During a five-decade career, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska had so rarely appeared in public that a newspaper dubbed her the "Greta Garbo of poetry" after the notoriously private actress.
But in 1996, Poland's most reticent literary icon was forced to open her door to the world: She had won the Nobel Prize in literature and the world was clamoring for her reaction.
"There's simply too much fuss about myself," she told a London newspaper in 2000 after the Nobel "tornado" had begun to quiet. "Everyone needs solitude, especially a person who is used to thinking about what she experiences."
Szymborska, 88, a heavy smoker who died of lung cancer Wednesday in Krakow, converted her experiences into poetry that the Swedish Academy said evinced the creative ease of a Mozart and the fury of a Beethoven.
Called Poland's "guardian spirit" by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, she expanded her audience with the publication in English of her collection "View With a Grain of Sand," in 1995. Her admirers ranged from Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who won the Nobel in 1980, to filmmaker Woody Allen.
"She is able to capture the pointlessness and sadness of life, but somehow still be affirmative," Allen said in a rare documentary about Szymborska that was broadcast in the U.S. in 2010. The title of the film, taken from a comment she made, was "Sometimes Life Is Bearable."
Szymborska (whose full name is pronounced vee-SWAHV-ah shimm-BOR-skah), wrote about weighty subjects — the nature of the soul, totalitarianism, death — with beguiling clarity and a sense of wonder.
"Her poetry is hardly political except in the sense it resists the kind of certainty that you would expect from those who want to assert power," said Robert Faggen, a Claremont McKenna College literature professor who met Szymborska in 2009 and heard her read at a celebration of Milosz's work in Krakow.
"She was clear and bold without trying to be entertaining or effusive," recalled Faggen, who has taught courses on Polish poetry. "Her poetry is that way. It's very clear, it's bold, it's surprising but … she avoids the histrionic, the effusive. She always keeps a little distance from her text. I think that gives it a great deal of edge."
Szymborska, who wrote 400 poems and published about 20 volumes, once described her style this way: "I borrow words weighed with pathos and then try hard to make them seem light."
Critics noted that her poems often begin with small observations that lead to broader awakenings, as in ''A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth," in which a toddler unfamiliar with the law of gravity investigates "things that don't move by themselves."
They don't all want to go, e.g., the bookshelf,
the cupboard, the unyielding walls, the table.
But the table cloth on the stubborn table
-- when well-seized by its hems --
manifests a willingness to travel.
And the glasses, plates,
creamer, spoons, bowl,