Wislawa Szymborska: Poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature

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The Independent Online

Wislawa Szymborska was Poland's first female writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In her poems, filled with gentle irony and humour, she tried to capture the elusiveness of life and its bittersweet transience. She has died of lung cancer in Krakow aged 88.

"I have a feeling that I'm able to save just a tiny particle of this world,"Szymborska said when asked about the role of literature in her life. "But there are others. And may everyone save such a tiny particle on their own."

Wislawa Szymborska was born near Kornik, western Poland, to Wincenty Szymborski, an estate manager, and his wife Anna. The family moved to Torun in 1924, and five years later to Krakow, where Wislawa and her older sister Nawoja went to school.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Szymborska pursued her education in a clandestine school operated by the Polish Underground. Two years later she graduated from high school and in 1943 took a clerk's job at the railways to avoid being sent to Nazi Germany for forced labour.

Szymborska made her literary debut in March 1945, publishing a poem in Krakow's leading daily paper Dziennik Polski. She also enrolled at the city's Jagielonnian University where she studied Polish philology, and later sociology, before dropping out. She began to work for a literary fortnightly in 1947, and married another poet, Adam Wlodek, a year later. The two divorced in 1954, but remained friends.

With the publication of her first collection of poems, Dlatego Zyjemy [That Is What We Live For], in 1952 she joined the state-run writers' association. At this time, she also embraced communism. Following Stalin's death in 1953, many Poles were drawn into public displays of mass hysteria, while the country's artists, sculptors and poets rushed to commemorate Stalin with paintings, poems and statues. Szymborska was one of them, though decades later she apologised for her poetic eulogy.

Gradually losing her faith in the system, the poet left the communist party in 1966 in solidarity with the Marxist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, expelled for his criticism of the authorities. Her resignation from membership of the Polish Unified Workers' Party cost Szymborska her editorial position at the literary weekly Zycie Literackie.

The poet's striving for equality and justice led her to support the outburst of Poland's pro-democratic opposition in the late 1970s: in 1979, Szymborska and 58 other Polish intellectuals signed a letter of protest against the introduction of further pro-Soviet and anti-civil rights amendments to Poland's constitution. When martial law was proclaimed in December 1981 she ceased publishing her poems in the state-controlled press, and began to write for samizdat publications. Meanwhile, her private life was stable. Szymborska was in a relationship with author and screenwriter Kornel Filipowicz from the late 1960s to 1990, when he, though they never lived together.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Szymborska was awarded the prestigious Goethe Prize in 1991, a harbinger of her increasing popularity in Western literary circles. Five years later, she was praised by the Nobel committee for "poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality." After her death, the Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski said, "[Szymborska] has shown us how important it is to search for values in everyday bustle, among the moments which usually escape our attention."

Szymborska opened the 1996 Nobel lecture in her humorous manner: "They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me, anyway. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come – the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line – will be just as hard, since I'm supposed to talk about poetry. I've said very little on the subject, next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that I'm not very good at it. This is why my lecture will be rather short. All imperfection is easier to tolerate if served up in small doses."

Szymborska published about 400 poems; her final collection, of 14 poems, will be published later this year.

Wislawa Szymborska, poet and literary critic: born Kornik, Poland 2 July 1923; married 1948 Adam Wlodek (divorced 1954); Nobel Prize for Literature 1996; died Krakow 1 February 2012.