NOTES FROM UNDER THE TABLE: Flash-mob Miłosz vs. The Long and Lonesome Stand of Tadeusz Różewicz

BY James Hopkin

The centenary of Miłosz’s birth has been quite well covered in the UK. There was always something magisterial about him, both as a poet and as a man

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On Monday, 3 October, the forecourt of the British Library in London, ablaze with the sun of an Indian Summer, staged the event, Pop-up Poetry Reading: Flash-mob Miłosz hosted by literary journalist, Rosie Goldsmith, and by the Head of Literature at the city’s Polish Cultural Institute, Magda Raczyńska. Manchester poet Lemn Sissay sprang up for a couple of readings, most notably And yet the books, Basia Howard (translator of Różewicz’s poetry along with her husband, Tony) read Miłosz’s poem, Różewicz, another was read by a Penguin publisher (who put out the paperback of Miłosz’s collected works), and by Irena Grudzińska-Gross. After these, around a dozen members of the 50-strong audience did their best to pop up and read from a selection of Miłosz’s poems. It proved to be a great idea and a fun afternoon, not least because those entering and leaving the library often stopped to listen – more of a friendly gathering than a flash-mob then, and better for it. The event was followed by The Mind of a Great Poet, an evening of readings and discussions of the Nobel Laureate’s work.

Indeed, the centenary of Miłosz’s birth has been quite well covered in the UK, with an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, poems on the London underground, several articles (including my own in the Guardian) and the launch of a CD of his poems read by the comedian, literary enthusiast, and BBC ever-present, Stephen Fry. Strange choice this, though. Surely such a fine poet deserved another poet to read his work. Why not famous Seamus? (Heaney). Or another Miłosz admirer, John Burnside, who this week won the Forward Poetry Prize, 2011, with his collection, Black Cat Bone. What’s more, I wouldn’t have expected Stephen Fry to be chosen after his comments urging people to remember “which side of the border Auschwitz was on”.

But going back to Miłosz. There was always something magisterial about him, both as a poet and as a man. I was lucky enough to be awarded a ten-minute interview slot with him in Frankfurt, 2000, and I waited in a long line between a film-crew from Bulgaria, and a radio journalist from Italy. With both hands resting on the top of his walking stick, and those thick eyebrows whipped up for the occasion, the elderly poet had the appearance of an old shepherd whose flock had long since departed. Instead of answering my questions, he recounted, in tender detail, his childhood journey to school across the border by horse-and-cart. I’m not sure he heard a single word I said. And I’ve always felt this way about his poetry, too, that its brilliance is slightly overshadowed by its self-assurance, and this sometimes translates as a hint of condescension, of not leaving the reader any room for manoeuvre. As many (particularly in Poland) agree, his essays display more humility, and are stronger for doing so.

Now that the Euro-sceptic UK has found its Polish poet for the year (just as it found and fetishised its single, popular translated book last year: Hans Fallada’s  Alone in Berlin, and this year, Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate), there is of course no need for them to do anything to celebrate (nor even mention) the 90th birthday (on Sunday, 9 October) of another very fine Polish poet, Tadeusz Różewicz. (And, believe me, I tried a few newspapers.) Indeed, I prefer Różewicz’s poetry to Miłosz’s. I prefer Różewicz’s work to Szymborska’s. For me, he is very nearly up there with Zbigniew Herbert. Very nearly. Though his longevity must earn him extra points. Why not? Too often we forget to cherish our living poets. What’s more,  when I interviewed Poland’s other recent Laureate (1996), Wisława Szymborska, she told me how much she had learned from Różewicz’s work.

I interviewed Różewicz, too, a warm and mischievous man, ten years ago, in Wrocław, then in London. I was already an admirer of his poetry and his plays – so much more wit than Miłosz! Miłosz always wants to press wisdoms upon us, Różewicz teases and tempts us to find our way. Besides, some of his work about the war – The Survivor and Pigtail for example – are as brutal and unnerving as anything you could find about the horrors of that time. But as he journeyed through the 20th century and crossed the border into the 21st, he never lost sight of the humour to go with his humanity, regardless of what he had seen, regardless of what he had suffered.

As he writes in the final stanza of his poem, From a Biography:

my biography almost came to an end
on several occasions
some better some worse

Thankfully, it didn’t, he’s still with us, and now he’s 90. Happy birthday Tadek! Sto lat! And let’s see if we can get you that Nobel yet.