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Wisława Szymborska: Subtle Connections Between the Lines

February 6, 2012 - Łukasz Wojtusik - Interviews



An interview with Polish poet and writer, Wojciech Bonowicz. This interview originally appeared on the Polish Radio program TOK FM and was published online. We are greatful for TOK FM’s permission to translate and reprint the interview. 


ŁUKASZ WOJTUSIK (TOK FM):  Death is always difficult to accept, especially when someone close passes  away: even somebody whom many of us may not have actually known in person but felt a connection with. Wisława Szymborska was such a person.

WOJCIECH BONOWICZ: Szymborska was liked by many people. I think this was due to her modesty and her way of life. It was her lack of pretence that we will miss so much. She was extremely genuine. She was also very creative up until the very end her life. As far as I know, she was still working on her next book. But she did not leave many poems behind; only three hundred and fifty. There could have been many more.

The public had to wait a few years for her last collection Tutaj (Here) which was eventually published in 2009. This book was another great success for her, and yet we have a feeling of insatiability with her poetry.

Her readers have always had to wait for her new poems. I remember what a great event the publication of Ludzie na moście (People on the bridge) was. I was still a student of Polish literature at that time and discovered Szymborska’s poetry through this book. It is interesting that, although her poems were published by a state publisher, it was the underground Solidarity movement which awarded her. Ludzie na moście includes a beautiful poem about death. It says that death always loses and that each human breath is proof of this failure. It is an amazing poem and still makes an amazing impression on readers today. Her poetry is saturated by high class intellectualism with serious philosophical questions and extremely simple language. Hence it is understandable for everybody.

You are the biographer of Józef Tischner (Polish philosopher and Catholic priest who died in 2000 – editor’s note). Szymborska never talked openly about her faith or God, but always asked extremely existential questions in her poems. Would Tischner be able to find things to discuss with Szymborska? Would they be able to find a common language?

They are already up there debating and I imagine it to be a very vivid discussion. In fact, if you think about their temperaments they had quite similar personalities. The main difference is that Tischner loved meeting people and public presentations, whereas Szymborska clearly didn’t. She was always reserved and very careful. Tischner loved philosophical poetry, and such was her poetry.

But it was Szymborska who led poetry out of the intellectual “ivory towers” and brought it to the “common people”. Not many Polish poets are as well understood by the general public as she was.

Szymborska achieved what Czesław Miłosz (Nobel-winning Polish poet, 1911-2004) could not and probably missed. She had a wide range of readers. Actually, it is not only Szymborska who is loved so much by the Polish public today, but also other poets like Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) and Jan Twardowski (1915-2004). This is due to their very simple style of poetry.

A good example is my daughter Małgosia who chose the poem Tutaj by Szymborska to read at a poetry reading contest. Being 11 years old she felt that she understood this poem. She may not be able to see all its layers or express its irony, but she clearly understands its message. This is where Szymborska's genius is best seen. Young people connect with her very quickly due to the tone of her poetry, which is both warm and candid, and deals with the most important human problems. Her poems offer something to everybody, not just to the select few. Even Szymborska’s translators admit that they are constantly rediscovering her poetry due to the subtle connections between lines, which can have multiple meanings, allusions and references.

Szymborska was an ambitious poet who often motivates her readers to aim higher and reach higher intellectual goals.

Szymborska had a very small circle of friends and did not really like the glamour or the media.

It was clear that being in a crowd was tiring for her. She always valued her privacy. The picture I have before my eyes is the embarrassment that was visible on her face when others were giving her praise. Even when she was signing books, she was deeply surprised that people wanted to read them. It was both touching and genuine. She was deprived of any form of pretence.

How should Szymborska be remembered? How should we honour her?
The most important way in which we should remember her is by continuing to read her poetry. I believe that her poetry will last for a long time because it is universal and not limited to any specific literary period.

Szymborska’s world is constructed in such a way that we can enter it at different times and in many different contexts. The last thing that I would hope for would be monuments or big ceremonies in her honour, even though I am sure there will be a “Year of Wisława Szymborska”. Although then, we may be able to better understand and embrace her poetry.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

This interview originally appeared on the Polish Radio program TOK FM and published online. in Polish here: http://www.tokfm.pl/Tokfm/1,103454,11076976,_Szymborska_i_Tischner_juz_tam_sobie_dyskutuja___ROZMOWA_.html

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