The Centenary of Czesław Miłosz

The Lithuanian-Polish poet Czesław Miłosz was born on this day in 1911. Though the Miłosz Centennial is a year-long event in Poland, the poet’s birthday will be especially celebrated, given that it comes on the eve of Poland taking over the presidency of the European Union. "This symbolic concurrence of dates," says the official Centennial website, honors "the birth of the great poet and the triumph of Polish freedom."

 

Throughout his decades of exile in America, Miłosz retained his popularity and his status as the voice of 20th-century Polish history, perhaps most famously in those lines from his poem "You Who Wronged" which were incorporated into the 1980 Solidarity Memorial at Gdansk:

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.

You can kill one, but another is born.

The words are written down, the deed, the date.

In a recent centennial tribute published in London’s Guardian newspaper, fellow Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney describes Miłosz as a poet "poised between lyricism and witness"--to Nazi occupation, to the Warsaw Uprising, to the Sovietization and Stalinization that took hold in Poland and then pushed him into exile. Heaney quotes these life-mission lines from Miłosz's poem "The Rising of the Sun":

Whatever I hold in my hand, a stylus, reed, quill or a ballpoint,

Wherever I may be, on the tiles of an atrium, in a cloister cell, in a hall before the portrait of a king,

I attend to matters I have been charged with.

Heaney begins his tribute with an anecdote describing how Miłosz, returning to his birthplace a half century after he had left it, walked up to an oak tree and embraced it. Heaney reads this as "an image of someone drawing strength--the psychic, moral and physical strength of a great poet--from his home ground." The tree-hugging might also be connected to the writer-as-witness, the deep-rooted trees providing the paper for the record of the uprooted life. These lines are from Miłosz's "And Yet the Books":

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,

That appeared once, still wet

As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,

And, touched, coddled, began to live

In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,

Tribes on the march, planets in motion.

"We are," they said, even as their pages

Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame

Licked away their letters.…


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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