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Indefinable Szymborska

Published on February 9, 2012 by: in: Culture

She seems to be a very nice lady that nobody would take notice of when one sees her on the street. If somebody wished to get to know who she really is, one would have to reside in her body. Of course, it is impossible to happen. Reading her poetry is the only way to understand what kind of person she is. While reading Szymborska’s poems, you can get an impression that she hides an incredible world inside her body”.

source: www.mmbialystok.pl

source: www.mmbialystok.pl

Wislawa Szymborska died on February 1, 2012 – a Polish poet, columnist, literature critic and Nobel Laureate in Literature. The poet’s death made people around sad; her family and friends are overwhelmed with grief as well as other people who had an opportunity to meet Wislawa Szymborska only through her poetry.

Szymborska’s literary works cannot be classified to any specific writing style. The poet also tried to avoid being assigned to any literary genre. In the preface to Selected Poetry (1967), Szymborska wrote: “I am a non-specialized poet who does not wish to be associated with any particular themes and specific manners of expressing my thoughts on important issues”. In Antoni Krauze’s film The joy of Writing, Bronislaw Maj described her poetry as “indefinable”. Stanislaw Zak said: “it is hard to classify Szymborska and her literary works into a particular literary genre. It may be even impossible due to the fact that Szymborska’s poetry has still been changing its form.  The major theme of her works is the human-being and problems one has to face in life, which she introduces to the reader from different points of view”.

Szymborska’s poems give us a chance to learn what kind of person she was. On one hand, the poet was subtle and had a friendly attitude to the world and people, on the other hand, her literary works were marked by irony, aloofness and distance from the reality. Szymborska’s friends were aware of  her characteristics, which she reflected in the poetry. For instance, Bronislaw Maj said: “Szymborska is made up of two different characters – on  one hand, she is a strict wise woman who has no illusions about the human fate, one’s condition on the Earth and the sense of one’s life; she seems to be the person who bravely and pitilessly explores the human experience. On the other hand, she is cheerful and spontaneous just like a young girl”. Also Grzegorz Illg regarded Szymborska as a poet who was “full of contradictions and somewhat surrounded by secrecy”.

The circle of readers of her poetry was always wide but the number of her fans drastically increased after she had received the Nobel Prize in 1996. At that time, some people alleged that Szymborska was “flirting with a utopian ideology”. It seems to be obvious that Szymborska’s first two collections of poems (That’s why we are alive – 1952 and Questioning yourself – 1954) are, according to Stanislaw Balbus, indicative of “her socialist poetry”. Michal Glowinski argues there is no sense to hide the fact that Szymborska, in her early years of life, supported the socialist ideology as the youth is entitled to making such kind of mistakes, and “there were also other representatives of the literary generation of 1950s who shared her interest in the socialist realism”. Szymborska never disowned she was fascinated with the socialist ideology. In one of the interviews, asked about her youth and the impact of the socialist realism on her early works, Szymborska replied: “It was the youth. I made a lot of mistakes but I took all my actions in good faith. At that time, I was naïve and wished to save the world”.

Szymborska’s poetry was evolving over the years. In her first collections of poems, the poet’s major character was an entity who spoke for the community but in her later literary works she started to pay more attention to – as we read in “Tygodnik Powszechny” – “a single man who was chosen from large number of people of all times and from all places, just – the humankind”. According to Jerzy Kwiatkowski: “Szymborska’s poetry deals with important issues and personal matters. In her poems, serious issues are as important as personal matters, which become the part of an average man’s life”. Szymborska ceased writing for one specific kind of readers and as a result, her poetry started to enjoy an increasing popularity. Her poems were translated into other languages and distributed abroad. The themes she touched upon in her works were so common that anyone, regardless of one’s gender, age or nationality, could find a poem for oneself. Stanislaw Zak wrote: “Undoubtedly, Szymborska is a great moralist strongly rooted in the intellectual tradition and culture of Poland and Europe and that fact largely influenced the decision about awarding her the Nobel Prize in Literature. Embedded in the philosophical, cultural and aesthetic tradition, the poet uses in her literary works a specific code and a set of symbols, which are understandable to Europeans. It should also be noted that Szymborska touches a wide array of subjects and the action of her poems takes place at different times and places”.

Although, it is possible to find a lot of autobiographical fragments in Szymborska’s poetry, the poet does not provide her readers with any details that can be applied to specific facts in her life. She analyses and ponders on her feminine awareness. In the book “From governess to Cassandra”, Malgorzata Baranska wrote: “In Szymborska’s poems the main character is unquestionably a female, who is introduced to the readers imperceptibly. […] The poet is aware of her full participation in a social and cultural life and at the same time, she has an “intact” sense of privacy”. Szymborska avoided the media and publicity and treated any public speaking as a “necessary evil”. She made a lot of effort to protect her personal life and used to say that more than six people in one room were already a crowd, which she really hated. Her secretary, Michal Rusinek, has been the person who successfully helped her avoid the media and made around Szymborska some kind of a cocoon or filter which separated her from the world outside and let her focus on writing. In “The joy of writing” Joanna Olczak – Ronikier describes Szymborska as “difficult to depict. I do not know how many layers should you remove to get to the interior of her soul. I am absolutely sure she would never like to be uncovered”. If you wished to reach Szymborska’s internal world, you could do it only through reading her literary works. Tadeusz Nyczek confirms: “She seems to be a very nice lady that nobody would take notice of when one sees her on the street. If somebody wished to get to know who she really is, one would have to reside in her body. Of course, it is impossible to happen. Reading her poetry is the only way to understand what kind of person she is. While reading Szymborska’s poems, you can get an impression that she hides an incredible world inside her body”.  She used to say that everything people should know about her could be found in her works.

Wislawa Szymborska died at the age of 89, at home in her sleep. She will be buried on February 9 at the Rakowicki Cemetery in Cracow. In the poem “On death, without Exaggeration”, she wrote: “There’s no life that couldn’t be immortal if only for a moment […] As far as you’ve come can’t be undone”.

Translation: Joanna Senska

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About Karolina Idczak

Graduate of Polish language faculty at the University of Lodz, interested in history of literature and art.

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