The Poet Who Remembered

Poland (mostly) honors Czeslaw Milosz upon his death.

The same nationalist hysteria, right-wing Catholicism, and jealousy that Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz condemned in his prophetic work raised its uninvited head at the time of his death at 93. It took a telegram from the pope and assurances from the poet's confessor to dissuade a group of protesters from turning his funeral into a farce.

The scandal erupted shortly after the death of the cosmopolitan writer considered by many the voice of Polish conscience during the 20th century. Milosz was forced to leave his homeland of Lithuania after the Soviet Union took it from Poland following World War II. In 1951, he had to leave this motherland, too, choosing to defect during his employment at the then-communist Poland's embassy in Paris. In 1961, he moved to the United States, where he taught Slavic literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He was so generous and intent on promoting Polish poetry abroad that for a time he was known mostly as a translator of other Polish poets, most notably Zbigniew Herbert. The Nobel Prize in Literature he received in 1980 established him as a world-class poet, essayist, and historian of literature. In the 1990s, he began to divide his time between his home in Berkeley and the cultural capital of Poland, Krakow, where he settled for good near the end of his long life.

An unusual perceptiveness, grounded in his expectant Christianity, as well as this multicultural background enabled Milosz to see and address both the virtues and the flaws of Poland. The latter got him in trouble. He spoke out against communism but also against clericalism—a blind devotion to the church establishment that for some Polish Catholics overshadows the worship of God—and against the conflation ...

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The Poet Who Remembered
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