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The Poet at Ninety

July 01, 2001|DANIEL HALPERN | Daniel Halpern, the publisher of The Ecco Press and the co-founder and editor of Antaeus, is the author of "Something Shining: Poems."

I didn't really meet Milosz, one on one, until he won the Nobel Prize--it was 1980, a hotel in Stockholm. He was eating huge amounts of wild mushrooms his Polish friends had gathered on their way to Stockholm as a celebratory offering from the homeland. He ate these dark, rich fungi astonishingly quickly yet at the same time managed to talk and smile with an expansive well-being--why not? Years later I would watch Czeslaw eat pizza with the same bravado upstairs at Chez Panisse, the cheese still on the boil atop the artisanal dough--the rest of our party blowing in a Mediterranean way over the roiling mozzarella. He is a man who takes no prisoners. I am always struck by the puissance of his explosive laugh, a surprise even to the man himself!

But Stockholm was a formal extravaganza--from jet touchdown to the final dance a formal parade. What remains of that celebration in Stockholm is the memory of attempting to engage my rented white tuxedo. Czeslaw had warned me to wash my hands, lest I "mark" the one formal shirt I had for the evening. He suggested calling for a concierge should the going get tough, which I took to heart and called for help, unable as I was to assemble that alien apparatus. When I opened the door, a 6-foot blond female concierge burst into my room and started in on the studs. It took some doing--we were working at cross purposes--but eventually I was dressed and off to Town Hall to watch my author receive The Prize.

An awesome event, especially for a young but well-dressed publisher. I had published Czeslaw's "Bells in Winter" at Ecco two years earlier; it was 1978 and sold an underwhelming number of copies, but I considered it then, as I consider it today, one of the finest volumes of poetry published in the last 50 years. The work contained in his upcoming "New & Collected: Poems 1931-2001" rivals any collected body of work published in the 20th century.

Czeslaw is a master, a poet with a vision that hasn't wavered, surviving--and transforming!--the most horrendous events this past century was able to toss his way. It's worth pointing out that Czeslaw is one of the few poets who has been able to produce poems at the end of his career--he's 90, after all--that compete with the early work that made him one of the great poets of our time.

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