Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet died last week.

Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996, died February 1 aged 88.

Szymborska [her name is pronounced vee-SWAHV-ah shimm-BOR-skah] wrote about 400 poems and published about 20 volumes.

You may recognize her name because I shared her poem “Any Case” on my blog last year.

She said of her poetry:  “I borrow words weighed with pathos and then try hard to make them seem light.”  (L.A. Times)

Some People Like Poetry
Wisława Szymborska

Some people—
that is not everybody
Not even the majority but the minority.
Not counting the schools where one must,
and the poets themselves,
there will be perhaps two in a thousand.

but we also like chicken noodle soup,
we like compliments and the color blue,
we like our old scarves,
we like to have our own way,
we like to pet dogs.

but what is poetry.
More than one flimsy answer
has been given to that question.
And I don’t know, and don’t know, and I
cling to it as to a life line.      

According to the article in The Huffington post:

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.”




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47 Responses to Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet died last week.

  1. Rosie, I always love when you write about poetry and poets, because you do so with such great respect and cherishing …. and I love this poem you shared!!

  2. magsx2 says:

    The first time I heard of her was on your blog, lovely poetry, it is sad to lose someone with such talent.
    Another lovely poem you have shared with us.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Mags,
      I’m so happy to know that I’ve helped spread the word about such a gifted poet all the way over to you in Oz.

      Although her voice has been stilled, I’m thankfull we can still read the hundreds of poems she wrote.

  3. souldipper says:

    Thanks for educating me, Rosie. I had not thought of that knack/art/gift. Imagine being able to be light-hearted without wringing out the significance.

    Thank you, my observant friend.

  4. I really liked this one.. the way it unfolds itself with every line. Also, the older one you linked to. Loved seeing her picture too. Somehow it made the words weightier. Also, something’s making me wonder.. do you write any yourself?

  5. Thank you for introducing me to Wislawa Szymborska, Rosie. This poem is beautiful. I’m sharing it with a friend who loves and writes poetry.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi AA
      I’m delighted to be able to introduce you to a poet like Wislawa Szymborska, and glad to know that you liked it so much you’re sharing it with a friend.

      Did you read her other poem “Any Case” that I linked to above? I’d love to know what you think of it?

  6. I meant I’m sharing your post with my friend … and I just did. 🙂

  7. I don’t read Polish but I would love to see this poem in her native tongue. The LA Times article mentioned ‘her translator’ so I have to assume this poem has been translated? I can’t imagine a more difficult job than taking words of beauty from one language to another – this poem seems to have lost nothing, remarkably. Thanks for sharing. I don’t profess to understand much poetry – alot of it goes right over my head but I support its writing, especially this great group in San Francisco that does so many fabulous readings and publishes great works.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi EOS
      I also cannot imagine how one translates a poem from one language to another without losing that “something” that made the poem a fantastic poem. You can’t just take words and plop them on the page in the same order and hope it’ll make sense.

      My aim is for more people to discover the pleasures of poetry, so I try to share poems that are simple to understand. I hope you enjoyed this one.

      Thanks for the link to Sixteen Rivers Press. Interesting group of people. I’m going to follow them.

  8. Priya says:

    I struggled with poetry — the rhyming, metric ones made me a little impatient with the predictability, the open verses made me a little confused about the mode of expression (when it had to not rhyme, why not prose?). But I have been learning. And some of this learning has come through your posts about poetry. I agree with Betty that there is a charming thing about the way you mention poems and poets. Your appreciation is reflected so well in the way you write about them.

    Also, thank you so much for the pronunciation of her name. I practiced it in my head before I began writing this response. It makes so much sense to try to learn how a person is addressed, no?

    • dearrosie says:

      Really? You Priya, the one who plays with words like ping-pong balls, are learning poetry from reading my posts? I stand proud and pleased because it means I’m doing something to help spread the pleasure of poetry.

      Even though I’ve written Wislawa Szymborska’s name and how to pronounce it several times I still have to go and check it before saying it. Polish is a difficult language for my tongue…

  9. There is a group called *Closer Ocean* and much of the music on their album *Supercollider* was inspired by the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska.

    Her poetry is one of a kind and compelling – she will be sadly missed. I agree with Woody Allen: “She is able to capture the pointlessness and sadness of life, but somehow still be affirmative.” Thanks for including his observation!

    Rest in peace, dear lady…

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Barbara,
      You also knew and loved her poetry. Though she will be sadly missed, her words will live on.

      I haven’t heard of the group “Closer Ocean”. What a great idea to take brilliant poetry and put it to music. I’m going to listen to the album now.

  10. shoreacres says:

    The lagniappe here – the “little something extra” – is that Woody Allen quotation about the pointlessness and sadness of life. The longer I live, the less I believe life is pointless – which may help to explain why I’ve become increasingly impatient with Woody Allen.

    The poem is a delight, and I so appreciate the introduction to the poet. I’ve not heard of her, or don’t remember her. I’ll go back and see if your other post can enliven my memory.

    Here’s an irony. One poet I know doesn’t like poetry at all. She wants in the worst way to write essays, but she keeps turning out poems. It makes her so mad!

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Linda,
      I’m so glad I could introduce you to a poet like Wislawa Szymborska. What did you think of the other poem “Any Case”?

      Love the story of your friend who doesn’t like poetry but keeps writing poems.

      I also don’t think my life has been pointless or sad, but what I think Woody Allen meant is, that even if Szymborska is writing about something awful like war, she manages to write it with a positive angle.

  11. Darius says:

    Just stumbled upon this blog, so here is a sample, a fragment of one of her poems that I have always liked:

    Nothing can ever happen twice.
    In consequence, the sorry fact is
    that we arrive here improvised
    and leave without the chance to practice.

    Even if there is no one dumber,
    if you’re the planet’s biggest dunce,
    you can’t repeat the class in summer:
    this course is only offered once.

    This is the original version,in Polish:

    Nic dwa razy się nie zdarza
    i nie zdarzy. Z tej przyczyny
    zrodziliśmy się bez wprawy
    i pomrzemy bez rutyny.

    Choćbyśmy uczniami byli
    najtępszymi w szkole świata,
    nie będziemy repetować
    żadnej zimy ani lata.

    The above was translated by two persons, a native speaker of Polish and a native speaker of English. The poem’s metrics has been maintained, although due to different syllable stress and “sentence melody” between the languages, there are some differences in how the poem flows in either version. Polish is my native language and I can get by in English too, so I feel comfortable saying that the literal translation is pretty close. In my opinion, a very good translation.

    There is a youtube flick with Szymborska reciting the poem herself:

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Darius,
      I’m delighted to welcome you to my blog. Thank you for sharing Wislawa Szymborska’s poem in the three versions. I tried reading the original Polish but it’s not an easy language for one to sight read, so I was grateful you provided the YouTube of her Polish reading.
      (I can see why it’s a favorite poem. I loved the English version.)

  12. Josee says:

    Dear Rosie,
    Thank you for this wonderful poem and for educating me about her work.
    I’ve so enjoyed all the interesting comments that your post has inspired and have even learned a new (English) word, to boot : “lagniappe”

    And what a complex and fascinating language Polish is!!!!
    “Polish is an inflected language with seven cases, two numbers, three genders in singular and two in plural. Verbs are conjugated by person, tense, mood, voice and aspect.
    In spelling, one major difficulty for both foreigners and natives alike is the words with ż vs. rz, u vs. ó, and h vs. ch, since the pairs of sounds these letters or combinations of letters represent, have identical or almost identical pronunciation!
    Polish grammar and punctuation abound in rules – and twice as many exceptions to them!

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Josee,
      Nothing gives me more pleasure than to share a poem that moves me, and to get such positive feedback from readers such as yourself. Thank you for writing.

      I also didn’t know the word “lagniappe” and forgot to thank Linda. I’m glad you mentioned it.

      Many thanks for sharing all that information about the Polish language. I wonder why there are three genders in the singular, but only two in the plural? Huh?

  13. munchow says:

    Thanks for putting my attention on to Wislawa Szymborska. I thought I was quite a savvy reader, but despite the fact that she won the Nobel price, I had no idea about her existence. About time to check her out, then. Thanks for sharing the poem. Quite touching.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Otto,
      Thanks for letting me know that you liked the poem.

      Sometimes when an unknown Polish poet wins the Nobel prize we forget to check their work… I hadn’t heard of her until I posted her poem “Any Case” last year.

  14. Sybil says:

    Poor Woody Allen, all he can ever think about is the “… pointlessness and sadness of life…” Not sure how he can drag himself out of bed in the morning, if he truly feels that way.

    Thanks for sharing Wislawa’s poetry with me.

    • dearrosie says:

      If we all send our positive encouraging thoughts to Woody Allen will he be able to wake up one day kicking up his heels and feeling happy to see there’s another side to life?

      Really glad to share the poetry with you Sybil.

  15. jakesprinter says:

    I love this post 🙂

  16. jakesprinter says:

    Great entry my friend

  17. I “discovered” Szymborska last year. Since I have a Polish heritage she was dear to my heart. I didn’t know she had passed away. I’m so sorry to hear this, but happy to see you sharing her work.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Ariadnesdaughter,
      Welcome to my blog. It’s nice of you to take the time to leave me a comment. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

      It must be incredibly difficult to translate a Polish poem into English.
      Are her poems much better in the original Polish?

      • My grandparents were born in Poland, but my mother was born in the U.S. During her early years she only spoke Polish, but has forgotten a lot of it now. I, unfortunately, know very little – just a few words here and there. I do know that translations can really change a poem – I’ve read several different translations of many poems and always try to read more than one to get the full meaning. I can imagine that there is no substitute for reading a poem in it’s original language. It’s too bad learning a new language is so time consuming!

      • dearrosie says:

        Hi Ariadnesdaughter,
        Thank you for the update. I can understand that you don’t know Polish being the second generation born in the U.S. After reading Josee’s comment (above) I realize that Polish is an exceptionally difficult language to learn.

  18. dearrosie says:

    Thank you Adam Gopnick. I just read your wonderful obit for Szymborska in The New Yorker which ends thus:

    “While the poet lived, it was cheering to think, as her readers did almost every day, that another poem might be coming. Now that’s she gone, we’re happy—truly happy, astonishingly happy—to know the poems came.”

    Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/02/wislawa-szymborska-the-happiness-of-wisdom-felt.html#ixzz1nBWPztdg

  19. Darius says:

    It’s pretty amazing to see so much interest in Szymborska, and in the the language. Indeed, it’s not so easy but it took foreigners to make me realize that – especially when they asked me about some rules and when I started giving it some thought.

    Incidentally, though now working in IT, my background is English and American Literature. Regardless, the Polish literature in the High School stream I attended (the system was radically different than that in the US or Canada) was very rigorous. The final exam in Polish consisted of writing a 10+ page essay on one of the given topics such as “Analyze the influence of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Bergson on selected literary works of the 19th and 20 the centuries” or “The function of colors in the creation of a literary mood. Analyze selected literary and visual works and offer your conclusions.”

    When marking the essays, which in themselves needed to show some merit, the teacher would stop reading as soon as 3 spelling errors were present. That was an automatic fail, no matter whether the content of the essay was fantastic. Three punctuation errors equaled one spelling error.

    The complexities of the language are particularly severe in poetry, where several hundreds of years of Poland’s literary history come to play. What would in essence be a modern Polish poem, may contain some centuries old vocabulary that is no longer present in everyday Polish and yet understood by most. Or it may contain modern Polish only but with some structures typical of, say, 18th century manner of speaking. The fragment I quoted above is an example.

    I like both the original and the translation, although I’d say that the original is semantically more challenging as to the choice of words. For instance, the word “najtępszymi” (the dumbest) in the second stanza, while perfectly correct and in its basic form in every day use, is quite a shocker to my ear. It has to do with comparative forms and how their infrequent use can be a surprise. I would have used a different word. Different, not better. In general the translation is great and the traslators took great care of the poem’s rythim too.

    Each language has its subtleties. Many arising from the specific of the nation’s history or even geography. Perhaps Poland’s history made the language rather enigmatic and complicated. Maybe the country’s geography made it sound, as someone put it, like wheat in the wind right before the harvest time. Although to some it may sound like a sword dragged against gravel 😉

    • dearrosie says:

      Darius it’s very kind of you to return to my blog and take the time to give us more background to the Polish language.

      My word, I had no idea that any country’s schooling would be so strict. Ten pages on “Analyze the influence of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Bergson on selected literary works of the 19th and 20 the centuries” with only three spelling mistakes permitted? How does one pass? Did you have to take the exam more than once?

      I’m fascinated to learn that modern Polish poetry can be written with a medieval vocabulary. I can’t imagine writing a poem in English with, for example, some of Chaucer’s old English words and spelling.

      What a lovely quote “….Maybe the country’s geography made it sound, as someone put it, like wheat in the wind right before the harvest time.”

      Thank you again.

      • Darius says:

        Hi Rosie,

        Before I came to the US (now living in Canada) I couldn’t imagine the relaxed aura in Universities and High Schools. Yes, it was tough but that was the only thing we knew about education and I actually breathed it. The system was much different, so not all kids went through the same “chores”.

        There were 3 types of school:

        – vocational – trade school
        – lyceum – comprehensive, theory, useless without continuing into the academia, 14 subjects, from physics to Latin.
        – technicum – a mix of the two above
        You had to take entrance exams to lyceums, and the competition was around 2:1 so the students were “pre-sifted”.

        Where kids went depended on the mix of their achievements in the primary school.

        Yes, I passed my final exams (called matriculation) on the first attempt – written essay and then oral, as did all, but one of my classmates who made it to grade 12.

        As the survival of the nation was in question for a few centuries. The WW2 was the culminating point when the Nazis and the Soviet decided we should be completely exterminated by the year 1975 (about 35 million people). The decision was made about 2 years before the Jewish “final solution” took its tragic shape. Therefore, the Polish language was dear to us and one of the ways to resist. Thousands were murdered under German and Russian rule just for using the language in schools.

        Not all kids made it to grade 12 and not making it would have meant not being able to take a university entrance exams, and that for boys, meant 2 years in the army. Not my preferred way to kill time (no pun intended). For that reason I first applied to a psychology dept in the local university. That ensured that the ratio of Candidates to available spots was only 8:1. In the end, I found psychology rather stimulating and certainly useful in the study of literature. Soon before graduation I took entrance exams to an English department where he ratio was 16:1. The usual dropout rate was about 50% after the first year, and that was intended to maintain the right level. Therefore the first year was torture. The first poem we did was Beowulf. In the original We tried protest as the poem is in Old English. The prof’s answer was: “So…?”.

        In the English dept. most of the profs were Americans and Brits. Usually from good schools, such as the Ivy League and Oxbridge. English was the language of instruction so we had to be somewhat proficient in it before being accepted…

        I remember my school years very fondly.

        Back to poetry… it was an important part of our lives and we cherished poets as Americans cherish football stars. Again, it’s all because of history. So different when you compare Poland and the US.

        But I’m afraid I’m monopolizing this thread, so to finish up, for those who are interested in the subject of Poland’s history, how it shaped the nation, its language and literature I would recommend “God’s Playground: A History of Poland” by Norman Davies, and a little more modern “A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II” by two American authors, Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud. Both available on Amazon, and perhaps in your local library.

  20. dearrosie says:

    I really appreciate your taking the time to share all this with us Darius.

    I’m an English speaker and I’d find it hard to read Beowolf in Old English. How on earth did you and your fellow Polish speaking students read it and manage to pass? The education you got at school in Poland sounds like a higher standard than at American universities. Shame on us!

    I had no idea the Germans and the Russians wanted to eliminate the Polish people. Good gracious. No wonder the language is so important

    Thank you for the book titles. I will definitely read some of them.

    I was interested to read that you live in Canada now, and are working in IT. After all your English and Psychology training you’re working with Computers?

    • Darius says:

      Hi again Rosie,
      The path from literature to IT is not really that long, although, to some, it may seem a little twisted. Approaches to looking at works of literary art vary from just looking at the story line to detailed analysis of the vehicle of that story – the language. That’s when linguistics comes to play. In a way, it strips literature of the emotional element, but then, it depends on what invokes emotions in individual readers.

      A while ago, still in the university, I had one of those warm up assignments on William Blake’s “Tiger”. Great little poem but not really much new to say about it after all these years and volumes of analysis in schools around the World. Therefore, I decided to go after the nitty gritty and I took the poem down the the level of phonemes. My prof didn’t like it. She gave me 100% but used the term “cold jargon” somewhere in the notes describing the blasphemous approach I offered.

      That little poem’s analysis turned out to be for me a bridge to linguistics, which inevitably leads to Noam Chomsky’s work and to “Chomsky hierarchy”. And voila! Chomsky hierarchy is one of the foundations of computer programming languages. Those can be use to create real works of art, and I caught myself looking at some pieces of computer source code and admiring the beauty of it.

      At about the same time, in Canada, I took a course on the 19th century philosophical thought. It was very stimulating but at one point, when looking closer at Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, we came to the conclusion the short story is juts a Polish joke. Yes, Conrad was a Pole, but the joke wasn’t about Poles – it dragged others into the Polish mode of thinking and despair, which can be best summarized by another joke that Poles tell about themselves:

      A Polish pessimist, meets a Polish optimist. The pessimists says:
      – “Things are so bad they couldn’t get an worse”
      – “They could, my friend. They really could” answers the optimist.

      The clear conclusion to me, from that point on, was that talking about poetry and literature for too long will put one at a serious risk of saying something stupid or pointless. I formalized my literary studies and I left the poetry and the poetic to my inner self and I have enjoyed it since like one enjoys instrumental music. The next semester I undertook studies in the Department of Mathematics. Computer science was my major. Linguistics and and psychology are still important parts of what I do in this field. I still read poetry, but I stopped thinking about it. Just settled for feeling it.

      • dearrosie says:

        Hi Darius,
        You write so well one would never believe that you weren’t born speaking English. Thank you. I understand why your path led you away from English lit to computers and I don’t blame you.
        If you can’t just say, “I like the poem because I like it!” but have to prove why and how it stops being enjoyable.

        by the way I didn’t know Conrad was Polish.

  21. Just so delighted to see how profoundly Wislawa Szymborska affected so many! Heartwarming 🙂

  22. Tandi says:

    I’m so sad to hear she died, I really love her work

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Tandi,
      She uses such simple easy to understand words and plays with them like a juggler….before putting them on the page. I love the way she uses the title of the above poem to start each of the stanzas.

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