BY SUZANNE BACON
"At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor,
Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds.
I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are."
-- taken from "Blacksmith Shop," in the collection Provinces, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass
Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz spoke of his life, his poems and his philosophies during a poetry reading held at the Library on April 3. From his work, he read a variety of his translated poems, including those that celebrated the beauty of life, and those that bemoaned the depravity of evil.
Mr. Milosz's poetry represents the full life he has lived. Born in Lithuania in 1911, he lived through the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Communist system in the Soviet Union and as a young student saw Hitler come to power in Germany.
Following his reading, he was asked about his views of what lies ahead in the next century. He answered that he has witnessed "incredible crimes by the two worst criminals -- Stalin and Hitler. They are now gone, so I look with some optimism to the next century."
After World War II, he came to the United States as a diplomat for the Polish communist government. He defected to the West in 1951, and spent a decade in Paris as a freelance writer. In 1961 he became a lecturer in Polish literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he later became professor of Slavic languages and literature, a job he still holds.
All of his poems but one have been written in his native Polish, even though there was a ban on his poetry in Poland until after he won the Nobel Prize in 1980. Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky, current and future poets laureate at the Library, are among those who have worked with Mr. Milosz in the translation of his poetry into English. Mr. Milosz and Mr. Hass are neighbors in Berkeley. Mr. Hass and Mr. Pinsky joined a team put together there to translate Mr. Milosz's poetry. "But they don't know Polish. A translation was done by myself and they corrected it -- they have an excellent ear for English," said Mr. Milosz, laughing.
Mr. Milosz began the reading with a short poem titled "Encounter." He read in English and Polish, and followed with "Bypassing Rue Descartes," a poem about his time in Paris, "when it was the capital of the world." It reads: "As to my heavy sins, I remember one most vividly:/How, one day, walking on a forest path along a stream,/I pushed a rock down onto a water snake coiled in the grass." Mr. Milosz explained that killing a water snake represents a grave sin in some pagan religions, a remnant of which remains in his childhood home, Lithuania.
From his work, he also selected poems that reflected his thoughts on the nature of being, including: "Esse," "a poem about a love affair that lasted one minute and a half in a Parisian metro"; "This World," of which Milosz said, "Maybe it is not proper to wish the disappearance of this world, but I have one such poem"; and "The Gift," a poem that Buddhists included in a book of their ontology, although Milosz mentioned that he is not a Buddhist.
Mr. Milosz prefaced each of his pieces with a short introduction. For the poem "Reading the Notebook of Anna Kamienska," he said that "unfortunately art has a demonic side," and that at times people are uneasy hearing this poem.
About his poem "At a Certain Age," he said, to laughter from the audience, "This of course is about my age, a very venerable age."
Originally, Mr. Milosz was scheduled to appear with Mr. Hass after the reading, to talk about the process of translation. However, Mr. Hass had pulled a muscle in his back and was unable to attend. Instead, Mr. Milosz answered questions from the audience. Many of his poems contain spiritual connotations, and an audience member asked Mr. Milosz what role faith plays in his life. That is a "touchy subject," he said "because it is a little preposterous to pretend one has faith. I hope that I have faith."
Although Mr. Hass was unable to attend, he passed some remarks on to Prosser Gifford, director of Scholarly Programs, saying that he sees in Mr. Milosz "the ceaseless inventiveness of an older poet." In 1995 Mr. Hass described Mr. Milosz as a witness to the 20th century. "Milosz wrote quiet, powerful anti-war poems in the midst of Nazi occupation in simple and pure Polish," Mr. Hass said.
Ms. Bacon is an intern from Brigham Young University who is working in the Office of Communications.