Poland’s ‘Mozart of poetry’, Wisława Szymborska, would have been 95 today

Wisława Szymborska in 2011 Jacek Bednarczyk

The Nobel laureate may have passed away in 2012, but her legacy is just as relevant as ever.

The Polish poet Wisława Szymborska had an inner life worthy of the times. Against the roiling backdrop of social upheaval she managed to secure a calm and perspective that left us with the quiet verse of a person moving through the world alone.

Called ‘reclusive’ she was, in her own words, just living the life of a poet. 

When she won the Nobel prize in Literature, the fifth Polish-born writer to have done so, she joked that a life of verse was “hopelessly unphotogenic.”

“Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while, this person writes down seven lines, only to cross out one of them 15 minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens,” she said in her acceptance speech.

The Nobel committee described her as the 'Mozart of poetry' but with 'something of the fury of Beethoven.' 

Born in the west of Poland in 1923 (she would have been 95 today), Szymborska’s writings were originally more social-realistic -- a style popular among creatives working in aid of the communist project -- but by the late '50s she had fallen out of love with the ideology.

She would have become politically active again later in the anti-communist Solidarity movement, but, as a poet, she retreated permanently into a preoccupied selfhood that would end up characterising her life’s work. 

The resulting verse was of the ordinary turned on its head -- something that those caught up in the more baroque questions of the Polish day-to-day were less likely to notice. It was also funny, something the Nobel committee described as an ‘ironic precision...that...allowed the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality." 

Therefore, on death, Szymborska wrote: 

“In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.”

And on life she delivered a wry judgment:

"...I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems...”

As a child, Szymborska moved to Kraków, where she remained for the rest of her life. She was married, then divorced, and attended the Jagiellonian University where she studied Literature and Sociology. She produced a small body of work, but her perceptiveness made her stand out. 

In a poem titled ‘The Three Oddest Words’ she wrote about the very parodoxical nature of working with 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 non-being can hold.”

In 2012, Wisława Szymborska passed away from lung cancer at the age of 88.