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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Culture Watch

Tribute to a 'Poet of Witness'

April 19, 1998|DAVID L. ULIN

Czeslaw Milosz is a figure of contradiction, a poet whose best-known effort, "The Captive Mind," is a nonfiction study of the lure of totalitarian thinking, a hero of Polish democracy who has lived in exile since 1951. Although he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, he remains familiar to most American readers by reputation, if at all. That may change this week, when Claremont McKenna College hosts Czeslaw Milosz: An International Festival, a four-day festschrift of the 86-year-old author's life and work.

"There was a sense that it was about time someone did this," says festival organizer Robert Faggen, an associate professor of literature at the school. "He's a vital figure in modern letters, a poet of witness whose work addresses mass murder, political extremism, matters of faith and knowledge--many of the contradictions and turmoils of our times."

For Faggen, the festival is the culmination of a long-standing interest in the poet. In 1997, he edited "Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz" (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Still, the festival began to take shape only last year during a campus visit by Polish Solidarity leader Adam Michnik, who also edits the country's largest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcyza.

"We started talking about Milosz," Faggen remembers, "and the important moral and intellectual influence he'd had on Solidarity. Michnik said it might be a good idea to do a celebration."

If at first there seems to be something incongruous about honoring a Polish literary icon in Southern California, it's actually not that big a stretch. Milosz, after all, has lived in Berkeley since the late 1950s--he was a professor at Cal from 1960 to 1980--and is now, Faggen notes, "one of California's most distinguished poets."

Beginning Friday evening with an introductory lecture and exhibit of underground publications and photographs from Poland, the festival promises an array of panels and readings by an impressive cast of cultural heavyweights, including U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Harvard University professor Helen Vendler, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and Pulitzer Prize winners Jack Miles, W.S. Merwin and Philip Levine. Milosz himself will weigh in on Monday night at 6:45, when he closes the festival with a poetry reading and a lecture.

"Milosz," Faggen says, "is a world unto himself, and the idea is to highlight the influence of his work." Still, he emphasizes, this is not an academic conference, but a celebratory gathering, intended for both Milosz scholars and newcomers alike.

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All events are free and will be held at the Marian Miner Cook Athanaeum, 385 E. 8th St., Claremont. For a full schedule, visit the festival's Web site at http://www.mckenna.edu/milosz, or call (909) 607-3005.

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