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Wislawa Szymborska, poet, 88

WARSAW - Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature whose simple words and playful verse plucked threads of irony and empathy out of life, has died. She was 88.

Ms. Szymborska, a heavy smoker, died in her sleep of lung cancer Wednesday evening at her home in Krakow. She died surrounded by relatives and friends.

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The Nobel award committee’s citation called her the “Mozart of poetry,’’ who mixed the elegance of language with “the fury of Beethoven’’ and tackled serious subjects with humor. While she was arguably the most popular poet in Poland, most of the world had not heard of the shy, soft-spoken Ms. Szymborska before she received the Nobel prize.

She has been called both deeply political and playful, a poet who used humor in unforeseen ways. Her verse, seemingly simple, was subtle, deep, and often hauntingly beautiful. She used simple objects and detailed observation to reflect on larger truths, often using everyday images - an onion, a cat in an empty apartment, an old fan in a museum - to reflect on topics such as love, death, and passing time.

Despite six decades of writing, Ms. Szymborska had fewer than 400 poems published.

Asked why, she once said: “There is a trash bin in my room. A poem written in the evening is read again in the morning. It does not always survive.’’

Ms. Szymborska was born in the village of Bnin, now part of Kornik, in western Poland.

After arriving in Stockholm to receive her Nobel, reporters asked Ms. Szymborska about the first poem she ever wrote. She replied with modesty and humor familiar to her readers.

“It’s hard to say what the first one was about because I started very early to write poems. I was about 4 years old,’’ she said. “Of course they were clumsy and ridiculous. But when one poem was right, my father took it and gave me some money to buy chocolates.

“So I can say I started living by my poetry when I was 4.’’

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