Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Czeslaw Milosz and the pleasures of reading...

The other day I came across this Paris Review interview from a number of years back with the Polish writer, Czeslaw Milosz. This led me back into an orgy of Milosz reading over the weekend which has been so wonderful this cold dead season.

I have read Milosz nearly my entire adult life. He's one of those writers whose work I read consistently, re-reading certain key books, holding certain poems in my memory.

The Shanghai Public Library
I recall getting up early every morning and riding my bike to the Shanghai Public Library, spending all morning in a really beautiful English-language reading room surrounded by huge towering trees in the old French concession of the city. I would read his Collected Poems (the library had a small but very impressive collection of contemporary poetry) three or four mornings a week (at the time, one wasn't able to check out books in English, only read them in this almost invariably empty reading room) before I'd head over to where I was working. I don't know why but his words had such importance for me at that time in my life and I still have certain passages memorized from his collection Bells in Winter.

When my friend Sarah and her husband visited me in China, I asked them to bring me a copy of his New and Collected Poems which had just come out at the time, a huge tome that is heavy and unwieldy though, despite this, the book has been with me everywhere (from Paris to Hong Kong to Argentina) and I've read and re-read its poems many many times.

Later, I read The Captive Mind (which though still interesting feels quite dated in all its Cold War rhetoric) and his really lovely memoir The Issa Valley, about growing up in a dull forgotten and provincial part of Europe that has vanished forever. It was through reading To Begin Where I Am, an excellent varied collection of essays (from the history of Vilnius to the work of the American poet Robinson Jeffers to living in Berkeley, to Dostoevsky) that I discovered Tomas Venclova, another writer whose work I've come to admire through the years (I just missed him by a day when I was in Berlin last year...). I also came to know the work of the Polish writer, Adam Zagajewski through an essay he wrote on Milosz.

All this to say that on Sunday, when I saw the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation, the article there about Milosz's relationship with California (where he was a professor for many years) felt like the perfect coda for my weekend.

People who don't read books miss one of the truly great pleasures in life.

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