Wisława Szymborska: Nobel laureate


In 1996 the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Poland’s Wisława Szymborska “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality”. Not a terribly illuminating comment: her poems are vivacious and sure-voiced. Every one I read delights me with its quirkiness, its colloquial feel, its wisdom, its humour, its unexpected point of view, its profundity.

Szymborska is self effacing and unpretentious. In her Nobel acceptance speech she says that there’ll never be a film about a poet at work: “someone sits on a sofa staring motionless at a wall … once in a while they write down seven lines … Only to cross one of them out fifteen minutes  later. This is hopelessly unphotogenic.” She speaks of the high value she places on the phrase “I don’t know”, and makes no special claim to inspiration: it visits everyone who “does their job with love and imagination.” When she was asked why she’d written so few poems, less than 350, she said mordantly “I have a trash can in my home.”

When she died Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski declared a period of national mourning, saying that Ms Szymborska was “our guardian spirit. In her poems we could find brilliant advice which made the world easier to understand.”

All crititiques of her poetry mention how accessible it is. Her themes include memory, noticing, mortality, death, history, mythology, writing: and her touch is light, questioning and gently ironic. The poem is never quite about what it’s ostensibly about.

What can I say about what poems? I’ll give a taste for through brief quotes.

Travel elegy:  “I won’t retain one blade of grass as it’s truly seen” …

True love:  “True love. Is it really necessary! … / perfectly good children are born without its help. / it couldn’t populate the planet in a million years, / it comes along so rarely.” …

Conversation with a stone: “I knock at the stone’s front door. / ‘It’s only me, let me come in. / I’ve come out of pure curiosity. / Only life can quench it. / I mean to stroll through your palace, / then go calling on a leaf, a drop of water.'” …

Writing a resume: “Landscapes are replaced by addresses, / shaky memories give way to unshakeable dates.” …

To my heart on Sunday:  “Thank you my heart / you don’t dawdle, you keep going / with no flattery or reward, / just from inborn diligence.” …

The joy of writing: “Why does this written doe bound through these written woods? / for a drink of written water from a spring / whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?” …

Wrong number
: “At midnight, in a an empty, hushed art gallery / a tactless phone spews forth a stream of rings; / a human sleeping now would jump up instantly, / but only sleepless prophets and untiring kings / reside here where the moonlight makes them pale…”

The collection I’m reading is Poems New and Collected 1957-1997, translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh. I’ve dipped into another collection in parallel text (too heavy to bring with me) and it seemed to me that the translation matches the simplicity of the original. If you want to read more you can find a selection of poems  here.

About morselsandscraps

A retired Australian who spends a lot of time in Warsaw, and blogs as a way of life.
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13 Responses to Wisława Szymborska: Nobel laureate

  1. Lucid Gypsy says:

    Very richly textured poetry, I read a few on the link but the ads were annoying. It’s difficult to find good poets to read, so what a good find!


  2. Paula says:

    Translating poetry often implies rewriting it. For me poems are personal or universal. It’s not easy for me to find the ones I like, but I have a few among Croatian and French 🙂


    • I know all the pitfalls of translation, and I know my Polish is not remotely enough to judge the relationship between original and translation, but I sort out of trust the sense of the translation and I’ve never been very good with rhythms and music. I just like the quirkiness and thoughtfulness of what I read. Any poems that depend on wordplay, and there are a few, I distrust translations of. But what am I burbling on about? I’m talking to a translator, who knows all this far better than I ever will!! What are your French favourites?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. restlessjo says:

    I’m struck by the hours she must have spent staring at that wall or filling her basket to come up with some of these images, Meg. It’s extraordinary.


  4. pommepal says:

    You have given me another persons passions to ponder. I am going to bookmark this lady with the, to me, unpronounceable name, so I can go back at leisure to savour her poems. I can understand you enjoying the conversation with the stones it has been one of your ongoing passions that you have shared with us.


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