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

Troubled by religion and politics, Miłosz found an easier calling in mentoring poets in and out of the classroom. In the essay, “My Apprenticeship with Miłosz,” Reuel Wilson, son of writers Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy, wrote, “Miłosz’s lack of prejudice and his omnivorous intellectual curiosity made him an ideal teacher. Having chosen to defect from his job as a diplomat representing his country’s Communist regime, he made a total break from Europe when he moved from France to California. Isolated from old friends and his reading public at home, he successfully reinvented himself as an American university professor” with full tenure at Berkeley where his initial “move to California entailed a substantial culture shock.”

As Wilson further recalled, “In the classroom, Miłosz dressed rather informally. He often wore a plaid work shirt under a well-worn brown sport coat. His looks were striking: of medium height, he exuded physical energy and wiry resilience. I think he worked regularly in the garden beside his Tudor-style house on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, where he lived with his first wife, Janka, and their two sons.” With Miłosz at home overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, Wilson noted, “He could have stepped out of the primeval Lithuanian forest that his ancestors might have inhabited. Like them, he had a belief in the spirit world and a sense of intersecting time.”

In the essay, “A Difficult, Inspirational Giant,” Peter Dale Scott similarly commented, “I remember my admiring impression of Miłosz as a figure of religious enlightenment, nudging the world toward a third and more spiritual way between the godless communism of the Iron Curtain countries and the godless capitalism of the United States.”

‘He could have stepped out of the primeval Lithuanian forest that his ancestors might have inhabited. Like them, he had a belief in the spirit world and a sense of intersecting time.’

Poetry at the time had its political and religious zeal too. In “Remembering Czesław Miłosz,” double Pulitzer-winning poet W.S. Merwin talked about Miłosz’s prose work, The Captive Mind, saying, “That book appeared at the height of the timely but noisy controversy over the differences, real and concocted, between ‘academic’ and ‘Beat’ poets. For me the New Criticism had once seemed a liberation from late Victorian literary and cultural assumptions, but I was trying to get past all that, and I had been drawn to the poetry of other languages and traditions. Miłosz’s book had been a talisman and had made most of the literary bickering among the various ideological encampments, then most audible among the poetic doctrines in English, seem frivolous and silly.”

In “Nine Flashbacks,” Berkeley student Bogdana Carpenter, who later went on to write about the works of contemporary Polish poets, had this to say about her mentor’s method of teaching: “Miłosz’s open and unconventional approach put Polish literature in a new and unexpected light, far from the stereotype image of my Polish professors. They were also a dialogue, in fact, a double dialogue: Miłosz conversed not only with us sitting around the table but also with the authors whom we were reading, regardless whether they were our contemporaries or had lived five centuries earlier.”

Conversely, Henryk Grynberg reported in “Miłosz the Refugee” an interview when the poet “thought that American poetry is mostly incomprehensible because its ‘interiorization and subjectivization has caused a break in contact between the poet and reader.’ He said that ‘Americans reading Polish poetry in translation are amazed by the amount of the objective, eternal world [depicted there], outside of the human being as the subject, not just a psychological state of mind and purely subjective perceptions’.”

Poet Morton Marcus opened his essay “Uneasy Exile” with Miłosz’s two-line poem “On the Death of a Poet,” published before Miłosz’s own death: “The gates of grammar closed behind him. / Search for him now in the groves and wild forests of the dictionary.”

In the essay “I Can’t Write a Memoir of Czesław Miłosz,” Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski wrote about the differences in their eras, growing up in Poland: “He belonged to a chapter of the history of Polish literature that seemed to be, seen from the landscape of my youth, as remote as the Middle Ages…. He grew up in a small manor house in the Lithuanian countryside where woods, streams, and water snakes were as evident as streetcars and apartment houses in the modest, industrial city of my childhood. His Poland was totally different from mine: it had its wings spread to the East. When he was born in 1911, he was a subject of the Russian tsar.” And yet, “Beginning in 1951, the year of his defection, Miłosz had become an outcast, a nonperson. If his name did appear somewhere in print, it was frequently accompanied by an official Byzantine formula: ‘an enemy of the People’s Republic of Poland’.”

In her essay, “He Also Knew How to Be Gracious,” poet and educator Anna Frajlich provided this insight: “In Poland, his erstwhile friends attacked him cruelly after he defected to the West; in the West, most Poles attacked him equally cruelly for his former associations.” Nevertheless, “With the passing of time, he forgave most if not all of them.” And Miłosz continued to “show what is significant about the Polish contribution to universal values and culture. He did this by teaching, by translating his fellow writers – even when his former friends back in Poland denounced him – and by publishing Polish literature in the original and in translation and writing about it.”

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