On Czesław Miłosz, the living and the dead, and meeting famous people …


miloszcoverOver at the blog A Citizen Paying Attention, Bruce Cole describes his two encounters with Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. I had encouraged him to write his memories down, and now he has. He attended the Polish poet’s reading in Portland on April 30, 1988. Miłosz describes his visit to the region in The Year of the Hunter, beginning with his reading the day before at Oregon State University in Corvallis:

…The reading was difficult, the auditorium was not entirely appropriate – a lack of direct contact.  Then drinks with the faculty.  The next day, this morning, that is, again the drive from Corvallis to Portland.   Sitting on the campus, I prepare a new program for my performance from twelve to one; very successful, direct contact.  Lunch in a restaurant with a few people, and then they drive me to the airport.

All the time, however, I’m divided into the person who already knows how to play the game the way they want him to, and another person who is immersed in his own thoughts.  About human society as a marvel.  And about Polish themes, thanks to that issue of Literary Notebooks.

Casting himself in the role of “pathetic fan boy,” Bruce tried to work on the “direct contact” part after the reading in Portland. A book signing. A few gestures and a handshake. Bruce’s post is, in part, a meditation on our wish to meet the great: “What does it mean to meet, however fleetingly, someone famous? Where are the borders between fandom (for lack of better word) and the wish for direct contact (exactly the right words) with someone whose work has meant a world (not the world, but a world shared between an author and you and, at a remove, with that author’s other readers)?  There is nothing inherently trivial about someone’s wish to see ‘in the flesh’ another human being who has assumed some kind of importance in your life, and whom you only ‘know’ through their work and whatever images the media offers up to you – which is why ‘celebrity’ and the attraction to it is so pernicious.  It perverts the healthy instinct of admiration for achievement into its infinitely inferior parody.” He discusses his other brushes with the famous, including Norman Mailer, and visiting the grave of Walker Percy. Then back to Miłosz:


Pathetic fan boy?

As they say in the movies, “the years passed.”  Now it was the autumn of 1993.  I was married, with a toddler daughter, and Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass were billed as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures series.  A friend of mine (thank you, Terry!) had access to a free ticket.  This was a very different affair.  No community college, but the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.  Not two or three dozen in attendance, but hundreds.  A real reception afterwards.

When Miłosz and Robert Hass were introduced and went on stage, you could see the difference five and a half years had made. Miłosz was now 82, somehow physically diminished, and I noticed the nervous tic, for lack of a better term, that sometimes besets the elderly, as his eyebrows (those eyebrows!) shot up and down. When he read, his voice was softer and higher, and his recitation more rapid.  Still, we were hardly watching a man in mental decline. The “contact” was different than the previous reading, but still palpable. The audience was able to write out questions for Miłosz and Hass, which the M.C. selected and interspersed with some of his own.  At some point, Miłosz remarked (this was the partial revelation I alluded to earlier) that poetry readings took place all over America, that he had lived in France for a decade, and that he hardly ever saw anything like that there, and that for any one poetry reading in France, there must be fifty in the United States.

I have since considered that, allowing for the “concert-going” mentality, there must be a larger part of the audience at poetry readings who leaven the lump than at other “cultural events” and mysteriously make for the contact that a poet has to hope for in public.  I, too, had a question, and I scribbled away, hoping it would pass the gate-keeper on stage.  I wondered (big surprise) about translations. Why had Treatise on Morals (from the late 40s) never been translated? Why had only part of Treatise on Poetry (written in 1956 in Paris) appeared in The Collected Poems (this would be the late 80s edition).  [One of the best chapters in Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz is the one on that long poem, IMHO.]  Finally, only two chapters of Milosz’s volume on Stanisław Brzozowski, Man Among Scorpions (1962) had been translated and included in the book of essays, Emperor of the Earth (1977) – like The Land of Ulro read over and over again.  Anyway, the M.C. read only the part about the two poetic Treatises.  Did he stumble over pronouncing “Brzozowski”?  All I can remember now for an answer is that the earlier poem was written in a meter which precluded translation (as my knowledge of prosody matches my knowledge of quantum physics, I had to take his word for it).

hunter2The reception followed. Something to eat and drink, people greeting one another while wondering (how? when?) to approach the poets.  I was actually on one side of a table when Miłosz, beer in hand, went for something to eat.  He was otherwise unattended. So, leaning forward, I began the conversation which went something like:

“I was the one who asked about translations.”  Pause.  “About Treatise on Morals and Treatise on Poetry.  Pause 2.0.  “Also, I wondered about your book on Brzozowski.”

Here he corrected my pronunciation, though to my untrained ear it sounded the same, and then asked, “You are student of Slavic languages?”

“No, and that’s why I’m interested in translations. I’m particularly wondering about Brzozowski.”  [No correction this time, incidentally.  Not worth the bother?] “I’ve read the chapter in Emperor of the Earth over and over again. Has the whole work ever been translated?”

“No.”  This was said with a certain resignation, I think, and then a woman came up to Miłosz, telling him how much his poetry meant to her, etc.  The poet and I exchanged a mutual nod and the conversation was over.

The story picks up again a decade later:

I read of Miłosz’s death in the Washington Post on a Sunday morning in August 2004.  My family was away, and I was nursing a headache from the previous night (yes, I know) as the sunlight poured on the dining room and I was flooded with memories of my two encounters with the man, of having read almost everything of his translated into English, and of what I knew of his life now come to an end. As if in confirmation of that life’s struggles, over the next few days certain nationalists in Poland crawled out from under the rocks, casting aspersions on Miłosz as insufficiently Polish and hence not Catholic “enough” (echoes of Native Realm) and the Pope, dying in Rome, had to telegraph that this was not so.

In English, please.

Now, a decade later, I await the day when his massive biography is translated for dullards like me…And speaking of translations, any reader who has borne with me for this long remembers that early on in this piece I telegraphed a punch.  A full English translation of Treatise on Poetry was published in 2001, and ever since I have taken utterly unjustified credit (if only to myself) for having planted the idea in Czesław Miłosz’s head.

A longshot, but why not? Odder things have happened.  Read the whole thing here.

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