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Wislawa Szymborska, a Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, dies at 88

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Wislawa Szymborska, a Nobel Prize-winning poet who used the imagery of everyday objects and a mordant style to explore dramatic themes of human experience including love, war and death, died Feb. 1 at her home in Krakow, Poland. She was 88.

She had lung cancer, her secretary Michal Rusinek told the Associated Press.

Ms. Szymborska (whose full name is pronounced vee-SWAH-vah, shim-BOR-ska) was virtually unknown outside Poland before the Swedish Academy honored her with the 1996 Nobel Prize in literature.

Having spent nearly all her life in Krakow, Ms. Szymborska had endured the trauma of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the carnage of World War II and decades under communist rule, including martial law in the 1980s. The Swedish Academy lauded her poetry for the “ironic precision” with which it illuminated 20th-century history and the way it explored the modern world in “fragments of human reality.”

In her 1957 collection “Calling Out to Yeti,” she compared the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to the Abominable Snowman — a daring act that could have cost her her life only a year or two earlier. The work, poet and critic Edward Hirsch wrote, was a denunciation of the restrictions placed on human and artistic freedom under Communism.

The speaker of the verse, standing in the Himalayan Mountains, shouts to the Abominable Snowman:

Yeti, not only crimes

are possible among us.

Yeti, not all words

are death sentences.

In a memorable poem that appeared decades later, “Hitler’s First Photograph,” Ms. Szymborska mocked the image of Hitler as a baby (“And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?”).

Ms. Szymborska shunned the idea of being a political poet, though she recognized the personal could bleed into the political while living under a communist regime.

“When I was young, I had a moment of believing in the communist doctrine,” she told Hirsch in 1996. “I wanted to save the world through communism. Quite soon, I understood that it doesn’t work, but I’ve never pretended it didn’t happen to me.

“At the very beginning of my creative life, I loved humanity,” she continued. “I wanted to do something good for mankind. Soon, I understood that it isn’t possible to save mankind. There’s no need to love humanity, but there is a need to like people. Not love, just like. This is the lesson I draw from the difficult experiences of my youth.”

In other poems, she deconstructed seemingly ordinary concerns. In one, called “Writing a Résumé,” she used the image of a simple typed page to convey how little people can know about one another.

Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.

Landscapes are replaced by addresses,

shaky memories give way to unshakable dates.

Of all your loves, mention only the marriage;

of all your children, only those who were born.

In another poem, “Cat in an Empty Apartment,” she reflected on the grief of loss and death from the perspective of a pet.

Die — you can’t do that to a cat.

Since what can a cat do

in an empty apartment?

Climb the walls?

Rub up against the furniture?

Nothing seems different here,

but nothing is the same.

These were the sort of lines — about the reductive summary of a lifetime or a pet that outlives its owner — that earned Ms. Szymborska effusive praise from critics.

She worked “by wrenching our perspective, making us see things and ideas in entirely new ways,” book reviewer Adam Kirsch wrote in The Washington Post in 1998 upon the release of her collected works translated into English by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.

Her work was translated into more than a dozen languages and appeared in magazines including the New Yorker and the New Republic. But for Ms. Szymborska, who spent much of her life as a book critic and also wrote a magazine column called “Noncompulsory Reading,” she admitted to a certain discomfort with the mantle of being a celebrated poet.

After winning the Nobel, she remarked that she did not wish to be an “official person.”

“The poet as a person is in a way self-conceited,” she said at a news conference after the prize was announced. “She has to believe in herself and hope she has something to say.”

Wislawa Szymborska was born July 2, 1923, in a town near Poznan, in western Poland. She grew up in Krakow, where she later attended Jagiellonian University.

She said she started composing poetry when she was little more than a toddler. “Of course, they were clumsy and ridiculous,” she said of her first works. “But when one poem was right, my father took it and gave me some money to buy chocolates. . . . So I can say I started living by my poetry when I was 4.”

During World War II, she worked as a railway clerk to escape deportation to Nazi Germany for forced labor. Her first published poem, “I Am Looking for a Word,” appeared in a Krakow newspaper around the end of the war.

Her marriage to poet Adam Wlodek ended in divorce. She then lived many years with the writer Kornel Filipowicz, who died in 1990 (some sources say they were married).

The English translations of her books include “Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts” (1981), “People on a Bridge” (1990), “View With a Grain of Sand” (1995), “Nothing Twice” (1997), “Miracle Fair” (2001), “Monologue of a Dog” (2005) and, most recently, “Here” (2010).

In her Nobel lecture, Ms. Szymborska said that she placed poets among “Fortune's darlings.”

“In the language of poetry . . . nothing is usual or normal,” she said. “Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world. It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.”

© The Washington Post Company