Celebrating a Poet's Virtues
On December 10, the one-hundredth anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death, Wisława Szymborska accepted the Nobel prize for literature in Stockholm, despite appearing to be in bad health.
On December 9, she failed to appear at the Akademibokhandeln (academic bookstore), where readers awaited a book signing. She didn't show up for a poetry reading, nor for a reception for this year's prize winners. On the evening of the 9th, she said she was exhausted and begged for an evening off. Piotr Rodziewicz, an employee of the bookstore, could not hide his disappointment. "Last year, Seamus Heaney signed his books despite a high fever," he said. Szymborska is the first winner of the literature prize to call off a meeting with readers. Her admirers worried whether she'd even be able to accept her prize. Fortunately, the ceremony went off without a hitch.
At the beginning of the ceremony, Brigitta Trotzig, a leading Swedish writer, presented Szymborska's work and the academy's reasons for awarding her the prize. Karl Gustaf, the King of Sweden, then presented the medal and diploma to Szymborska. (The actual check for the prize money is presented in private.)
After the ceremony, 1,250 guests gathered in Stockholm City Hall's Blue Room. The king and Szymborska spoke in French, their only common language.
The reception's menu was secret until the last minute. The only thing that was known was that ice cream flambee would be served at the end of the banquet.
Szymborska will remain in Sweden until December 15. Her schedule there is filled with meetings with readers, writers and diplomats. Other activities, however, have been kept to a minimum. Szymborska decided not to participate in the traditional St. Lucia crowning ceremony on December 13, as well as many other suggested receptions.
Stories by Małgorzata Bąkowska
Few and Far Between
When Wisława Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Oct. 3, it turned out that her poetry was hard to find in Polish bookstores. It was also absent from the Frankfurt Book Fair on the same day. The following day, Ars Polona, which manages Polish stands at the fair, displayed seven collections of Szymborska's poems.
Up to now, her works have been released by four publishers: Czytelnik, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy (PIW), Wydawnictwo Literackie and Poznań's A-5. Print runs have ranged from 2,000 to 5,000. However, Szymborska's most recent collection, Koniec i początek (The End and the Beginning), which came out in 1993, has sold 18,000 copies. The poet has only published 15 collections since 1945, and has been even less active in recent years.
On Oct. 3, Koniec i początek was available in just two Warsaw bookstores, selling out immediately. Over the next several weeks, Polish publishers began to take interest in Szymborska and issued her works with a note, "1996 Nobel Prize." They can now be found in almost all bookstores, along with biographies of the author. However, Czytelnik and PIW have not printed any new editions as yet.
"We last released Szymborska's works in 1982," says Piotr Dobrodziej from PIW's sales department. "We'd like to print more, but it's difficult to get the author's permission." A Czytelnik employee working in the sales department, and refusing to give her name, admitted that her company had also not received such permission.
Marek Bukawski, Szymborska's lawyer, says that the poet has not agreed to reprint her earlier works because she doesn't want to see the Polish market flooded with her books.
Dobrodziej suggests that some books currently available could be illegal. However, Henryka Sobkowicz of the Dom Książki distributing company disagrees: "We distribute books from well-known publishers, including A-5, Znak, Rebis, Kram and Wydawnictwo Literackie." Dobrodziej responds that books in stores can be easily monitored, but many street vendors may be selling illegal copies for less.
Szymborska's poetry has enjoyed new popularity since she received the prize. "We have a few copies of the Widok z ziarenkiem piasku (A View with a Grain of Sand) from A-5 left," says an attendant who preferred to remain anonymous at the Polska Książka bookstore in Mokotów. "A short while ago, we had the Koniec i początek, but it sold out immediately," she says.
The book The Sisyphus of Poetry in the Light of Modern Times, a Work on Wisława Szymborska, published by Kram, was also highly successful. The author, Aneta Wiatr, says that the initial print run of 10,000 soon had to be increased to 15,000 copies.
Until recently, the Dom Książki bookstore on Broniewskiego Street had three different collections of Szymborska's poetry, as well as two biographies. "Today, I am left with just one copy of Koniec i początek," says Lech Nieduziak, the manager. "Several people buy Szymborska's books every day, and almost everyone has been inquiring about them," he says.
AN IMPRESSIVE COLLECTION
1954 Literary Prize of the city of Cracow
1963 2nd-degree Award of the Minister of Culture and Art
1991 Goethe Prize, awarded every three years by Frankfurt town authorities
1995 Johann Herder Prize, awarded by the University of Vienna
1995 Degree of doctor of the humanities honoris causa from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań
1996 The Polish PEN Club Award in poetry
1996 The Nobel Prize in Literature from the Swedish Academy
PEERS VALUE POET'S TALENT
Stanisław Barańczak, poet and professor of Polish literature at Harvard University (Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh translated View With a Sand Grain, a collection of Szymborska's poetry in 1995 that won the Book of the Year award from American literature publishers and distributors):
There's no such masterful poetry in the world today, not as far as content and the literary techniques are concerned, and not in terms of philosophy. Szymborska's poetry is well received in the States. After our translation was published, I got many letters from American readers. This poetry opens horizons and helps us to understand the human condition. People write to say that they can find something for themselves in it. Although she's based in a Polish historical and geographical reality, her poetry is universal.
Czesław Miłosz, poet, translator, lecturer at the University of California in Berkeley, Nobel Prize winner in 1980:
Americans understand her poetry very well. It reads well in English translation. I've read her poems at Berkeley. Everybody was enthusiastic. It's witty, ironic poetry, and such characteristics are translatable. It's the opposite of "confession" poetry. Szymborska keeps a certain distance and is highly discreet. She doesn't tell you about her life. It's interesting that her poetry is such a success in view of the fashion for subjective poetry-in which readers are tortured with one's experiences.
Tadeusz Drewnowski, writer, literary theorist:
The principal theme in Szymborska's poetry is the defense of singularity and individuality among "great numbers" and the assumption that this singularity and individuality are unique: "We are as different as two drops of pure water." While defending the "I", she isn't eager to make personal effusions. She's more interested in the "we" and the human condition. Declaring herself in favor of preserving individuality, Szymborska is not willing at the same time to forget about the average, which is frequently a model for her. She isn't a series writer. Every poem is one unto itself, also in terms of the poetics, style, language. That's what makes this not very prolific poetry so rich. It's also why her poems are frequently known by heart, unlike most contemporary poetry.
Karl Dedecius, German translator of Szymborska's poetry:
I value highly the uniqueness of her poetry, which is very intellectual, often much more so than poetry written by men. Szymborska professes a very ironic attitude toward the world around her, an approach that's impossible to imitate. She simply cannot be copied, unlike Miłosz and Różewicz, who have many followers. After the Goethe and Herder awards, she couldn't get anything less than the Nobel.
POLITICIANS PAY TRIBUTE
Polish politicians sent in letters to congratulate Wisława Szymborska on her being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Prime Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz stressed the poet's contribution to global culture and to Poland's promotion worldwide. "I congratulate you on this honor and distinction, which shows that Polish poets are leaders in the world's literary avant-garde," Cimoszewicz wrote.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Grzegorz Kołodko said he had been "truly moved" by the Academy's decision. "I'm happy that your excellent art has met with recognition for its greatness in the eyes of the entire world," he wrote in a letter. Kołodko decided to take advantage of his powers as minister of finance to request that the Nobel Prize money being granted to Szymborska be exempt from tax.
Senate Speaker Adam Struzik wrote that Szymborska's winning the Nobel Prize is a distinction that cannot be overestimated. "You are a prize in your own right, to Polish literature and to us, your readers," Struzik said.
Minister of Culture and Arts Zdzisław Podkański called the distinction "a great day for Polish culture." In his congratulations to Szymborska, he wrote that the award "is recognition of the poet's personal talent, intellect and unrivaled mastery."
Former President Lech Wałęsa wrote he is "extremely glad" that for the second time in the last two decades, Polish poetry has been honored with such distinction. "Literature is said to mete out justice to the visible world. Our country can thus be considered to be the homeland of righteous people; and it has been recognized as such," Wałęsa said.
The Soul of Wit
Szymborska's lecture in Stockholm was like her poetry: short, sweet, and to the point.
"Today's poet is skeptical and even-or mostly, perhaps-suspicious of himself. He is hard pressed to call himself a poet in public, as if he were a little ashamed. But in our noisy age it is much easier to admit to one's faults, as long as they are spectacular, than to one's virtues, because they are more deeply concealed and one simply doesn't fully believe that one has them," said Wisława Szymborska, this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, in her acceptance speech in Stockholm. The speech, before the Swedish Academy, was the shortest in Nobel Prize history.
Before flying to Stockholm for the ceremonies, Szymborska stopped for a short press conference at the airport, telling journalists that she isn't good at writing speeches.
"It worries me a little," she said. "I tend to speak in abbreviated terms and to use aphorisms. I wrote my lecture on small scraps of paper and I hoped there would be more of it, but all it amounted to were six-and-a-half pages."
Academy Secretary Sture Allen said the speech was the longest poem that he had ever read.
Szymborska also said she would give half of the prize money to charity. The other half she will use to buy gifts for friends and to set up two cultural foundations.
Szymborska flew to Stockholm accompanied by 11 people whom she had invited. Among them were Miki Larson, cultural attache of the Swedish Embassy in Poland; Teresa Walas, a literary critic, deputy president of the Cracow branch of the Polish Writers' Association and close friend; and Karl Dedecius, the German translator who introduced Szymborska's poetry to Europe.
She took part in another press conference at the airport in Stockholm, then checked in at the Stockholm Grand Hotel, where she met this year's other Nobel laureates for the first time.
On the following day, dressed in a simple black dress with a light collar, Szymborska gave her talk. By tradition, the speech is supposed to reflect the laureate's artistic or scientific credo. Szymborska said the inner impulse that drives her to create poetry is contained in the words "I don't know."
"These are small words, but they have wings," she said. "They open our lives to areas in which our barely perceptible earth is suspended."
In closing, Szymborska said she does not agree with the Ecclesiastics saying that "there is nothing new under the sun." Each day, she said, is different from the next because of the multitude of singular and unique human, animal and plant beings around us. They all form that "amazing world" that poetry has been called upon to describe. "It appears that poets will always have a lot to do," she concluded.
A Critical Decision
The academy's choice of Szymborska wins widespread approval in Swedish media and literary circles.
"This award is a credit to the Swedish Academy," wrote Tommy Olofsson, commenting on this year's Nobel Prize for Literature-awarded to Polish poet Wisława Szymborska-for the Stockholm newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. "Szymborska is undoubtedly one of the most competent poets of our century and is loved by the nation privileged to read her in the original language." With few exceptions, Swedish press and critics have been flattering and even enthusiastic.
A month before the award was announced, the largest-circulation Scandinavian daily-Stockholm's Expressen-launched a campaign against the Swedish Academy (in particular against its permanent secretary, Sture Allen). It accused the academy of lacking the necessary competence to carry out the task of choosing the winner of the literature prize. Judging by Expressen's Friday accounts, the academy has rehabilitated itself by selecting Szymborska. Literature professor Knut Ahnlund, who had resigned from the academy in protest, wrote: "The choice of Szymborska is a happy one. She was one of my great favorites. I believe she should have received this award sooner." Four of the Academy's 18 members had resigned-perhaps the award will reconcile the parties to the conflict.
Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet, the most popular Swedish dailies, which each devoted three pages to Szymborska with poems and large photos on the front page, stated that the award was in recognition of Polish poetry as a whole. Dagens Nyheter cited Josef Brodski, a Russian laureat who died recently, who claimed: "Poles have been the best poets of this century." The Swedish media also mentioned previous Polish prizewinner Czesław Miłosz; Zbigniew Herbert, whom some critics believe also deserves the prize; Adam Zagajewski and Tadeusz Różewicz, who also featured in previous speculation; and Jerzy Harasymowicz.
According to Svenska Dagbladet, Poland is a leading literary power: The Nobel Prize is jokingly called the world literature championship and Poland, with its four awards, is in ninth place. If we also include Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote in Yiddish, the second most widely used language in the prewar Poland where he set his stories, it puts Poland sixth, behind France (12 awards), the United States (9), Germany (7), and Great Britain and the "host nation" Sweden (6 apiece). This will undoubtedly improve Poland's image in Sweden, where "Poles are too often seen only as farm laborers and Polish women as women of loose morals," as Anders Bodegaard, Szymborska's translator, expressed it. Poland is a country of poetry lovers, according to literary critic Olofsson: "Almost every Polish cleaner or berry-picker working illegally in Sweden knows Szymborska's poems."
Szymborska has been called the "Greta Garbo of European poetry" in the Swedish press, because of her modesty and avoidance of the media. She was presented as the "poetess of poets," and Swedish readers were reminded that Werner Aspenstrm, one of Sweden's greatest poets who also left the academy in protest, dedicated verse to Szymborska, intended as a poetic answer to her lyricism.
Szymborska was not previously well known by the wider Swedish public, though recently her works have appeared in literary publications. FiB Lyrikklubb, a small publishing house, is bringing out its third volume of her poetry. Understandably, they celebrated the award with champagne, because poetry does not usually earn publishers much money-though Szymborska is the fifth prizewinner on FiB's list of authors. The big Stockholm publishers who refused to publish her poetry are now regretting their decision, while those who rushed to the bookstores after hearing the news were disappointed, since only a few shops had copies of a short English-language edition of her poetry.
Only one significant critic opposed the award. "It's a scandal-nothing but a scandal," said Mats Gellerfelt. "Once again the prize has been awarded to a poet that no one has heard of." In his opinion Szymborska writes "easy, light and pleasant" poems, and he believes there are at least 1,500 poets of her caliber in the world. Unfortunately, his view dominated the Thursday afternoon television programs before other sources were consulted. Some people regretted that the great Swedish poet Tomas Transtrmer-as much a favorite with the critics as Szymborska-had again failed to win the award; others that the prize had not gone to the venerable Astrid Lindgren for her unquestionable contribution to literature through the foundations she has built which have enabled children to develop a love of reading.
Tomasz Walat, Stockholm
A few days after poet Wisława Szymborska won the Nobel Prize, she asked the media, through a written statement to the Polish Press Agency, for some rest:
Like all of my distinguished predecessors, I don't have much experience in receiving the Nobel Prize. That's why the joy of receiving such a high honor is mixed with fear and embarrassment. I remember how moved and touched I was 16 years ago when I heard about the Nobel being awarded to Czesław Miłosz. I realize that my meager achievements cannot be compared to his literary output. I know that at least two formidable Polish poets deserved the prize. That's why I would like to regard my award as an award for the whole of contemporary Polish-poetry, which, apparently, has something important to say to readers all around the world. I decided to make this public statement for very prosaic reasons. Ever since the Royal Academy in Stockholm announced its decision a few days ago, I have given hundreds of replies, statements and interviews. Since nature didn't program my vocal cords for this kind of work, I'm writing this in the hope that I might be allowed rest for at least a few days. I would be much obliged to the media if they could make do with just this written statement for the time being. Thank you.
Zakopane, Oct. 5, 1996
No Rest for the Laureate
This year's Nobel Prize for Literature award came as a surprise to everyone-not least the recipient herself.
"Right now, I'm completely dazed. I'd love to just lie down and close my eyes. Unfortunately, I do not have such an option," Polish Nobel Prize winner Wisława Szymborska told the Voice a few hours after the Swedish Royal Academy announced its decision. "I'm afraid that over the next six months I won't have the comfort of working in the peace that I need so much. That's too bad."
Szymborska heard the news on the radio at Zakopane's Astoria Creative Work Center where she has been since Sept. 21. She ran to her room to get a grip on the situation after receiving the first congratulations and flowers. A few hours later, during a hastily organized press conference, the poet said she heard of her award while writing a poem and regrets that she won't complete it over the next six months.
Telephones started ringing in Astoria and reporters arrived, asking her questions, running mini-interviews and requesting authorized statements. Polish poet and 1980 Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz called to congratulate Szymborska at 3 p.m. Nobel Prize Committee representatives were less lucky-they managed to contact her at 4 p.m., officially informing her of the award and requesting that she appear at the Stockholm award ceremony Dec. 10.
Politicians reacted immediately to the news. President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Prime Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz and Minister of Finance Grzegorz Kołodko presented the poet with letters of congratulations. Kołodko ordered the tax office to refrain from taxing the Nobel Prize money ($1,200,000).
The publishing market was surprised by the news. Retailers and wholesalers claim it has been a long time since Szymborska's books were on the shelves. Polish college students polled by the Voice were familiar with Szymborska's poems only from high-school reading lists. All parliamentary deputies approached by the Voice claimed to know her work. Former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki couldn't remember any quotes and former Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka said she has a book of Szymborska's poems on her desk, though she couldn't remember any titles. "I think it's better for bookstores to have none of my books than to have thousands of them lying around," said Szymborska. She joked that even though the prize might seriously change her life, she hoped it wouldn't make her "get a swelled head."
Journalists stormed the Polish stall at the Frankfurt book fair after news of the prize was announced on the loudspeakers. But there were no copies of Szymborska's poetry among the books from Poland. The Polish fair group couldn't provide the reporters with any information about the poet and didn't organize a press conference. Foreign publishers interested in buying copyrights to Szymborska's work had no one to talk to. The Ministry of Culture delivered leaflets with information about her within 24 hours and the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided diplomatic outposts with a Szymborska profile.
Compiled by Przemysław Falczyński and Radio Zet reporters
A Prize for `Ironic Precision'
Though her works are far from epic in scale, Szymborska has managed to describe the world with as much accuracy and beauty as any other writer.
"This is some of the best news in years," said author Andrzej Szczypiorski about the Nobel Prize in literature awarded to Wisława Szymborska. "Sometimes there is justice in the world," commented playwright Sławomir Mrożek. A previous Polish Nobel Prize winner, Czesław Miłosz, stressed Szymborska's exceptional intelligence and the philosophical depth of her works, which she masks with self-irony and an exquisite sense of humor. "The high ranking of Polish poetry in the world has been confirmed," he said.
Szymborska, known for her modesty, did not hide her trepidation: "I'm stunned, I'm happy, I'm terrified. I'm scared by the situation. Am I going to be able to measure up to it?"
Szymborska's works are both sensual and intellectual, tender, wise, feminine and human. Common subjects include history, science, physics and philosophy. The Swedish Academy awarded her "for poetry that with ironic precision uncovers the laws of biology and historical mechanisms in fragments of human reality."
Szymborska's creative output is the epitome of conciseness. The Nobel Prize has never before been awarded to an author whose complete works could be condensed into two average-size books, lacking any trace of epic stuffiness, moralizing or synthesized reality. The prize would be more typical if her works combined to form a great epic, like that of another Nobel Prize winner, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's Canto General. But Szymborska's poems stand alone, separately lyrical, humorous, rebellious, witty and ironic.
Even amateur readers can appreciate her poetry's main features and virtues: intelligence, cheekiness, modern thinking under the guise of traditionalism, the absolute control of poetic technique, the precision of grace. There is none of the self-importance, the sense of a missionary calling or holy duty, the suffering for the millions so common in Polish poetry.
Szymborska's interests extend beyond poetry, although whatever she writes, whether her Extracurricular Readings, a collection of pseudo-reviews and commentaries printed in Gazeta Wyborcza, to public speeches and translations, turns into golden poetry. The decision to honor this artist for the quality, not quantity, of her works brings back faith in basic, metaphysical justice, in the simple relation of work and pay, of merit and reward.
Often such an award prompts unenthusiastic, envious voices. Let's set things straight: Szymborska is a true talent, great before the Nobel Prize, just as she would have remained great without it. This distinction crowns the steady efforts of her life, transports her creativity into a somewhat different dimension and makes it available to the world. It's not the prize that ennobles Szymborska, it's she that ennobles the prize, and gives credibility to the Academy's verdict.
The writer is the author of a book about Szymborska that will soon be published.
A Portrait of the Poet
Wisława Szymborska was born March 2, 1923 in Bnin, near Poznań. She has lived since 1931 in Cracow, where she studied Polish and sociology at Jagiellonian University.
She made her debut as a poet in 1945 with Szukam słowa (Looking for a Word)- published in the supplement to the newspaper Dziennik Polski. She published her first volume of poetry-Dlatego żyjemy (That's Why We Live)-in 1952. She worked as the editor of the weekly newspaper Życie Literackie (Literary Life).
Szymborska is a member of the Polish PEN Club. She published her collection Pytania zadawane sobie (Questions I Ask Myself) in 1954, in 1957 Pytania do Yeti (Questions to a Yeti), in 1962 Sól (Salt), in 1967 Sto pociech (No End of Fun), in 1972 Wszelki wypadek (Any Case), in 1976 Wielka liczba (The Great Number), in 1986 Ludzie na moście (People on a Bridge), and in 1993 Koniec i początek (End and Beginning). She published about 200 poems, which have been translated into 36 languages, including Bulgarian, Czech, Dutch, English, German, Hungarian, Romanian, French and Swedish.
Szymborska has won many distinguished awards, including the German Goethe prize and this year's Polish PEN Club award. Poznań's Mickiewicz University awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1995.
Szymborska, 73, is the sixth Polish Nobel prize winner, the fourth Pole to win it in the field of literature, and the ninth woman ever to have won the prestigious literary award. Szymborska will also receive $1,120,000 with the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Nobel Peace Prize Winner Lech Wałęsa is pleased and proud that Wisława Szymborska won the literature prize. "Poland has again been noticed," he said. "Especially this woman, so modest, yet with such great talent and spirit."
"It's wonderful news," said writer Andrzej Szczypiorski. "The academy's decision was absolutely right. At last this great writer and poet-a model for Poles-has been justifiably honored by the international community. The prize is particularly important for our society, which often treats culture as something marginal. Suddenly we realize that if we are powerful, it's because we have writers such as Szymborska. In the same generation we have a second Nobel-winning poet. What more could one want?"
"Szymborska's poetry is an extraordinary combination of complicated philosophy and colloquial language colored with an enormous sense of humor," said Małgorzata Baranowska of the Polish Academy of Sciences' Literary Research Institute. "Szymborska is loved and read because she addresses the most important issues while respecting each reader, in whom she sees a philosophical being. There is nothing In her poetry that a person can't understand."
"It's wonderful news for Szymborska, but also embarrassing for her," said well-known poet Jerzy Illg, editor of Znak. "Szymborska values her private life. She hates public appearances, microphones, cameras and interviews, and avoids television. It's hard for me to imagine how she will live through the awards week, which is planned to a tee. When she read my account of Brodski receiving his award, she was terrified. Now the same thing awaits her. I'm extremely pleased for her, but privately I can't help sympathizing with her a little."
Kora, vocalist with the pop group Maanam, said, "Szymborska, with Octavio Paz, heads the list of modern-day poets." Kora sang Szymborska's poem "Nic dwa razy się nie zdarza" (Nothing Happens Twice) on the group's album Róża (Rose). "I chose the poem beca
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