As a poet, Wislawa Szymborska was hailed as a genius who could offer an explanation for the extraordinary, in simple, touching lines. She received high honours internationally – winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 – and at home, receiving the Order of the White Eagle, the supreme reward that Poland can bestow upon its heroes. Her other awards included the Krakow Prize for Literature, the Polish Ministry of Culture Prize, the Goethe Prize, the Polish PEN Club prize, and the Herder Prize – and she was made Honorary Doctor of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.
As a woman, she was famously reclusive, preferring the quiet of her Krakow apartment and the company of close friends to the glare of publicity. And she was strikingly modest too, saying in one rare interview that she had published such a relatively small number of poems because she owned a wastepaper basket.
But even though she was rarely seen in public, Cracovians took Szymborska to their hearts. Thousands turned out to her funeral when her remains were interred in the family tomb at Rakowicki cemetery on a bitterly cold and snowy day in February 2012. Among those wishing to say their final farewells were the Polish president and prime minister, and other figures from the literary world.
Szymborska was not born in Krakow, but in Kornik; however, she came to the city with her family when she was eight years old, and spent the remaining 80 years of her life here. Her first poem, Szukam Slowa (Looking for words) was published in 1945, in the newspaper Dziennik Polski. Her early work was tinged with Soviet Socialism, and although this was to fade over the course of her career, it is not publicly known for sure just what her personal political beliefs were by the end of her life. It’s not unusual though, to find Poles in Krakow who will refer to the ‘Socialist’ days rather than the ‘Communist’ days.
She earned acclaim for her work not just in Poland, but abroad too. In fact, one collection spent a month at the top of the bestseller chart in Italy, while almost everything she has written has been translated into English and other languages. Her final collection, Wystarczy (Enough) was published in the summer of 2012, just months after her death. It is a treasured addition to many Polish bookshelves, because the edition includes facsimiles of Szymborska’s original notes and scribblings.
Modest and industrious in life (she worked as an essayist and translator as well as a poet), Szymborska proved to be generous even in death. She left a fortune of 3.5 million PLN to establish a foundation for the promotion of literature, offering a route for the poets of tomorrow to realise their dreams and, perhaps, follow in the footsteps of a humble and modest woman who won the admiration and love of many by the simple act of putting pen to paper.
Wislawa Szymborska was born in Kornik, on July 2 1923. She died in Krakow on February 1 2012, after a long battle with lung cancer.