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Los Angeles Times Interview

Wislawa Szymborska

Creating a Universal Poetry Amid Political Chaos

October 13, 1996|Dean E. Murphy | Dean E. Murphy is the Warsaw bureau chief for The Times. He spoke with Wislawa Szymborska in Polish and the conversation was translated by Ela Kasprzycka

ZAKOPANE, POLAND — Three weeks ago, poet Wislawa Szymborska left her modest two-room apartment in the southern Polish city of Krakow to escape the noise and confusion of remodeling. She slipped away to this pristine mountain resort, a favorite of Polish artists and writers, and took a small room--no bathroom and no telephone--on the second floor of a clubhouse reserved for authors.

Szymborska, a retiring woman with wispy gray hair who cherishes her solitude, passed the days quietly, working on her latest poem. Everything was going according to plan, she says, until Oct. 3, when the world "came crashing down on me." It was on that day that the Swedish Academy in Stockholm announced that the relatively unknown Szymborska had won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The award came as a surprise to Szymborska--and most everyone else in Poland--not because she is considered unworthy, but because her poetry speaks mostly to universal themes rather than the parochial political subjects that have distinguished Eastern European verse since World War II.

Unlike the last Polish poet to win the prize--Czeslaw Milosz in 1980--Szymborska was not a bold, Communist-era dissident; nor did the timing of the honor coincide with a seminal event in Polish history--1980 was the year of the Gdansk shipyard uprising. And unlike the presumed Polish front-runner for this year's prize, poet Zbigniew Herbert, Szymborksa's verse is most admired for its "finely chiseled diction," as the Swedish Academy noted, not its ponderous political metaphors.

That is not to say Szymborska, 73, has escaped the clutch of politics during her 50-year career. In fact, politics provided an immovable backdrop to her work from the very beginning. Several of her early poems glorified communism--a dark period that she now disavows--and she spent most of her later career working for publications that firmly placed her in the anti-communist camp of liberal thinkers. Under martial-law in the early 1980s, she published poems under a pseudonym in Polish underground and exile publications. But since breaking with Stalinism in the early 1950s, Szymborska has steadfastly resisted ideology-driven verse, instead using her own powers of observation to tackle subjects one by one.

A widow with no children, Szymborska despises crowds and public appearances, and refuses to give readings of her poems. Her main contact with the outside world is through a longtime newspaper column, "Non-Compulsory Reading." But, last week, in the sanctity of this favorite creative retreat, she spoke openly and endearingly about her life's work and the burden of instant fame.


Question: Why is your privacy so important to you?

Answer: Otherwise, I couldn't write. I cannot imagine any writer who would not fight for his peace and quiet. Unfortunately, poetry is not born in noise, in crowds, or on a bus. There have to be four walls and the certainty that the telephone will not ring. That's what writing is all about.

Q: Some of your poems are introspective, others present broad political manifestoes. Do you write with a mission?

A: I don't believe I have a mission. Sometimes I really have a spiritual need to say something more general about the world, and sometimes something personal. I usually write for the individual reader--though I would like to have many such readers. There are some poets who write for people assembled in big rooms, so they can live through something collectively. I prefer my reader to take my poem and have a one-on-one relationship with it.

Q: Is your poetry an expression of vanity?

A: If you mean, is it a form of exhibitionism, probably it is. I have never really thought about it seriously, but telling one's feelings to unknown people is a little bit like selling one's soul. On the other hand, it brings great happiness. All of us have sad things happen to us in our lifetimes. In spite of everything, when those terribly horrible things happen to a poet, he or she can at least describe them. There are other people who, in a way, are sentenced to live through such experiences in silence.

Q: Some critics describe your poetry as detached and aloof, yet you consider it private and personal. Can it be both?

A: Each of us has a very rich nature and can look at things objectively, from a distance, and at the same time can have something more personal to say about them. I am trying to look at the world, and at myself, from many different points of view. I think many poets have this duality.

Q: Is there something uniquely Polish about your work? Would your poetry be the same if you came from a different country?

A: I have no idea. But I would really like it if I could live the lives of many other people, and then compare them.

Q: Which of your poems do you like most?

A: My favorite is the one that I am planning at that moment. I have to like this poem to even start writing it. When it goes into the world, and is already in a book, then I let the poem manage on its own.

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