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Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson

The Milosz Year

Longing for "the restoration of all things."

How do you regard odd conjunctions that pop up in your life, which seem to hint at a meaningful pattern? My inclination is to treat them with respect, even as I recognize the danger of imposing patterns on unruly experience. It's not only conspiracy theorists who are subject to that malady: all of us are vulnerable.

Several times quite recently, in quick succession, in different contexts, none of them strictly literary, Czeslaw Milosz has come to mind. On the surface, there's nothing terribly surprising about this. Milosz (1911-2004), who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, is famous. His centenary, designated as the "Milosz Year," will be celebrated in Poland and around the world. And he is among a handful of writers who, in a lifetime of reading, have made the deepest impression on me. That he should come to mind—especially now, as I write, on the eve of his centenary—is not only unremarkable; it is entirely predictable.

True, true, but this cluster of instances in which he has surfaced has followed a particular pattern. I mention Milosz, and my conversation partners—whether in person or via email—immediately distance themselves in one way or another, whether explicitly or between the lines. Ah! One of those esoteric modern writers, with an odd name, too. Maybe very good for those who fancy such stuff, literary epicureans, but not for me, and not for most people.

Much as I have delighted in Milosz's work, I have no desire to force his books on anyone. But I think that many readers, including many who are far from the groves of academe, might be surprised if they kept a copy of his New and Collected Poems: 1931-2001 handy for a few months. (And perhaps a new edition will be issued to mark the centenary.) His life, the historical background of his work, the many remarkable books of prose that fill out the Milosz shelf—there is plenty of time for all of that. Best to start with the poems.

Joseph Brodsky, himself a Nobel Prize-winning ...

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