Connecting Poets and Readers: An Invisible Rope, Portraits of Czesław Miłosz Edited by Cynthia L. Haven

An Invisible Rope

An Invisible Rope, Portraits
of Czesław Miłosz

EDITED BY Cynthia L. Haven
(Ohio University Press, 2011)


From the Publisher:

“Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004) often seemed austere and forbidding to Americans, but those who got to know him found him warm, witty, and endlessly enriching. An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz presents a collection of remembrances from his colleagues, his students, and his fellow writers and poets in America and Poland.

Miłosz’s œuvre is complex, rooted in twentieth-century eastern European history. A poet, translator, and prose writer, Miłosz was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1961 to 1998. In 1980 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The earliest in this collection of thirty-two memoirs begins in the 1930s, and the latest takes readers to within a few days of Miłosz’s death. This vital collection reveals the fascinating life story of the man Joseph Brodsky called ‘one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest.'”

When a great poet such as Czesław Miłosz stands high on the literary scene, a first impression may merely show a cardboard cutout of a celebrity recognized by bushy eyebrows above clear, blue eyes and the booming sound effects of hearty laughter. To reveal the full depth of the poet, however, this collection of essays provides perspectives from those who knew the multi-dimensional man and his multi-faceted contribution to poetry in general and Polish literature in particular.

In the “Introduction,” for example, editor Cynthia L. Haven lists a virtual Who’s Who of poets who thrived as translators under Miłosz’s tutelage – Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, and Richard Lourie – each of whom has contributed greatly to the literary community and to the insightful essays in this book.

To reveal the full depth of the poet… this collection of essays provides perspectives from those who knew the multi-dimensional man and his multi-faceted contribution to poetry in general and Polish literature in particular.

The story begins, though, “Way Back in Wilno,” where Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier met Miłosz prior to World War II. During the time, she was a child and he a student of her father, Manfred Kridl, a professor of Polish literature in Wilno (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) the site of a major Polish university.

Although Miłosz graduated from Wilno University with a law degree, he did not practice law. In a letter written years later to his former instructor, he explained that his leftist opinions on Polish politics “did not mean that I am in the least attracted to some internationalism or cosmopolitanism. I am steeped in Polish literature and want to remain faithful to it.” Nevertheless, Valkenier reminded readers that Miłosz’s “first success with a wide English-speaking audience” came through “his political book, The Captive Mind, an analysis of what attracted Polish intellectuals to communism.”

For readers interested in poetry rather than politics, the first few chapters may first seem filled with political turmoil, propelling the poet out of his native land in search of himself and asylum. While in Paris, Miłosz translated various books of the Bible into Polish at a time, according to essayist Marek Skwarnicki, “when publishing the Bible in Poland had been forbidden by the official atheistic Communist government.” Skwarnicki, a reporter who often accompanied Pope John Paul II on his journeys, also reported in his “Half a Century with Miłosz” the gist of a question Miłosz asked in his last letter to the Pope. As Skwarnicki recalled, Miłosz wanted to know “did the pope, who read everything that Miłosz had written, feel that in any of his poems, Miłosz had overstepped the boundaries of the Roman Catholic orthodoxy?” Skwarnicki went on to say, “This question moved me enormously, for it is well known that the chronicles of Miłosz’s soul are very tumultuous.”


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