Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012)

Wisława Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966. I did not know that until the morning of February 9, 2020. I do not believe I had ever even heard her name until that moment. But when I viewed and listened to a video of Maria Poplova reading Szymborska’s poem, Pi, I decided I should find and read more of her work. And I will. Someday.

But first, I will explore just a bit more about her. She was a poet and an essayist. I like the titles (translated into English) of several of her works:

  • That’s Why We Are All Alive
  • People on the Bridge
  • Non-Required Reading
  • Salt (I do not know why that single word evokes emotion in me, but it does)
  • A Large Number

I read that last poem, A Large Number, and was intrigued by it. I love her imagery. And her creativity is a delight. She describes a flashlight beam in the dark, illuminating only those random faces over which it passes, leaving the rest in the dark.  Another element of the poem includes a Latin phrase: non omnis moriar. Translated, it means my work will live; literally, it means I shall not wholly die. That simple phrase can offer as much hope to a writer as anything else, even to a hack who will leave only unpublished and unfinished manuscripts.

Szymborska published about 350 poems. I gather that’s a small number for a published poet (who knew?), though it sounds like an impossibly large number to me. I don’t know how many I’ve written, but I suspect it’s in the neighborhood of 175; my entire catalog comprises half of her published work. According to Wikipedia, she was asked why she had published so few poems; her response was: “I have a trash can in my home.” My reasons for my low number would be: 1) I have a creativity deficit and 2) I have a delete key on my keyboard.

Some of Szymborska’s poems found their way into musical lyrics and others found their way into movies. At least two of her poems, Love at First Sight and People on the Bridge, either inspired film (the former) or were made into a film (the latter).

Aside from the Nobel Prize in Literature, Szymborska was the recipient of The City of Kraków Prize for Literature, the Goethe Prize, the Polish Ministry of Culture Prize, and the Polish PEN Club prize, among many others.

I wonder whether my unfamiliarity with Szymborska is atypical or whether the U.S. education system simply doesn’t acknowledge the importance of foreign literary writers and their work. And I wonder whether Szymborska’s name is more widely known in Europe and elsewhere around the world. I realize, of course, it’s entirely possible that I have simply led a sheltered life, protected from education that would have made me a well-rounded citizen of the world. But I sort of doubt that; I think Szymborska’s name might not be well-known in the U.S., outside of erudite literary circles. Maybe not even in those circles; I wouldn’t know.

I said in the first paragraph that I will find and read more of Szymborska’s work. That’s probably not true. My interests tend to be short-lived and shallow. I’ll flit on to something else very soon and will forget Szymborska and her poetry. Maybe the something else will be welding or making wind chimes or painting or going to see plays. It’s anyone’s guess. Sorry, Ms. Szymborska. I do admire you and your work, but probably not enough to do more than I’ve done.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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