One of two daughters, Wisława Szymborska was born in the small town of Bnin, Poland on July 2, 1923. At the age of eight, her family moved to Kraków, where she was to spend the rest of her life. She attended a private lycée (Academy of the Sisters of the Ursuline Order) until 1939, continuing her education in an underground study group during the Nazi occupation of Poland. At Kraków’s Jagellonian University, she studied sociology and Polish philology, after which she worked at a number of local publishing houses. From 1953 through the mid-1960s, she was the editor of the poetry section of the influential weekly Życie Literackie. In 1966, after the expulsion of the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski from the Communist Party for his “revisionist” views, and in an act of solidarity, Szymborska relinquished her own party membership, leading to her eventual resignation as editor; by 1978 she had severed all ties with this publication. With a few exceptions for literary awards and tokens of public appreciation, her life, shared with a small circle of friends, remained quiet and private—she rarely travelled, avoided public gatherings and hated being photographed or interviewed. Although resolutely avoiding politics as much as possible, she nevertheless participated in a variety of human rights activities.
As Stanislaw Barańczak writes, “despite her aversion to public activities and nonliterary statements, during the late 1970s, and particularly after the imposition of martial law in 1981, she lent her support on several occations to the protest actions and educational initiatives sponsored by human rights groups such as KOR (Workers’ Defense Committee); she was also one of the founding members of the Association of Polish Writers, an independent professional organization that sought to continue the venerable traditions of the Polish Writers’ Union after its forcible dissolution by the military regime in 1982” (Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century Eastern European Writers, Third Series, 2001, v. 232, pp. 357-362).
Szymborska was a leading figure among the outstanding Polish poets of the post-World War II generation and among her many prestigious Polish and European literary awards was the Nobel Prize for Literature (1996); she was the fourth Polish author to be so honored.
“Hers is an inclusive gaze that extends beyond the local and anthropocentric. Western culture, humankind, and the natural world are the subjects of moral, logical, and aesthetic consideration in her poetry. Szymborska is a poet who finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, the seemingly unimportant and insignificant,” writes Joanna Trzeciak. “She approaches the subject of art with a generous dose of irony: skeptical of the privileged role of the artist and cognizant of the illusory character of art, she is nonetheless aware of the capacity of art to transport humans beyond the constraints of the physical world. As she puts it . . . art is, after all, the “revenge of the mortal hand” (Dictionary of Literary Biography: Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 4, 2007, v. 332, pp. 331-32).
Szymborska is also known to Polish readers as a distinguished translator of 16th & 17th century French poetry, as well as the essays of Montaigne, and to the delight of her friends, the creator of witty and winsome hand-made postcards.
The exhibit will run through September 2012 in the 4th Floor Reading Room of Regenstein Library.