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The Warsaw Voice » Society » February 23, 2012
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Death of a Poet
February 23, 2012   
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Wisława Szymborska, Poland’s most famous poet and the winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for literature, died Feb. 1 at her home in the southern city of Cracow. She was 88.

Szymborska was born July 2, 1923. She attended a secondary school run by nuns of the Saint Ursula order in Cracow. After the outbreak of World War II, she attended clandestine education courses during the German occupation of Poland and in 1941 passed her final school exams. After the war ended, she studied Polish language and literature and then sociology at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. However, she quit her studies to work for culture magazines in Cracow.

From 1953 to 1968 Szymborska was head of the poetry section at the Życie Literackie (Literary Life) weekly. Between1967-1981, she had her own column entitled Optional Reading. She then continued this series of essays in the Pismo and Odra monthlies and from 1993 in the Gazeta Wyborcza daily. She debuted as a poet in March 1945 when her first poem, “Looking for a Word,” was published by the Dziennik Polski daily. Her first collection of poems, That’s Why We Are Alive, was published in 1952. The second one, Questioning Yourself, came out two years later.

In the early 1950s, a time of Stalinist terror in Poland, her literary work toed the communist line. Like many of her fellow writers, the young Szymborska published a memorial poem after Stalin’s death. Many years later, she explained her attitude in those times by saying that she had supported the communist system because she “loved mankind as a whole only to appreciate years later the value of loving an individual human being.”

Calling Out to the Yeti, a volume of verse published in 1957, is a completely different kind of poetry. Some critics regard it as Szymborska’s real debut because it displays her hallmark literary techniques—the use of aphorisms and paradox. Szymborska’s poems often take the form of dialogue, revealing her thoughts and reflections. This creates a sense of direct contact with the reader. The reader feels as if he is conversing with the poet.

Szymborska published only around 350 poems in total, no more than five or six poems a year. Among the volumes she published in later years were Salt – 1962, No End of Fun – 1967, Could Have – 1972, A Large Number – 1976, People on the Bridge – 1986, The End and the Beginning – 1993, Moment – 2002, Colon – 2005, and Here – 2008.

The Nobel Prize Committee wrote in 1996 that the prize was awarded to her “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” Surprised and stunned by the news that she had won, the poet, known for her shyness and unwillingness to grant interviews, told reporters that what she feared most was that she would now have to become a public figure.

Czesław Miłosz, another Polish Nobel Literature Prize winner, wrote after the prize was awarded to Szymborska, “For me Szymborska is above all a poet of consciousness. This means she talks to us, her contemporaries, as one of us. She keeps her private life for herself, moves at a distance from us, but at the same time invokes what everyone knows from their own life.”

Privately, Szymborska was known for being fond of literary fun. While traveling, she wrote limericks. She also made cards featuring collages composed of pieces of illustrations and sent them to her friends. In 2003, part of this private work was published in the book Rhymes for Big Kids.

Poland’s top politicians paid tribute to Szymborska after her death. “Wisława was our guardian spirit,” Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and his wife Anna wrote on their website. “In her poems we could find brilliant advice which made the world easier to understand. We read her successive volumes to feel this characteristic ability to stand back, to find joy in experiencing ordinary situations. Wisława showed us how important it is to search for value in the everyday hustle and bustle and among the moments that we usually do not notice.”

Prime Minister Donald Tusk wrote in a special statement: “Wisława Szymborska was an attentive witness to our daily struggles in the 20th century. She knew how to speak of them in a language, which, if one was willing to listen, opened us up towards each other for a simple reason—because it appealed to our deepest human feelings. She did not expect honors. When the fame came, she was clearly troubled by it. She always regarded her faithful readers as her friends. Her answer to the turmoil and noise in Poland was an optimistic smile and reflection upon the fate of an individual. This is how I remembered her when she collected her Nobel Prize in 1996. And such are her poems, which she has left us.”

Szymborska’s funeral was held Feb. 9 at the Rakowicki cemetery in Cracow. In keeping with her wishes, it was a non-religious ceremony. The urn with Szymborska’s ashes was taken to the family tomb, with well-known actor Andrzej Seweryn leading the funeral procession. Present at the ceremony were President Komorowski with his wife, Prime Minister Tusk, Culture Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski and many writers, translators of her poetry and friends.

Nothing twice by Wisława Szymborska (excerpt)
Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice...
Translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh
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