Wislawa Szymborska was a Polish poet and writer and the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. Szymborska wrote around 350 poems in her lifetime. When she was asked about such a small number of poetic works, she revealed how selective she was, putting her thoughts into words. She replied, “I have a trash can in my home”. But, the poems that she did not send to that metaphorical “trash can” hold beautiful thoughts that enrich us both philosophically and intellectually.
In the following list, readers can find 10 of the best poems of Wislawa Szymborska. Each poem presents some unique thoughts that are definitely going to stay with readers for a long time.
Some Like Poetry
This is perhaps the best-known poem of Wislawa Szymborska. The poem begins in an engaging, straightforward fashion:
Some people –
that means not everyone.
Not even most of them, only a few.
Not counting school, where you have to,
and poets themselves,
you might end up with something like two per thousand.
The opening lines humorously reveal the growing distaste for poetry among modern readers. However, in the end, Szymborska asks what poetry really is. Whether she has got the answer, or is it something tricky to answer? To find the answer, read what the poet says,
but what is poetry anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question first was raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like a redemptive handrail.Source: Some Like Poetry
Indeed, this poem is full of different possibilities of meanings and interpretations. What is more interesting to note about this poem is the structure of lines. Each one begins with the word “I prefer”, strongly preferring the poet’s individualism to conventionalism.
This piece can be read as a poetic autobiography that includes the likes and dislikes of the writer. For instance, on the subject of writing poetry, her take is:
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems.
The poem launches a heightened attack on hypocrisy and conventionalism from these lines:
I prefer moralists
who promise me nothing.
I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.
I prefer the earth in civvies.
I prefer conquered to conquering countries.
I prefer having some reservations.
I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.Source: Possibilities
The End and the Beginning
“The End and the Beginning” is one of the best-known poems of Wislawa Szymborska. This piece is set at the end of the Great Wars. Szymborska depicts how the world was devastated by the war. Things were cleaned up and renewed for preparing the space free from the trauma of war. However, the impact it had on the hearts would still be there, no matter how hard they try to tidy things up.
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.Source: The End and the Beginning
On Death, without Exaggeration
“On Death, without Exaggeration” appears among the top 5 poems of Szymborska published by the Nobel Prize Committee. Though this piece taps on a somber and severe topic, death, it does reveal the poet’s optimism. None can prove her wrong when she says,
Whoever claims that it’s omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it’s not.
There’s no life
that couldn’t be immortal
if only for a moment.
Throughout this piece, the poet firmly says that life goes on even though the tragic wars have tried to sweep humanity away. In the final lines, her take on death is interesting to explore:
always arrives by that very moment too late.
In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you’ve come
can’t be undone.Source: On Death, without Exaggeration
This piece is one of the well-known poems of Szymborska. It was set to music and performed in 1965. In 1994, rock singer Kora’s cover of the poem was a hit. This poem is about the transience of moments and the freshness of the new. According to the poet, nothing in life happens twice. Hence, to unravel to the fullness of life, one has to wait, observe, and enjoy each moment to the fullest. Here are a few lines from the text:
Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.
Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It’s in its nature not to stay:
Today is always gone tomorrow.
With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.Source: Nothing Twice
The Joy of Writing
This is one of the best-known poems ever written on the topic of writing. It explores what it feels to a poet while she writes down her thoughts. For Szymborska, it is like a kind of hunting for the right choice of words or ideas, or sometimes it feels like a carefree wandering into the woods. How does the poet feel, especially while writing? We can find the answer in the following lines:
Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?
The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.Source: The Joy of Writing
It is an ironic piece concerning true love. In this poem, Szymborska talks about how people think when they find a couplet genuinely devoted to each other. Being a rare scene to behold in this modern, selfish world, it seems odd and morally deceptive to them. Hence, their inability to understand their emotions somehow helps the lovers to live and die peacefully.
True love. Is it normal
is it serious, is it practical?
What does the world get from two people
who exist in a world of their own?
True love. Is it really necessary?
Tact and common sense tell us to pass over it in silence,
like a scandal in Life’s highest circles.
Perfectly good children are born without its help.
It couldn’t populate the planet in a million years,
it comes along so rarely.
Let the people who never find true love
keep saying that there’s no such thing.
Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.Source: True Love
It is one of the best poems of Wislawa Szymborska. This piece is about a utopian place solely made from the poet’s imagination. It is the place where the poet often visits, probably her mind?
Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.
For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.
As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.
Into unfathomable life.Source: Utopia
Love at First Sight
It is one of the best-loved poems by Szymborska and was used in a number of films. The most memorable lines from this poem are:
is only a sequel, after all,
and the book of events
is always open halfway through.
Like the poem “Possibilities”, this piece also posits a number of ways that two souls can meet and be in love. There is no order or symmetry in the things that happen beforehand. Somehow the poet finds beauty in this uncertainty and imperfection.
They’re both convinced
that a sudden passion joined them.
Such certainty is beautiful,
but uncertainty is more beautiful still.Source: Love at First Sight
The Three Oddest Words
“The Three Oddest Words” is a short, six-line poem, but it is comprehensive in its range. This poem centers on three specific words, “Future”, “Silence”, and “Nothing”. In each couplet, the poet presents an interesting idea.
For example, in the first two lines, she humorously says that when she utters the word “Future”, the first syllable already goes past the next syllable. So, nothing is there in the future. Everything is here at the present moment.
Likewise, when she says “Nothing”, she means that her words are far beyond one’s reach. Her ideas are more complex than one thinks.
When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.Source: The Three Oddest Words
Her poetry is known for her ironic precision, paradoxical expressions, contradictory situations, and understatements. She often employed philosophical themes in her poetry.
Wislawa Szymborska’s poems are about human reality. She fuses ironic expressions while describing the historical, biological, and philosophical topics in her poetry.
Szymborska wrote poems on a number of topics that include but are not limited to war, humanity, love, hypocrisy, spirituality, and philosophy.
Throughout her lifetime, Szymborska wrote somewhere around 350 poems.
- Check out How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) by Wislawa Szymborska (2021) — In her latest book, Szymborska shares her advice to would-be writers, showing her sympathy for their labors.
- Biography of Wislawa Szymborska — Read the full biography of the poet on the official website of The Nobel Prize Organisation.
- Poet Profile & Poems of Wislawa Szymborska — Explore the poet’s profile and read more of her poems.
- Nobel Speech of Wislawa Szymborska — Read the full speech of the poet delivered on 7 December 1996.