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Remembering Wisława Szymborska



Wisława Szymborska, Polish poet and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, died last Wednesday at the age of 88. Although this sentence conveys a great deal of information, it barely scratches the surface of Szymborska’s long and eventful life. She was a woman beloved by many both in and outside of her home country. Born on 2 July 1923 in Prowent, Poland, Szymborska spent most of her life in Krakow, where she also passed away.

Since her death, tributes to both her and her work have been appearing across the Internet, commemorating her contributions to the world of poetry. Below is a collection of some of the thoughts and comments that have appeared over the last few days.

Dana Stevens of Slate’s Culture Blog writes about the Wisława Szymborska poem she has had taped above her desk for the past seven years, and comments that “Whatever else Szymborska’s poems are about . . . they are almost always also about death, impermanence, and the passing of time. And yet her voice couldn’t be less funereal, melodramatic, or self-serious.”

Szymborska began writing poetry at a young age. Divya Trivedi of The Hindu describes how Szymborska's father would give her pocket money for every poem she wrote. “You could say I started making my living as a poet from the age of five,” said Szymborska. “He didn’t notice that sometimes I gave him the same poem twice.” Though she began writing young, she only published her first poem in 1945, and in 1949 was initially unable to slip her first collection past censors. Though she did what she had to in order to be published under the Communist government, she also aligned herself with the Solidarity Movement in the 1980s, which subsequently helped to topple that government.

Despite her contributions to poetry, Szymborska was modest and introverted by nature, so much so that she stopped writing poetry for two years after winning the Nobel Prize to avoid the spotlight. Her friends would later referred to it as “the Nobel disaster”.

“Szymborska’s appeal,” writes the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, “came from her poetry alone and from her marvelous ability to speak with intimacy to a broad audience, as if each reader were sitting in her living room, sharing a cup of tea.”

In her 40 years as a poet, Szymborska published roughly 400 poems, and was translated into 12 languages. She has left a lasting impression on those close to her, and on the world of poetry in general. She will be greatly missed.

Image: Mariusz Kubik

To learn more about Szymborska and her work, see the following links.


James Woodall remembers: Meeting Szymborska.
NPR’s Robert Krulwich compares Szymborska’s work to her life: Two Deaths: A Poet and a Beetle.
Wisława Szymborska’s obituary in The New York Times, by Raymond H. Anderson.


Wisława Szymborska reads her poem ‘Birthdays’ in Polish: ‘Urodziny’