Over the past few weeks, New York has begun to celebrate the centenary of one of Poland’s—and maybe the world’s—greatest poets, Czeslaw Milosz,as the “Year of Milosz” kicks off. With nationwide and worldwidereadings, remembrances, and exhibits, the year is meant to pay tribute to the poet and his work. His life, which ended in 2004, was marked by tenuous politics and remarkable poetry. He won the Nobel Prize in 1980.
To paraphrase Alan Timberlake, who moderated a panel on March 28th dedicated to memories of Milosz: “A centenary is long enough for the memory of the person’s death not to cause pain anymore, but short enough for people who personally knew him to still be able to share their recollections.” The discussion took place at Columbia University, where Milosz had played an instrumental (and controversial) role in establishing a chair of Polish literature in the immediate post-war period. The event also served as a book release of An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, the culmination of a four-year project by Cynthia Haven, for which she collected essays about Milosz by people who knew him in various contexts. Panelists, who were also contributors to the book, were Milosz’s friends, colleagues, students, and interviewers, and shared anecdotes about him.
He began as a political writer in Poland with Captive Mind, a study of human behavior under a repressive government, but soon enough he became a poet. He spent WWII in Warsaw, but did not participate in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, a fact for which others, including poet Zbigniew Herbert, have notoriously criticized him. But for Milosz, Polish language defined his national identity, and not any sort of bellicose obligations, and he stayed true to his word—literally, with poetry. He continued to write poems throughout the war, many of them dedicated to the devastation he was witnessing, but others completely detached from the war. After the war, he initially actively supported the Communist cause, but in 1951, Milosz defected and obtained political asylum in France, and his work was banned in Poland. He moved to California, where he became a professor at Berkeley. When he won the Nobel Prize, many Poles learned of his work for the first time. He became an instant sensation in his country. Those who remember spending time with him, or interacting with him even briefly, describe him immediately as a gracious or generous man, willing to talk and willing to listen, perhaps unusual for such an important figure.
Some of Milosz’s translators echoed these sentiments at a reading at the 92nd Street Y last month as well, which was also a part of the centenary celebration. Translators Clare Cavanagh and Robert Hass read Milosz’s poems in translation, along with contemporary poet Adam Zagajewski, recipient of the 2010 European Poetry Prize. The readers read with nostalgic voices, and Cavanagh delighted in the untranslatable: the ways in which Milosz incorporates his native Lithuanian into Polish poems, reminding Poles of a slight—and yet somehow familiar—foreignness, and the ways in in which he evokes the natural landscapes of Lithuania in poems about California, blurring his concept of home. But the readers also discussed Milosz’s respect for language, and the agency with which he treated the role of a poet. “What is poetry which does not save nations or people?” Milosz asked in a poem, “Dedication,” that he wrote at the end of the war. In another poem, “A Magic Mountain,” he asks:
So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?
And indeed, it was here that Milosz felt his obligations lay, to save people—the world—with his words, a stronger tool in his eyes than patriotic duties.
The title of the book, An Invisible Rope, comes also from “A Magic Mountain,” a refutation of defeat, perhaps apt for a poet who dealt with political tensions, who was banned in his own country, and yet who became Poland’s best-known poet:
Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
Endurance comes only from enduring.
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,
And climbed it and it held me.
Anna Frajlich, one of the contributors to An Invisible Rope and a panelist, recalled running after Milosz the first time she met him with a copy of his Man Among Scorpions to tell him, “I want to thank you for writing this book.” In a way, An Invisible Rope—and the entire year-long celebration of the poet’s life—is a means for both the people who knew Milosz and for those who simply admire him, to thank him for writing his books, which contributed much to the canon of Polish and worldwide literature.
Click here for a full schedule on Year of Milosz events, organized in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute, with more upcoming in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Krakow, and New Haven, CT.