When she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, the poet Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012) was praised for her wit, her ironic timing and her ability to illuminate “fragments of human reality.”
The Nobel Prize brought global fame, but it was a mixed blessing, say a group of students who are studying the Polish poet. After winning one of the world’s most prestigious awards, Szymborska, who had previously been known mostly in Poland, went several years without composing a poem.
“Szymborska was not happy to win the Nobel Prize,” says Peter Schaedler ’17, a computer science major. “Her friends called this ‘the Nobel tragedy.’ For years afterwards, she didn’t write anything.”
Schaedler is working with Karen Huang ’17, a cognitive science major, Sava Marinkovic ’16, an English major, and Avi Setton, a graduate student in English, to produce a film about Szymborska. The students have spent the last two months putting together a 20- or 30-minute piece that they say will be a hybrid between a documentary and an interpretation.
Their endeavor, one of 20 that student interns have undertaken this summer as part of the Mountaintop Project, is supervised by Elizabeth Fifer, professor of English. Last semester, Fifer assigned the students in her class on international poetry (English 11) to make short films on Szymborska. The Mountaintop interns are editing those films and adding their own contributions.
A modest prankster
Wisława Szymborska has a name that is challenging for English speakers to pronounce (vee-SWA-vuh sheem-BOR-skuh), but her poetry, even in translation, is remarkably accessible, say the Mountaintop interns.
“I really enjoy Szymborska’s poems,” says Schaedler. “They’re very relatable and down-to-earth. They’re not snobby; they’re very personable.”
“There’s something sarcastic about her poetry,” says Huang. “She says things that are so obvious but no one else is saying them.”
“Szymborska was funny, witty, private and modest,” says Setton. She was also a prankster, he adds, who was not above playing a practical joke on the friends she invited to her home.
“Szymborska was very much an innovator,” says Setton. “At the same time, she was adamant about preserving some things, including the medium of poetry. She handled this in a very unique way that enabled her to reach a bigger audience than the typically small group of people who like poetry.”
A Slavic take on reality
Marinkovic, a first-generation Serbian-American and devotee of Eastern European literature, sees in Szymborska’s writing a concept that is familiar to people with a Slavic world view.
In Serbian and in other Slavic languages, says Marinkovic, the word biti—similar to the English word be—also alludes to something almost akin to fatalism, to a belief that human beings cannot help the way things are.
“I definitely see biti in Szymborska,” Marinkovic says. “She’s down-to-earth; she’s humane. There’s not much artifice to her writing. It’s extreme realism; she tells stories of real life.”
Szymborska, says Huang, often summed up her philosophy in a three-word phrase: “I don’t know.”
“She used to say,” says Huang,” that those who pretend they do know make the most fuss in the world. “She refused to be put into one single school of political thought or into one poetic genre. She refused to tie herself to a political thought or a philosophy.”
Early in her career, says Schaedler, Szymborska aligned herself with the communist ideology that was imposed on Poland by the Soviet Union after World War II.
“At the beginning of her adult life, Szymborska was very politically minded. She was a fan of communist doctrine. But she fell out and became her own person. She later said she wanted to renounce the thoughts she had at that time [earlier in her life].”
Huang expands on this: “When she won the Goethe Prize in 1991, she gave a speech in which she admitted she had made mistakes. She had done this because she had believed she could change communism from the inside out.”
The students have organized their film along a rough timeline of what they call the qualities of Szymborska’s personality. Each is contributing a short perspective that will be tied in with clips from the films produced in the spring by students in Fifer’s international poetry class.
“We’re looking at parts of her life, along with her personality, and how they come through in her poems,” says Huang, who has also written an essay on Szymborska’s poem “Nothing nothinged itself out for me as well.” (see sidebar)
The students plan to screen their completed film on campus this fall.
Photos by Christa Neu