Poetry News

Remembering Wisława Szymborksa

By Harriet Staff

All over the interwebs, fans of Wisława Szymborska are mourning her death at the age of 88. We've rounded up a collection of some of the recent obituaries and tributes in her honor:

The Guardian provides a nice biography and links to an interview with Szymborska from 2000, in which she confessed to not knowing anything, with her characteristic blend of humor, candor, and mischief:

"Everyone needs solitude, especially a person who is used to thinking about what she experiences. Solitude is very important in my work as a mode of inspiration, but isolation is not good in this respect. I am not writing poetry about isolation," she said, going on to wonder why anyone would want to interview her. "For the last few years my favourite phrase has been 'I don't know'. I've reached the age of self-knowledge, so I don't know anything. People who claim that they know something are responsible for most of the fuss in the world."

The New York Times obituary offers helpful advice on how to pronounce Szymborska's name (vees-WAH-vah shim-BOR-ska) and characterizes her poems as a beguiling mix of the personal and the political, writing:

Much of her verse was contemplative, but she also addressed death, torture, war and, strikingly, Hitler, whose attack on Poland in 1939 started World War II in Europe. She depicted him as an innocent — “this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe” — being photographed on his first birthday.

The NYT also quotes Szymborska's "Cat in an Empty Apartment," a eulogy written from the perspective of an abandoned cat, which ends:

Nothing seems different here,
but nothing is the same.
Nothing has been moved,
but there’s more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.
Footsteps on the staircase,
but they’re new ones.
The hand that puts fish on the saucer
has changed, too.
Something doesn’t start
at its usual time.
Something doesn’t happen
as it should. Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.

The New Yorker links to the sixteen poems she published in the magazine between 1992 and 2006, Ron Silliman posts a video of Szymborksa reading in Polish, Gawker cites her funny Nobel Lecture riff about poets being "hopelessly unphotogenic," and GalleyCat quotes her poem "Consolation," calling it "a fond way to remember the literary life of the great poet":

hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.

JacketCopy's obituary includes one of Szymborska's great quips (“I prefer the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing poems”) and a Q&A from 1996, when the poet spoke with the L.A. Times' Warsaw bureau chief following her Nobel win.

For a Polish perspective, check out The Warsaw Voice and Polskie Radio, which contains remembrances by Polish writers Tomasz Jastrun and Janusz Głowacki. That article concludes with reflections by journalist and critic Lawrence Weschler who worked for many years as a correspondent in Poland:

“Her poems are as light as a feather, at at the same time very deep. I am both very sad and grateful for the great gift of wisdom that we all received from Wisława Szymborska. She handed it out very generously. What else can one expect?”, he has said.

Weschler recalled that she did not want to visit he United States, saying that she did not like long journeys.

“When we tried to persuade her to come, she said: ‘I’d come if you arranged meetings with Woody Allen and Jane Goodall, the famous expert on chimpanzees.' Once we made all the arrangements, she said it was a joke.”

Originally Published: February 2nd, 2012