Wislawa Szymborska, described by the judges as the Mozart of poetry, was apprehensive at the prospect of world fame when tracked down to a hotel for writers at a Polish mountain resort.
"This is a difficult situation. I am normally a very private person and now I foresee some difficult moments," Szymborska said.
"I am very pleased for Polish literature although there are other poets like me in Poland."
Asked whether she would now appear more frequently in public and give lectures, the slight, grey-haired poet said she might travel but added: "No, I never give lectures."
Szymborska has written only a handful of slim volumes of poetry since 1957, and her relative obscurity in the West is partly because her work's stylistic variety makes it hard to translate.
The Swedish Academy said cryptically that it had chosen to honour Szymborska for "poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality".
It added: "She has been described as the Mozart of poetry, not without justice in view of her wealth of inspiration and the veritable ease with which her words seem to fall into place."
A typical example of her writing could be found at the end of a poem called "The Joy of Writing":
The joy of writing.
Power of preserving.
The revenge of a mortal hand.
The award surprised some observers, who had expected a novelist to be chosen after the Irish poet Seamus Heaney - also on holiday when the award was announced - won last year's prize.
Clare Cavanagh, a University of Wisconsin lecturer who has translated Szymborska into English, said: "She turns out under this modest and witty surface to be a very great poet.
"She's a very exceptional combination. She's a great philosopher on one hand but on the other hand has mass appeal in Poland."
From 1953 to 1981 Szymborska was on the staff of the intellectual Polish magazine Zycie Literackie ("Literary Life"). She is the fifth Pole or Polish-born writer to win the literature prize since it was first awarded to the Frenchman Sully Prudhomme in 1901.
Her forerunners are Henryk Sienkiewicz in 1905, Wladyslaw Reymont in 1924, the Polish-born novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978 and Czeslaw Milosz in 1980.
The last two had become American citizens.
In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself
by Wislawa Szymborska
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.
A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?
Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
In every other way they're light.
On this third planet of the sun,
among the signs of bestiality
A clear conscience is Number One
Translation by Stanislaw Baranszak and Clare CavanaghReuse content