Archive for March, 2011

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

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011


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

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

She ought to know.  She was not only there, she and her husband and fellow translator John Carpenter hosted the dinner, which included poets Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert. She said distorted versions of the event that have left the Polish intelligentsia bickering ever since.

vs. poet

“It started out happy and gay,” she recalled of the evening — a pleasant, spicy meal with plenty of wine. After dinner, Herbert’s tone became “harsher and harsher,” Bogdana recalled.  “When he was drunk he tended to be aggressive – and this time it was too late.” Herbert’s thoughts turned to the German occupation of Poland during World War II.

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

However, “it’s become known in a distorted version,” Bogdana said of the story.  Typically, it is claimed that Miłosz provoked the incident by suggesting that Poland be added to the Soviet Empire as the 17th republic. Bogdana said this comment never happened. The provocation was invented by Herbert twenty years after the event, she said.

Correcting the record

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

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

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

“Miłosz differed diametrically.”  For Miłosz, loyalty had its limits – “when the price was other people,” she said, he could be “scathingly critical.” His position was that “loyalty is not enough – one seeks logical justification” for self-immolation. Miłosz’s defined his “homeland” as the Polish language.  “Miłosz’s chosen weapon was the word, not the sword,” said Bogdana. “Language defined him.”

Bogdana Carpenter pointed out that “Herbert was not in Warsaw in 1939, 1942, or 1944.”  Milosz witnessed the destruction of Warsaw firsthand. Patriotism was not the question.  She pointed out that during Nazi occupation, Miłosz compiled an anthology of anti-Nazi poetry – An Invincible Song (1942) – “for which he easily could have lost his life.”

Columbia University honors Czesław Miłosz — and launches An Invisible Rope

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Last night Columbia University honored Czesław Miłosz — and launched An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz — with a panel discussion.  Left to right:  poet Anna Frajlich; scholar and translator Bogdana Carpenter; James Marcus, deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine; Alan Timberlake, chair of Slavic Languages at Columbia; humble moi; and scholar Elisabeth Kridl Valkenier.  The photo is courtesy Zygmunt Malinowski, whose photograph of Miłosz graces the cover of An Invisible Rope.

The evening held some surprises — I’ll write more in a few hours.  After nine days in chilly, rainy, New York, I’ve just arrived back in beautiful California, where the temperature is warm, the sun is out, and the flowers are everywhere.  Hard to believe Miłosz sometimes considered it the landscape of the damned — or, as Clare Cavanagh said, “the landscape of the damned — with good weather.”

While I pondered weak and weary…

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Unexpected connections

As a guest of Columbia University, I have been installed in the Milburn Hotel on W. 76th Street.  I arrived on Sunday night at about 11 a.m., after the book launch for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz at Brooklyn Central Library.  I had not eaten anything except some hors d’oeuvres  at a Polish literary party (with a bilingual reading by Polish poet Tomasz Różycki, and a Ukrainian poet whose name I did not catch) in a Westchester County, but plenty of cognac and wine had been poured into me — or, more honestly, I had gladly poured into myself after a long day.

So I didn’t have much of a sense of where I had landed when my friend, the NYU mathemetician Lindsey Van Wagenen, arrived to take me for coffee the next morning.  Lindsey, sensitive to the need for a charming and picturesque setting for her visitor, discarded the usual Starbucks.  We eventually wandered up to 84th Avenue and sat down at Edgar’s Café — I hadn’t thought about the name and chose a corner table beneath a big portrait of Edgar Allen Poe.


The penny fell when big marble placque notified me that this quaint and intimate café occupied the former site of the Brennen Mansion, located on the street between West End Avenue and Broadway known as Edgar Allen Poe Street.  Heavens, I hadn’t really associated America’s famous writer with New York City at all.

The plaque, put up by the New York Shakespeare Society in 1922, informed us that Poe resided right where we were standing, between March 1844 and August 1845.

Important dates for the artist:  He composed “The Raven” here.

They make a pretty good goat cheese omelette, too, and a dynamite cappuccino.

Lunch at Le Monde with Philip Fried in NYC

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

This week in New York City has been drenched in Polish literature (see posts here and here) – so my visit with poet Philip Fried, founding editor of the 30-year-old Manhattan Review, may at first seem like something of an anomaly.

Until, that is, you realize that the quiet Manhattan Review was the first American journal to publish an interview with Polish poet and dissident Stanisław Barańczak in 1981. The review began to publish the work of Chinese dissident poet Bei Dao as early as 1990. And, according to its website, in 1994 it launched an unprecedented nationwide campaign that increased the number of poetry reviews in The New York Times.

I discovered the review when I was unearthing a rare, early interview with Zbigniew Herbert, by his translators John and Bogdana CarpenterThe Manhattan Review was among the first reviews to devote a whole issue to the renowned poet in the mid-1980s – and I initially contacted Philip to get more than the snippets I found online.  (I also, on this visit, received a copy of his Early/Late: New and Selected Poems, published last month by Salmon Poetry.)

One would think that the Manhattan Review, which has two new poems by Les Murray in its current issue, would be better known.  But Philip and the Manhattan Review are as quiet as it namesake island is named is noisy.  We nevertheless had a pleasant and talkative lunch at Le Monde, an amiable bistro that “celebrates the cuisine of the Loire Valley” near Columbia University.  Besides Polish poetry, we discussed the upheaval in the book industry and the dwindling presence of poetry on the American scene.  What, after all, is a poet to do?  The attempts to “reach out” to the public via April Poetry Month are usually farcical.  Poet celebrities are often, well… not really poets at all.  Pulling up the drawbridge and sticking to one’s own tiny audience has resulted in a situation Philip compared to polar bears on ever-shrinking ice floes – an image that will stay with me for some time to come.

Postscript on 3/28:  Philip just wrote to tell me he got a nice notice in Publishers Weekly — a publication we rate highly since it put humble moi and  An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz one of the top ten books for the spring, in the “Belles Lettres and Reflections” category.  Here’s what it said about Philip’s latest collection:

This skillful and memorable first selection can seem like the work of three or four different poets, though wit and civility hold it together. First comes a bevy of poems about God, often comic, and often spoken in His assumed voice: often in stand-alone prose sentences (like the Book of Proverbs) they mix the language of elevated salvation with the debased terms of business and politics: “I regret to inform you that, in the purview of immutable discretion, it has now become necessary to downsize the elect.” Verse from Fried’s Mutual Trespasses (1988) also looks at–or speaks for–a divine Creator, wittily juxtaposing His omnipotence with human foibles and emotions: “He seemed to sink/ into Himself, a collapsing/ mountain.” Big Men Speaking to Little Men (2006), making up most of the last half of this collection, casts aside divinity for carefully ironized versions of family history: nostalgic at times, more outwardly conventional, these pages may nonetheless hold his strongest work. The New York-based Fried (who edits the Manhattan Review) closes with supple, formally acrobatic excerpts from a recent set of sonnets: “I’ve cornered the market on me, but I’ll sell you the shimmer./ When the bubble has burst, volatility is tender.” (Apr.)

“Like being alive twice”: Hass, Zagajewski, Cavanagh, and Hirsh on Czesław Miłosz — this time in Queens

Friday, March 25th, 2011

The crowds are unending

I’ve been to New York City four or five times in my life – but I’ve never been to Queens.  Somehow I didn’t expect the constant river of people to continue beyond the borders of Manhattan, but it did.  Getting on a Queens bus, I saw the line behind me grow steadily longer and longer, increasing rather than diminishing as people climbed onboard.  Finally, until the weary bus driver closed the doors on protesting people, still trying to get on.  That’s usual, he told me.  The line doesn’t end.

So that’s one reason why I was 45 minutes late to the discussion about Czesław Miłosz at Queens College on Tuesday night. Two days ago, I posted about same cast of charactersRobert Hass , Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh — let me do so again, with the addition of poet Ed Hirsch, MacArthur “genius” fellow, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Here are a few notes from the discussion (and apologies for not having time to polish these nuggets):

This time at Queens College

Adam Zagajewski discussed the Miłosz’s polyphony and his  “incredible ambition to grasp the world.”  The enormous range of points of view and voices within his work is disconcerting to many readers, who expect “one voice that’s recognizable in every poem,” the unity you find in such poets as Georg Trakl, for example.

Robert Hass recalled Miłosz writing at night, and thinking he had at last captured reality with his words – only to wake up the next morning, reread what he had written, and see he had been “beaten back into the pen of literature.” “He was tormented by the way our experience is lost to us,” said Bob.  “He found time itself unbearable.”

In praise of polyphony

Ed Hirsch commented on the “tremendous internal argument in his work” – in which he would often “criticize the poet who wrote the last poem.” Miłosz’s polyphony is one reason “so many readers and critics latched onto the idea of witness” in his poems.  His reputation as “poet of witness” to two totalitarian regimes has obscured his reputation as a metaphysical poet and a poet of … well, a poet of wonder, really.

The discussion turned to Miłosz’s unfortunate early reputation in the U.S. as a political theorist, thanks to Captive Mind. It’s a book not as well thumbed today as it was a few decades earlier, but Clare Cavanagh pointed out its unusual legacy – for example, in giving us the term ketman, which Miłosz claimed to have rescued from Persia.  Clare, however, searched assiduously on the internet for its supposed Islamic origins and could only find references to Miłosz’s work.  (I have a different memory of finding a few of the references she was seeking – but I’ll have to check again.  The references may be lost in the cyperspace flotsam and jetsam – as endless as the bus lines of Queens.)

Ed called Captive Mind “a remarkable work of historical consciousness.”

“For us, it’s crucial because he anatomizes how people fell into it,”  he said. However, its relevance  for younger readers may not be evident — “one of the problems is that you have to understand what communism is.”  One of history’s terrible lessons that may be lost on a younger generation.

"Like being alive twice"

Bob hailed Captive Mind as “an enormously vivid and readable book … powerful and still relevant.” Young people today caught instead in the “foment of small imperialisms” – but so were the Persians who originated the term ketman, I would argue, and a small tyranny can be as oppressive and barbarous as a large one.

The four writers recalled the arc of his career.

The decades in America prior to the 1980 Nobel were years of excruciating loneliness. Adam recalled that when he turned sixty, Miłosz didn’t receive a single card or greeting.  Bob was told by two people that he used to write letters to himself, so that he would get mail.

Yet, said Bob, when he joined the Berkeley faculty, Miłosz immediately used his funds to hire a secretary and dictated The History of Polish Literature — a work that began to put Polish poetry on the map of American consciousness.

A rebuke instead of blessing

Adam recalled, in his youth, being one of a group of young poets who wrote to the maestro for a blessing.  Instead, they got a rebuke.  He told them they were behaving like “flies in a battle” and urged them towards distance and restraint. “He became a metaphysical poet, but I think he was a little jealous of those lesser poets who touched their own city.”  In other words, he envied those poets whose daily reality included the places where they grew up, who did not partially live in demolished worlds.

During the question period from the large crowd, Ed was asked what poem of Miłosz’s did he wish he himself had written.  “That’s a puzzle,” Ed hedged, then came up with two: “Bypassing Rue Descartes” and “Guilt.”

Bob Hass was asked what it was like spending so many years translating Miłosz.  He responded in an instant: “Like being alive twice.”

Next installment from NYC:  Ed Hirsch, Alyssa Valles, and Adam Zagajewski honor Zbigniew Herbert at Poets House.

“Too big to be swallowed”: Robert Hass, Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh remember Czesław Miłosz

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Clare signs books after the event (Photo: David A. Goldfarb)

The apocalyptic scene enveloping Japan brings to mind Czesław Miłosz‘s poem, “A Song on the End of the World,” written in Warsaw, 1944, during another kind of apocalypse.  The poem ends with a white-haired old man binding his tomatoes, who would be a prophet but is “too busy to be a prophet,” repeating:

No other end of the world will there be.
No other end of the world will there be.

Sound wrong?  According to translator Clare Cavanagh, speaking at the 92nd Street Y on Monday night, it’s a new kind of right.  The line is usually translated “There will be no other end of the world.”  But the original Polish has an inversion that doesn’t always work well in English.  Antoni Miłosz has translated the poem, keeping the original inversion.  I kinda like it — the poem ends with a dactylic chant.

Clare was one of three heavy-hitters speaking about Miłosz that night and reading his poems – Robert Hass and Adam Zagajewski were the others.

Clare pointed out that, although Miłosz celebrates the rural Lithuania childhood, it is at least part an invented one.  In fact, his father was a civil engineer working in Russia, and the six-year-old experienced the Russian Revolution firsthand and traveled widely.  Movement was as much a characteristic of his upbringing as the stability he mythologized.

The venue: 92nd Street Y

She recalled the long theological discussions that I mentioned in my post several days ago.  She wouldn’t describe them in the essay she wrote for An Invisible Rope – and she wouldn’t describe them Monday night either.  I hope her silence on this subject is not permanent. “I’m not going to repeat what he said,” she finished, “but I keep wondering what he knows now.”

Bob Hass, wearing a heavy bandage on his nose, told the audience he hadn’t been in a fight, but advised his listeners to wear sunscreen.  He recalled a poet “tormented by how inexpressible experience was.”

"Please wear sunscreen"

Bob quoted Milosz, “War is only nature speeded up.”

The Berkeley prof recalled approaching Miłosz to discuss an anti-nuclear movement on campus, only to be told,  “I am against anti-nukes.”

“Blue hair?  Why does no one protest blue hair?” the elder poet responded. Beautiful young women become old ones with blue hair (note to young ‘uns: blue-tinted rinse was a common for elderly women in the 20th century).  “Who protests?”

“The true enemy of man is generalization,” Hass recalled Milosz saying.  His response to generalization was memory, said Clare. Miłosz’s memory was “beyond human – except that it’s most perfectly human, the way memory ought to be – how it should be in heaven.”

Hass recalled traveling in rural California, and on a whim going into an old secondhand shop – or rather, he said, it was as if he were drawn to it.  He found a thick book, in Polish, on the history of women’s underwear.  He plopped the $40 for the book and gave it to Milosz.

“I do not know that I have ever seen him so happy,” he said.  Suddenly, he could identify the underclothes he had seen on his aunt’s clothesline during his childhood.

"to glorify things as they are"

Adam Zagajewski spoke last – the perils of having a name that begins with “Z,” he said.

He noted Miłosz’s many contradictions.  He was drawn to the notion of “secret knowledge,” Adam said. “He craved initiation and looked for gurus” — for example, Miłosz’s influential kinsman Oskar Milosz and the man called “Tiger” in Native Realm. At the same time, he had “a longing for ignorance and innocence,” said Adam – which accounts for his attraction to William Blake, in part.

Ivan Turgenev said that poets are either rivers, absorbing everything in their current, or mountains, overlooking the world from an elevated plane of existence.  According to Adam, Miłosz decided he wanted to be “like a river and a mountain.”  The result?  A poet “too big to be swallowed,” he said.

Though Miłosz “loathed propaganda poetry,” Adam said he walked “the narrow road between pure poetry and poetry engagée, which he thought a mistake.”

In his restless questioning of existence, Miłosz took on God — “God being the strongest enemy that was,” said Adam, and objected to Blaise Pascal’s wager, which Adam said, “was like a shopkeeper saying it’s better to save some money because times can be hard.”

Adam concluded, “This is his religious vocation – to glorify things as they are.” And in this mission he was truly omnivorous. His poetic hubris – wanting to understand everything, wanting to experience everything – has caused his eclipse in current Poland.  Will his reputation wax again?

“I don’t worry.  I am totally convinced he will return.  He will have the last word.  Not I.” (Adam’s “Z” notwithstanding.)