Polish poet Szymborska, dead at 88, brought light to her people

Szymborska, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer at her home in Krakow on Wednesday. The Nobel award committee's citation called her the "Mozart of poetry", a woman who mixed the elegance of language with "the fury of Beethoven" and tackled serious subjects with humour.

Wisława Szymborska

While she was one of the most popular poets in Poland, most of the world had not heard of the shy, soft-spoken Szymborska before she won the Nobel prize.
 
She was seen as political and playful, a poet who used humour in unexpected ways. Her verse, seemingly simple, was subtle, deep and often hauntingly beautiful. She used simple objects and detailed observation to reflect on larger truths, often using everyday images - an onion, a cat in an empty apartment, a fan in a museum - to reflect on grand topics such as love, death and time.President Bronislaw Komorowski honoured Szymborska last year with Poland's highest distinction, the Order of the White Eagle, in recognition of her contribution to her nation's culture. 
 
In response to her death, Mr Komorowski wrote: "For decades she infused Poles with optimism and with trust in the power of beauty and the might of the word."
 
She was our "guardian spirit", he said. "In her poems, we could find brilliant advice that made the world easier to understand."
 
Szymborska was working on poems to be published this year. She had nearly 400 poems published, in six decades of writing.
 
Asked why she did not have more published works, she said: "There is a trash bin in my room. A poem written in the evening is read again in the morning. It does not always survive."
 
Szymborska was born in the village of Bnin, now part of Kornik, near Poznan in western Poland on July 2, 1923. Eight years later she moved with her parents to Krakow, and developed deep ties to the city, with its rich artistic and intellectual milieu. She lived there until her death.
 
After the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Szymborska found work as a railway clerk to avoid deportation to Germany. In her free time, she studied at illegal underground universities.
She resumed her studies after the war in Polish literature and sociology but never took a degree.
 
In 1945, she published her first poem, I Am Looking for a Word, in a weekly supplement to the Dziennik Polski newspaper.
Not long afterwards, Szymborska married poet Adam Wlodek. Although the two divorced after a few years, they remained close friends until his death in 1986.
 
Szymborska's first two books, published in 1952 and 1954, were influenced by socialist realism, the doctrine that art must serve revolutionary goals, at a time when communist censors held sway. One poem, Lenin, praised Russia's revolutionary leader.
But like many Polish writers and artists, Szymborska grew disillusioned with communism and later renounced her Stalin-era verse. She broke with the Communist Party in 1966.
 
In later poems, she likened Stalin to the abominable snowman and frequently mocked communism in her verse.
Szymborska published about 20 volumes of poetry in all, a handful of which have been translated into over a dozen languages. Works available in English include View With a Grain of Sand, People on a Bridge and Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems.
 
Her work was wildly popular with Polish readers, and one poem, Love At First Sight, inspired the lauded film Red by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.
 
Despite her age, Szymborska's work continued to speak to a broad public. Her collection, Dwukropek, was selected by readers of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper as the best book of 2006. She published her last book, Here, in 2008.