In Memoriam: Wislawa Szymborska

Joelle Biele

szymborska-memoriamIn her 1996 Nobel acceptance speech, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska addressed the importance of writers asking questions. Like the great scientists before them, contemporary poets “must also keep repeating ‘I don’t know.’” For Szymborska, this phrase has particular resonance. As a young woman in the 1940s and early 50s, she supported communism and wrote socialist-realist verse; however, after she saw the effects of the Polish and Soviet systems, she became disillusioned and began writing in the unadorned style for which she is known today. Szymborska did not run away from her past, and much of her work can be read as a reckoning of her earlier beliefs. She also showed a wonderful sense of humor that came out not only in her poetry’s light, ironic touch but also in the limericks found in her book, Rhymes for Big Kids, the witty collage postcards she made for friends, the tacky gifts her dinner guests prized, and the black Bic pens she used and gave to charities for auction.

Szymborska died at her home in Krakow on February 1. She was eighty-eight years old. At the start of her funeral, after the bells from St. Mary’s Cathedral rang twelve times, a trumpeter played over the city’s snowy square. The song was her poem, “Nothing Twice,” which had been set to music in the 1960s and went on to become a hit. In attendance at the funeral were politicians, including President Bronislaw Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and such poets as Julia Hartwig, Ewa Lipska, and Adam Zagajewski, who spoke at her grave. Szymborska’s ashes were interred beside her parents and mourners filed out of Rakowicki Cemetery, recordings of her favorite singer, Ella Fitzgerald, filling the air. Her last volume, Enough, has just been released in Poland by her publisher, a5. An edition of a 1949 manuscript that her secretary Mihal Rusinek found among her papers is forthcoming.

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