska, a heavy smoker, died in her sleep of lung cancer Wednesday evening at her home in the southern city of Krakow, her personal secretary Michal Rusinek said.

She died surrounded by relatives and friends, said Katarzyna Kolenda-Zaleska, a journalist and a friend of the poet.

The Nobel award committee’s citation called her the “Mozart of poetry,” a woman who mixed the elegance of language with “the fury of Beethoven” and tackled serious subjects with humor. While she was arguably the most popular poet in Poland, most of the world had not heard of the shy, soft-spoken Szymborska before she won the Nobel prize.

She has been called both deeply political and playful, a poet who used humor in unforeseen ways. Her verse, seemingly simple, was subtle, deep and often hauntingly beautiful. She used simple objects and detailed observation to reflect on larger truths, often using everyday images – an onion, a cat wandering in an empty apartment, an old fan in a museum – to reflect on grand topics such as love, death and passing time.

Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said on Twitter that her death was an “irreparable loss to Poland’s culture.”

Last year, President Bronislaw Komorowski honored Szymborska with Poland’s highest distinction, The Order of the White Eagle, in recognition of her contribution to her country’s culture.

In reaction to her death, Komorowski wrote that “for decades she infused Poles with optimism and with trust in the power of beauty and the might of the word.”

Szymborska was our “guardian spirit,” Komorowski wrote. “In her poems we could find brilliant advice which made the world easier to understand.”

Rusinek said on TVN24 that as long as her condition allowed, Szymborska was working on new poems, but she had not had time to arrange them in order for a new book, which she had intended. The book will be published this year, he said.

The Nobel Prize brought a “revolution” into the life of the modest poet and she had to struggle to protect her privacy, Rusinek said, but the prize also was a “great joy, a great honor which brought new friendships and changes for the better.”

Despite six decades of writing, Szymborska had less than 400 poems published.

Asked why, she once said: “There is a trash bin in my room. A poem written in the evening is read again in the morning. It does not always survive.”

Culture Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski said in a statement that Szymborska was candid, authentic and hostile to any form of celebrity.

“She had understanding for others, she understood the weaknesses of others and had huge tolerance for them,” the statement said. “On the other hand, she expected to have a modest place for herself.”

Szymborska was born in the village of Bnin, now part of Kornik, near Poznan in western Poland on July 2, 1923. Eight years later she moved with her parents to Krakow, and developed deep ties to the medieval city, with its rich artistic and intellectual milieu. She lived there until her death.

After the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, launching World War II, Szymborska found work as a railway clerk to avoid deportation to Germany as a forced laborer. In her free time, she studied at illegal underground universities.

She resumed her formal studies after the war in Polish literature and sociology at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, but never earned a degree.

In 1945, she published her first poem, “I Am Looking for a Word,” in a weekly supplement to the local “Dziennik Polski” newspaper.

Not long after, Szymborska married fellow-poet Adam Wlodek. Although the two divorced after a few years, they remained close friends until Wlodek’s death in 1986.

The young poet quickly became a fixture of the city’s postwar literary circles, which initially accepted Soviet-imposed ideology in art and literature, and she joined the communist party in 1952.

Her first two books, published in 1952 and 1954, were heavily influenced by Socialist Realism, the official doctrine that art must serve revolutionary goals, at a time when the communist censors held sway.

One poem, entitled “Youth Building Nowa Huta,” heroically recalled the construction of what the communist regime hailed as a utopian socialist neighborhood on Krakow’s outskirts centered around a giant steel mill. Another poem, “Lenin,” praised Russia’s revolutionary leader.

But like many Polish writers and artists, Szymborska eventually grew disillusioned with communism and later renounced her Stalin-era verse. She officially broke with the party in 1966.

Her later poetry served as a revenge of sorts against her first two books, both of which she later disavowed. She likened Soviet leader Josef Stalin to the abominable snowman in the 1957 poem “Calling Out To Yeti,” and frequently mocked communism in her verse.

From 1953 to 1981, she worked as a poetry editor and columnist for the literary weekly Zycie Literackie, or Literary Life, where she wrote a column called Lektury Nadobowiazkowe, or Non-Required Reading.

Szymborska published some 20 volumes of poetry in all – one every four or five years – a handful of which have been translated into over a dozen languages. Works available in English include “View With a Grain of Sand,” “People on a Bridge” and “Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems.”

But her poetry was wildly popular with her Polish readers, who snapped up each new volume upon release. Polish rock singer Kora turned her poem “Nothing Twice” into a popular song. The tune was a 1994 hit in Poland, leading Poles to sing: “nothing can ever happen twice/in consequence, the sorry fact is/that we arrive here improvised/and leave without the chance to practice.”

Another Szymborska poem, “Love At First Sight,” inspired the lauded, enigmatic movie “Red” by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Despite her advanced age, Szymborska’s work continued to speak to a broad public. Her collection, “Dwukropek,” was selected by readers of the nationwide Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper as the best book of 2006.

She published her last book, “Here,” in 2008.

Yet the shy poet fiercely clung to her privacy, and lived a quiet life in her beloved Krakow despite her popularity. She reluctantly faced the limelight that accompanies the Nobel Prize, and the corresponding lecture in front of 1,800 people was a heavy burden for a woman who had said she’s comfortable only in groups of up to a dozen.

After arriving in Stockholm to receive her Nobel, reporters at the airport asked Szymborska about the first poem she ever wrote.

She replied with modesty and humor familiar to her readers.

“It’s hard to say what the first one was about because I started very early to write poems. I was about 4 years old,” she said. “Of course they were clumsy and ridiculous. But when one poem was right, my father took it and gave me some money to buy chocolates.

“So I can say I started living by my poetry when I was 4.”

Monika Scislowska reported from Warsaw; Ryan Lucas, who previously worked in Warsaw, is now based in Cairo.

Poland’s 1996 Nobel poet Szymborska dies at 88 (2024)


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