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Saturday, February 11, 2012


~ Posted by James Hopkin, February 10th 2012

At midday yesterday an unexpected tune could be heard in the main square of the Polish city of Krakow. Instead of the traditional "hejnal" from the tower of St. Mary’s, the trumpeter played a melody that had been written to accompany“Nothing Twice”, a poem by the Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska, who died last week, aged 88.

A mile and a half away, President Komorowski and Prime Minister Tusk joined other Polish dignitaries in the heavy snowfall for a service at the Rakowicki cemetery. Szymborska’s ashes were interred to the sound of a favourite song of hers, Ella Fitzgerald’s “Black Coffee”.

It was fitting. Szymborska had produced a body of work that combined a deep understanding of melancholy with an unerring appreciation of the lighter side of life. Schoolchildren across Poland had learned poems such as “Cat in an Empty Apartment", “Love at First Sight”, and "Nothing Twice", all striking for their deceptive simplicity and verve. Quietly, her poems urge assertiveness, whisper advice and offer resilient wit and a consummate sense of form. Though she published only a dozen volumes, she kept writing until shortly before her death.

Famously private, Szymborska seldom gave interviews, but she agreed in 2000to talk to me for the Guardian. “Don’t ask me about the poems,’’ she said, playfully brushing aside my academic questions, “Ask me about the mountains.’’ When I told her it was my birthday, she clapped her hands, went to the kitchen and brought back cakes in frilly wrappers, a bottle of brandy and two packets of cigarettes. She was dismayed that I didn’t smoke. “Are you sure you don’t smoke?”

Then in her mid-70s, Szymborska was alert and attentive, and ever so slightly flirtatious. I listened to the hour-long tape again this week. Her voice, like her work, is melodic, teeming with notes that run from sadness to glee, the latter accompanied by laughter and clapping. "I'll remind you in infinite detail," she writes in "Archaeology", "Of what you expected from life besides death."

James Hopkin, a novelist and short story writer, has written for Intelligent Life about fishing in Dalmatia and living in Krakow


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