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Poet Wislawa Szymborska
Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska puffs out a cloud of cigarrette smoke, sitting among other, unidentified, guests at the Nobel banquet at the Town Hall of Stockholm, Sweden, Tuesday December 10 1996. Earlier that day Wislawa Szymborska received the Nobel Prize in literature for her "beautiful, deep and subtle poetry".(AP)

Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska puffs out a cloud of cigarrette smoke, sitting among other, unidentified, guests at the Nobel banquet at the Town Hall of Stockholm, Sweden, Tuesday December 10 1996. Earlier that day Wislawa Szymborska received the Nobel Prize in literature for her "beautiful, deep and subtle poetry".(AP)

Nobel-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska died this week in her home city of Krakow at the age of 88.

Little known outside her home country, she was an intensely private person, unaccustomed to the spotlight, even called “reclusive.”

“Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves,” she said during a lecture she gave in 1996 in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize. “They publicly confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it. But in our clamorous times it’s much easier to acknowledge your faults, at least if they’re attractively packaged, than to recognize your own merits, since these are hidden deeper and you never quite believe in them yourself.”

Her poetry was strongly influenced by the tumultuous events of her lifetime, from World War Two to Stalinism.
Her poem, “The End and the Beginning” begins:

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Yet for all the gravity of her subjects, she remained “an ironist,” in the words of author David Orr, writing about life’s ordinary things from sea cucumbers, house cats, and onions.

She ended her speech in Stockholm with a meditation on humanity’s cosmic significance.

“The world – whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? We just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world – it is astonishing.”

 

 

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