30 June 2011 was the centenary of the birth of Czesław Miłosz. He’s a poet I’ve begun to read just in the past year, after the Krakow visit. I returned with a copy of his New & Collected Poems, bought on the last morning of the trip with the spare zlotys, and begun on the bus out to the airport.
Thumbing its pages, I made a couple of immediate connections: his appreciation of the Japanese haiku masters – Issa, rather than Basho, perhaps simply because he linked the coincidental link with the Issa Valley in his native Lithuania – and his ‘Notes’, a series of single sentences each under a short heading (‘The Perfect Republic’, ‘Epitaph’, ‘Mountains’), which are reminiscent of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s one-word-poems and monostichs, and Günter Eich’s (even briefer) ’17 Formeln’. Neither ‘Reading the Japanese Poet Issa (1762-1826)’ nor ‘Notes’ are entirely typical of his work, but they were useful landmarks I could start to navigate by.
I read him over the winter (in English, having no Polish). I read him aloud while sitting for my portrait, when Angus and I enjoyed enjoyed the discursive prose of ‘La Belle Epoque’, especially its closing section, ‘The Titanic’. When I proposed running sessions on his work for secondary schools, it became one of those rare and serendipitous projects everyone says ‘yes’ to.
In the summer term I visited schools in Edinburgh, East Lothian, Fife, Highland and South Lanarkshire, and will visit several more schools over the coming weeks. The poem I’ve come to focus on most is ‘The Dining Room’ (‘Jadalnia’) from the sequence ‘The World’ (‘Świat’), a seemingly straightforward description of an interior whose place and date of composition – Warsaw 1943 – soon open up deeper, darker layers of resonance.
The Scottish Poetry Library has produced a Miłosz 2011 poster, featuring the poem ‘Song on the End of the World’ (‘Piosenka o Końcu Świata’) in English and Polish, along with background information, weblinks, and a couple of photos of the poet in later life, craggy and bushy-eyebrowed. E-mail the Library at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like a copy.
There is also a series of Polish Poems on the Underground at the moment, including Miłosz’s ‘And Yet the Books’ and ‘Blacksmith Shop’, as well as poems by Zbiginiew Herbert, Wisława Symborska and Adam Zagajeweski.
I’m also running an event this Saturday (10 September) at Macdonald Road Library, Edinburgh, for the Polish book group Zielony Balonik, focussing on Miłosz’s poems – more details here.