Fascination, Fear, Gratitude. Memories of Czesław Miłosz

2 July 2024

Fascination, Fear, Gratitude

Andrzej Franaszek

Fascination, fear, gratitude… Those are just some of the feelings I have when I think about Czesław Miłosz, but they are the ones that stand out. The fascination is instinctive: sometime in the late 1980s I somehow knew – not through school or family – that Miłosz must be read. I took on the great challenge of his magnum opus Where the Sun Rises and Where It Sets. I soon realises that I really did want to read him; perhaps this dawned on me when I was still in high school and I attended a crowded lecture at the Jagiellonian University where he spoke out against “incomprehensible poetry”?

My fear – or perhaps a powerful disquiet – was shared with other people, older and wiser than I; conversations with Miłosz were inevitably something like a test, jumping over a bar set high. I now know that I sometimes snuck in under the bar rather than clearing it when I was asked about my reading, my understanding of poetry, about decisions taken by the editorial team of the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly which I joined myself. It was 1995, perhaps 1996, when Tomasz Fiałkowski and I stood in front of the gate to the building at Bogusławskiego Street, pressing the button of the entry phone to his flat to interview him. Miłosz took forever to answer, and I secretly hoped that maybe he’d gone out, or forgotten, or couldn’t hear, so I wouldn’t have to face those pale blue eyes under bushy eyebrows, even though the stern gaze was soothed by the poet’s tendency to laugh. He did answer, eventually, and I like to think that the interview was successful.

I already felt gratitude, combined with affection – I knew him close to his final days, I knew the touch of his hand… But I mostly feel gratitude here and now: gratitude for all those times which helped to make me the person I am today, although of course I wouldn’t presume to call myself a “pupil of Miłosz”. And for the verses I’d remembered, helping me get through life. For example:

“Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.”

Andrzej Franaszek
Scholar of Polish literature, lecturer at the Pedagogical University in Kraków, author of publications including biographies of Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert and a recent collection of essays. He is researching a book on Józef Czapski, which has made him long for the Kraków of the turn of the 20th century – a city which he could have never visited…

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