Life & CareerBorn outside Poznań in 1923, her family soon moved to Kraków where she would quietly spend the rest of her life. During Nazi occupation Szymborska secretly attended an underground secondary school and after the war studied literature and sociology at Jagiellonian University, dropping out before getting a degree due to financial problems. It was during this time that she first began publishing her poetry and had a short-lived six-year marriage with fellow poet Adam Włodek. Like many of her contemporaries, Szymborska’s early work adhered to official Soviet ideology and her first two collections – 1952’s Dlatego Żyjemy (What We Live For) and 1954’s Pytanie Zadawanie Sobie (Questions I Ask Myself) – later became known as her Stalinist period. By 1957 she had denounced her early work, and was later involved in the Solidarity movement to overthrow Poland’s communist government, writing under a pseudonym in the underground and foreign presses during martial law.
Throughout her modest career she worked for various Cracovian literary periodicals, publishing a regular column of book reviews and a slim volume of poetry every few years. It was enough to earn her acclaim and recognition in Poland, however she was virtually unknown abroad until 1996 when she was unexpectedly pulled from her shy, solitary life and awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.”
Literary Style & LegacyA perfect example of the inaccessible, esoteric and ambiguous language that turns the general public away from poetry, this explanatory commendation from the Nobel Board stands in contrast to Szymborska’s actual writing, which is known for its simple, straight-forward language. Her work quickly engages the reader, typically drawing them into an encounter with familiar, seemingly insignificant objects and events, but from a new perspective which reveals their harsh hidden truths or celebrates their unseen miraculous qualities. With trademark wit, wisdom and irony, her lyrical joy over life’s astonishing potential is tempered by strong skepticism in easy answers and an acute awareness of suffering. After its frivolous start, Szymborska’s Nobel acceptance speech went on to be considered one of the greats for its humourous description of the poet’s creative process and its earnest identification of that process’s responsibility to restlessly render every aspect of the world around us as nothing less than what Szymborska believed it to be: extraordinary.
What to ReadPoetry is notoriously difficult to translate, but translators Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh did Wisława justice with their splendid work on View with a Grain of Sand and Here, winning a PEN Translation Prize in the process. Pick up View... to immerse yourself in the poet's lyrical and profound world, and keep an eye out for our favourite poem, Birthday.
What to SeeIf you're looking to connect with the lady through more than her words while in town, MOCAK currently has an exhibit in honour of the 10-year anniversary of her death (ongoing from Feb. 1, 2022), which reveals the writers artistic side via her collages, as well as a collection of her personal effects since shortly after she passed away in 2012. The exhibit also includes her Nobel Prize medal, which is typically on display during the tour of Collegium Maius (where we assume it will eventually return).
If you're a total lovestruck admirer, lay some flowers on her rather modest grave in Rakowicki Cemetery; buried in her family plot, you can try to find it in section 'Gd' to the right of the main entrance between the main alley leading to the cemetery chapel and the 'Alley of the Distinguished' ('Aleja Zasłużonych').
Szymborska's connections to Kraków and literary legacy played a large role in the city being recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature. Follow the link to read more about Literary Kraków.