Rok Miłoszа – The Year of Miłosz
by Arista Maria Cirtautas
The C. Miłosz memorial plaque in Sarbievius Court Yard at Vilnius University (Universiteto str. 5)
“Standing here in front of you, I cannot but remark on the tasks I have set for myself as a Polish poet. One of these is an effort to replace conflicts between the two countries [Lithuania and Poland] with good neighborly relations, the primary conditions of which are the inviolability of present-day borders and an acknowledgment of international law. Because I know the history of our European region, I understand that the past is forceful and often returns in the form of timeworn proverbs and vague fears. Nevertheless, I am convinced that time is not on the side of the past.”1 Czesław Miłosz, 1992
Of all the conferences and events held last year to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Nobel Prize winning poet Czesław Miłosz, perhaps none was as symbolically significant as the “Droga Czesława Miłosza” (Journey of Czesław Miłosz) jointly organized by Polish and Lithuanian institutions and foundations with the support of both governments.2 Beginning in Vilnius, Lithuania and ending in Sejny, Poland, a series of events were held from June 26 to July 2, 2011. In between these two destinations, the journey took participants to his birthplace in Šeteniai, Lithuania and to a family estate in Krasnogruda, Poland.3 Along the way, presidents and philosophers, poets and professors all paid tribute to the life and work of one of the 20th century’s greatest literary figures. Government ministers, ambassadors and even the archbishop of Kaunas contributed to the commemorations as did the hundreds of participants who attended the meticulously planned events in both countries.
Jane Hirshfield reading a poem she wrote in memory of Milosz translated into Lithuanian by Mindaugaus Kvietkauskas in Šeteniai at the CM Birthplace Foundation
While there were some diplomatic shortcomings – the Lithuanian President did not go to Krasnogruda as originally planned and the Polish President referred to “kresy” not “pogranicze” in his speech celebrating the borderlands (the former a weighted term associated with Polonization) – government officials took great pains to look beyond the current impasse in diplomatic relations between the two countries4 in their celebration of Miłosz as a “Lithuanian Polish poet” (in the words of American poet Jane Hirshfield).
“Czesław Miłosz – a great son of Lithuania and Poland whose centenary we are celebrating today – believed himself to be ‘the last citizen of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’. For us, he is important not only because of his renown stature, but also because of his sense of citizenship uniting the Lithuanian and Polish nations.” Dalia Grybauskaité, President of the Republic of Lithuania
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite speaking at the unveiling of the plaque, behind her on the far right is the Polish Ambassador in Vilnius, Janusz Skolimowski
“The life and work of Czesław Miłosz is proof of how one can combine the Polish and Lithuanian spirit, the Polish and Lithuanian homeland. The poet gives us the answer to the question of how to benefit from both cultures, combining them without opposing the Polish identity to the Lithuanian one and the Lithuanian identity to the Polish one.” Janusz Skolimowski, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to Lithuania5
Underlying this shared commitment to the spirit of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as embodied by the life and work of Miłosz, there were noticeable differences in the tone of the events held in each country. In Lithuania, where Miłosz is not a household name, the tone was intimate and personal – a plaque was unveiled in a courtyard of Vilnius University; the graveyards of his ancestors were visited; poetry, music and dance filled the grounds of the Czesław Miłosz Birthplace Foundation alongside the river and meadows that were so important to his boyhood and his poetry; the solemn spaces of churches both large and small reverberated with the name of Česlovas Milošas. The events planned by Professor Algirdas Avižienis, Director of the CM Birthplace Foundation and by Dr. Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, Director of the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, Vilnius University were clearly labors of love and respect, personal expressions of dedication to the memory of Miłosz the man and the poet, not Miłosz the representative of a nation. Which is not to say, however, that Miłosz’s relationship to Lithuania was ignored. The inspiration he drew from his Lithuanian roots was central to many of the papers delivered at the conference in Vilnius. The trees, the folksongs, the landscapes of his childhood, the city and university of his youth were all illuminated for their literary value to a poet who refused to forget and who made remembrance central to his calling.
The river in Šeteniai, at the Czeslaw Milosz Birthplace Foundation. See Czeslaw Milosz (with Robert Hass), FACING THE RIVER, 1996 for the poems he wrote upon his return to Lithuania after 50 years.
“It is good to have been born in a small country where Nature was on a human scale, where various languages and religions cohabited for centuries. I have in mind Lithuania, a country of myths and poetry. My family in the sixteenth century already spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland English; so I am a Polish, not a Lithuanian, poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me. … It is a blessing if one receives from fate school and university studies in such a city as Vilno. A bizarre city of baroque architecture transplanted to northern forests and of history fixed in every stone, a city of forty Roman Catholic churches and of numerous synagogues. In those days the Jews called it a Jerusalem of the North.” Czesław Miłosz, 1980, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
A Lithuanian wooden folk art carving -- one of many on the grounds of the CM Birthplace Foundation.
In this context, one of the most interesting connections referenced by several scholars was Miłosz’s relationship to Jewish mysticism. Could this be yet another way in which the Lithuania of the past, with its vibrant Jewish communities (not just in Vilnius but also in Kėdainiai and in Sejny near the family estates), influenced the poet?6
In Poland, where the beginning of the Polish presidency of the Council of the European Union coincided with Miłosz’s birthday, the tone was more political with a view toward representing the country in the best possible light to a broader international audience. Celebrating Miłosz became a means to that end as television crews, journalists and photographers along with Miłosz enthusiasts descended upon Krasnogruda to listen to the day’s high profile speakers and to attend the opening of the International Dialogue Centre housed in the restored estate of Miłosz’s maternal aunts.7
"One could say that on the eve of the Polish Presidency of the EU Council Czesław Miłosz becomes patron of the ‘cultural Polish Presidency.' His work, still extremely up to date, became the reason of the opening of the Czesław Miłosz International Centre for Dialogue in the spirit of the Polish-Lithuanian community. This is reflected in the joint patronage of the Polish and Lithuanian Presidents on celebrations of this year’s anniversary of the birth of our great poet.” Ambassador Janusz Skolimowski8
On the right, the President of the Republic of Poland, Broniław Komorowski speaking at the opening of the International Dialogue Centre in Krasnogruda Poland on June 30, 2011 with Krzysztof Czyżewski, President of Borderland Foundation and Director of the Centre “Borderland of Arts, Cultures and Nations" on the left-- seated between them are representatives of the Lithuanian government
“Miłosz would be proud!” read a headline in the next day’s Gazeta Wyborcza (July 1, 2011). There is no doubt he would have been pleased by the ease with which participants could journey along the Miłosz road from Vilnius to Sejny – without border controls, without passports, without waiting in long customs lines. There is also no doubt that he would have been proud of the extent to which the “other Europe” was contributing to the construction of the continent’s unity.
“Acknowledging Lithuania’s historic right to Vilnius, I always wanted my university town to surpass the reputation of a province, and now I can express my joy that it has become one of Europe’s capital cities, I believe, with a great future. Wars, attacks, and imperial walls obstructed European union; nonetheless, something else bore witness to the continent’s unity – its architecture. The baroque splendor of Vilnius confirms that unity, and I am certain that tourists from many lands will flock here like pilgrims, as to Prague or other parts of the continent renowned for beauty. However, I think that the international spirit of the city, the spirit of its builders and its poets, will exert considerable influence and that this capital might well become a magnet and intersection for the creative activity of neighboring countries as well as the entire European community.”9 Czesław Miłosz, 1992
The poet's son, Anthony Milosz, at the evening of literature and music held at St. John's Church, Vilnius University (12 Šv. Jono str.) after the unveiling of the plaque
And perhaps he would have been proud, as well, of the extent to which his life and works have inspired non-governmental foundations to pursue cross-border cultural initiatives that foster greater understanding between eastern and western Europeans. 10 The coming together of artists, poets, musicians and actors from around Europe and beyond to perform in celebration of Miłosz’s life and work in the small border town of Sejny was, in and of itself, an example of such initiatives.11
In sharp contrast to the official appropriation of Miłosz’s legacy for the cultural agenda of the Polish EU Presidency, the academic discussions of the “Visions of Native Realm” Symposium in the White Synagogue in Sejny organized by Krzysztof Czyżewski, President of the Borderland Foundation and Director of the Centre “Borderland of Arts, Culture and Nations,” proceeded almost in a series of interrogations subjecting the poet’s biography to critical scrutiny: why did Miłosz return to occupied Warsaw from Bucharest? Why did he choose not to fight in the Warsaw Uprising? What was his relationship to America – its spaces and culture? Did he do enough to support the Polish writers and poets in Vilnius after independence? One could not help but wonder if the underlying debate here was over the extent to which Miłosz was morally fit to represent the Polish nation.
St. John's Church
Yet, in another marked change of tone, the poet’s work Native Realm, the central literary focus of the Symposium was universally lauded in the presentations and discussions for its depiction of the “other Europe,” for its representation of the Polish-Lithuanian borderlands and its peoples, and for its continued salience as a reminder of the fragile unity of Europe.12 Accordingly, the Borderland Foundation continues to reference this work, in particular, in its formulation of grass-roots responses to the ongoing challenges of European integration.
“The stagnation, if not crisis, in the deepening of the European integration process can be observed on the international level of the Members and it manifests itself in such phenomena as the crisis of European institutions. This overlaps with a deeper phenomenon – the crisis of multicultural society, leading to the strengthening of the division lines within society. This is accompanied by increasing cultural tensions and integration difficulties experienced by immigrants. Europe is beginning to resemble an archipelago of separate cultures. In view of this, “Native Realm”, a book and vision of Czesław Miłosz, reconstructing the community [a common] European identity on the post-war ruins, becomes a highly topical issue once again.”13
While not directly taken from Native Realm, Miłosz provides a concrete example of a small but critical step in the undermining of “division lines” between societies. In 1990, he translated into Polish the national anthem of Lithuania by Vincas Kudirka.
The "Agora of Poets" held at Krasnogruda on June 30, 2011 with, from the left, Anthony Milosz, Adam Zagajewski, Marcelijus Martinaitis, and Alicja Rybałko.
“The translation was done directly from the Lithuanian language on a separate pad; and it was done very attentively – there were several versions of the same line, a lot of times the text was crossed out, the poet was looking for rhyme and was marking versification. It was obvious that this text was translated for singing and that it was granted symbolic power. It was translated thinking about the future, about future coexistence and about the ways to reconcile contradictions."14
Although 2011, the year of Miłosz, may be over, he remains a powerful source of inspiration even as his legacy is continuously debated and still contested in Poland itself.15 Given his stature as a poet and essayist and the troubled nature of the times he lived through, both inspiration and debate are inevitable and most likely interconnected. Miłosz himself would probably not want it any other way.
Arista Maria Cirtautas received an MA from the University of Washington and a PhD in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently a Visiting Lecturer in European Studies, JSIS and Affiliate Faculty, Ellison Center REECAS. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3 Thanks to the generosity and hospitality of the organizers, I was able to take part in this journey in its entirety. Among this small group of travelers were Jane Hirschfield, Clare Cavanagh from the USA, Marta Wyka, Aleksander Fiut, Jerzy Jarzębski, Joanna Zach from Poland, Marek Tomaszewski from France and Ulf Andersson from Sweden.
8 Speech given in the St. John’s Church celebration of the 100th anniversary of Miłosz’s birth, Vilnius, June 26, 2011. For more on the cultural initiatives sponsored by the Polish government, see here
11 The cultural program surrounding the scholarly debates and discussions in Krasnogruda and Sejny was truly remarkable. Especially noteworthy was the exhibit of paintings by Wiesław Szumiński accompanying the verses of one of Miłosz’s last and greatest poems, “Orfeusz I Eurydyka.”
12For the program of the Miłosz Journey events in Krasnogruda and Sejny, see here.; for the observations of a British journalist who attended these events, see here.; for programs of the Borderland Foundation’s ongoing activities, see here.
15 While the debates in Sejny were conducted at the highest level of scholarship and were, In large part, an ongoing response to a voluminous, recently published, biography of Miłosz by Andrzej Franaszek, there have been more troubling manifestations of challenges to Miłosz’s standing as one of Poland’s most preeminent poets. For example, his burial was the focus of nasty demonstrations, and there have been efforts, on the part of some nationalist groups, to remove Miłosz’s verse from the Gdansk monument to the fallen workers of 1970. For an insightful account of the controversies surrounding Miłosz in Poland, see Clare Cavanagh, “Chaplain of Shades: The Ending of Czesław Miłosz,” a review of Second Space: New Poems by Czesław Miłosz; Robert Hass, in Poetry, vol. 185, no. 5 (Feb. 2005).