The 1996 Nobel Prize went to Wislawa Szymborska, a 73-year old Polish poet. Why to her, and not to a greater poet, Zbigniew Herbert, whose record under communism was spotless (hers was not), and whose Mr. Cogito has been a rallying point for many, including a publishing house in Oregon, Mr. Cogito Press? Herbert was, and is, inspiring; Szymborska is not. Why her?
It may be that the Nobel Committee was tired of heroism, of politics, of the grand themes sustaining the Soviet-occupied countries in the dark decades of communist rule. Perhaps the Nobel Committee sensed that we have entered an epoch of insignificant commonness, of "stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays..." The typists come home, clear their breakfasts, light their stoves, and cook their Red Baron single-serving pizzas in the microwave. It is in this context that Szymborska belongs. The cities are awash with these "typists" with their TVs and their VCRs, slippers and jogging shorts. From this atmosphere to Herbert's poetry one has to take a long trip. If poetry is to be read at all by the great masses of those who read only labels on foodstuffs and seat assignments on airplane tickets, Szymborska was the right choice. Not T.S. Eliot, and not Zbigniew Herbert who was T.S. Eliot's successor.
A disgruntled historian supplied me with a selection of Szymborska's poetry from the period which apparently did not interest the Nobel judges: the early 1950s. It was a breathtaking discovery. Not even Mayakovsky was a more insistent propagandist for the Soviet cause. Szymborska's poetry of that period was mendacious, but it was also powerful. Then as now, she showed her mettle by simply writing well, supporting the wrong cause to be sure, but doing so with an enviable facility of a masterful writer. Her handling of language was and is superior. She is a major talent.
The sycophancy accompanying Szymborska's newly acquired fame during and after the reception of the Nobel was predictable. The ah's and oh's about her curtsying before the master of ceremonies at Stockholm, her modest refusal to attend a meeting ("I still have to go to supper at the King's," she is said to have said) have elicited much sympathetic admiration. "What a charming little lady" was the tenor of commentary in the American and Polish press.
But lo and behold, months and years have passed, and Szymborska disappeared from the pages of fashionable literary magazines. Few readers reach for her poems and few critics "keep the ball rolling," to use Witold Gombrowicz's phrase. Writers such as T.S. Eliot live largely because unsolicited comments about them are made in a wide range of articles and books. While Zbigniew Herbert was denied the fifteen minutes of fame that the Nobel affords, he still lives on, and not only on the pages of Tygodnik Solidarnosc (his faithful longterm friend and companion), but also in the writings and thoughts of Polish and American writers and journalists. There is a tone of genuinness to these references: they are spontaneous, uncontrived, unexpected so to speak. As to Szymborska, when the glow of the Nobel disappeared, she sank into obscurity in the English-speaking world. In Poland, she continues to enjoy some prestige (the glow of the Nobel never fades away in Poland). Szymborska's moral ambiguity makes her a fitting "poet laureate" of postcommunist Poland.