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Wislawa Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska's Memorable Acceptance Speech


Wislawa Szymborska’s acceptance speech delved into the current condition of the poet, to remind us that inspiration is not a patrimony exclusive to this practice.

They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me, anyway. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come – the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line – will be just as hard, since I’m supposed to talk about poetry.

That was how, in 1996, Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska’s speech began, evidencing her bright sense of humor and her unparalleled humbleness. Heir to the twentieth century’s hangover, a result of the Second World War, Szymborska’s poetry always knew how to make room in the word for doubt and astonishment. For the poet nothing was beyond poetry, the ardor of the first glance of the world enthralled her, and a casual conversation or an everyday occurrence could serve as an alibi to shed light on the unknown, almost mystical, lodged between the cracks of an apparently uninspiring reality. This is Szymborska; this is her poetry.

Her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize continues to move us, because the elemental truths exposed by her continue to be revealing and worthy of remembering them. The figure of the poet seems to be, today more than ever, a laughable shadow; in our hyper-industrialized world where hyper production sets the pace for everything, including life, being a poet is the equivalent of being a “parasite” and recognizing that one is precisely that, usually leads to shame and misunderstanding. Wislawa reminds us of this:

Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves. They publicly confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it. […] When filling in questionnaires or chatting with strangers, that is, when they can’t avoid revealing their profession, poets prefer to use the general term “writer” or replace “poet” with the name of whatever job they do in addition to writing.

In a society that only recognizes professions that can be proven with titles, credits, schedules and certified activities, Wislawa understands that the poet is condemned to be exclusion. The poet is cornered because his activities (intense and ceaseless) know not of exams and graduations. “There are no professors of poetry”, she tells us. And with an example as simple as the one that follows, she opens our eyes to this situation:

It’s not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves… And one can depict certain kinds of scientific labor with some success. […] Films about painters can be spectacular, as they go about recreating every stage of a famous painting’s evolution, from the first penciled line to the final brush-stroke. […]

But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens … Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?

It is again this simplicity, this sense of humor, this refined irony that Wislawa was able to link to her poetry, always foreign to wild gesticulations or metaphysical esoterica. Her poetry summarizes with simplicity, and nonetheless, contains that rare quality that sheds light on our lives, making us more aware of our surroundings, opening our eyes to the marvels of the world which we usually overlook.

Wislawa Szymborska in a garden


Inspiration, that arcane the poet must summon to carry out his calling —yes, his calling— which can barely explained to others when the poet, who is nurtured by it and who mourns its absence helplessly, cannot explain it to himself. When she poses herself this question, Wislawa recognizes her inability to answer, but with a sense of assertiveness she affirms:

Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners – and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it.

This invitation to astonishment, to not forget that when we look at something we are always doing so for the first time, that the tree that stands in front of our home is not always the same one and that days, unlike what her admired Ecclesiastes used to say (“nothing new under the sun”) are always unique, different, unrepeatable, and a part of her organic poetic constitution.

The world, despite whatever we might make of it, whether we are frightened by its immensity and our own impotence, bitter because of its indifference to suffering, and perhaps plants […] despite the fact that I do not know what else we could think of this world: is amazing.

Szymborska concludes her speech with a striking last sentence:

It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.

How could the world continue to renew our gaze if it weren’t through poets, always willing to lift the veil of appearances we have worn and aged with through the passing of days based on indifference and habits? How could the world be what it is without the painful virginity of its appearance translated into verses, transformed by beauty and by us?

In an article concerning the recent publication of the author’s work, Martin Lopez Vega concludes: “Szymborska was like this: she needed almost nothing to teach us how to look, to knead our desire, to illuminate light”.

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