Home » Culture » The Nobel laureate who wrote about an onion: the witty genius of Wislawa Szymborska

The Nobel laureate who wrote about an onion: the witty genius of Wislawa Szymborska

Sneha Vakharia | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 11:08 IST

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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.

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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

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

Onionymous monomania

Unanimous omniinundity.

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.

Polyphony compressed.

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

onionoid perfections.

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First published: 1 December 2015, 8:08 IST
Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia

A Beyonce-loving feminist who writes about literature and lifestyle at Catch, Sneha is a fan of limericks, sonnets, pantoums and anything that rhymes. She loves economics and music, and has found a happy profession in neither. When not being consumed by the great novels of drama and tragedy, she pays the world back with poems of nostalgia, journals of heartbreak and critiques of the comfortable.