Szymborska Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The award of the Nobel Prize to Wisława Szymborska acknowledged the increasing prominence of women writers worldwide as well as the growing international prestige of Poland and Polish literature.

Summary of Event

On October 23, 1996, the Swedish Academy in Stockholm announced that the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was a seventy-three-year-old poet named Wisława Szymborska. Because this shy, self-effacing woman was not widely known outside her native Poland, there was an immediate scramble among the news media of the world to find out more about her life, her work, and her reaction to winning such a great honor, which carried with it a monetary award worth approximately $1.2 million. Nobel Prize in Literature;Wisława Szymborska[Szymborska] [kw]Szymborska Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature (Dec. 10, 1996) [kw]Nobel Prize in Literature, Szymborska Receives the (Dec. 10, 1996) [kw]Prize in Literature, Szymborska Receives the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1996) [kw]Literature, Szymborska Receives the Nobel Prize in (Dec. 10, 1996) Nobel Prize in Literature;Wisława Szymborska[Szymborska] [g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1996: Szymborska Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[09600] [g]Sweden;Dec. 10, 1996: Szymborska Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[09600] [c]Literature;Dec. 10, 1996: Szymborska Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[09600] Szymborska, Wisława Miłosz, Czesław

It was learned that Szymborska had retreated to Zakopane, a small town in the mountains, to escape the onslaught of reporters, well-wishers, and celebrity hounds. She stated that she wanted to think about what she was going to say to the world in her Nobel acceptance speech, to be delivered a few days before the award presentation ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, 1996. In Zakopane, the small, chain-smoking author received a flurry of telephone calls from friends, admirers, and assorted dignitaries, including a congratulatory call from her friend and mentor Czesław Miłosz, the Polish-born poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980 and had emigrated to France and later to the United States after becoming disillusioned with communism. “I’m a private person,” she told Miłosz in their telephone conversation. “The most difficult thing will be to write a speech. I will be writing it for a month. I don’t know what I will be talking about, but I will talk about you.”

Wisława Szymborska.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The world soon learned the essential facts about Szymborska. She was born in Bnin (now part of Kornick), Poland, near the western city of Poznań, and moved to Kraków with her parents at the age of eight. She had attended Jagellonian University. She endured the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany during World War II and the subsequent domination of her country by Poland’s other aggressive neighbor, the Soviet Union. She had been married twice and had been a widow since the early 1990’s. She lived in a very modest fifth-floor walk-up apartment in the center of Kraków. She had a handful of close friends and was personally acquainted with many of Poland’s best poets, but she hated crowds and avoided literary gatherings and conferences.

Szymborska had been writing poetry since 1945. Her early work was communist-inspired, dealing with the threat of Western imperialism and the sufferings of the working people under capitalism. She was following the party line under pressure; poets were not permitted to write freely under the domination of the Polish communist government. Like many Poles, Szymborska became disillusioned with communism as a result of the regime’s bad management of the economy as well as the oppression and exploitation endured under Soviet domination. Her later work was more personal and apolitical. In a telephone interview she stated, “Of course, life crosses politics, but my poems are strictly not political. They are more about people and life.”

Szymborska was the fifth Polish writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz Sienkiewicz, Henryk won the prize in 1905 for his very popular novel Quo vadis (1896; Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, 1896). Władysław Reymont Reymont, Władysław won in 1924 for his stories and novels about rural life, particularly his four-volume work Chłopi (1904-1909; The Peasants, 1924-1925). Isaac Bashevis Singer, Singer, Isaac Bashevis who had moved to New York City, was awarded the prize in 1978 for his stories and novels about pre-Holocaust Polish-Jewish life, and Czesław Miłosz, who had translated many of Szymborska’s poems and helped to make her better known to English-speaking readers, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.

Szymborska was the first Polish woman to receive the prize and one of the few women ever to be awarded a Nobel Prize of any kind since the prizes were inaugurated in 1901. An article in The New York Times announcing the award to Szymborska quoted the poet as saying, “I think that dividing literature or poetry into women’s and men’s poetry is starting to sound absurd. Perhaps there was a time when a woman’s world did exist, separated from certain issues and problems, but at present there are no things that would not concern women and men at the same time. We do not live in the boudoir anymore.”

Significance

Sweden is a relatively small country, with a population of fewer than ten million, but the annual awarding of the Nobel Prizes by the Swedish Academy has come to be an event of great international importance. The prizes honor not only individuals but also the countries those men and women represent. The Nobel Prize in Literature is the highest honor a writer can achieve. It often represents an entire lifetime of work and a large body of published writing. When the American novelist William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, he said that it represented “a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit,” and this description could apply to most of the other recipients of the prize, including Wisława Szymborska.

Throughout the long years of the Cold War, which began in the late 1940’s and lasted until the early 1990’s, the Nobel Prizes had political overtones. The Swedish Academy favored spokespersons for democracy and individualism as opposed to collectivism and tyranny. By awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to a Polish poet in 1996, the academy in effect recognized the transformation of Poland from a Soviet satellite to a valued member of the democratic West and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It also paid tribute to the indomitable spirit of the Polish people, who had survived the tyranny of Nazism as well as the tyranny of Soviet communism.

The choice of Szymborska, an author of deceptively simple, apolitical poetry about ordinary things, seemed to symbolize the healing of a world divided by political ideologies and a return, after a century of turmoil, to something resembling peace and normalcy. Szymborska had lived through Nazi occupation and Soviet domination, and she was thoroughly disgusted with uncompromising ideologies. As she wrote in her poem “No Title Required”: “I’m no longer sure/ that what’s important/ is more important than what’s not.”

Wisława Szymborska is one of the very few women ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Awarding the coveted prize to a woman was evidence of a recognition by the Swedish Academy of the growing importance of women in world literature. It is a fact that many more women than men now read short stories, novels, and poetry. This has inevitably led to an increasing prominence of women as writers and to a corresponding increase in the number of women involved in the world of publishing. Because of the prestige of the Nobel Prizes, Szymborska’s receipt of the award helped to bring greater worldwide attention to women poets and women writers in general. It seems likely that in future years, women writers from around the world will be receiving a much more equitable share of the Nobel Prizes in Literature, along with a comparably greater share of other Nobel Prizes.

It is also likely that Szymborska’s achievement will help to inspire young women all over the world to choose careers in literature, a situation that could have a major impact on reshaping the form and content of poetry and every other literary genre. Many years ago, the great English novelist Virginia Woolf Woolf, Virginia predicted what she called a “feminization” of literature—that is, a greater tendency to deal with issues of importance to women, reflecting feminine intuition and sensitivity. Time has proven Woolf to have been correct. Szymborska’s achievement symbolizes, among other things, the ongoing progress of women throughout the world in literature and every other field of human endeavor.

Awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to a Polish writer also had the effect of focusing greater worldwide attention on Polish poetry and Polish literature in general. Polish writers have been handicapped in comparison with writers in countries such as England, the United States, France, and Germany, because Polish is a language not widely studied in other countries. Most foreign readers probably become acquainted with Polish literature in translation, but some are sufficiently moved by the powerful writing they discover to study the Polish language and Polish history. Nobel Prize in Literature;Wisława Szymborska[Szymborska]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aaron, Jonathan. “In the Absence of Witnesses: The Poetry of Wisława Szymborska.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 11 (Fall/Winter, 1983): 254-264. Describes Szymborska’s poetry as penetrating and exploring an astonishing variety of subjects. Includes many quotations in translation. Clear, intelligent discussion helps the reader understand Szymborska’s difficult position as a truth seeker in Soviet-dominated Poland before the Cold War ended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carpenter, Bogdana. “Wisława Szymborska and the Importance of the Unimportant.” World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 71 (Winter, 1997): 8-12. Insightful analysis of Szymborska’s poetry by a professor of Polish and comparative literature. Provides many excerpts from the poet’s work in English translation. Focuses on finding the deeper, hidden meanings in Szymborska’s “deceptively transparent poems.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krzysztov, Karasek. “Mozartian Joy: The Poetry of Wisława Szymborska.” In The Mature Laurel: Essays on Modern Polish Poetry, edited by Adam Czerniawski. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1991. Argues that Szymborska’s poetry “radiates authentic joy, as does the music of Mozart,” and notes that this joy “issues from the sensation of a game of intellect and imagination” and “from the unaffectedness of her language.” Answers critics who complain that Szymborska’s work does not offer “cognitive revelations.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Szymborska, Wisława. “I Don’t Know: The 1996 Nobel Lecture.” Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 71 (Winter, 1997): 5-7. Presents the complete text of Szymborska’s Nobel lecture. Also includes an English translation of “No Title Required,” one of Szymborska’s most representative poems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Monologue of a Dog. Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2005. Slim volume of the poet’s work at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Includes both the original Polish and an English translation of each poem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. People on a Bridge. Translated by Adam Czerniawski. London: Forest Books, 1990. Includes an interesting and informative introduction by the translator, one of the best-known translators of Polish poetry in Great Britain. Includes the original Polish of some poems on facing pages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems. Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. One of the best collections of Szymborska’s poetry available in English. Contains poems written between 1957 and 1979, with Polish originals and English translations on facing pages. “Comments” section contains interesting explications, anecdotes, and references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vendler, Helen. “Unfathomable Life.” The New Republic, January 1, 1996, 36-39. Interesting discussion of Szymborska’s life and work focuses on View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (1995), translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Includes excerpts from Szymborska’s poems in English translation.

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