A miracle (what else can you call it):
the sun rose today at three fourteen
and will set tonight at one past eight
A miracle that’s lost on us:
the hand actually has fewer than six
but still it’s got more than four.
A miracle, just take a look around:
the inescapable earth.
An extra miracle, extra and ordinary:
can be thought.
When Wisława Szymborska, who has died aged 88, received the Nobel prize for literature in 1996, the Swedish Academy stated the following in its citation: “Her poetry … with ironic precision, allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” This aptly sums up the work of a poet whose life spanned the history of Poland in the 20th century and whose detached engagement allowed her to rise above the often turbulent atmosphere of everyday politics.
She was born in Kórnik, western Poland, and moved with her family when she was eight to Kraków, where she went to school and attended the Jagiellonian University, studying Polish literature and sociology. She made her poetic debut in 1945 in the Kraków newspaper Dziennik Polski, but she had to wait until 1952 for her first collection. Subsequently, she regarded this and the collection that followed in 1954, which have been described as socialist realist in style, as largely irrelevant to her later work, although there were indications in them of the ideas she would develop in Wołanie Do Yeti (Calling Out to Yeti, 1957).
Szymborska was an intellectual poet – someone “who thinks about the world through poetry”, according to the critic Jerzy Jarzebski – but also one whose style is not too obscure for the general reader. Her poems are often humorous descriptions of serious or delicate situations. I particularly like her Cat in an Empty Apartment, voicing the views of an offended cat whose owner fails to return, beginning with the line: “Die – you can’t do that to a cat.” Many years ago in Kraków, when I met Szymborska, she was cradling a cat in her lap and I still own a photograph of the scene.
Szymborska’s many awards included the Kallenbach prize from the Koscielski Foundation (1990) and the Goethe prize (1991). When she won the Nobel prize, she announced that she would distribute the money to social projects, and also observed that two other Polish poets, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz, might have been chosen, for they equally deserved it. Last year she received the Order of the White Eagle, one of the highest Polish official decorations. Several of Szymborska’s books have been translated into English, the best selection being View With a Grain of Sand (1995).
• Wisława Szymborska, poet, born 2 July 1923; died 1 February 2012