Nobel-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska known for her philosophical and often humorously biting turn of phrase, died Wednesday at the age of 88 following a long battle with illness.
A heavy smoker, Szymborska, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, passed away "peacefully, in her sleep" at her home in Krakow in southern Poland, her assistant Michal Rusinek announced.
Her clear-minded work combined warmth, humor and lyrical talent and won plaudits from the Nobel committee for her "ironic precision" and raw power.
In a Twitter message, Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called her passing "an irreparable loss for Polish culture."
In her 1996 Nobel lectures, however, with typical modesty, Szymborska played down her role as a poet.
"Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally," she said.
"Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating ‘I don’t know.’ Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, that’s absolutely inadequate to boot," she said.
Born on July 2, 1923 near Poznan in the west of the country, Szymborska studied in the literature and sociology department of Krakow’s Jagiellonian University.
For the rest of her life, she lived in the rarefied atmosphere of this historic southern city where the late Polish-born Pope John Paul II — a fellow poet — had served as cardinal before being called to Rome.
But Szymborska, who drew inspiration from past French thinkers such as Descartes, Pascal and Montaigne, was agnostic and committed to what she dubbed "methodical doubt." Nevertheless, her work reflected a certain spirituality.
She was the author of over a dozen collections of poetry, in which a recurrent theme was the philosophical analysis of contemporary moral issues — a sensitive area in what was then communist Poland and notably focused on "anti-history."
"I like Wislawa’s poems because of her sense of humor," wrote literary critic Tadeusz Nyczek.
"There’s an intellectual, deep art to it. It’s the work of someone who has a bitter view of the world, and at the same time a joyful one."
Szymborska was also a translator of the works of others, notably the French classical poets Agrippa d’Aubigne and Theophile de Viau, and Jewish author Icyk Manger.
She once explained her writing method to reporters.
"I write at night. In the daytime, I have the annoying habit of re-reading what I’ve written," she said.
Known for her discretion and modesty, she avoided discussing her own work, saying that she feared feeling like "an insect who for some inexplicable reason has shut itself in a glass case and stuck itself with a pin."
From 1953 to 1981, Szymborska worked on the weekly literary review Zycie Literackie on ironically titled "non-compulsory reading" pages.
There, she penned criticism of works spanning issues from tourism, cookery, gardening and sorcery to art history to modern poetry.
Her early poems were inspired by the post-war communist regime’s "real socialist" style, but she soon ditched it. In the 1950s, she made contact with exiled publishers.
Known as an independent-minded individual, she largely remained out of the political fray.
In 1975, however, she joined fellow intellectuals to protest against the decision by the communist regime to inscribe Poland’s "eternal alliance" with the Soviet Union in the country’s constitution.
She also made a political sortie 18 years after the regime’s demise in 1989, signing up to a campaign by intellectuals who accused the then government of conservative president Lech Kaczynski and his twin and prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski of weakening Polish democracy.