Archive for November 15th, 2021

Nobelist Czesław Miłosz to a fan: “My literary work should have been stronger and purer.”

Monday, November 15th, 2021
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A stunning tweet today from Belfast-born poet Adrian Rice, who wrote: “Loving Cynthia Haven’s new book on Milosz, and it brought me back to one of my personal treasures, a letter from Milosz. Reading Haven’s remarkable new book about a remarkable poet, has restoked the Czeslaw fires within.”

And what a letter it is. Read below. Keep in mind that Czesław Miłosz had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, sixteen years earlier.

Adrian Rice promised to tell me the story of how this letter came about, after he finished his classes. He has done so, via a Twitter message. Here it is:

The letter came about after I had bought his latest book – Facing The River – which had just been published at the time, in 1995. I was going through a stressful life-changing time, and I was living in Canada, Dundas, Ontario, thus the address on the envelope. I was feeling particularly down on that day, and headed out in the snow to a local bookshop, not expecting any treasures on the poetry shelves. However, I was surprised to see copies of new books by two poets who meant the world to me – Joseph Brodsky, and Czeslaw Milosz – Brodsky’s essays On Grief and Reason, and Milosz’s latest, Facing The River.

The Belfast poet who got the letter

I took them back to the apartment and was astounded by both, but particularly by Milosz’s book of poems, from that very first serious self-reflection in “At A Certain Age,” right on to the end of the book. The poems simply, somehow, “helped.” I was also working on a chapbook –Impediments – back then, and decided to use a few lines from his book as an epigraph. (I have made sure, ever since, to use a Milosz epigraph in all of my books.) But what really hit me was the ending poem, “In Szetejnie,” and especially those lines near the end of that poem: “If only my work were of use to people and of more weight than is / my evil.”

Working as a freelance poet/teacher back home in innumerable settings, I had used Milosz’s poetry and essays to challenge, and inspire, countless students and ordinary folk of all types of ages and backgrounds, right across the spectrum of Northern Irish/Irish society. And I had seen his work mean a lot. It had mattered, especially given our situation living and learning throughout the ongoing Ulster “Troubles.” So, not being given to any kind of “fan” mail, I nevertheless sat down determined to write Milosz’s publishers to tell them to pass on from me my admiration for his work, and to please make sure that he knew that his work was of great use, to me personally, and to those I shared it with back in Belfast and beyond.

I tried to express just how useful it was to so many folk he would never meet, but who had been changed and helped. Anyway, I sent the letter, and expected that would be the end of it. Imagine, as I know you can, my amazement to return to the apartment in the snow a few weeks later, and to see a letter sticking up out of the mailbox with his address on it. I actually thought it was a joke, that someone back home was playing a wee trick on me, but I knew that no one knew of the letter I had sent.

When I opened it inside the apartment, I was, well, staggered, in the nicest way possible; and have been, on and off, ever since. I only stayed about a year in Dundas, then returned to Belfast. In 1998, I believe it was, an Irish poet friend made me aware that Milosz was appearing at Galway University, and that I could “get in” if I could drive down from Belfast in a hurry. So, I jumped in the car, drove the big distance, and when I entered the auditorium, he had already started, and I walked in to hear him beginning “A Song on the End of the World.” I sat down and enjoyed every minute of the reading. A few questions were taken afterwards, and I think Robert Hass was on stage to help, and then a signing began on stage.

Now, I have mixed with great poets before, but even with Seamus Heaney (who gave me my first book blurb!) I was always shy about presenting too many books for signature, knowing how pressed they can be. But, I knew that this might be my only meeting with Milosz, and despite his advanced years, I was going to at least ask him to sign most of my (substantial!) collection. When I approached him, he smiled, and then kind of joked at the armful of books to sign, but set about it so graciously. I also dared to hand him my chapbook to sign under his epigraph I had used, and he looked at the book, read my name, and then looked at me saying – “Ah, you’re Adrian Rice.” I wasn’t going to mention my letter, but he did. What a man. I blushed, we exchanged a few more words, and off I went.

Well, that’s the story for you, Cynthia. Treasured moments. Goodness, we miss him, and the likes of Seamus today. But at least we have the example, and the words to keep us going. Again, so magical to connect with you today, and to know that you’ve seen the wee letter, and to have your new book, keeping him alive in our hearts and minds. Huge congrats. I’ll spread the good word of it to all I know, especially to my college students. Keep up the important work. Slainte! Adrian x