'I Do Not Believe That Poetry Can Change the World'

Avner Shapira
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Wisława Szymborska. Her story is interwoven with the upheavals that wracked 20th-century Poland.Credit: UIG via Getty Images
Avner Shapira

They say I looked back out of curiosity.

But I could have had other reasons. []

I looked back setting my bundle down.

I looked back not knowing where to set my foot. []

Szymborska and her assistant, Michal Rusinek.Credit: Tomek Sikora

I looked back involuntarily.

It was only a rock that turned underfoot, growling at me. []

– From “Lot’s Wife,” by Wisawa Szymborska

'Junk Heap of Memories' cowriter Anna Bikont.Credit: Marcel Lozinski

KRAKÓW – Like the biblical Lot’s wife, to whom she devoted a poem, Wisawa Szymborska looked back, toward Sodom. On a visit to Israel in December 2004, she stopped next to a road sign on the Arad-Sodom road and had herself photographed pointing jocularly at the word “Sodom,” a word rife with associations. But unlike Lot’s wife, Szymborska (the name is pronounced Vees-wah-vah Shim-bor-ska) did not turn into a pillar of salt – and she kept the photograph of the lighthearted occasion by her bed.

The picture is now on display in an exhibition in Kraków commemorating the acclaimed poet, who lived in the city from childhood until her death on February 1, 2012, at the age of 88. My guide for the show, Micha Rusinek, who was Szymborska’s personal secretary for the last 15 years of her life, recalls that the poet’s visit to Israel generated many other memorable moments. She met an old friend from Kraków with whom she had lost contact, and a literary evening was held in her honor in Tel Aviv, which drew hundreds of her admiring Israeli readers.

Before leaving for Israel, Szymborska had decided to draw up her will, Rusinek says. “This was during the second intifada, and she said to me, ‘Maybe this is a good time to write a will, in case of any eventuality.’ She suggested I draw up a will, too,” he adds with a smile. In her will, Szymborska stipulated that a fund be established in her name using the money from the prizes she was awarded, in order to perpetuate her legacy and support poets and writers. Rusinek was appointed to head the fund.

He became Szymborska’s personal secretary shortly after she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Her telephone never stopped ringing, with congratulations, requests for interviews and invitations to take part in events around the world. Finally she called Rusinek, who was a student of one of her friends. His first task, he recalls, was to silence the phone. The problem was that the jack was behind a large cupboard on the wall. Rusinek’s solution was to slice the cable and install an answering machine. Whereupon Szymborska hired him as her assistant, one of whose tasks was to help with all the arrangements and events that were her lot in the years that followed.

Rusinek is also one of those interviewed in a fascinating biography of the poet by the Polish journalists/authors/scholars Anna Bikont and Joanna Szczesna, which has just appeared in Hebrew – Carmel Publishing House, translation by Miri Paz. (The Polish title is, literally, “Junk Heap of Memories”; the book has not yet been published in English.) The primary problem the authors had to overcome was that Szymborska rarely gave interviews and was reluctant to talk about her private life, insisting that everything she had to say about herself is in her poems.

In her poem “Writing a Resumé,” she mocks the way CVs reveal “His shoe size, not where he’s off to, / that one you pass yourself off as.” The biography does not reveal Szymborska’s shoe size, but it does trace the paths she took, her sources of inspiration and the destinations she reached. Along the way, Szymborska’s story is interwoven with the political, social and cultural upheavals that wracked Poland in the 20th century.

“We decided to write the biography on the day after the announcement that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize,” says Bikont. We are sitting in the Nowa Prowincja café, near Kraków’s old market, where Szymborska often participated in literary evenings. “She hated journalistic interviews because of the foolish questions, and abhorred the idea of revealing her secrets publicly,” Bikont adds. “But after being awarded the prize, she apparently understood she could no longer remain a private person.”

Before meeting with Szymborska, Bikont and Szczesna scoured the archives for information about her and spoke to about a hundred of her friends and acquaintances. In 1997, they published what they had learned in a series of articles in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. Only then did Szymborska agree to meet with them, Bikont notes. “She called and said, ‘It is a terrible feeling to read about oneself, but because you have already put in so much work, we should be accurate about the details.’” She spoke at length with the two journalists, corrected mistakes, added new details and helped edit the manuscript.

“Her main concern after reading the whole text,” Bikont relates, “was that her anecdotal and comic sides, which she played up in public, were far more dominant than the serious, penetrating elements of her character, which she was at pains not to reveal in the company of people, though they are reflected in many of her poems. Accordingly, we deleted some of the amusing sections of the book and added details about her memories from World War II.”

Stalin and Chaplin

Wisawa Szymborska was born on July 2, 1923, in the town of Kornik, in western Poland, the second of two daughters. Her father, who encouraged her creativity, died when she was 13. “I started to write when I was eight and I even made money from writing poems,” she related. “My father gave me 50 groszy for every poem I wrote, most of which were amusing nonsense verses.” Afterward, she produced graphic works, and wrote stories and articles for her school newspaper. In one issue a friend of Szymborska’s predicted, “She will be a distinguished journalist or will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

Szymborska was 16 in 1939, when the Germans occupied Poland. Her high school was shut down during the war, but she completed her studies in clandestine learning groups. In 1943, she started to work as a railway clerk in order to avoid being sent to do forced labor.

The public aspect of Szymborska’s poetic vocation was launched with the liberation of Kraków by the Red Army at the beginning of 1945. She took part in the first public poetry events that were held in the city, and she published her first poem, “Looking for Words,” in the literary supplement of a daily newspaper. In 1948, she married the supplement’s editor, Adam Wodek, an ardent young Communist writer. They were divorced six years later but remained close friends. Until Wodek’s death, in 1986, he was the first reader of her poems, not one of which was published before he gave his approval. In the 1960s, Wodek was the partner of another notable Polish poet, Ewa Lipska, who became Szymborska’s friend as well.

The publication of Szymborska’s first collection of poems was delayed because her work did not meet the criteria of socialist realism, which ruled the roost in the Soviet bloc. Soon, however, she adjusted to the aesthetic norms of the Stalinist era, becoming an active member of the Polish Communist Party.

That first collection, “That’s What We Live For,” which contained some ideologically driven poems, finally appeared in 1952. A year later, she replaced her husband as the poetry editor of the literary review magazine Zycie Literackie (Literary Life). When Stalin died, in March 1953, she was instructed to devote a whole issue to his memory, including a poem of her own. “I wrote it with sincerity, something that is incomprehensible today,” the biography quotes her as saying.

Her second book of poetry, “Questions Put to Myself,” published in 1954, marks the onset of the transition in her work from social and political issues to personal and existential themes.

Szymborska later disowned her first two books. In a 1991 speech to mark her acceptance of the prestigious Goethe Prize, she evoked a scene from a Charlie Chaplin film in which the actor is trying to close a suitcase that’s bursting at the seams. Finally he gets it shut, but bits of clothing are sticking out, so he takes a pair of scissors and cuts them off. “So it is when we think we have to fit reality into the suitcase of ideology,” she observed. “I regret that I surrendered to this temptation, as is shown by my first two collections of poetry,” she said candidly, even though her contribution to the propaganda efforts was meager compared to that of many other creative artists of the time.

After a lengthy process, Szymborska renounced communism in 1966, joining others who protested the expulsion from the party of the philosopher Leszek Koakowski, who had been critical of the government. “I had pangs of conscience for leaving the party so late, but at the same time I am thankful that I left in time and did not have to undergo the events of 1968 even as a nonactive member of the party,” she said, referring to the Polish regime’s anti-Jewish campaign in that year. In retrospect, she thought that the years when she was blinkered by communism “were not a complete loss. Summing up, they steeled me for all time against every doctrine that liberates one from the commitment to independent thought.”

In the wake of leaving the party, Bikont notes, Szymborska was fired from Zycie Literackie. However, the following year, at the editor’s request, she began writing a new column for the journal, in which she reviewed ostensibly minor and esoteric books in a variety of fields, generally without explicit political reference. These charming columns appeared for decades in different venues; a selection from them later appeared in book form (English version: “Nonrequired Reading”).

At the end of the 1960s, a pronounced change occurred in her poetry as a result of her liaison with the author and screenwriter Kornel Filipowicz, who was her partner from 1967 until his death in 1990. “It was a happy relationship, which engendered marvelous love poems by Szymborska,” Bikont says. “They lived in separate apartments not far from each other, because they both felt that creative work necessitates that solitude. But they had good times together and went on holiday in the wild at every opportunity.

“Filipowicz exercised a great influence on her nature poems,” adds Bikont. “As a young woman she had been bored by descriptions of nature in books, but under Filipowicz’s tutelage, she acquired growing empathy for animals, plants, stones and the other occupants of the universe. She also forged close ties with Filipowicz’s cats, though she preferred not to raise animals in her home.”

Drawers of the mind

An official copy of the Nobel Prize citation and of medal that accompanied the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest distinction, bestowed by the country’s president, are among the items on display in the exhibition “Szymborska’s Drawer.” Devoted to personal effects from the poet’s estate, the exhibition – at Szoayski House, a branch of the National Museum in Kraków – closes December 31. The title refers to Szymborska’s fondness for chests and drawers, and to the comparison she drew between the small, uniform apartments in Communist Poland to crammed drawers.

According to Rusinek, the underlying idea is to dramatize elements from Szymborska’s life and present the surrealistic spirit she fostered through objects she collected, alongside quotations from her poems and photographs of people and places. For Rusinek, almost every item evokes a story. Thus, he describes how a miniature chest of drawers was a gift from the Polish poet Czesaw Miosz, an earlier Nobel laureate, who became friends with Szymborska after returning home from exile in the United States.

A large bookcase holds about 500 books from Szymborska’s home. Rusinek reports that Polish poets and writers have been making pilgrimages to the site to see whether their books were accorded the honor. If Shimon Peres visits, he will be pleased to see the Polish edition of his book “The New Middle East” in the bookcase.

Szymborska was not an especially productive poet, publishing fewer than 400 poems over six-plus decades. She related how many of the works she wrote at night ended up in the garbage in the morning, because, “I am convinced that not everything is sustainable across one rotation of the Earth on its axis.” Rusinek threatened to get the city’s sanitation department to go through Szymborska’s garbage and “save poems from death.” However, he says, “Szymborska assured me that she tears the pieces of paper meticulously and purposefully into tiny scraps.”

Bikont notes that even after she and coauthor Szcz’sna gained Szymborska’s trust, she did not interpret her poems for them. If she had to talk about her poems, she told them, she would feel “like an insect that, for inexplicable reasons, hurries to be jabbed with a pin and be trapped in a showcase.” In her view, “It is not the artist’s mission to talk about his work I would like to fall back on Goethe’s remark that a poet knows what he wanted to write, but doesn’t know what he wrote.”

In contrast, Szymborska agreed to characterize her typical reader along general lines: “He is not someone on whom life smiles. I don’t really believe I am read in mansions with swimming pools, fountains, and so on. My reader is someone who, when he buys a book, checks to see how much money he will have left in his wallet.” By the same token, she knew who would not dip into her poems: “I do not believe that poetry can change the world. The real bastards don’t read poetry.”

Rusinek says he misses Szymborska, especially “when I see peculiar objects of the kind she liked, and I tell myself I should buy them for her, or when I encounter amusing stories of everyday life that I would like to share with her.” Bikont says the biggest surprise for her and Szczesna was that, in time, “we became close friends of Szymborska’s. Sometimes she called and suggested that we get together. We did not expect this friendship, but we understood that for her, being in touch with someone means being a close friend.” And if at the start Szymborska declined to be interviewed for the biography, by the end, “she would refer journalists who wanted to talk to her to us, telling them, ‘Speak to those two – they know everything about me.’”

English translations from Szymborska’s poems by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.

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