Wislawa Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska
Early Life
 Born July 2, 1923 in Bnin (now Kornik), a small town in Western Poland
 Moved at age eight to Krakow in 1931, where she has lived her entire
life. Her family lived near a railway station in which she gained
inspiration for later poetry.
Witnessed Nazi occupation of Poland during WWII; effect of Stalinism
on Poland
Studied Polish literature and Sociology at Jagellonian University from
1945 until 1948
Jobs: poetry editor (1953-1981 at Życie Literackie (“Literary Life”)),
columnist (“Non-Required Reading,” 1968-1981), secretary, office clerk,
poet, illustrator
First poem she wrote debuted in 1945, “Szukam slowa” (“I am looking
for a word”)
Inspired by illegal films; attended classes and the theater illegally under
post-WWII Communist rule
 Her first book was published in 1949, but it initially did not pass censors
because it “did not meet socialist requirements.”
Early fascination with Socialism; signs petitions and vocalizes support for
Stalin, Lenin, and socialist ideology
1953: participated in the groundless persecution and condemnation of
Catholic priests by the ruling party
Like most Polish intellectuals, she quietly turns from Socialist beliefs in
1960s; officially leaves the Polish United Workers Party in 1966
1964: participates in a protest against government ruling against The Times
(larger issue: independence of intellectuals and freedom of speech)
Communists gained power; tightened cultural policy and Szymborska’s work
is deemed “too complex” and “bourgeois”
1980s: labor and cultural revolution; 1981: martial law declared by ruling
(but weakened) communist party; 1989: Poland’s first democratic
parliamentary election
Avoids political commentary in later work, except in her human rights work.
“Apolitical poems are political too.”
Later Years
 She later retracted her first two years of poetry, beginning in 1945,
and has not allowed them to be published since.
 Married poet Adam Wlodek in 1948, but divorced in 1954. Later
partnered with another Polish writer, but he died of prolonged illness
in the early 1990s.
 "For the last few years my favourite phrase has been 'I don't know'. I've
reached the age of self-knowledge, so I don't know anything. People
who claim that they know something are responsible for most of the
fuss in the world."
 Known for quick wit and sense of humor, humility, and lack of
travel/public presence
 Not antisocial—merely feels that public events/exposure for
writers is mostly fanfare and a waste of creative energy
Humility, Wit, or Craziness?
 On why she received the Nobel Prize:
 "It all happened because of a friend in the States. It's all
because of his sofa. Just before getting his Nobel Prize
Czeslaw Milosz [1980] sat on this sofa, then Seamus
Heaney [1995] sat on it and he won the prize, and then it
happened that I sat on it, and then I got the prize! It's a
magic sofa!"
 1954: City of Krakow prize for literature
 1963: Polish Ministry of Culture prize
 1991: Goethe Prize
 1995: Herder Prize
 1995: honorary doctorate Adam Mickiewiscz University
 1996: PEN Club Prize
 Nobel Prize for literature in 1996
 Has written around 200 poems and only 13 slim volumes in her
career (~7-10 years per volume)—possibly the least prolific Nobel
Laureate in history
 Reason for sparse writing: “I have a wastebasket in my study.”
 Jan. 17, 2011: Order of the White Eagle (Poland’s highest honor)
Poetic Ideas/Traits
 Style: Marked simplicity, irony, understatement, “underlying
complexity”, paradox, contradiction, introspection, wit
Not known for, but uses: anaphora, pathetic fallacy, repetition, and
varying tones (satiric, mocking, inquisitive, hopeful, etc.)
“approach, not reproach”
Early poetry was problematic because she tried “to love humankind,
not humans” (common mentality under Stalinism)
Expresses pessimism/skepticism about the future of mankind, but
still maintains the belief that words have a powerful effect on people
(“joy of imagination”)
Focus on minute details, brevity of life, death, war
A Cat in an Empty Apartment
Die? One does not do that to a cat.
Because what's a cat to do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls.
Caress against the furniture.
It seems that nothing has changed here,
but yet things are different.
Nothing appears to have been relocated,
yet everything has been shuffled about.
The lamp no longer burns in the evenings.
Footsteps can be heard on the stairway,
but they're not the ones.
The hand which puts the fish on the platter
is not the same one which used to do it.
Something here does not begin
at its usual time.
Something does not happen quite
as it should
Here someone was and was,
then suddenly disappeared
and now is stubbornly absent.
Wislawa Szymborska
All the closets were peered into.
The shelves were walked through.
The rug was lifted and examined.
Even the rule about not scattering
papers was violated.
What more is to be done?
Sleep and wait.
Let him return,
at least make a token appearance.
Then he'll learn
that one shouldn't treat a cat like this.
He will be approached
as though unwillingly,
on very offended paws.
With no spontaneous leaps or squeals at first.

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