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

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.

Suggested Topics
peoplePaper attempts to defend itself
voicesWe desperately need men to be feminists too
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits