The worst dinner party ever: Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and the lady who watched the fight

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Poland’s biggest postwar literary fight  erupted not in Warsaw or Kraków, but in an otherwise quiet Berkeley home one evening in the summer of 1968, after some serious drinking.

During the Columbia University launch for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz on Monday night, noted translator and scholar Bogdana Carpenter departed from the planned script to break her silence on the event – for the second time ever.

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She ought to know.  She was not only there, she and her husband and fellow translator John Carpenter hosted the dinner, which included poets Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert.

She said distorted versions of the event that have left the Polish intelligentsia bickering ever since.

“It started out happy and gay,” she recalled of the evening — a pleasant, spicy meal with plenty of wine.

After dinner, Herbert’s tone became “harsher and harsher,” Bogdana recalled.  “When he was drunk he tended to be aggressive – and this time it was too late.” Herbert’s thoughts turned to Poland’s German occupation during World War II.

“He viciously attacked Miłosz – he reproached him for his lack of participation in the Polish resistance,” said Bogdana.  The evening was so acrimonious that Janina Miłosz forbade Herbert ever to enter the Miłosz abode again.

Correcting the record

However, “it’s become known in a distorted version,” Bogdana said of the story.  Typically, it is claimed that Miłosz provoked the incident by suggesting that Poland be added to the Soviet Empire as the 17th republic.

Bogdana said this comment never happened. The provocation was invented by Herbert twenty years after the event, she said.

For Miłosz, questions of patriotism were always sensitive – both because of his position with the Communist government as a cultural attaché, and after his 1951 defection in Paris, which meant he was barred from Poland till the 1980s.

The basis of the dispute, said Bogdana, was the two poets’ notion of homeland, and what it required from them.

Herbert believed one should be willing to “sacrifice one’s own happiness and life,” she said.  While some have attributed Herbert’s position to the “Polish Romantic paradigm,” Carpenter said its roots are “further back – in the Hellenistic tradition.”

“Miłosz differed diametrically.”  For Miłosz, loyalty had its limits — “when the price was other people,” she said, he could be “scathingly critical.”

His position was that “loyalty is not enough – one seeks logical justification” for self-immolation.

Miłosz’s defined his “homeland” as the Polish language.  “Miłosz’s chosen weapon was the word, not the sword,” said Bogdana. “Language defined him.”

Bogdana Carpenter pointed out that “Herbert was not in Warsaw in 1939, 1942, or 1944.”  Milosz witnessed the destruction of Warsaw firsthand.

Patriotism was not the question.  She pointed out that during Nazi occupation, Miłosz compiled an anthology of anti-Nazi poetry – An Invincible Song (1942) — “for which he easily could have lost his life.”


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8 Responses to “The worst dinner party ever: Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and the lady who watched the fight”

  1. theoncominghope Says:

    I’ve just come to Herbert recently, and am really enjoying his work! I wrote a little about that here:
    http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/07/poem-of-day-of-soul-by-zbigniew-herbert.html

  2. agencja interaktywna warszawa Says:

    Awesome entry. To this coming year was a lot better than what gives.

  3. robert a. davies Says:

    Two fine poets. I prefer herbert (his poems (translated by john gogol as well as the carpenters) knocked me out! So somebody can write so incredibly about his time and place! But if I had to agree with one of the two on this matter, I would agree with milosz.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    This comment got tangled in a spam folder – apologies for the delay posting.

  5. Andrzej Says:

    There is a basic difference between the two poets. Miłosz thinks that man lives for himself, for long, healthy, happy life.
    Herbert says: head up and stay, you should sacrifice for freedom, for others. Not run away.
    That’s why Herbert will live forever and Miłosz fade away.

  6. Zbigniew Herbert Tempers the Rational Fury | Cosmos the in Lost Says:

    [...] The rivalry with Milosz resurfaces in those comments.  There’s even a quasi-mythological dinner party quarrel between the two poets documented by Cynthia Haven here in the post on “The Worst Dinner-Party Ever.”   [...]

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Sorry for the delay in getting this up, Andrzej. It got caught in a spam filter.

  8. Martin Gray Says:

    Although loaded with prestigious prizes Herbert deserved but never received a Nobel prize. Milosz was honoured too, but not until he became a Nobel laureate was he acknowledged absolutely first rate. Personally I am thrilled when reading Herbert. I enjoy Milosz, but Herbert wins me over every time I read him. Thank goodness we have a world which has such great writers in it as the contrary but always complementary poets as Milosz and Herbert. In plurality we have riches.

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