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Homage to Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz  


One of the 20th century's greatest literary figures - Czeslaw Milosz - died recently (August 14, 2004). A recipient of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Polish poet - who lived for many years in the United States - is mourned by admirers around the world.

In today's Dateline, Judith Latham talks with some of Milosz's former colleagues and closest friends about his legacy.

One of those friends is Robert Pinsky, America’s poet laureate from 1997 to 2000. He says that Czeslaw Milosz and he became close when they were both teaching at the University of California-Berkeley:

"We were together in Berkeley for many years – from ’80 to ’89. And those were important years for Poland and for Czeslaw."

There are people who say that he wrote his best poetry in America.

"You could argue that," says Mr. Pinsky. "It was a very long, very prolific career. He did translations of the Scriptures. We wrote a treatise on rhyme. He wrote comical poems. He wrote sexy, sensual poems. He was terrifically interested in religion. He certainly wrote great poetry during those many years in California.

"One of the most interesting things about him, of course, is the intersection of cultures – Lithuania, Poland, France, and the United States. How important is that in terms of his poetic vision, in the way in which he spoke to people across cultures?

"Immensely important, and I think he embodies that even in his own provincial city, then called Vilno – now Vilnius. He lived in a place that was Polish, Jewish, and Lithuanian. Vilno was called the ‘Jerusalem of the north.’ It was a university center. So he began his life very aware that there were many kinds of people, many cultural strands."

To be a poet of world stature, one must be an exquisite artist, of course, and be able to crystallize personal images in very specific words. But one must also touch the universal in human experience. How did Milosz do that? And what was it about his poetry that had universal appeal? Was it the individual struggle against tyranny or the experience of exile?

"The paradox is that it was by being very faithful to his own provinciality," says Mr.Pinsky. "In a way, if he had not been in exile, he might not have been as much as a world poet. In Bypassing Rue Descartes,’he describes all the people from Romania and from Asia, all coming to Paris as the capital of the world. And by the end of the poem, he is saying, ‘There is no capital of the world.’ He has the kind of universality that comes not from straining after universality but from being true to very simple and direct things."

Are there any lines from Milosz’s poems that serve as a touchstone for your life?

"His poem Incantation: ‘Human reason is beautiful and invincible. No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books, no sentence of banishment can prevail against it. And it does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master, giving us the estate of the world to manage. Beautiful and very young are philosophia and poetry, and they are allied to the service of the good."

Whose translation is that? "Ah, that’s my translation. Czeslaw spoke very good English. He had a successful career as a teacher of Slavic languages at Berkeley, teaching Dostoyevsky. But he was very aware that in poetry nuances of idiom and rhythm are very important. So, with Renata Gorczynska and Czeslaw supplying the ‘trots’ [literal translation], Bob Hass and I undertook to make English versions."

American poet Bob Hass and Polish literary critic and translator Renata Gorczynska were a major part of Milosz’s years at Berkeley.

"The most mature, the most profound poetry, in my opinion, was written during those years," says Mr. Gorczynska. "He was a difficult character, I must say, because it was very difficult to reach him. But once you were accepted as a friend, then he was a very warm person with a weird sense of humor."

Aleksander Fiut, professor of Polish literature at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, is the author of two books on Milosz. Professor Fiut, whose friendship with the poet began when they were both living in Paris, describes Milosz’s humor as "sardonic":

"There is an anecdote that is perhaps interesting and colorful. After his Nobel Prize lecture, he left the building of the Swedish Academy and together with his family went in a very luxurious black limousine to McDonald’s. I recall this story because it is a good illustration of his sense of humor and the distance from any kind of fame."

Professor Fiut says that Milosz’s exile from his homeland was the product of two different forms of totalitarianism – Nazi and communist:

"He left Lithuania in 1940 during the the Soviet army invasion of Vilno. Then he spent the whole Nazi occupation in Warsaw. And after the Second World War, he was for a short time the representative of the communist government as charge d’affairs of culture [cultural attaché] in New York and then in Washington and then in Paris. And in 1951 he decided to stay for good and become an émigré writer."

Literary critic Renata Gorczinska says that the Nobel laureate was fully aware of his poetic stature:

"But it doesn’t mean that he spoke about it openly. He was surprised. I became his personal secretary right after his being given the Nobel Prize. He knew that he was short-listed. I think what he wanted us - his readers - to do is to think deeper about the world around us. He was very concerned with the problem that something that is highly personal and particular becomes generalized, becomes universal. And in that process, the ‘I’ disappears. And it was actually a very difficult time, especially for the peoples from the communist bloc to be able to participate in the universal culture – the Western culture."

I asked the American poet Robert Pinsky about his most enduring memories of Czeslaw Milosz:

"His laugh was very distinctive. It simultaneously expressed pleasure and amusement. It was a very hearty, ‘Ho, ho, ho, ho.’ That - and a kind of frown of concentration. And he liked food and wine and conversation. He was a moralist, but not a solemn or humorless man in the least.

Robert Pinsky visited him shortly before his death:

"He was rather courtly as always, rather magisterial as always, and ready to amuse as always, and we were also aware it was very likely the last time we would talk to one another," says Mr. Pinsky. "And it was moving and illuminating to see this absolute survival of the spirit of a person to what was clearly very close to the end."

Poets, friends, and literary critics agree that the crucial theme in the poetry and prose of Czeslaw Milosz is that of identity. And perhaps he continues to speak to so many people because the question of identity is also central to our time.

For Dateline, I’m Judith Latham.