Posts Tagged ‘Czeslaw Milosz’

Andrew Sullivan on living-in-the-web: “It broke me. It might break you, too.”

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

Getting off the grid. (Photo: Trey Ratcliff)

Author, journalist, blogger Andrew Sullivan has been a kind friend to the Book Haven over the years, picking up our posts in The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and in his blog “The Daily Dish” – we’ve written about it here and here and here. Then last year he discontinued his blog – burned out, needed to get off the grid, he said.

I understood. Being online, all the time, had affected my own ability to read, think, and focus. Nowadays, I find it requires discipline to read a few pages without compulsively leaping up to google an unfamiliar word or doublecheck a random fact. But I’d never escalated to the hepped-up scale he did.

He tells his story in New York Magazineand it’s a riveting read, and a black warning. Here’s an excerpt:

For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years wentby, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.

If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

But the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day; a new-media business that was actually profitable; a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age, I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve. The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.

invisibleAnd that, of course, is the point, isn’t it? As I wrote in the introduction to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz

Few can deny the dizzying rate of social and technological upheaval in the information age, where we communicate in real time with Peru and tweet back what we hear, yet human greed, cowardice, and power-lust remains essentially the same. That acceleration, juxtaposed with man’s fallibility, is very much to the point.

One metric for measuring the chasm pertains to what Miłosz called être and devenir. (Or, to put a Thomist slant on it, heuses the Latin esse elsewhere.) When I interviewed him at his legendary Grizzly Peak home a decade ago, I asked him about être and devenir. He dodged the question: “My goodness. A big problem,” he said.



After some hesitation, however, he elaborated. “We are in a flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.

In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Postmodernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.

Read Andrew Sullivan’s piece here. As he writes: “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.”

David Sanders: “And the moment? Well, moments are always disappearing.”

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

The poet, editor, publisher David Sanders

I met David Sanders many years ago. The occasion was the West Chester Poetry Conference – but circa when? The year 2000, I think, at an evening celebration at the home of the conference’s co-founder, Michael Peich. I don’t remember what the two of us were discussing so earnestly. I simply remember standing on the back porch with David, his cigarette embers glowing in the dark, a sea of crickets somewhere in the distance, and the orange tip of light making circles as he gestured. He was the director of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press then, and I thought of him as publisher, not a poet. Later, he became the founding editor Poetry News in Review at The Prairie Schooner – the Book Haven has discussed it here.

Recently, however, I was pleased to see the more personal side of the poet emerge, with the publication of his collection Compass & Clock. (The title does not refer to a poem in the collection – why the title then? Perhaps because one measures space, the other time.)

Poet, actor, and editor David Yezzi called the collection “the strongest new book of poems I have read in quite some time.” Poet Joshua Mehigan noted that the poet’s “kind, observant clarity can lull you into a sense of ease, even as he lays open the poignancy and diverse fascinations of existing on earth.” According to poet Andrew Hudgins, “Sanders knows well it is love itself that makes us miss and mourn the things we’ve lost.”

Here’s one on a topic we’re all too familiar with, the quotidian effects of death on the living – written, curiously, in first person, from the p.o.v. of the dead:


The living pack us up.
Now that we have gone and died
it’s comforting to them
to know what’s left is tucked inside

a box, an urn, or closet
where memories, like dreams, abound.
They tend to the mess
our dying first has left around.

(Letters dried to mica,
clothes gone further out of style,
souvenirs of us
in storage, kept a little while.)

They allow themselves sadness,
drifting near this windy border.
But grief has raked out its embers,
which cool and die among the order.

His poem “Lascaux” naturally caught my eye – I recognized immediately which poem he honors when he writes “after Miłosz.” The Nobel poet’s very early 1936 poem, “Encounter” is the first in his Collected Poems. You can read it here to see the Polish maestro’s earlier treatment of the same idea. One poet answers another through time. Here’s David’s unusual take:


Jacques Marsal, who as a boy discovered the prehistoric paintings of the Lascaux cave with three friends and became the cave’s guardian for life, died Saturday after a long illness.

lascaux_megaloceros– (AP) July 17, 1989

The first day, his dog disappeared in the forest,
lost down a hole. The next, exploring with friends,
he found the cave – leaping stags, buffalo,
prehistoric horses.
.                         Alone a moment, one French boy lived
a dream boys dream: to stand at the place
where for thousands of years no one has been.

That was 1940. Boy and dog are dead.
And the moment? Well, moments are always disappearing.

.                         after Miłosz

Poet Anna Frajlich’s long journey from Warsaw to New York

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

Anna, photographed by Krzysztof Dubiel.

Poet Anna Frajlich-Zajac (she uses Frajlich as her pen name) is retiring from Columbia University, where she taught Polish language and literature for decades. The Harriman Institute’s Ronald Meyer has written a tribute to the Polish poet. Here’s how she came to New York City, in a wave of Jewish emigration too little known in the West:

Anna and her family were part of the mass emigration of some 13,000 Poles of Jewish descent who had fallen victim to a virulent anti-Semitic campaign and political crisis known as March 1968. Emigration required renunciation of one’s Polish citizenship, which Anna had to perform on behalf of her two-year-old son. Like her fellow émigrés, Anna believed that she would never see her native land again. Officially they were bound for Israel, but her husband argued that if they were to leave Poland, they should go as far as possible from Europe; thus they informed the authorities in Vienna that they wished to make the United States their home. They traveled to Rome under the care of the gendarmerie due to their statelessness. As they awaited travel documents for the United States, they were charged only with refraining from any demonstrations, which left them free to explore the Eternal City and begin adapting to life in the West. Many years later Anna’s Roman ramblings would provide the background for her dissertation and monograph, The Legacy of Ancient Rome in the Russian Silver Age.

I couldn’t agree more with Anna’s assertion that “language is a key to literature, to history, to understanding progress of any sort.” I had the good fortune to meet Anna in connection with An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz:

Anna worked as a freelance cultural correspondent with Radio Free Europe (RFE) as a writer and interviewer, which culminated in her interview with Czesław Miłosz upon his receiving the Nobel Prize. She first met Miłosz at a lecture at the Guggenheim on October 17, 1978; he inscribed the date in his book about Stanisław Brzozowski, which Anna had purchased in a local Polish bookstore and brought for him to autograph. When writing her thesis on “one of the most original Polish thinkers of the twentieth century,” to cite Miłosz’s formulation, Anna had to travel across Warsaw to read this same book in the restricted section of the library, after producing a document from her thesis adviser. Now she had her own copy, with the author’s inscription. They continued to meet sporadically at readings and conferences.

invisibleThe Nobel interview, which has been published in English translation [that would be in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz], almost did not come about. Miłosz had not been treated well by RFE in the early days of his emigration, and he did not feel obliged in the least to give them an interview. But he had been persuaded that since he had given an interview to Trybuna Ludu, the Polish Communist daily, he should give one to RFE. He agreed, but insisted that Anna conduct the interview. The interview took place at Miłosz’s home in Berkeley. The piece, which very much represents a poet interviewing a poet, was a resounding success; it was broadcast four times and published. In 1993, Anna was conducting interviews for the column “What Other People Read,” which was appearing in the cultural supplement to the Polish Daily News. She conducted a telephone interview with Miłosz for the column, realizing only after hanging up that she had forgotten to hit the record button. She immediately called him back and explained the situation. He “graciously” suggested that they conduct the interview again the next morning. You can read about Anna’s relationship with Miłosz, including how he introduced her to Scotch after they concluded the Nobel interview and that she taught his granddaughter Polish at Columbia, in her essay, “He Also Knew How to Be Gracious.”

Anna earned her master’s degree in Polish philology at Warsaw University, writing her dissertation on the philosopher and critic Stanisław Brzozowski and the Polish positivists. She began her graduate studies under the guidance of Zoya Yurieff, a professor of Slavic literatures and cultures at New York University who was an early inspiration and encouraged her graduate education in the first place. Yurieff also suggested the topic of ancient Rome in the poetry of the Russian symbolists.

What future for Anna? She plans to write a memoir called Women in My Life, which will include portraits of her mother and a Warsaw University professor, among others, and, of course, Zoya Yurieff.

Read the whole retrospective here. Meanwhile, a poem dedicated to her wonderful husband, reprinted with her permission:

Manhattan Panorama

to Władek 

The bridges overhang the city
like diamonds in a diadem
reflected lights are burning
in the Hudson and the Harlem Rivers
in the East River in the bay
and in puddles on the road
the bridges overhang the city
that shone in flight
between a setting star
and the rising moon
walls pinned into heaven
pressed by granite to the ground
wind in its stone sails
out to sea
it moves at dawn

(Translated by Ross Ufberg)

With love from Warsaw: Julia Fiedorczuk and a message from the mist

Friday, July 15th, 2016

scatteringJulia Fiedorczuk, the young Warsaw poet, has written some beautiful verse – well, we wrote about that here, after a magical April night in Berkeley that ended at Chez Panisse. Most of the poems that were read that evening came from a new anthology Scattering the DarkBut one, inspired by Czesław Miłosz, was not. I was not able to use print it at the time, since it was under consideration for publication by the Poetry Foundation, and Julia kindly gave us Psalm 2 instead. We’re pleased to say that Julia’s “Psalm 31,” was not selected (Psalm V was, and is published online here). So here is Psalm 31, all these months later, below. “The whole cycle rhythmically and poetically alludes to Miłosz’s translation of the Hebrew Psalms,” the poet said. We think so, too. Tell us which of the three psalms you like the best (all translated by Bill Johnston). I still think this one has the most Miłoszian bent. She sent it with her love from beautiful Warsaw:

Psalm XXXI

chickadeesfor R. K.

a chickadee had perched on the window-sill like a message
generated by the mist, October
was turning into November in the birches oaks alders,
in the frost-resistant flowers, in the cemeteries
where our fathers wrote no memoirs,
where they would not recognise our children, our
poems, ourselves. The television was showing Poland
that had perished, and then had not perished, and then
again had perished, and then not, and then the sun
flung up a mesh of branches, all at once
the chickadee was absorbed by sky before I could say
remember, remember me.

Happy birthday, Czesław Miłosz! He was no hero, and he knew it.

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

Outside his birthplace in Šeteniai, Lithuania. (Photo: Humble Moi)

When I wrote my first of many articles on Czesław Miłosz oh, some sixteen years ago, the editors suggested a headline that had the word “hero” in it. I knew he would have cringed at such a notion, and talked them out of it. He had, after all, served the Stalinist government of Poland, and he always remembered it.

His turnabout came one winter night in 1949 as he was leaving a lavish evening party attended by Poland’s ruling elite. On his way home at abut 4 a.m., he passed some jeeps carrying the newly arrested. “The soldiers guarding them were wearing sheepskin coats, but the prisoners were in suit jackets with the collars turned up, shivering from the cold. It was then I realized what I was part of.”

A happenstance Californian.

Birthday boy.

He compared the process to swallowing frogs: you could perhaps swallow one or two, but at the third the stomach revolts. It was not ideology or philosophy – but a revolt of the stomach. (Read more about what happened afterwards here.)

It’s Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz’s 105th birthday today, but Robert Zaretsky‘s article in last week’s New York Times wasn’t the best prezzie we could think of for the occasion. A salute to Miłosz all too quickly descends to another ritual denunciation of Donald Trump. Milosz’s vast and nuanced experience is put in service of a crude political end. This complicated poet’s oeuvre is marshaled to support today’s political grievances. Of course he had strong opinions, but the whole point of Miłosz is that he never saw himself apart from what he observed.

He never saw himself as the “good guy,” but rather as fallible and flawed, as cruel and indifferent as anyone else, given the same trials. Somewhere (I’m unable to find the reference) he described himself in wartime Poland averting his eyes from his Jewish neighbor on the staircase. He is the poet of guilt. (I wrote more about that here.) Said fellow Nobelist Joseph Brodsky of Miłosz’s wartime experiences: “Out of these ashes emerged poetry which did not so much sing of outrage and grief as whisper of the guilt of the survivor.” Hence, “Campo dei Fiori,” cited in the New York Times piece, is not an indictment of his fellow human beings, but an indictment of himself, also. That keen self-knowledge kept him far away from the soapbox. (He made an exception for his poem, “Sarajevo,” which he thought was sub-par. As he said, “Sometimes it is better to be a little ashamed than silent.”)

invisibleHe was not always sympathetic to the self-righteous. In my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszCalifornia poet Morton Marcus recalls a 1970 reception that Miłosz hosted for the visiting Serbian poet Vasko Popa. The Polish Nobelist encountered several Berkeley students, wearing white armbands, en route to a protest against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. After some belligerent inquiries from a slightly drunken Miłosz, the students made the mistake of saying that they were protesting for peace and love.

“Love, love, love!” mocked Miłosz, his voice rising to a shout. “Talk to me about love when they come into your cell one morning, line you all up, and say ‘You and you, step forward. It’s your time to die—unless any of your friends loves you so much he wants to take your place!’”

In The Captive Mind, he writes that whenever he is “drunk with the beauty of being alive amidst living human beings,” one image obstinately returned to him:

“I see before my eyes always the same young Jewish girl. She was probably about twenty years old. Her body was full, splendid, exultant. She was running down the street, her hands raised, her chest thrust forward. She cried piercingly, “No! No! No!” The necessity to die was beyond her comprehension—a necessity that came from outside, having nothing in common with her unprepared body. The bullets of the SS guards’ automatic pistols reached her in her cry.”


Na Zdorovie

“Are Americans really stupid?” writes Zaretsky at the beginning of his piece. I wonder. A review of Captive Mind in Goodreads: “Excellent work about the intellectual deadening of Western Culture. A polemic on living under facist [sic] control and what it does to the mind.” It makes one wonder if people have lost their ability to read altogether. The book is a study of Miłosz’s experiences and observations under Communism, not Fascism. And his experience happened in Poland, not “Western Culture.”

Well, there you have it. Here’s to you, Czesław. Lifting the spiritual essence of a glass of Szarlotka to you, as I did on your centenary way back in 2011, celebrating in your home on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley.

They scatter the dark: three Polish poets in Berkeley

Thursday, April 7th, 2016
Momentous 100%

Izabela Morska, Julia Fiedorczuk, and Krystyna Dabrowska. (Photo: Jagoda Glinecka)

If you noticed a slight shimmer in the firmament last week, I know the reason. There was a superb display of talent at Berkeley’s “Scattering the Dark: Celebrating the New Generation of Female Polish Poets,” featuring Krystyna Dąbrowska, Izabela (Filipiak) Morska, and Julia Fiedorczuk. Who better to moderate the reading and discussion than Pulitzer prizewinning Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate and the preeminent translator of Czesław Miłosz?  He hailed the  “three amazingly adventurous poets” and was delighted to extend the “intermittent conversation” between English and Polish poetry.

Bob asked the inevitable question of the three: How did they live in the shadow of the poetry of the 20th century giants and the “huge moral trauma it responded to?” He was thinking of course of Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert,Tadeusz Różewicz, Julia Hartwig.

Krystyna added the lesser known (in the West) Miron Białoszewski to the list, then dismissed the issue: “For my generation, it’s not such a problem. The younger poets are looking for different sources of inspiration,” she said. They also have new historical sources for trauma: the reactionary turn in the country that was once hailed as the champion of post-Soviet democracy and recovery. Her own inspiration tends to be enigmatic, imaginative, and personal, such as this one in the poem “Travel Agency”:

I am a travel agency for the dead,
I book them flights to the dreams of the living. …

She roundly criticized critic Andrzej Franaszek‘s recent 2-page editorial in a major Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, which claimed that people don’t read poetry anymore and addressed the reasons why. He blamed hermetic trends and experiments in language poetry – John Ashbery has been a powerful influence on recent generations of poets – and called for a new poetry based on experience. (I wondered if Franaszek’s role as Miłosz’s biographer had a hand in his p.o.v.: ““Blessed be classicism and let us hope it did not pass away forever,” the Polish poet had said.”)

Mizar 100%

Izabela shot with light. Krystyna and Julia center and right. (Photo: Jagoda Glinecka)

Julia was also angry at Franaszek’s editorial, for other reasons: not a single living woman poet was named. She published a spirited reply, suggesting that if Franaszek did not like today’s poetry, perhaps he should not review it.

Izabela said the fictional alter ego “Madame Intuita” is her response to the generation of giants, with its homage to Herbert’s “Mr. Cogito.” Like Miłosz himself, she herself had been an immigrant, though one who had lived in a refugee center and shared utensils with other displaced people:

My whole life’s like learning a second language –
so many immigrant sacrifices but in the end
I can’t get rid of this accent, recognized
everywhere to my annoyance.
And I’d been feeling almost assimilated!
All that effort, and for what?

However, she pointed out today’s poets face hurdles that the yesterday’s giants never knew. To wit: the “acrobatics” to get into the publications were something Miłosz and Herbert never faced. She described the hardscrabble life of the writer, the uncertain income, the rejection letters and the silence that is worse than rebuffs. “I feel like I’m on a trapeze and doing somersaults and hoping I catch the next trapeze,” she said. Such a precarious life is “strange at about thirty, more strange at 40, and kind of odd at 50.” But in that sense, the life of the writer is most universal.

“Failure is the key human experience,” said Izabela, who had been a visiting scholar at Berkeley from 2003-2005. It’s a universal one, because “none of us arrive at the destination,” the imagined empyrean we never reach. She remembered George Orwell, and said this realization is why “poverty became his topic.” I believe that is one reason why Orwell will last.

scatteringFailure is the key human experience, and her words were all the more powerful for being spoken in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, a place where success is both addiction and the drug itself. We trumpet our successes on Facebook, perpetually shine our C.V.’s, and forge ahead in our determined effort to “brand” ourselves and market ourselves. We risk replacing the face with the mask we have created.

It was a magical evening, that ended at Chez Panisse, Miłosz’s favorite haunt. I suspect Miłosz was the presiding spirit of the evening. Berkeley was, after all, his home for forty years, and where he trained a generation of translators.

Most of the poems that were read came from a new anthology Scattering the DarkBut  one, inspired by Miłosz, was not. I cannot do better for my tribute today than include a poem indirectly inspired by him. The one I wanted to use, “Psalm 31,” is under consideration for publication (we’ll send a link to it when it is), but she sent “Psalm 2” as a replacement. After all, said Julia: “the whole cycle rhythmically and poetically alludes to Miłosz’s translation of the Hebrew Psalms.”

Psalm II

for M. M.

some poems cannot be written any longer.
some could not be written until now.
nighttime despair because of the children, drowned
children, hanged children, burned
children, massacred children, toys of children
in the plane wreck, because motherhood
is a life sentence, while despair seeks ornaments
and pleasing shapes, so as to dress up in them,
take shelter in them, be protected;
so best be quiet, I’m saying, so I’m saying: none
of your bones is going to be broken, let’s say,
Blueberry“you shall want for nothing,” let’s say,
“a tree will be planted by the flowing waters” –

(Translated by Bill Johnston)


Three Polish poets plus Bob Hass. (Photo: Halina Zdrzalka)

Czesław Miłosz and the “soft pollution” of the mind

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

A thousand pages of Milosz.

When I drove to the Stanford post office and collected the heavy parcel with thick brown-paper packaging, I knew by its heft what it was, even before I saw the Polish stamps.

Miłosz i Miłosz was published two years ago by Kraków’s Księgarnia Akademicka, but I didn’t quite believe it until I finally had it in my hands. The volume, nearly a thousand pages edited by Aleksandr Fiut, Artur Grabowski, and Łukasz Tischner, includes the talks given on the centenary for the Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz in 2011. (I wrote about the occasion here and here and here.)

And there, on page 109, is my own “Miłosz in Purgatory” – or “Miłosz w czyśćcu.” An excerpt (in English):

At Queens College in New York City, someone in the audience asked [poet Robert] Hass what it was like spending decades translating Miłosz. He responded in a heartbeat: “Like being alive twice.”

Clearly, Hass is more attuned to the Pacific mystic who was struggling to come to terms with the fierce surf, the sea-worn cliffs, and a fate that would have been unimaginable to the younger self who wrote “Dedication” in Warsaw. As Miłosz wrote in “Magic Mountain,” a poem that has inevitable resonances for Californians:

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?
Until it passed. What passed? Life.


Jagiellonian University: an intimidating venue.

Miłosz survived into the age of globalization—an era that has seen the collapse of time and space. Or, as Russian scholar Valentina Polukhina describes it, “a period in which our long history has been put into single storage.” As a cause and effect of that storage, “Today’s world is not monolithic: discrete events, fragmented thinking and perceptions, ideas of good and evil are so confused that the only proper response is apocalypse.”

The more commonplace response is instead an enormous loss of inwardness. Miłosz also was alarmed by it. During the Berkeley centenary event last March, a woman mentioned a talk Miłosz gave to a graduating class in New Mexico in 1989. I located a copy. While his comments might not be surprising today, it’s important to remember they were made more than two decades ago, and prefigure Michel Serres’s very recent writings about “soft pollution”:

“Pollution of the environment is today at the center of universal attention. There is, though, another kind of pollution which does not seem to be anybody’s concern … I speak of the pollution of the mind by the image of the world imposed upon citizens by advertisements, television, cinema, newspapers, radio and imposed in such a manner that their victims do not realize to what extent they are conditioned. As today there are no clear criteria for forbidding anything, the freedom of the market is the supreme law.”

A happenstance Californian.

A champion for “second space.”

We forbid nothing. We have an endless array of choices at all points of life but very few criteria on which to base those choices. Hence, we are unable to make our choices “meaningful,” and this breeds the nihilism that afflicts us. Believing in “progress,” we are unable to get our utopias up and running. We sense a diminution of our cosmos. Miłosz replied by crying out for “Second Space.” Yet today many seem tone deaf to the rhythms of his life, and can only transpose his nuances into the key of doubt – even more frequently, we project our current moral chaos onto Miłosz, and so misunderstand him.

Have we become allergic to the medicine he offers? It’s an antidote more needed in America, where he spent four decades of his life, than perhaps anywhere else – and it is from that perspective that I speak, a perspective that is both foreign and familiar to those in Poland.

Order your own here, if you’re a Polish speaker. Worth your złoty.

Is Vladislav Khodasevich the most underappreciated Russian poet of the last century? Maybe.

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Intense guy. (Khodasevich, that is, but also true for Miłosz and Herbert).

Until this week, I knew the Russian poet Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939) only through the squabbles of two poets, Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert. Some of the differences between the two Poles are documented here, but perhaps their most famous rift is associated with Herbert’s poem by the title “Khodasevich,” targeting Miłosz, not the Russian. I looked for some information on this conflict online, and found, to my surprise, an illuminating interview with Miłosz biographer in Kraków, Andrzej Franaszek. The interview, “I Will Oppress You with My Strange Love,” was conducted by Humble Moi, and I had forgotten I had done it years ago (it’s here).

A relevant excerpt:

HAVEN: Let’s discuss “Khodasevich,” from Herbert’s penultimate 1992 collection, six years before his death. It’s ostensibly about Russian émigré poet Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939), but actually attacks Miłosz, right down to his interest in Swedenborg and his devotion to Oscar Miłosz, his cosmopolitan kinsman and fellow-writer in Paris. It ends: “from behind the clouds his rhyming frog-croaks.” Can you explain a little Herbert’s apparent animosity, and how it scandalized Poland in the 1990s?

FRANASZEK: Well, what I can say is that personally for me—and surely for many other readers—it was a kind of shock. When I read “Khodasevich” for the first time, I couldn’t believe that it was Herbert’s poem. Not only because of all accusations which could be found in it, but mostly because of a huge dose of hostility and scorn, because of its language, tone, the poetics of a lampoon—it’s extremely different from Herbert’s normal poetical idiom. But what is really interesting, after writing “Khodasevich,” Herbert sent to Miłosz, his painfully mocked friend, a postcard with a leg of an elephant suspended upon a defenseless chicken and with a three-word note: “Don’t tread upon”…

HAVEN: Strange. I would have thought Miłosz was the one who had been underfoot. What on earth did he mean by that?

FRANASZEK: Well, what can I say? Maybe Herbert felt himself to be the weaker party in this relationship.


Alex Cigale, drawn by Dastan Abaskanov.

So what does that tell us about Khodasevich? Bupkis. But that’s probably how most people get introduced to this Russian poet, who emigrated to Berlin in the 1920s and is arguably the most underappreciated Russian poet of the last century – if they get introduced at all, that is. Upon his death, Vladimir Nabokov called him “the greatest Russian poet the 20th century has yet produced.”

More help is readily at hand with the recent issue of Kenyon Review, where a friend, Alexander Cigale, has published a new translation of his enigmatic poem, “The Ape.” (You can listen to Alex reading it, in English and Russian, here.) “The Ape” is the best known of Vladislav Khodasevich’s sequence of blank verse poems (1918-1919) in response to the horrors of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Read it here. (You can also read Peter Daniels’ translation of Khodasevich’s “Look for Me” in The Guardian here.) I find the poem enigmatic – but Alex was surprised at that characterization: “It always seemed, if anything, painfully earnest to me.” Perhaps both are true.

From Alex’s own preface to the sequence:


Current issue

While much remains to be said to attempt to explain what makes Khodasevich both stand out and not fit in with the main body of Russian poetry, it is his synthesis of the classic and the modern, the intense personalism of his lyrical ego, the directness of his voice and address often verging on simplicity, that marks his primary individuality as a poet. The naked vulnerability of such words raises the bar by exposing the relative perfection and imperfection of every word, achieving a kind of cameo-like high contrast that makes these poems nearly unique in the Russian canon.

Wallace Stegner, Czesław Miłosz, and what they had to say to each other

Sunday, February 7th, 2016

Stegner got used to the barbs.

I discovered this offbeat and little-known treasure on Youtube – a rare treat for fans of American Pulitzer prizewinning author Wallace Stegner and Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. The interview was filmed sometime in the 1980s, and has less than 1,450 views to date.

It is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable “friendly” interviews I’ve ever watched, with only occasional flashes of smiles and laughter. The unedited raw footage comes to us via Stephen Fisher Productions – with the cameramen periodically stopping the filming, interjecting questions, and restarting with calls of “Rolling!” Stegner gamely keeps trying to draw Miłosz out, as they stand on a breezy hilltop in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. They both look like they’d rather be indoors.

A happenstance Californian.

A reluctant Californian

The topic at hand: the effect of landscape on a writer’s spirit. “I lived through rebellion against California landscape,” Miłosz admits in his heavy Polish accent. It’s a rebellion, he said, that lasted twenty years. (I write about Miłosz as a California poet here.) Stegner agrees that California “offends a lot of people by being so dry and barren and prickly. Everything in it has barbs.” Naturally, the subject of poet Robinson Jeffers comes up on a couple occasions.

Miłosz said he missed the “cosiness” of the Lithuanian valley where he grew up – when he wasn’t traipsing about the vast expanses of Russia with his family during pre-revolutionary years (his father was an engineer of the empire). Miłosz does say that he was intrigued by the number of species he found in California  – species of pines and birds and everything else. Plenty of jays in Europe, he said, but not so many as here. “I was intrigued by the essence of being a jay,” he said. Well we know what happened with that, with his poem “Magpiety.”

Watch it for yourself:

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.