Czesław Miłosz died today.
Miłosz, "who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man's exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts," received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. It was arguably a decision based on politics rather than literary merits; nonetheless, his work and this recognition for it wielded a great deal of influence on the creative expression of artists as well on the political expression of the people of his homeland.
He struggled in his early career. "His works, written in Polish, did not reach his native country because of communist censorship, and he was unknown to foreign readers."
In the summer of 1994, Miłosz was a guest speaker and lecturer at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. That was my summer of Poland, and I was fortunate enough to attend his sessions.
The professors and academics either revered him unquestioningly or gave him the cold shoulder, wouldn't give his work the time of day.
It took me a while to figure it out, but it was a question of politics. In Poland, everything's a question of politics.
After World War II, Miłosz served in communist Poland's diplomatic service as a cultural attache in New York and Paris. In 1951, he broke with the government and sought political asylum in France, entering into cooperation with a Paris-based institute that specialized in Polish emigre literature.
Both the diplomatic service and the defection were seen by many as a betrayal.
After one generic talk on some of the difficulties of translation, I asked him how it was that he felt comfortable in breaking one of the primary tenets of translation, translating his own poetry into a language other than his mother tongue.
Miłosz's English was far from perfect, even difficult to decipher, much worse than, say, my mother's. I'll grant that this isn't evidence of his proficiency with the written English word, but it hints at some truth behind allegations of him being an egomaniacal control freak regarding the translation of his own work.
I never got an answer to my question; the session was brought short because Pan Miłosz had another engagement. But in the asking, my reputation was made among the professors as being either bright and brave or a troublemaker.
I enjoyed drinks with his granddaughter in the days surrounding that session. She speaks not a word of Polish. A sad irony, considering her grandfather's reputation is based on having a strong national identity and pride in one's cultural heritage.
In Poland's love–hate relationship with America, Miłosz chose love, and in the choosing, a bit of his Polishness was lost.
"I've always regretted that I'm made of contradictions. But, if contradiction is impossible to overcome, we have to accept both its ends."
I never particularly liked his poetry. Idyllic (yet, in English translation, stilted), it doesn't speak to me. Perhaps because it never even tries to reconcile those contradictions, barely acknowleges them.