`Her poems are subtle, cool and deeply serious. They are little miracles of elegant sophistication'

Our literary editor on a dark-eyed 73-year-old with a muse to win over the world
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The Independent Online
Even by the standards of the Nobel Prize Committee, the nomination of Wislawa Szymborska as this year's Literature laureate was pretty extreme.

A recent spell of comparatively well-known winners - Derek Walcott, Nadine Gordimer, Seamus Heaney - lulled the book world into thinking the Stockholm prize-givers were flirting with populism. After 90-odd years of giving the world's richest and most prestigious literary award to unknown and recondite talents (Erik Axel Karlfeldt in 1931, Halldor Laxness in 1955, not to mention the sinister Salvator Quasimodo in 1959) they suddenly seemed to be getting trendy.

So much so that, after Seamus ("Famous") Heaney's triumph last autumn, Nobel-watchers were prepared to bet on the chances of either Bob Dylan or RS Thomas winning the prize.

The latter is a grizzled Welsh Jesuit priest, who has been hotly tipped as Nobel material for a few years. The former is the globally renowned singer, whose name was put before the Nobel jury for the first time this year by an American academic and fan.

Very little is known outside her native Poland about 73-year-old Ms Szymborska, translator and critic as well as poet. Her British publishers, Forest Books and Bloodaxe Books, could offer biographical data from her books but nothing more. Expatriate Poles in the London literary community greeted the news of her elevation with blank looks.

In Poland, however, she is mentioned in the same respectful tones as her countrymen Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz (who won the Nobel prize in 1980). She was born in 1923 in Bnin, near Poznan in western Poland. At the age of eight, her family moved to Krakow, where she lives still. When Poland was occupied during the Second World War, Szymborska defied Nazi injunctions to attend school classes in Polish.

In 1945 she studied Polish literature and sociology at the Jagellonian Institute in Krakow, abandoning her course when it fell a victim to Stalinist interference. In 1953, at the age of 30, she joined the weekly literary magazine Zycie Literackie as poetry editor and columnist and worked on it until 1981.

She has published 10 volumes of verse: That's Why We Are Alive (1952), Questioning Oneself (1954), Calling the Yeti (1957), Salt (1962), A Hundred Joys (1967), Chance (1972), A Great Number (1976), People on a Bridge (1986) and View with a Grain of Sand (1995).

Her poems are light in idiom, subtle, cool and witty, but deeply serious in their concerns. For a woman who has survived war and dictatorship, they are little miracles of elegant sophistication. They traverse historical periods and mythological civilisations to compare everyday experiences, in the style of the Greek poet Constantin Cavafy, and deal in lists and litanies, like Louis Macneice.

In her most recent collection, View With a Grain of Sand (to be published in three weeks by Faber & Faber, which signed a deal with her American publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair yesterday), she writes with feeling about self consciousness, as in the poem published above, "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself".

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