Detailed and insightful, Wislawa Szymborska's poems taught generations of poets how to combine wit with reason

Variedly described as the ‘Greta Garbo', ‘Mozart' and ‘Beethoven' of poetry, Wislawa Szymborska is considered to be the most famous Polish poet of our times. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, she had lung cancer and passed away in her sleep this Wednesday in Krakow at the age of 88.

With such thought provoking lines as “Whether you like it or not, your genes have a political past, your skin, a political cast, your eyes, a political slant,” Szymborska inspired and entertained an entire generation and had her place sealed in the highest echelons of poetry. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski called her a ‘guardian spirit', “In her poems, we could find brilliant advice that made the world easier to understand,” he said. Having survived Nazi- occupied Europe during World War II and the Communist purges in Poland after the war, Szymborska's observations are at once subtle and witty. ‘Blind' is an attribute usually associated to the emotion of hatred. But in a poem on the subject, Wislawa describes hatred as ‘having a sniper's keen sight'. By combining details with insight, Szymborska subtly pushes her readers to reinterpret the understanding of human conditions.

Born in the small west Polish town of Bnin on July 2, 1923, she took to poetry at a very young age. “You could say I started making my living as a poet from the age of 5,” she is reported to have said. Her father used to give her pocket money every time she wrote a poem. “He didn't notice that sometimes I gave him the same poem twice.”

During World War II she escaped being sent to a labor camp by working on the railroad and also became a textbook illustrator. She enrolled at Jagiellonian University of Krakow to study literature, but had to drop out of school for lack of money. She received a part of her education in underground illegal universities.

In 1945 she published her first poem and in 1949 released a collection of her work that she was initially unable to get past the censors. She continued to write, toeing the loyal Communist Party line and published two volumes - That's What We Live For (1952) and Questions Put to Myself (1954). She praised Lenin as well as Stalin.

She joined as an editor and critic of Zycie Literackie (Literary Life) in 1953 and remained there till 1981. But during the second half of the 1950s in the post-Stalinist period, she became disenchanted with communism and reportedly resigned from the Polish Socialist Party in 1966. She renounced her earlier work as “a mistake of my youth” and in a poem Calling out to Yeti, compared Josef Stalin to an “abominable snowman”. In the poem Hitler's First Photograph, she mocks Hitler with “And who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?” and talks of him as a nanny would do. “Will he grow up to be an LL.D.? Or a tenor in Vienna's Opera House? Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose? Whose tummy full of milk, we just don't know.”

In the 1980s, she aligned herself to the Solidarity Movement that helped topple the Communist government.

Known to be a recluse, she felt burdened with the overwhelming attention paid to her after receiving the Nobel Prize and stopped writing for the next two years.

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish exile who won the Nobel Prize in 1980, said “She's a shy and modest person, and for her it will be a terrible burden, this prize. She is very reticent in her poetry also. This is not a poetry where she reveals her personal life.” Despite this, she was loved and championed across the world by the likes of Woody Allen and Susan Sontag among others.

She can perhaps be best understood by the phrase "I don't know" that she valued. "If Isaac Newton had never said to himself ‘I don't know,' the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto," she said in her Nobel lecture.

In the four decades of her career, she published 400 poems in 20 books with translations in 12 languages.

She was briefly married to poet Adam Wlodek and her companion writer Kornel Filipowicz died in 1990. She is not known to have had any children.

More In: Books