When I was an adolescent, growing up in communist Poland, Wisława Szymborska was a figure shrouded in myth. The names of Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, or Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska were more prevalent in my elementary school and high school curriculum; Tadeusz Rozewicz was out of favor in some circles, because of his loyalty to Marxist thought. Szymborska, with her cool elegance, ingrained skepticism and acerbic wit, held her own allure; but even though I participated in annual poetry recitations—a national tradition, which, I’m sure, has since expired—I cannot easily recall which of Szymborska’s poems I would have learned at the time. Then again, my friend in Warsaw recently reminded me that The Ochota Theater’s Drama School for young actors, which we both attended, had as its hymn one of her early poems. We sang the lines from “You Can Live Without this Love.” at all the major theater events and summer drama camps. I looked up the poem and was surprised by its forceful nationalist tone, comparing those who do not love their country to fallen trees, and characterizing their lives as “fruitless.” The poem came out in 1954, when Szymborska was still following the realist-socialist tradition that she would later disavow.
“She lived and wrote with her whole person. She did not care about writing a lot of poems. Her entire oeuvre consists of 350 poems, which is not much, for a lifetime’s work, and was a result of her taking a long time on each poem.”
Szymborska was notorious for not wanting to give interviews about her private life. She even managed to persuade her would-be-biographers to give up their quest. No doubt, now that we have lost her, an idea for a biography is already germinating in more than one writer or translator’s mind. One day, we will have the privilege to learn more in-depth about the life of this exceptional woman and artist. In the interim, in lieu of a character sketch, I have culled and translated 10 quotations from Poland’s most prestigious newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, revealing glimpses of what, over the years, Polish writers and intellectuals have said about their illustrious colleague.
Poet Adam Zagajewski: “In the 70s, I used to attend her soirees. Our conversations were never ‘literary.’ We discussed poetry the least. Although Wisława could suddenly announce: I dont know about you, but I’m fed up with Dostoevsky. Or: the critics of poetry dont ever read popular-science or botanical books, how can they possibly understand contemporary poetry? I think that one of her greatest enemies—besides the most important ones, which were totalitarian ideology and political crimes—was boredom. Boredom and banality. She had nothing of a bohemian in her; she didn’t paint her hair green, but she could not stand banality. She did not write banal poems, and in life, she always prized ingenuity, intelligence; she wanted the people meeting at her soirees to speak of important things.”
Journalists Anna Bikont and Joanna Szczęsna: “Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1996, she returned to her old habits. To the slower pace, which allowed plenty of room for silence and for being alone. For meeting friends over vodka and playing the old-fashioned lottery, in which you could win all kinds of charming, impractical gifts. For brief sojourns to the South (Lubomierz in the summer and Zakopane in winter). For games that meant composing absurd, nonsensical poems. For making collages and sending them to friends in lieu of postcards. For writing a few poems per year, no more.”
Public intellectual, essayist and historian Adam Michnik: “She possessed a remarkable, hidden intuition, which allowed her, without any false pathos, to come to terms with her villainous epoch. After all—as a young girl—she lost her way, along with her contemporaries, and along with her contemporaries, she tried to find her way back. She wrote beautiful erotic poetry, and grieving poems about the nightmares of the 20th century. She wrote about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, about Stalinist crimes and modern-day terrorism, about a sweet young boy who became Adolf Hitler.”
Professor Teresa Walas, via PAP (Polish News Agency): “[For Szymborska], humor was a way of creating a distance, towards herself and the world, which did not mean a lack of seriousness. She was not a comedienne. It was her way of cutting herself off from seriousness that always has more unsettling aspects—i.e. “tight lips and fanatical glances.”—a kind of existentialist defense. It manifested itself in jokes. She valued and surrounded herself with people who could be witty, and who had humor encoded in their genes.”
Professor Gražyna Borkowska: “Szymborska sees the world as an interplay of fascinating accidents. She extends the rules of this play beyond the human element. She assumes that the same principle—of fleeting, accidental incarnations—applies to plants, animals, clouds. They appear then vanish. However, against the logic of nature, man wants to define and to immortalize his identity. His situation is paradoxical—made of the same elements as trees and soil, he wants to be himself, singular and unique.”
Writer Julia Hartwig: “Reading the poetry of Wisława Szymborka we cannot help but notice how many things we assume to be obvious, when in fact they are not obvious at all. [Szymborska] does not give lessons in relativism, but rather in finesse, which comes from looking at a thing from all angles, regardless of whether it has to do with a landscape, a cloud, our soul, or Plato.”
7. Poet, writer and critic Małgorzata Baranowska: “It all starts with the question: who am I? The uncertainty of one’s existence, the uncertainty of one’s place in eternity, accident—all this leads us to question our identity. The poet treats her own biography as if her existence were conditional. The feeling that her own life is accidental never leaves her.”
Writer and Szymborska’s longtime assistant Michał Rusinek: “Her ‘manuscripts’ are really loose sheets of paper; since the times of communist Poland she never threw out anything, but rather used the reverse sides of the sheets. She also had a small notebook, in which, since the 60s or maybe 70s, she wrote down sentences, metaphors, and ideas. It was always the one and the same notebook, filled with miniscule handwriting. She took notes in unreadable scribbles; only she knew what was in them. She did leave notes for the new poems [to come out posthumously], but not even a cryptologist could decipher them.”
Literary critic and friend Jan Pieszczachowicz: “She lived and wrote with her whole person. She did not care about writing a lot of poems. Her entire oeuvre consists of 350 poems, which is not much, for a lifetime’s work, and was a result of her taking a long time on each poem. Once, she showed me a drawer, and in it there were dozens of crumpled sheets of paper. I asked, ‘What’s this?’ and she said, ‘This is a new poem that we don’t know yet if it will become a poem.’ There were dozens of versions of the same work.”
Writer and journalist Jerzy Pilch: “It is hard to name the tradition to which she belonged. That which, for most of us, is self-explanatory—moving aside a chair or eating soup with a spoon—for her was not so. What is incredible is that she wrote about it in a way that was enthralling, and surprising. This was her creative secret.”