Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

The Female Persona in Wislawa Szymborska's Poems

Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

The Female Persona in Wislawa Szymborska's Poems

Article excerpt

The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Wislawa Szymborska in 1996 resulted in the publication of several volumes of translations of her work into English-and evoked wide critical interest. Commenting on the wealth of critical publications on Szymborska, both in Polish and in other languages, Wlodzimierz Bolecki wrote:

Szymborska has published some 300 poems so far. And how many pages of commentaries have been published to those poems? If we take into account the several books, hundreds of reviews and dozens of articles, we would probably arrive at several thousand pages of commentary. We might then draw the conclusion that every poem by Szymborska has already been analyzed, interpreted or quoted several times over.1

Szymborska's poetry has been studied from a variety of points of view. In addition to several books of a more general nature,2 Szymborska's work has been discussed as modernist (Bolecki), naturalist (Bojanowska3), in the context of English modernism (van Nieukerken4), in relation to objects and the idea of objecthood (Balbus, Shallcross5), as an example of the "importance of the unimportant" (Carpenter6), and of her conception of "the other" (Graf7), through translations (Baranczakx8), in terms of the inadequacy of some critical interpretations (Glowinski9), and of the joy of reading (Stala, Karasek10)-to name just a few from a very long list of authors, themes and topics. However, the fact that this is a poetry clearly written by a woman, generally recognized by critics regardless of their gender and critical orientation, seems to have had little effect on the interpretation and appreciation of Szymborska's work. This statement may sound surprising in view of Justyna Kostkowska's recent observation that "the world recognition of Szymborska's poetry should be seen as a cultural victory of feminism." Yet it is evident even from the bibliography of Kostkowska's article how little has been said so far about Szymborska from the feminist point of view. The critic supports her claim by emphasizing that Szymborska's poetry "validates the significance of the individual, the particular, the private, and the subjective, all of which lie at the centre of feminist thought in general..."11

And here is where the problem begins. Though her poetry can (and should) be seen as a victory of feminism, Szymborska has not been hailed as a feminist writer, since she has not taken an overtly political stance and her writing does not adopt "a discernible anti-patriarchal and anti-sexist position."12 As Grazyna Borkowska noted as early as 1991, feminist categories-such as, for instance, "therapeutic strategies," understood by the critic as a way of dealing with the crisis of consciousness and existential dilemmas by withdrawing into oneself, into one's private world; by being in love or participating in sisterly solidarity-fail to provide a useful tool for analyzing Szymborska's poetry.13 At the same time Borkowska made the point (years before Kostkowska's similar thesis) that Szymborska's poetry "provides a critique of universal, abstract thinking, imposed by a restrictive, 'patriarchal,' order." But then she went on to say that although Szymborska is close to some of the practices of feminism and of deconstruction, "no formula-feminist or deconstructive-fully encompasses the richness" of her poetry. Furthermore, Kostkowska herself-while arguing that Szymborska's poems present a point of view similar to the one commonly accepted in contemporary feminist scholarship-does not argue that Szymborska's is a feminist poetry. What makes it possible for Kostkowska to relate Szymborska to feminism are the constraints of terminology imposed on the critic by the use of binary oppositions-in this instance the opposition between patriarchal and feminist scholarly discourse. It is thus important to go beyond the restrictive order of binary oppositions and point out that already in 1986 Toril Moi made a threefold distinction to categorize women in literature and culture, and moreover noted that "feminists have used the terms 'feminist', 'female', 'feminine' in a multitude of different ways. …

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