Nobel Poetess: Wislawa Szymborska

October 4, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally tonight, the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was awarded yesterday to Wislawa Szymborska, a 73-year-old Polish poet. Over the years, Szymborska has rarely spoken publicly about her work, but she once said, “I borrow words weighed with pathos and then try hard to make them seem light.” Though she is not well known in this country, Szymborska’s poetry has provided inspiration for popular music and even a feature film in her homeland. She has published nine collections of poems, four books of her translated works are available in English. Here to tell us more about this Nobel laureate is the poet laureate of the United States, Robert Hass. Thank you for being with us. And I should add that you know something about Polish poetry, having translated Czeclov Milos, who’s also a Nobel prize winner. Were you surprised to hear that Ms. Szymborska, Mrs. Szymborska, had won this award?

ROBERT HASS, Poet Laureate: I was very surprised and delighted. She’s a very pure poet and an unexpected choice because she writes poetry. There are no essays on man’s fate. There are no novels or theater. She’s lived in Krakow quietly most of her life and produced these marvelous, very simple poems.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And she’s known for being–for shunning the public, public life. She wants very much to be alone. In fact, this is quite painful for her, isn’t it?

ROBERT HASS: Yes. We invited her to come to Washington last year, and she said, oh, no, no, I never–wouldn’t dream of it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read a poem and tell us what you like about it.

ROBERT HASS: One of the things about her is that she’s–she’s–her economy is mean. She can be very simple and very down to earth, and large things happen. And they’re very accessible poems. This is one called “Returns.” “He came home, said nothing, though it was clear something unpleasant had happened. He laid down in his suit, put his head under the blanket, drew up his knees. He’s about 40 but not at this moment. He exists but only as in his mother’s belly, seven layers deep in protective darkness. Tomorrow, he will give a lecture on homeostasis in megagalactic cosmonautics but not now. Now He’s curled up, sleeping.”


ROBERT HASS: Well, it’s typical of the ways that she manages to, uh, uh, be very simple and, and profoundly human, and come at complicated–what someone else might do in a complicated way and a very simple way.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And in some ways she’s–from what I’ve read–she’s done this partly as a response to the political events in Poland of the past forty years.



ROBERT HASS: It’s–one of the reasons that Poland has produced so many interesting poets I think–not that you’d wish this way of producing interesting poets on anybody–is that from 1939 to the early 1980’s it was a country in which it was very hard to say the truth in public. And, uh, it produced an ironic, thoughtful poetry, fierce about the independence of, of everybody’s private life, and of the privacy of thoughts. And a lot of the Polish poets made a music out of that–uh, seems like a strong human response to the terrors of the 20th century.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you have another poem to read?

ROBERT HASS: This is an example of the way that she can come at a subject like good and evil and conscience, in a very plain way, and this poem is called “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself.” “The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with. Scruples are alien to the black panther. Piranhas do not doubt the self-critical jackal doesn’t exist. The locust, alligator, trakina, horse fly live as they live and are glad of it. The killer whale’s heart weighs 100 kilos but in other respects is light. There is nothing more animal-like than a clear conscience on this third planet from the sun.”


ROBERT HASS: Yeah, dark irony.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, very dark. She has spent her life writing poetry. She’s done very little else, right? Is she well known in other parts of the world, and we just haven’t heard that much about her here?

ROBERT HASS: She’s well known to poets. I think she’s widely translated, and in this country, you know, read by poets–read by women, especially. I mean, not very women poets–writers–have won the Nobel Prize, and, uh, I know that the young women who I teach know about Szymborska, know that there’s this great older woman in Eastern Europe writing these poems of dark joy and dark irony.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Robert Hass. Thank you for being with us.

ROBERT HASS: Thank you. It’s a pleasure, Elizabeth.