The great Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska died this past Wednesday at the age of 88. And while she was never one for travel herself, her poetry did, and it touched millions around the world. Among her myriad admirers was Woody Allen, who, in the 2010 documentary Sometimes Life is Bearable, said of the poet, "She is able to capture the pointlessness and sadness of life, but somehow still be affirmative."
Two decades ago, Szymborska couldn't have fathomed that she would ever receive so much attention. At the time, she was living in relative anonymity in a small soviet-style apartment in Krakow. But everything changed in 1996, when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The humble Szymborska was so shocked to receive the honor that she was unable to write for years afterwards. Thankfully for the world, her poetry recovered.
That remarkable poetry is accessible, wise, and powerfully resonant despite Szymborska's light touch. And, as Allen mentioned, it often focuses on life's less bearable aspects. A good example is her poem "Some People," in which she hauntingly evokes the timelessness of war and strife:
Some people fleeing some other people.
In some country under the sun
and some clouds.
They leave behind some of their everything,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now sees itself reflected.
She takes a similar approach in the terrific poem, "Hatred":
See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape --
our century's hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
Looking at Szymborska's life, one can understand why she often focused on such themes. She was 16 when Nazi Germany invaded her home country of Poland in 1939, and, after the war, the country fell under the totalitarian grip of the Soviet Union for decades.
But while Szymborska never shied from looking life's grim realities in the eye, she always found things to embrace. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski wrote of her death, "For decades she infused Poles with optimism and with trust in the power of beauty and the might of the word." In her poem "Miracle Fair," for example, Szymborska lists the commonplace miracles of our days, including "the barking of invisible dogs" at night and an orchard that has sprung from a seed; she tries to convince her readers that there are miracles in the everyday, if we only shift our perspective.
Szymborska's verse can be playful as well (one of her translators, Clare Cavanagh, described her to the Chicago Tribune as "frat boy funny"). In her poem "An Opinion on the Question of Pornography," which Szymborska published at the height of the communist regime, she ironically compares thinking to pornography: "There is nothing more debauched than thinking," she wrote, it has "positions the Kama Sutra itself doesn't know."