The Nobel laureate who wrote about an onion: the witty genius of Wislawa Szymborska
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Wislawa Szymborska is a name any lover of culture ought to know. Odds are, most of us don't. A cursory search for her on websites that sell books is unlikely to yield results. Which should be surprising because she won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996.
To those who know her work, it actually isn't astonishing that she's so little known. Szymborska, a Polish poet, is famously private.
In the days after her Nobel win, flooded by requests for interviews, she said:
"Interview is the least favourite of my literary genres."
Seemingly simplistic, carefully-crafted, and doused in sharp wit; that's a Szymborska sentence for you.
Here's another example: at the Nobel acceptance dinner, she began:
"They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me, anyway."
She deliberately cultivates the impression that her work is frivolous. Perhaps because she knows it is anything but.
In Under One Small Star, she writes:
"I borrow weighty words / then labor heavily so that they may seem light."
Her frame is narrow. She writes about the mundane. She is a fiend at wordplay. And concise to the degree of cruelty.
Here's her poem, translated from Polish, about The Onion. What she, in fact, is writing about, are the dangers of homogeneity. Or, as other interpretatins argue, about the complexities that make up a person. We'll let you choose. All we know: it's a work of literary magic.
The onion, now that's something else.
Its innards don't exist.
Nothing but pure onionhood
Fills this devout onionist.
Oniony on the inside,
Onionesque it appears.
It follows its own daimonion
Without our human tears.
Our skin is just a cover up
For the land where none dare go,
An internal inferno,
The anathema of the anatomy.
In an onion there's only onion
From its top to its toe
At peace, of a piece,
Internally at rest.
Inside it, there's a smaller one
Of undiminished worth.
The second holds a third one,
The third contains a fourth.
A centripetal fugue.
Nature's rotundest tummy,
Its greatest success story,
the onion drapes itself in its
own aureoles of glory.
We hold veins, nerves and far,
secretion's secret sections.
Not for us such idiotic
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