The Year of Czeslaw Milosz

“He had his home, posthumous, in the town of New Haven,/ In a white building, behind walls,/ Of translucent marble like turtle shell”

  • from Czeslaw Milosz’s “Beinecke Library”

So begins Milosz’s poem that reflects the placement of his archives in Beinecke Library, and so too begins the new exhibition dedicated to the Polish poet within those turtle shell walls. “Exile as Destiny: Czeslaw Milosz and America” occupies both floors, but the heart of the exhibition lies in two large glass cases on the first floor. The Beinecke Library acquired the Milosz archives through gifts and purchases between 1966 and 2001. The extensive collection consists of personal papers, photographs, letters, manuscripts and audio material.

The exhibition starts with the Milosz poem that reminds us that, in seeing his own archives, Milosz himself was surprised by his “complete change into letters, that no one/ Could guess who he really was.” Setting the tone for the rest of the exhibition, “Beinecke Library” questions the extent to which a man’s written word produces the essence of his being. So, who was Czeslaw Milosz?

Americans most often recognize Czeslaw Milosz for his book “The Captive Mind” published in 1953 and Milosz’s Nobel Prize for Literature awarded in 1981. The exhibition includes a telegram from current Yale Professor Tomas Venclova upon the announcement of Milosz’s Nobel Prize. In the telegram, Professor Venclova states, “There are three great poles”: Wojtyla Walesa Milosz, Pope John Paul II, the Polish President and the poet, respectively. Professor Venclova is scheduled to give the keynote address at the Czeslaw Milosz Conference to take place at Yale on November 4th and 5th, 2011.

“Exile as Destiny” joins the worldwide celebration of the hundredth year of Milosz’s birth. In Poland, 2011 has been officially declared “The Year of Czeslaw Milosz”. The curator of the exhibit, Lisa Conathan, believes that it is easy to forget that Milosz encountered many struggles in the first half of his life. The exhibition aims to reveal how many of these challenges Milosz overcame.

Czeslaw Milosz was born not in Poland, but in Lithuania on June 30, 1911. In his lifetime, he lived in Poland, France and the United States, where he spent his later years as a professor at Berkeley. During this time, he served as an associate fellow for Pierson College. The pamphlet accompanying the exhibit states that his life “spanned a century of political upheavals and societal turmoil and was situated in pre-Revolutionary Russia, cosmopolitan Vilnius, Nazi-occupied Warsaw, the Paris of exiled literati, and the United States….” Milosz’s story is complicated, but the exhibition’s careful organization aids the viewer to grasp his timeline.

The collection also includes Milosz’s correspondence with Albert Einstein, Thorton Wilder, Josephy Brodsky and T.S. Eliot, to name a few. The exhibition tells the story that while under fire during World War II, Misolz clutched a book of T.S. Elliot’s poetry. Milosz said that “The Wasteland” made for “somewhat weird reading as the glow from the burning ghetto illuminated the city skyline.” The same case contains a copy of Milosz’s translation of a collection of T.S. Elliot’s works into Polish.

The difficulty of translation substantiates an overarching theme of the exhibit. Milosz always wrote his original poems in Polish. He then selected which of these poems he would translate to English. Conathan explained, “He was curating his reputation by what was translated into English. He insisted on excellence.” Like the T.S. Eliot poems, Milosv also translated other great literature of foreign languages into Polish. The exhibit displays examples of his translations ranging from Shakespeare, to haiku, to the Greek and Hebrew forms of the Bible. A photograph depicts Milosz’s presentation of his translated Bible to Pope John Paul II. The look on Pope John Paul II’s face alone is worth the trip to the exhibition. Whether in the translation of his own work or the works of others, the pen-marked manuscripts filled with crossed out phrases and alternative word choices reveal Milosz’s struggle to convey the true spirit of a text in translation.

This challenge harkens back to the original question: do we really get to know Milosz through the experience of the exhibition? From the photographs, we certainly become familiar with the cragged lines on his face and the distinctive upward swoop of his long eyebrows. We recognize the patterns of his doodles splashed across his manuscripts. With close examination, we can identify his cramped handwriting. We appreciate his friendships through his personal letters and his intellect through the selections of his poetry. In the end though, the answer to the question is no. As Milosz indicates in “Beinecke Library,” posterity viewing the collection has a pulse, the living spirit, which paper could never contain. However, “Exile as Destiny” comes as close as an exhibition possibly could to fashioning a complete portrait of Czeslaw Milosz.

“Exile as Destiny: Czeslaw Milosz and America” will be on display October 24 through December 17, 2011.

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