Art & Culture

May I Introduce: Wislawa Szymborska


Photography by Joanna Helander

“I don’t know.” From all the words she could have chosen Nobel laureate in literature Wislawa Szymborska chose those three to be her favourite phrase. While other writers tend to adorn themselves with complicated, roaring sentences the Polish poet doesn’t need much to say a lot.

Her poems have the power to electrify the reader despite – or perhaps because of – their seemingly simplicity. In contempt of their simple appearance Szymborska’s words convey the most complex topics and emotions and are spiced with irony and intellect, sensitivity and sincerity, wit and vitality. As Wislawa Szymborska herself puts it best:

Speech, don’t hold it against me that I borrow grandiloquent words / And then undertake the difficulty of making them seem light.

Being very modest Szymborska hates any fuss around her person. When once asked why she has published so little (her entire body of work consists of 400 poems) she answered she had a waste paper basket. Szymborska avoids autobiography, lives isolated and when winning the Nobel Prize she barely gave any interviews and avoided the usual media circus. “Everyone needs solitude, especially a person who is used to thinking about what she experiences. Solitude is very important in my work as a mode of inspiration.” is her explanation. Love poem Drinking Wine is an example for her unfussy but emotional writing style:

He looked, and gave me beauty, / and I took it as if mine. / Happy, I swallowed a star. / I allowed myself to be / invented in the likeness / of the reflection in his eyes. / I am dancing, dancing / in the flutter of sudden wings.

Wislawa Szymborska is born on 2 July 1923 in Bnin, a small town in Western Poland. She starts writing poems at the age of five. If her poems are witty enough her father buys them for some groschen. In 1931 the family moves to Krakow, where Szymborska lives until her death in 2012. Her youth is characterised by the outbreak of World War II. She has to go to school in an underground class and from 1943 works as a railroad employee to avoid her deportation to Germany as a forced labourer. Szymborska later approaches the horrific happenings of the time and writes against the forgetting in Hunger Camp At Jaslo:

Write it. Write. In ordinary ink /
on ordinary paper: they were given no food, /
they all died of hunger. ‘All. How many? /
It’s a big meadow. How much grass /
for each one?’ Write: I don’t know. /
History counts its skeletons in round numbers. /
A thousand and one remains a thousand, /
as though the one had never existed.

In the years following the war Wislawa Szymborska sympathises with the ideology of the communist regime in Poland. This can be seen in her debut collection This is what we are living for in which she praises Stalin and Lenin and the realities of socialism. Not long and the sympathy transforms into rejection and Szymborska starts writing critically about communism and contributes to oppositional publications under a pseudonym. Wislawa Szymborska regrets her initial enthusiasm and blames herself for her “foolishness, naivety and perhaps intellectual laziness”.

Szymborska continues to approach the concerns of her time throughout her whole life, even in old age, when she writes in Photograph From September 11:

I can do only two things for them – / describe this flight / and not add a last line. 


Photography by Joanna Helander

The body of work Wislawa Szymborska produced in her life is astonishing in its diversity and Szymborska defies all usual terms to classify a writer. She approaches philosophical questions in her poems as well as rhyming playful tongue-in-cheek verses. The mediation of moralities, war and terrorism are important themes in her work as are love and just some words as in The Three Oddest Words:

When I pronounce the word Future,
/ the first syllable already belongs to the past.
/ When I pronounce the word Silence,
/ I destroy it.
/ When I pronounce the word nothing,
/ I make something no nonbeing can hold.

Poet Charles Simic wrote about Wislawa Szymborska: “More than any poet I can think of, Szymborska not only wants to create a poetic state in her readers, but also to tell them things they didn’t know before or never got around to thinking about”.

Thinking about things one did not know about is what makes “I don’t know” Wislawa Szymborska’s favourite phrase. As she explains: “It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended.”


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