The Female Persona in Wislawa Szymborska's Poems

By Karwowska, Bozena | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2006 | Go to article overview

The Female Persona in Wislawa Szymborska's Poems


Karwowska, Bozena, Canadian Slavonic Papers


ABSTRACT:

Wislawa Szymborska's poetry (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1996) has gained wide acclaim not only in her native Poland but also abroad, including the English-speaking countries, where translations of her work have appeared both in book form and in numerous periodicals. Yet the critical response has been largely disappointing. This may be due to the fact that Szymborska's poetry transcends both patriarchal and feminist categories. It creates models of sensibility and outlook that seem to represent what Julia Kristeva has called "the new generation of women," with their "mixture of two attitudes-insertion into history and the radical refusal of the subjective limitations imposed by this history's time." The article shows how this "avant-garde" attitude manifests itself in various features characteristic of Szymborska's poetry and its poetics, including the poetic persona, irony, the concept of "the other," "mirthful pity" and a re-valorization of traditional womanhood.

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. …

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