Wislawa Szymborska (Vi-slav-ah Sshm-bor-ska) is a Polish poet who lived between 1923 and 2012, living through tumultuous times in Poland that included Nazi occupation and Soviet rule. She was a quiet and private person who spoke eloquently through her poetry, which were published in sixteen poetry collections throughout her life.
Her poems have been translated from Polish into English, German, Swedish, Danish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Czech, Slovakian, Serbo-Croatian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and other languages. They have also been published in numerous poetry anthologies (nobelprize.org).
The Poetry Foundation (poetryfoundation.org) describe her poetry: “Readers of Szymborska’s poetry have often noted its wit, irony, and deceptive simplicity. Her poetry examines domestic details and occasions, playing these against the backdrop of history.”
In the New York Times Book Review, Stanislaw Baranczak wrote, “The typical lyrical situation on which a Szymborska poem is founded is the confrontation between the directly stated or implied opinion on an issue and the question that raises doubt about its validity. The opinion not only reflects some widely shared belief or is representative of some widespread mind-set, but also, as a rule, has a certain doctrinaire ring to it: the philosophy behind it is usually speculative, anti-empirical, prone to hasty generalizations, collectivist, dogmatic and intolerant.”
Wislawa Szymborska @ PoetryFoundation.org
Wislawa Szymborska @ NobelPrize.org
Here are a few of her poems:
The Three Oddest Words
When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.
I prefer movies.
I prefer cats.
I prefer the oaks along the Warta.
I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.
I prefer myself liking people
to myself loving mankind.
I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.
I prefer the color green.
I prefer not to maintain
that reason is to blame for everything.
I prefer exceptions.
I prefer to leave early.
I prefer talking to doctors about something else.
I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems.
I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries
that can be celebrated every day.
I prefer moralists
who promise me nothing.
I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.
I prefer the earth in civvies.
I prefer conquered to conquering countries.
I prefer having some reservations.
I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.
I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages.
I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.
I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.
I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.
I prefer desk drawers.
I prefer many things that I haven’t mentioned here
to many things I’ve also left unsaid.
I prefer zeroes on the loose
to those lined up behind a cipher.
I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.
I prefer to knock on wood.
I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.
I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility
that existence has its own reason for being.
The End and the Beginning
Nobel Prize Winner
Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996 “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biographical context to come to light in fragments of human reality.”
The Nobel Prize site (nobelprize.org) describes her this way:
“A Mozart of Poetry”
Wislawa Szymborska was a Polish-born poet, essayist and translator. Her first collection, ‘That’s What We Live For’ (1952), was written under Poland’s communist regime and was an expression of socialist realism. She has been described as a “Mozart of Poetry”, as her words fall into place with a veritable ease, and during her lifetime, she wrote around 400 poems, seemingly simple, but subtle and deep. She used common everyday images to reflect on larger truths – an onion, a cat – in her poems about life’s big subjects: love, death and passing time.
Here’s an article/interview with the New York Times after Szymborska won the prize.
Here’s her Nobel Lecture, “The Poet and the World.”
“The world – whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world – it is astonishing.”