By Agnieszka Tennant
The Poet Who Remembered
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.
Zagajewski—a friend of Milosz who like him was born in Lithuania and has lived in Paris, in the States (where he is visiting associate professor of English at the University of Houston), and in Krakow—eulogized Milosz's rare "gift of combining raw observation of the moral and political world with a sense of things unseen, with a religious experience" and "a sharp, just judgment of earthly matters and an impassioned search after God."
In his tribute published in Gazeta shortly following the death, Zagajewski summed up Milosz's work with characteristic wit: "The telegram that Nietzsche had sent, informing Europeans about God's death, yes, has reached the poet, but clearly he has refused to sign the receipt, and sent off the messenger."
In an interview with Polish radio, Zagajewski said that "his departure ends a certain chapter and we're a little alone now." He described Milosz as not just a poet but also a "prophet, wise man, and an unusual authority."
Fellow Nobel recipient Wislawa Szymborska, who often spoke of her intimidation by Milosz's genius and insisted that her poetry be treated as less expansive than Milosz's, said at his funeral only this: "Today we bid farewell to the poet, but not his poetry. It will surely outlive us all."
The poet's personal friend and Oscar-winning director Andrzej Wajda, whose films have documented the evils and ironies of communism, told Gazeta that Milosz was one of these great artists of the 20th and 21st centuries: "Milosz was not only the chronicler of his times, but also their participant."
As an example, Wajda recalled a time when dockyard workers in Gdansk were about to raise the Three Crosses Monument to honor those who had been killed during the anti-communist strikes. "They made me … contact Czeslaw Milosz, who was then living in the United States, and ask him to agree to dedicate a poem that would go on the monument." He took the request to mean that these workers "treated Czeslaw Milosz as a poet who preceded their voice."
When Wajda called Milosz, the poet "consented immediately." "That's why I think he is not only the observer of the times in which he lives. Now when he says goodbye and departs, he leaves us in times different from those he encountered because, by his participation in them, he changed them—with his poetry, and with his activism." The lines engraved into the monument read, "You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure … for a poet remembers."
Milosz remembered the whole bloody 20th century. In his poems, he eulogized the loss of his motherland of Lithuania. In the anti-totalitarian manifesto The Captive Mind, he chronicled the abuses of communism, not only in harming countless simple men and women but also in stifling and perverting the life of the mind—with disastrous consequences. He condemned anti-Semitism, both in its obvious Nazi-inspired manifestations and in the more discreet forms that survive in Poland and elsewhere even today. And, as he wrote in a poem written in Berkley in 1968, he remembered his language. Here's my translation of it:
My faithful language,
I have served you.
Every night I have set before you little bowls with color,
so that you would have the birch, the grasshopper, and the bullfinch
preserved in my memory.
It lasted many years.
You were my homeland because the other one had gone missing.
I had thought that you would be
between me and good people,
even if there had been only twenty
or ten of them,
or if they hadn't been born yet.
Now I admit to doubt.
There are moments when it seems
as though I have wasted my life.
Because you are
the language of the debased,
the language of the unreasonable
and the ones who hate
themselves perhaps even more
than other nations,
the language of the confidants,
the language of the mistaken,
sick with their own innocence.
My faithful language,
maybe I do have to rescue you.
I will continue to set before you
the little bowls with colors
as clear and clean as possible,
because in unhappiness there is a need
for some order or beauty.
To understand the poem you only have to note, as Adam Michnik did in a tribute in Gazeta, that during communism the only mention under Milosz's name in the Polish encyclopedia was this: "the enemy of the People's Republic of Poland." His poems were then "like forbidden fruit," writes Michnik, a former leader of Solidarity and a political prisoner, now editor-in-chief of Gazeta.
"They tasted supremely because it took great effort to find them. The knowledge of these poems constituted a kind of secret code of the Polish 'Anxious Generation.' We recognized one another from using quotes from Milosz. If someone knew Milosz, you could have a beer with him without fear."
Michnik also praises Milosz's generosity toward the little known people and his encouragement of anyone who sided with the truth. He was one of them:
I've been lucky to know Czeslaw Milosz for about 30 years now. I met him personally in the fall of 1976 in Paris. Naturally, I knew his poems and essays.
As a 15-year-old boy I used to play hooky and go to the National Library to read his books. I owe so much to these readings. When now and then I wonder what I will have to say for myself at the Last Judgment, I remember that I belong to a small group of people who decided to publish Milosz's works in the illegal Independent Publishing House. When the poet was honored with a Nobel Prize, we could say with pride that we were his national publishers.
But then, in Paris, no one could dream about the Nobel Prize. Milosz … honored me with an invitation for dinner. We made an appointment in the Latin District, where it took the poet a long time to find the restaurant. He looked around, he kept losing his way. … Finally he found it. It was a small, warm Bulgarian pub. We sat down, Milosz ordered wine, and said: 'This is exactly where I wanted to bring you. I used to come here in the beginning of the '50s every day, and every day I thought I would commit suicide.'
The conversation was long and fascinating. At one point—more or less after the third bottle of wine—I began, without too much stuttering, to recite his poems from memory. I knew quite a few of them. Soon, to my great surprise, I saw that tears were running down Milosz's cheeks. Astonished, I stopped the recitation, and heard the moved voice of the poet: 'I didn't know that young people in Poland knew my poems by heart. I thought I had been cursed.'
He had the right to think that. His writings had been ruthlessly confiscated, as if the communists were out to prove that their vengeance had no end."
Milosz's death is a great loss to the world of literature and to Poland. But there's comfort and guidance in what's he's left behind, including the threat in the poem to those who "harmed a simple man":
The poet remembers.
You can kill him
—a new one will be born
to chronicle the deeds
and the conversations.
Agnieszka Tennant is an associate editor at Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
For more information, see official Milosz website set up by his publisher Znak.
The Nobel Foundation has more information about Czeslaw Milosz.
NPR's All Things Considered has an interview with a Milosz translator, Robert Hass.
The AFP news wire has an obituary.
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