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By Agnieszka Tennant

The Poet Who Remembered

Poland (mostly) honors Czeslaw Milosz upon his death.

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The same nationalist hysteria, right-wing Catholicism, and jealousy that Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz condemned in his prophetic work raised its uninvited head at the time of his death at 93. It took a telegram from the pope and assurances from the poet's confessor to dissuade a group of protesters from turning his funeral into a farce.

The scandal erupted shortly after the death of the cosmopolitan writer considered by many the voice of Polish conscience during the 20th century. Milosz was forced to leave his homeland of Lithuania after the Soviet Union took it from Poland following World War II. In 1951, he had to leave this motherland, too, choosing to defect during his employment at the then-communist Poland's embassy in Paris. In 1961, he moved to the United States, where he taught Slavic literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He was so generous and intent on promoting Polish poetry abroad that for a time he was known mostly as a translator of other Polish poets, most notably Zbigniew Herbert. The Nobel Prize in Literature he received in 1980 established him as a world-class poet, essayist, and historian of literature. In the 1990s, he began to divide his time between his home in Berkeley and the cultural capital of Poland, Krakow, where he settled for good near the end of his long life.

An unusual perceptiveness, grounded in his expectant Christianity, as well as this multicultural background enabled Milosz to see and address both the virtues and the flaws of Poland. The latter got him in trouble. He spoke out against communism but also against clericalism—a blind devotion to the church establishment that for some Polish Catholics overshadows the worship of God—and against the conflation of faith with Polish nationalism.

Following Milosz's death on August 14, a handful of protesters used tangential nationalist media to cite his poems out of context and make a case that he was an anti-Polish and anti-Catholic traitor. In letters to the media, they also pointed out the last straw: Milosz supported "the march of sodomites." That was a reference to a public letter to the City of Krakow that Milosz and other Polish Nobel Prize recipients wrote to support the right of gays and lesbians to freedom of speech and public assembly. The protesters argued, consequently, that Milosz was not worthy of being laid to rest in the Crypt of Honour in Krakow, where Poland's greatest artists rest. In fact, some of the discontented nationalist Catholics threatened to lie down—their bodies in shape of the cross—in the street in front of the funeral procession headed to the burial site.

Despite their bluster, the funeral took place as scheduled on Friday, August 27, without a hitch—an outcome that the mainstream Polish media attributed to a telegram which Pope John Paul II sent to his compatriots two days before the event.

In the wire, the pope—who has long been a fan of Milosz's writings—quotes a request that the writer had sent him in his last letter: "Age changes perspective," it began. "When I was young, a poet's turning to the pope for a blessing seemed inappropriate. This is precisely the object of my concern, because over the course of recent years I wrote poems with the intent of not abandoning the Catholic orthodoxy, and I don't know how they turned out as a result. I am asking you then for words confirming my attempt to reach the goal that we both share. May Christ's promise on the day of the Resurrection be fulfilled."

The pope's response was read at Milosz's funeral: "Over his casket, I want to quote my answer. 'You write that the object of your concern was making sure that you do not abandon the Catholic orthodoxy in your creative work. I am certain that such an attitude of a poet decides what happens. In this sense, I am happy that I can confirm your words.' " The Pope then added to his listeners, "I repeat these words today as a memento, along with a prayer and a Mass celebrated for his soul."

In another unusual attempt to quell any protests during Milosz's funeral, the poet's own confessor issued a public statement. (This could only happen in a country of impassioned Catholics!) We learned that Milosz "left this world provided with the last rites, reconciled with God and the Church." The Krakow priest added that he had been Milosz's confessor for a year, during which the bard participated in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist regularly. "When his health no longer allowed going to church, he received communion at home," he wrote.

Among the ten thousand Poles who bid farewell to Milosz in person were other Noblists, members of the intelligensia, notable politicians, religious figures, and artists. They included the electrician-turned-union-leader-turned-president Lech Walesa; the first non-communist premier of Poland, Tadeusz Mazowiecki; and Noble Prize winners and fellow poets Wislawa Szymborska and, from Ireland, Seamus Heaney; poet and friend Adam Zagajewski; film director Andrzej Wajda; ex-dissident and now editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza daily Adam Michnik; and Milosz's translators into various languages.

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