Posts Tagged ‘Czeslaw Milosz’

Shaman and poet Stanisław Barańczak (1946-2014) – “a fantastic genius, indeed.”

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Barańczak and friends.

“There is a Polish poet, Stanisław Barańczak, a professor at Harvard. He was a virtuoso of translation – he translated practically all of Shakespeare, the metaphysical English poets, Emily Dickinson also, and so on. But his own poetry, also, is … equalibristics. He writes rhymed poetry, because his inventiveness in this respect is fantastic.”

So Czesław Miłosz told me fifteen years ago, at his home on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley, as he was musing about his colleague’s “shaman” qualities.

The twentieth century brought untold literary genius to the West. When I say “untold,” I mean it. How many Americans have heard the name Stanisław Barańczak, despite the wealth of poems, translations, and essays he left behind on this side of the Atlantic?


Farewell to a shaman.

After a decades-long fight with Parkinson’s Disease – writing as much as he could, for as long as he could – the Polish genius finally died last year on December 26. He was 68.

A few weeks ago, I received a special edition of the preeminent Polish literary journal, Zeszyty Literackie in my email inbox from its co-founder Barbara Toruńczyk (Barańczak was the other co-founder). The issue is devoted to Barańczak, and includes the eulogies at his January 3, 2015, funeral in Cambridge, along with some of his poems in Polish and English. It is something of a primer for those who don’t know his name. It’s available online here.

Polish journalist, essayist, historian, and former dissident Adam Michnik recounted Barańczak’s history with Solidarity, and his struggle to free his country from the Communist yoke: “He was also a wonderful, brave, and irreverent spirit of his time; he was among the first to get involved in Poland’s democratic opposition movement. He paid for it by getting a publishing ban issued against him, by getting thrown out of the university, and suffering all kinds of repressions. But even his open enemies dared not question his brilliance.” The peril was not from his overlords, but from within: “It was but a narrow escape,” Barańczak said years later. “I could have simply raised my hand as other people did, and simply let it down, as other people did.”


Adam Michnik

Michnik recalled, “He related to people with understanding, but he was steadfast when it came to principles. He had no tolerance for cowardice in the face of dictatorship. This is clear in his poems and essays—any one of them could have landed him in prison.”

“The game is bad because we stand, from the beginning, at a disadvantage; but it would be even worse, if we were to admit that—as a result of the certainty of failure—the game is not only bad, but completely senseless. Acting with dignity in this stupid situation, putting on a brave face, depends on finding some sense within it. We will not defeat our opponent in this way; but we will, at least, throw a stumbling block in his path. Nothingness is keenly interested in propagating the feeling of meaninglessness, which paves the way for its progress and eases its task. Until the very end, Staszek kept erecting stumbling blocks before nothingness.”

“In an essay about Auden, Staszek wrote that poetry ‘is not able to eradicate evil from us. But it allows us, at least, to bring this evil to consciousness. Precisely because we are condemned to the presence of evil within ourselves, we need, all the more, to become conscious of it.’”


Adam Zagajewski

So how did he wind up in Cambridge, Massachusetts? Barańczak spent years applying, unsuccessfully, for a visa, before he finally got one: he accepted the chair in the Slavic Languages and Literature Department at Harvard.

Irena Grudzińska Gross remembers visiting him there: “Although Staszek’s talents, intelligence and industry were somewhat intimidating, those who were lucky enough to know him more intimately were enchanted by his pronouncements on literature, his wit, his modesty and kindness, which he would abandon only when (and these moments were terrible) he encountered a bad translation or a very stupid book. He was a great companion (when one was able to drag him away from his work) on the excursions, organized by [his wife] Ania, to the Massachusetts beaches, historical landmarks, and great open air restaurants. Indoors, it was a great pleasure to listen to the music he loved, to watch over and over the cult movies he and Ania knew by heart: The Godfather, White Sheik or Some Like it Hot.

From Adam Zagajewski:

Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Stanisław Barańczak with wife Anna (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Death deprived us not of a theoretician, nor even of an author—but, above all, of an exceptional human being. Yes, a human being and a poet. On that day, when Stanisław’s funeral was being held in the American Cambridge, the Kraków Opera reopened its production of Winter Journey by Schubert and Barańczak (I like to look at the juxtaposition of these two names). Those, who could not fly to Boston, gathered together in the red chamber hall of the opera and listened to the songs of Franz Schubert, to which Stanisław had written poems—poems that were exquisite, simultaneously mystical and cabaret-esque, tragic and funny. The baritone Andrzej Biegun sang beautifully. It seems to me that I was not the only one for whom this was an extraordinary experience, and not only because I knew, we knew, that in the same moment, at the Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, a crowd of Stanisław’s friends had gathered to farewell him.

It was as if two completely different generations, one hundred and fifty years apart, embedded in different countries, in different eon and languages, condemned never to meet—Franz Schubert, an artist of the era of tailcoats and candles, of cannons and diplomatic lies, a witness to the Congress of Vienna, and Stanisław, living in the shadow of Yalta and Potsdam, in the shadow of lies even more monstrous, systematic and triumphant, in the shadow of an incurable illness—united themselves that afternoon in an ideal artistic form. They met in the great, sweet melancholy of art, in a sadness made mild by perfection of form and expression, by the bitter joy granted to us by wonder, however brief. A tragic wonder, which for a moment allows us, almost, to accept joyfully something which cannot be accepted—the fact that everything perishes in the cold fire of time, the most patient of killers.

President of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski said at the memorial that “choosing to remain abroad, he ceased to be a refugee from Poland, emerging instead as the country’s untiring ambassador.”

miloszYou still think genius is overstating the case? Here’s what Nobelist Joseph Brodsky said to fellow Nobelist Miłosz on the subject, in the interview between the two included in Czesław Miłosz: Conversations:

Brodsky: The boy is a genius, Stasiek, ya?

Miłosz: Fantastic.

Brodsky: A fantastic genius, indeed.

 Can’t quarrel with that. Read the whole thing here.

Getting ready for the Nobel in literature. And where better to do it than Stockholm?

Monday, October 5th, 2015
Concert Hall with nobel program. Stockholm 8/2015

Laureates are seated onstage at the Concert Hall during the ceremony. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded this Thursday in Stockholm. While we await the announcement, our New York City-based  correspondent, roving photojournalist Zygmunt Malinowski, reports on his recent visit to the Nobel Empire in Stockholm…

During last summer’s visit to Gdańsk for the opening of European Solidarity Center (read about it here), I found a nearby harbor with ferry to Sweden. I remembered a well-known photograph of Polish poet Czesław Miłosz dressed up in a tuxedo receiving his diploma from the king of Sweden, and I wondered what traces his visit to Stockholm might have left.

8 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Stockholm City Hall for the Nobel banquet (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

A journey without the usual hustle of airports and cramped airplanes makes a ship seem more natural way to travel. Even though the ferry was spartan in its accommodations, it felt spacious (except for the usual closet-sized sleeping cabin). In the evening at the large cafeteria with panoramic windows, time passes slowly. One can order a coffee or something stronger and gaze at the grayish Baltic Sea and the semi-circular, unending horizon, where the distant water edge never seems to get any closer.

After about 19 hours, we arrived at the port city of Ninanshamn. From there, it’s a short rail ride on a comfortable train to Stockholm. Stockholm consists of interconnected islands; its many bridges and water taxis efficiently transport passengers on its clean waterways and canals. The historic old town (Gamla Stan) with the narrow cobbled streets and shops, restaurants, and cafés, dates back to 13th century. The neoclassical Nobel Museum, home of the Swedish Academy that nominates the literature award, is pretty much in the center of it.

Nobel Ice Cream at Bistro Nobel, Nobel Museum. Stockholm. 8/2015

Nobel ice cream at Bistro Nobel (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

I took advantage of a guided tour offered in English. As a young man, Alfred Nobel wanted to be a poet. Inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, he wrote all his poems in English. His father dissuaded him, saying that it was not a real job, so Alfred Nobel is remembered for inventing dynamite instead.

He also wrote several plays, but his family destroyed most of these papers, since they wanted him to be remembered for chemistry and inventions. He lived most of his adult life in Paris, never married, and had no children. His last will and testament gave away most of his fortune as annual prize. According to the museum, “Nobel was against inherited fortunes that he believed contributed to the laziness of humanity. The will was an ingenuous way of solving this dilemma. The inheritance, in the form of a prize, would reward those who have made themselves worthy by way of their work.”

Nobel had over 350 patents and made a fortune, but his idea of ideas was establishing the Nobel award in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature, and peace (later a prize for economy was added). The peace prize is awarded in Norway. Nobel met Victor Hugo in Paris, and throughout his life corresponded with Countess Bertha Von Sutter, founder of Austrian peace movement and author of Lay Down Your Arms. The latter influenced the formation of a peace prize, which she won in 1905.

The Nobel nominating process begins in September of the previous year, when the Swedish Academy committee responsible for the literature award sends out hundreds of letters to universities, institutions, and individuals qualified to nominate Nobel laureates. By the following April, the list that’s been gathered is whittled down to about 20 candidates. In May, the selection is narrowed to five candidates. The Academy becomes familiar with the proposed authors and their work. In September, the Academy finally makes a decision and the winner is announced in October. On December 10, laureates receive their prizes. The decision process remains a secret for fifty years – only now can we learn who nominated the winner from 1965.

6 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Would you sign my chair, please? (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The ceremony takes place in three separate locations. The laureates are invited to the Academy for lunch, on December 9, and afterwards a rehearsal. On December 10, during a ceremony at the Concert Hall they receive an elaborate calligraphy diploma and medal from the King of Sweden, in addition to a check. Attendance is by invitation only. Limos line up to take the 1,300 guests to City Hall for the banquet, first walking through the Golden Hall down marble staircase to the spacious Blue Room. In Sweden, the event is almost a holiday; it’s followed closely on TV throughout the day.

One of the highlights while visiting the museum is having lunch and Nobel ice cream with chocolate Nobel medal at the Vienna-style ‘Bistro Nobel.’ Yes, the ice cream tastes as good as it looks, and it’s actually the same dessert that was served for many years at the Nobel Banquet. Another tradition started in recent years is signing the back seat of bistro chairs. One can turn over a chair to see which laureate signed it. Signatures started after Miłosz’s visit, but I located Mario Vargas Llosa on chair #26 and Seamus Heaney, chair #23.

So where was Miłosz? See the photo below, from the central area of the museum. Also, all Nobel winners are featured on a ceiling display (also pictured below), but it would take hours to find a specific person since they are not in any particular order. I know, I waited as Samuel Beckett, Wisława Szymborska, and Madame Curie-Sklodowska, the first woman to receive Nobel Prize and first to receive it twice, rolled past, before heading for the ice cream.


2 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Miłosz at last. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

9 © Zygmunt Malinowski

After the feast, the ball – and it takes place at the gorgeous Golden Hall. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

3 © Zygmunt Malinowski

Previous winner Wisława Szymborska in a rotating ceiling display at the museum. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

1 © Zygmunt Malinowski

The august Nobel Museum and the Swedish Academy. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

4 © Zygmunt Malinowski (1)

In my end is my beginning. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

“Magpiety”: getting to the bottom of it.

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

magpie2“Magpiety.” I had thought the title came from Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz and his poem by that name – his translator Peter Dale Scott has assured me that he himself invented the word, though I thought Miłosz had made the same claim. Anyway, I wrote all about the word Magpiety here. I thought the subject had exhausted itself and I had become the world expert.

Then I received in the mail the galley proofs for a collection of Melissa Green‘s poems, which will be out later this year: Magpiety, published by Arrowsmith Press in Medford, Massachusetts. When I scanned the table of contents, I expected to find a poem in tribute to the late great Polish poet – along the lines of Philip Levine‘s poem “Magpiety.” Nope.

My OED dates the usage of the word to 1845 (“Not pious in its proper sense/But chattering like a bird…”). Long before either Miłosz or Peter Dale Scott were born. The mystery deepened. Arrowsmith publisher Askold Melnyczuk sent me the author’s note that is to go at the beginning of the volume. In it, the poet writes: “Magpiety arose directly from the anonymous Renaissance poem ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’ and with the call and response of the lesser known—and probably later—’Mad Maud’s Song.’ In order to write my version, I searched for language that had fallen out of English in order to invent a dialect for Maud’s voice as she struggled with delusions, her dread of madness, of the loss of Tom, and of Bedlam.”

Had the OED been bested by several centuries?

So I wrote the poet for an explanation, and this is what she said:

For a while, even I thought I’d invented the word Magpiety!

I hadn’t remembered it from the Miłosz – in fact, if pressed, I would have said I had yanked from one of Mark Strand‘s poems, but I must have been thinking of Philip Levine.

I have bushel baskets full of words with the same kind of frisson, that sit in the cellar year after year, ripening, until I need them, until the source of the word has been forgotten. I didn’t actually find any evidence for its use anywhere as early as the Elizabethans; rather when the time came to write the Mad Maud poems, I remembered the word ‘magpiety’ and employed it like a valise to pack in all the meanings I could in the manner of Humpty Dumpty.


She likes the twinkly bits.

ORIGIN late 16th cent.: probably shortening of dialect maggot the pie, maggoty-pie, from Magot (Middle English nickname for the given name Marguerite) + pie (Old French from Latin pica)

‘Mag’ came to mean a woman, an idle chatterer, whose daylong running monologue, I imagined, expected no reply – so I saw Maud’s poems as full of a mad self-talk, with the world not responding. (The Corvidae are loud and raucous talkers). My confirmation name is Margaret, which made ‘Mag’ appropriate. It was easy to extend ‘pie’ to ‘piety’ (though I do remember your OED reference mid-1800 as the opposite of true piety; Pierus claimed his nine daughters sang as beautifully as the Muses and they were turned into magpies for that hubris/impiety). I am a magpie-ish kind of writer – drawn to the shiny, twinkly bits – but this magpie is full of reverence for the world. The rhyme in my head went ‘mag/hag/bag lady’ which is how I am convinced I’ll end up.

She ended with an apology: “Sorry I have no legitimate trail of breadcrumbs for you to take this word back into linguistic history. You see I just used it to suit myself.”

Connection with Miłosz?  Coincidence. Who would have guessed it?

“You whom I could not save”: Remembering Krzysztof Baczyński, who died this day, 1944

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

“Asthmatic, of frail health … a disciplined soldier … by sheer effort of will.”

My friend Kasia Wozniak reminded me that today is the day Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was killed as a platoon commander, on the fourth day of the Warsaw Uprising, August 4, 1944. He was 23.

It was what he himself imagined, apparently: a shower of bullets, grenades, hitting the dirt, and “one charge only, straight up to heaven.” Let us hope so.

His beloved wife Basia was wounded and died a month later, not knowing of her husband’s death. The ancient city was entirely leveled – the vengeful Germans brought in architects to more effectively make sure the city was demolished block by block. “In January 1947 Baczynski’s body was dug out of the ruins of the City Hall and Krzysztof and Basia were finally laid to rest together in one grave at the Insurgents’ cemetery at Powazki,” according to this page commemorating him.

He was an only child, the son of a father who was a literary critic and a mother, Stefania Zielenczyk, the sister of the well-known philosopher, Adam Zielenczyk. He grew up in one of those rare periods of Polish history, a free and independent Poland. His early enthusiasm for Marxism-Trotskyism evolved into a romantic nationalistic Messianism. “Asthmatic, of frail health, he became a disciplined soldier of the Home Army by sheer effort of will,” Czesław Miłosz wrote.

Little from this prolific writer exists in English – no book, certainly, but there are a few poems here. He was considered a very fine poet, “whose rich imagery served more and more overtly, as he developed, to point up his central theme of self-immolation for the sake of an ideal Poland.” That’s from Miłosz again. “Those critics were right who maintained that he strangely resembled Juliusz Słowacki in his concept of redemptive martyrdom.” Miłosz had little sympathy for this Polish nationalism and idealism, yet he mourned its many victims in the doomed attempt to protect Warsaw from the Nazis. And he memorialized them.

While search for something online to say about him, I ran across my own article about the Miłosz and Robert Hass collaboration, here, in which I quote from the then (in 2001) newly translated edition of Treatise on Poetry:

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyñski

Idealists died first.

No ancient Greek hero entered into combat
So deprived of hope, in their heads the image
Of a white skull kicked by feet in passing . . .

Trzebinski, the new Polish Nietzsche,
Had his mouth plastered shut before he died.
He took with him the view of a wall, low clouds
His black eyes had just a moment to absorb.
Baczynski’s head fell against his rifle.
The uprising scared up flocks of pigeons.
Gajcy, Stroinski were raised to the sky,
A red sky, on the shield of an explosion.

On this day I also think of the Nobel poet’s famous “Dedication.” Miłosz scholar and translator Clare Cavanagh impressed upon me that this poem, often read didactically, with a rhetorical flourish, in fact has a singular “you.” It was directed at a single listener, which very much changes the way one read it. Was it Baczyński? I wonder.

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Read the whole poem here. And do check out the excellent commemorative page here.

Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan at the end of Europe

Friday, July 31st, 2015
Serhij Żadan

Reading from “Lives of Maria” in Wrocław, earlier this year. (Photo: Rafał Komorowski)

We wrote about Serhiy Zhadan, Ukrainian poet, novelist, essayist, and translator over a year ago, in a post titled, “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…” That’s when the pro-Russian demonstrators broke his skull with bats in his native Kharkiv, the second largest city of Ukraine, a place that has the misfortune to be close to the Russian border.

“Americans need to understand, in Eastern Europe, writers still have a huge influence on society,” Vitaly Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic literature at the University of Kansas told the New Yorker in a story here. “It may sound like an old-fashioned ‘poet stands up to tyranny’ story, like something out of Les Miz—‘Can you hear the people sing?’—but it’s really kind of like that. … He’s a writer who is a rock star, like Byron in the early nineteenth century was a rock star.”

We were happy to see him appear last week in a New York Review of Books blogpost by Timothy Snyder, “Edge of Europe, End of Europe.” Tim said “What Zhadan actually seems to aspire to – and here his willingness to risk his life for Europe is a clue – is what [writer Mykola] Khvylovy called ‘psychological Europe’: the acceptance of conventions, the work to transcend them, and the absolute indispensability of freedom and dignity for the effort.” The discussion includes Czesław Miłosz as well:

Zhadan’s most recent work, a collection of poetry published earlier this year entitled Lives of Maria, is a book of Ukraine’s war and of Zhadan’s own survival: “you see, I lived through it, I have two hearts/do something with both of them.” Yet as the book proceeds the meditations are increasingly religious, the poems often taking the form of conversations with Maria herself. No one, in eastern Slavic culture or anywhere else, combines the writerly personas of tough guy and holy fool as does Zhadan. He raps hymns.

A happenstance Californian.

Kindred spirit?

At points in Lives of Maria, Zhadan sounds like Czesław Miłosz, the twentieth-century Polish poet, who also strove toward Europe through both the local and the universal: “I wanted to give everything a name.” Miłosz was the preeminent poet of a borderland, one to the north of Kharkiv, Lithuanian-Belarusian-Polish (and Jewish) rather than Ukrainian-Russian (and Jewish). His position, not so different from Zhadan’s perhaps, was that Europe can best be recognized on the margins, that uncertainty and risk are more substantial than commonplaces and certainty. And indeed, the last section of Lives of Maria is devoted to Zhadan’s translations of Miłosz. Zhadan begins with two of Miłosz’s poems, “A Song on the End of the World” and a “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” that ask the most direct questions about what Europeans did during the twentieth century and what they might and should do instead. The second poem communicates the pain and difficulty of actually seeing and trying to learn from the Holocaust, which was, or at least once was, a central idea of the European project. The first transmits, almost breezily, certainly eerily, what a European catastrophe might feel like. It concludes: “No one believes that it has already begun/Only a wizened old man who might have been a prophet/But is not a prophet, because he has other things to do/Looks up as he binds his tomatoes and says/There will be no other end of the world. There will be no other end of the world.”

Where Miłosz wrote in Polish that the old man had other things to do, Zhadan writes in Ukrainian that there were already so many prophets. Perhaps so. Pro-European Ukrainians are taking a chance, not demanding a future. They watch the Greek crisis too, and their position is often more scathing than anything western critics of the EU could muster. The point then is not certainty but possibility. Zhadan might well have died for an idea of Europe; other Ukrainians already have. Yet the risks he has taken, both physical and literary, are not in the service of any particular politics. Many of his essays and poems are about the attempt to understand people with whom he disagrees. He is an outspoken critic of his own government. Like Miłosz, who described Europe as “familial,” or like Khvylovy, who called Europe “psychological,” Zhadan is pursuing experimentation and enlightenment, a sense of “Europe” that demands engagement with the unmasterable past rather than the production and consumption of historical myth. “Freedom,” writes Zhadan in Lives of Maria, “consists in voluntarily returning to the concentration camp.”

It rather makes me hanker for a translation. Anyone? Oh well, you can read all of Tim’s article here.

On his birthday: Czesław Miłosz on time, truth, and the “quest for reality”

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015
A happenstance Californian.

Birthday boy.

Today is Czesław Miłosz‘s birthday – his 104th. To celebrate the occasion, I revisited his Nobel lecture. Oh, and I baked him a little white cake; see below. And also, a photo at bottom from where it all began, at his birthplace in Šeteniai.

In 1980, Miłosz gave one of the all-time great Nobel addresses. A few excerpts to prove it:

“Every poet depends upon generations who wrote in his native tongue; he inherits styles and forms elaborated by those who lived before him. At the same time, though, he feels that those old means of expression are not adequate to his own experience. When adapting himself, he hears an internal voice that warns him against mask and disguise. But when rebelling, he falls in turn into dependence upon his contemporaries, various movements of the avant-garde. Alas, it is enough for him to publish his first volume of poems, to find himself entrapped. For hardly has the print dried, when that work, which seemed to him the most personal, appears to be enmeshed in the style of another. The only way to counter an obscure remorse is to continue searching and to publish a new book, but then everything repeats itself, so there is no end to that chase. And it may happen that leaving books behind as if they were dry snake skins, in a constant escape forward from what has been done in the past, he receives the Nobel Prize.”

“What is this enigmatic impulse that does not allow one to settle down in the achieved, the finished? I think it is a quest for reality. I give to this word its naive and solemn meaning, a meaning having nothing to do with philosophical debates of the last few centuries. It is the Earth as seen by Nils from the back of the gander and by the author of the Latin ode from the back of Pegasus. Undoubtedly, that Earth is and her riches cannot be exhausted by any description. To make such an assertion means to reject in advance a question we often hear today: ‘What is reality?’, for it is the same as the question of Pontius Pilate: ‘What is truth?’ If among pairs of opposites which we use every day, the opposition of life and death has such an importance, no less importance should be ascribed to the oppositions of truth and falsehood, of reality and illusion.”


His alma mater, Vilnius University (Photo: C.L. Haven)

“The thick walls of our ancient university.”  (Photo: C.L. Haven)

“It is good to be born in a small country where Nature was on a human scale, where various languages and religions cohabited for centuries. I have in mind Lithuania, a country of myths and of poetry. My family already in the Sixteenth Century spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland – English; so I am a Polish, not a Lithuanian, poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me. It is good in childhood to hear words of Latin liturgy, to translate Ovid in high school, to receive a good training in Roman Catholic dogmatics and apologetics. It is a blessing if one receives from fate school and university studies in such a city as Vilno. A bizarre city of baroque architecture transplanted to northern forests and of history fixed in every stone, a city of forty Roman Catholic churches and of numerous synagogues. In those days the Jews called it a Jerusalem of the North. Only when teaching in America did I fully realize how much I had absorbed from the thick walls of our ancient university, from formulas of Roman law learned by heart, from history and literature of old Poland, both of which surprise young Americans by their specific features: an indulgent anarchy, a humor disarming fierce quarrels, a sense of organic community, a mistrust of any centralized authority.”


“Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember. Certainly, the illiterates of past centuries, then an enormous majority of mankind, knew little of the history of their respective countries and of their civilization. In the minds of modern illiterates, however, who know how to read and write and even teach in schools and at universities, history is present but blurred, in a state of strange confusion; Molière becomes a contemporary of Napoleon, Voltaire, a contemporary of Lenin. Also, events of the last decades, of such primary importance that knowledge or ignorance of them will be decisive for the future of mankind, move away, grow pale, lose all consistency as if Frederic Nietzsche‘s prediction of European nihilism found a literal fulfillment. ‘The eye of a nihilist,’ he wrote in 1887, ‘is unfaithful to his memories: it allows them to drop, to lose their leaves;… And what he does not do for himself, he also does not do for the whole past of mankind: he lets it drop’ We are surrounded today by fictions about the past, contrary to common sense and to an elementary perception of good and evil. As The Los Angeles Times recently stated, the number of books in various languages which deny that the Holocaust ever took place, that it was invented by Jewish propaganda, has exceeded one hundred. If such an insanity is possible, is a complete loss of memory as a permanent state of mind improbable? And would it not present a danger more grave than genetic engineering or poisoning of the natural environment?”

birthday cake“For the poet of the ‘other Europe’ the events embraced by the name of the Holocaust are a reality, so close in time that he cannot hope to liberate himself from their remembrance unless, perhaps, by translating the Psalms of David. He feels anxiety, though, when the meaning of the word Holocaust undergoes gradual modifications, so that the word begins to belong to the history of the Jews exclusively, as if among the victims there were not also millions of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians and prisoners of other nationalities. He feels anxiety, for he senses in this a foreboding of a not distant future when history will be reduced to what appears on television, while the truth, as it is too complicated, will be buried in the archives, if not totally annihilated.”


 “Complaints of peoples, pacts more treacherous than those we read about in Thucydides, the shape of a maple leaf, sunrises and sunsets over the ocean, the whole fabric of causes and effects, whether we call it Nature or History, points towards, I believe, another hidden reality, impenetrable, though exerting a powerful attraction that is the central driving force of all art and science.”

“Our century draws to its close, and largely thanks to those influences I would not dare to curse it, for it has also been a century of faith and hope. A profound transformation, of which we are hardly aware, because we are a part of it, has been taking place, coming to the surface from time to time in phenomena that provoke general astonishment.”


You can read the whole thing here. Regarding the photograph below: I had the great good fortune in 2011 to visit Miłosz’s birthplace in the rural Lithuanian village of Šeteniai. And yes, it is as idyllic as he said it was – it reminded me of the woods and deep green colors of Michigan. I took this photo on the former Miłosz family estate, overlooking the river. The fishers called out to ask if we had permission to photograph them. Yes, one of us shouted back, there was a journalist in the group. They laughed, thinking it was a joke.


The perfect place to be born. (Photo: C.L. Haven)

Another honor for poet Tomas Venclova – keep ’em coming.

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Terrific poet in a little-known tongue.

One of our favorite people has bagged another honor: earlier this month, one of Europe’s most eminent poets, Tomas Venclova, was awarded for “creative fidelity to the values which comprise the foundation of European civilization.”  The ceremony took place at the Ossoliński National Institute, one of Poland’s oldest scientific libraries and research centers.

In his talk, the Lithuanian poet praised the previous prize laureates: “I have followed in the footsteps of people much greater than myself, such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Stanisław Szuszkiewicz, Sergei Kovalev, Václav Havel, Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus and Zbigniew Brzeziński,” he said. (Personally, I’m not so sure about the “greater than himself” part.)

He also paid homage to the prize’s namesake, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a Polish journalist and war-time resistance fighter who was an emissary between the Home Army and the Polish Government in Exile in London. After the war in Communist Poland, Nowak-Jeziorański headed the Polish Section of Radio Free Europe. “Unfortunately I never met Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, although I know he was an emblematic figure in the history of Eastern Europe and global society,” said Venclova. “A politician and solider, journalist and social worker, a diplomat who was a paradigm of fidelity to his beliefs.”

Venclova himself is one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki group, whose poetry in the disfavored Lithuanian language could be circulated only in samizdat. His dissident activities attracted the perilous attention of the Soviet authorities, and in 1977 he was forced to emigrate. He taught for many years at Yale University. His poetry has been translated by Czesław Miłosz into Polish, and by Joseph Brodsky into Russian. A selection of his poetry, translated into English by Ellen Hinsey, is at the Poetry Foundation here.

His previous honors include the Gloria Artis and Order of Merit Polish honours, as well as honorary doctorates from universities in Kraków, Gdańsk, Toruń, Lublin and the Lithuanian centres of Klaipeda and Kaunas. All that said, he is too little recognized in the West. So we think there should be more honors, west of the Danube. We have written about him here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Congratulations, Tomas!

Czesław Miłosz: his letters, his left-handedness, and a Russian blue cat named “Tiny”

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

CzeslawMilosz“To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.”  

— Czesław Miłosz, Road-side Dog

David Sanders over at Poetry News in Review brought “Miłosz and His Fans” in Ontario’s Brick Magazine to our attention, and we’re mightily grateful. Molly Wesling was an assistant to Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz in the early 1990s (we’ve written about him here and here, and a gazillion other places). Her reminiscences of the Polish poet (here) absolutely sparkles with gems. Here are a few paragraphs:

The indignities of aging were on the poet’s mind. He was translating the poems of Anna Swir (aka Świrszczyńska, 1909–1984), his friend from Warsaw, into English in collaboration with Leonard Nathan. Swir wrote about what happens when bodies decay and disappoint, and Miłosz admired her candour, rare for a Polish woman of her generation. His own writing from this period onward is full of such meditations. “They were betrayed by their bodies, once beautiful and ready to dance. Yet in every one a lamp of consciousness is burning, hence their wonder: ‘Is this me? But it can’t be so!’”

Still, the world rose up to smooth the poet’s path. One of the perks of being a Nobel laureate at University of California, Berkeley—at that time there were about fifteen, Miłosz the only winner in a non-scientific field—is your own parking space on campus for life. Miłosz also had the privilege of scoring a table at a moment’s notice at the wildly popular restaurant Chez Panisse. In Berkeley these were fairy-tale prizes, like flying carpets or enchanted pots that never run out of porridge.

Over the phone in the fall of 1990, Miłosz described where to catch the bus to his house and cautioned me about the many “lacunae” in the bus schedule. I knew then I’d caught the golden ring of part-time jobs. In between letters I jotted down a few of his asides. I’ve saved my notebooks, which is why I can quote from them twenty-five years later. Once, Miłosz looked at me as I was writing and said, “I used to be left-handed too, but they beat it out of me.” On Joseph Brodsky: “he is a genius”; Robert Frost: “marvellous”; the Laments by Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski: “should be ranked with the world classics”; and my favourite: “these poems are awful” (I can’t say whose).


Feed me.

Miłosz and Carol were away for the year of 1991–92. I collected the mail and sent it to Chapel Hill. Ted was in charge of watering the bushes of the main house and tending to the needs of Tiny, the ancient Russian Blue who appears once or twice in the Miłosz oeuvre—both as himself and as a representative of the violent animal world. Through our weekly tryst at Miłosz’s aerie, Ted and I had become a couple, complete with grey cat, like the “Old World Landowners” from Nikolai Gogol’s short story of that name. When the eighty-one-year-old Master finally arrived back at his Berkeley home, he immediately noticed the dying rhododendrons and Tiny’s untidy litter box and was annoyed. Miłosz climbed back up the flagstone path to the carriage house and commenced a dressing-down. Later that evening he returned, this time to offer Ted a heartfelt apology the way only Miłosz could—eyebrows twitching, a humble bow of the head.

Read the whole thing here.

“And the winner is …”: a few thoughts on this year’s “A Company of Authors”

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

mediciThere really wasn’t a winner … or rather, there were only winners. The annual “A Company of Authors,” which we previewed here, is like the Dodo’s Caucus Race: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Alright, alright … there are no prizes, either, but everybody really does win.

That said, John L’Heureux‘s presentation of his latest, The Medici Boy, was clearly one of the highpoints of an afternoon that was full of them (some said it was the best “Company of Authors” year evah). So much so that I began taking notes against my better instincts – my home is cluttered with wads of papers filled with unused notes, whatever will I do with them? L’Heureux said that we know little about the origins of Donatello‘s bronze David, unlike most of his works that we can pin to an approximate date and a commission. Not so with this mysterious work, which L’Heureux called “a revelation.”

I was the last moderator on the final panel of the long afternoon. Hence, by the time I staggered out into the Stanford Humanities Center lobby where the Stanford Bookstore was selling copies of the featured books, much buying and selling had already taken place. However, one book had vanished entirely. You guessed it. L’Heureux’s The Medici Boy was suddenly a Stanford best-seller. No surprise, perhaps. The Washington Post said of the book and its author: “His luminous prose, swift narrative, love of art history and cool eye for human weakness make this one a pleasure to read.”

Although I had arrived too late to purchase a copy, there had been a small bonus book added to each purchase, and one or two left over. So in the spirit of the Caucus Race (“all shall have prizes”), I got a free copy of Dikran Karaguezian‘s Conversations with John L’Heureux, published by Stanford’s CSLI Publications in 2010 – and with an excellent introduction by Tobias Wolff, too. Here’s what L’Heureux said about The Medici Boy five years ago:

lheureux“Way back in 1999 on my first trip to Florence I had the good fortune to visit the Accademia and the Bargello on the same day, which meant I got to see Michelangelo‘s David in the morning and Donatello’s David in the afternoon. They provided me with a good close-up contrast. I was astonished at the Michelangelo – it’s vast and overwhelming – and I was embarrassed by the Donatello. I didn’t know where to look. The statue is so unashamedly naked. And erotic, with an eroticism that is quite calculated, I think. It asks to be looked at. It asks to be touched. I knew absolutely nothing about Donatello at that time, but one look at the David convinced me that Donatello knew exactly what he was doing and went ahead and did it anyway. …

“I concluded first that there’s a story here. That whoever modeled for this David meant more to Donatello personally than the models for Saint George or Saint Louis. Donatello gives the statue an audacity, a sexual defiance, that I’m sure he captured from the model. It’s not superimposed. It’s there in the boy posing for him. And their relationship, I concluded, was by its nature designed to break his heart. …

Q: It sounds as if you must have done a lot of research for this book.

“Actually research for this thing is an endless process. I never really intended to write the book even though I began keeping notes for it as early as 1999. I thought of it as a project for my old age, something I could keep noodling away at right up to the moment of my death … or my being sent doddering and drooling to Casa Sayanara … and when people would ask, ‘Are you working on a new book?’ I would reply, ‘Oh yes, a long term project on Donatello.’ And then I’d leave a pile of notes and nothing more at my death, but I’d have been able to kid myself that I was still at work.

miloszTruth be told, I have the same misgivings, that at my death my survivors will find only piles and piles of confused and disorganized papers and notes. So I was relieved that the bookstore also carried a few books by some of the panel moderators at “A Company of Authors” – and Humble Moi was among them. So at least one series of efforts will not be entirely lost to time. The featured book was one of my earlier efforts, Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations. While I can’t say that the small stack of my book flew off the shelves, the pile was slightly shorter when I left, which was gratifying.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “I feel that the greatest asset that my part of Europe received in the history of the twentieth century, the privilege of our being the avant-garde of inhumanity, is that the question of true and false, good and evil, became operative again. Namely, good and evil, true and false have not been discovered through philosophical discourse, but empirically, like the taste of bread.”



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

Friday, March 27th, 2015

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.