Agnieszka Kosińska: Working with Milosz, Last Poems and ars moriendi. Unabridged version. Oryginally published partially in: „An Invisible Rope. Portraits of Czesław Miłosz” edited by Cynthia L. Haven, Ohio University Press, Ohio Athens 2011. Translated by Artur Rosman.
Working with Milosz
One day in 1996, my professor of poetry at the Jagiellonian University, Teresa Walas, told me that Czesław Miłosz’s wife was looking for a secretary for her husband (who was spending more and more time on visits in Kraków from Berkeley) for helping with correspondence in Polish and English, and for administrative matters. I had an interview with Miłosz’s American wife, Carol Thigpen-Miłosz, in English at “U Literatów” (The Literary Café) at Kanonicza street in Kraków.
Things seemed to go well, because I was invited to visit the Miłosz household on Bogusławski 6 Street, where the Nobel laureate was supposed to look me over. He was sitting on the couch in Carol’s study, with me standing across from him, when I introduced myself. Miłosz shook his head and yelled to his wife in English, “Carol, I don’t need any secretary.” Then a moment later he asked, “What can you actually do? Can you type? Do you know Russian?” My affirmative answers paid off immediately, “That means I can dictate something to you.” Miłosz did not delay at all.
That day we had our first working session. It consisted of editing letters of the poet to Andrzejewski, Iwaszkiewicz, and other writers for a collection of correspondence from the years 1945-1950, which was eventually published in 1998 under the title, Zaraz po wojnie (Immediately after the War). It was a great undertaking, but very difficult, laughter saved me; these letters were loaded with tragedy, but often they were quite comic. Miłosz also laughed with his infectious and resounding laughter.
I left this meeting all sweaty and a bit irritated: Miłosz worked quickly, he was impatient, and did not seem to realize that I was hired for a totally different task, but we were united by our common sense of humor and our similar intimation, generally speaking, of the absurdity of existence, which caused us to constantly burst into a laughter that was totally incomprehensible to people around us. Carol would rush into the room; concerned, she would ask, “Folks, what are you laughing at?” These common character traits were the basis of our relationship right up to the end.
From that first day until 2004, I was Czesław Miłosz’s secretary and had the opportunity to be both witness and participant in his creative process.
Miłosz was a poet who got up early in the morning and in a notebook with thick white unlined pages, he would write his poems with a fountain pen—a Waterman or Pelikan with dark blue ink. I would always see these pages when I came to work in the mornings. Often it was a note, fragment, sketch, sentence, but just as frequently it was a nearly finished work. Then, a little later, he would type verses into the computer, his dear old Mac, with tiny stickers marking Polish letters that constantly fell off. He would copy them either from his notebook or from memory, doubtlessly remembering perfectly what he had handwritten a few days earlier.
Either he or the both of us would print out what he had typed on a small printer that didn’t always spit out the pages the way he wanted and often jammed. I tried to collect all that came from his pen and printer, even sometimes what he had condemned to the garbage bin. I put loose papers in order. I stapled, labeled, and dated them. Well, if I could keep up… “Dear Agnieszka, what are you deliberating about like that?” he would ask, amused, while observing me bustling around; he was already prepared to move on to the next task. He did eventually wait for me to finish this arduous process of collecting and ordering, because it did not take that much time, and the end result aided the creative process.
The print-out was put in a folder, the folder was deposited either in the top or bottom drawer of his desk on the left side. One never looked into this part of the desk, unless he clearly asked you to look.
Like any good nobleman, he lorded over his poetic domain. He took poems out of folders, read them, sometimes with the help of a looking glass or a reading machine, sometimes with my help. He would hand-correct the computer print-out, most often with a fountain pen, more rarely with red and navy-blue crayons that I bought at his request just for this purpose. The poem once again migrated into a folder. Sometimes Miłosz asked me to hand-write the printed-out poem with the corrections. The new version once again ended up in the appropriate folder in his desk; with time, to make things more simple, I established new folders for newer and older versions of poems and kept them on my own shelf.
Sometimes he gave me a page and would simply say, “Please read.” I had to find the appropriate tone, division into verses, breathing rate, and what was most difficult in that half-minute or so of rather loud reading, I had to develop my honest opinion about the poem—all of that had to be worthy of that special moment. He also had the habit of reading new poems during meetings with friends, either at home, or when he was visiting them.
He would finally pull the poems out of their folders and ask, “Who are we going to give it to?” Then I read the poem out loud, and if I knew the poem’s handwriting was too troublesome for editors I would retype it into his computer or his wife Carol’s computer, depending on which I was using at that moment. Then we would again check the layout of verses and strophes, spaces and punctuations, small and capital letters, and finally indentations. He had his own punctuation habits for his poems and they did not always square with standard Polish punctuation. Breaking lines at the appropriate point, in this and not that place, was also important and it was usually regulated by breathing, or a specific design of the author. This is how Miłosz prepared his poems for print, including those in the collection Wiersze Ostatnie [Last Poems].
I sent them out, most often by fax, to journals that he usually worked with: Kwartalnik Artystyczny [Artistic Quarterly], Zeszyty Literackie [Literary Notebooks], Tygodnik Powszechny [Universal Weekly], and Odra. He always asked for a final, pre-printing correction of the poem and we always did one. In the Krakowian archive of Czesław Miłosz, just as in the editorial offices of the above mentioned journals, you will find these computer print-outs of poems written in large fonts and full of spelling mistakes, also the final versions, and the print-outs after corrections, too.
When his hand, and later his eyes, started to fail neither one changed the poet’s life all that much. He dictated what he thought was worthy of dictation. He heard and remembered the verses that he had continually worked over in his head during a period of seventy years. Precise maps of the poems were in his mind and you could read their paths off his face when he traveled over them. We continued to work on versification in the mornings. He dictated off the top of his head, more rarely from loose pages covered with hieroglyphs of computer print-outs, because for the most part he could not see them anymore. Poems off the top of his head usually were a development of notes from notebooks that were numbered and dated, first by him, later by my hand.
He would usually simply say, “Please write this down.” Whenever the mix of a roguish look and a beaming beatitude appeared on his face, I always knew that it was time to write poems. He usually dictated by lines, he also usually marked capital letters, and, unwillingly, the commas which came few and far between. In the end he would say, “Please make something out of this.” My corrections were always painstakingly reviewed and accepted: I read slowly, line after line, and asked about everything twice. If there was a change, I revised it, first by hand, later on the computer. The print-out would make it into one of the folders, both his (in the desk) and mine. When it emerged from the folders, it once again underwent the trial of reading out loud.
Until Carol’s death in 2002, my work as a secretary consisted of a series of literary undertakings—both editing and taking dictation. Miłosz dictated just about everything: essays, letters, notes for interviews, with time he also started dictating poetry. At times, when dictating, he marked paragraphs, parts, verses, punctuation; but eventually he would just simply say, “Clean this up somehow.” He, of course, always accepted the end result. My most “independent” book is the collection of articles “Spiżarnia literacka” [Literary Cupboard], published weekly (sic!) during the years 2003-2004 in “Tygodnik Powszechny.”
I also worked on things connected to the poet’s life—the institution which the Nobelist undoubtedly was. This had not been easy for his wife Carol, who neither knew the language, nor Poland, nor the native manners. She patiently tolerated this whole tornado; Carol was a very understanding life-companion, yet despite all her best efforts, one person could not manage it all. This is why I took over the poet’s office.
On top of taking dictation, I had to manage the day’s schedule, in the office, in the library and in the archives of the poet. I had to take phone calls in between, send faxes, or listen to Carol’s patient questions, plus I had to read the correspondences which flowed in from all over the world. I also took care of contacts with the media, I managed the Miłosz’s travels, because Miłosz, even though he was past ninety, did not turn down literary meetings. Quite early on my employer confided to me matters connected to publishers and publishing contracts. There were other, more quotidian tasks, for example, buying a new winter jacket for Czesław, which, as we all used to say, bordered upon a miracle, because he neither wanted to part with his favorite old jacket, nor did he want to waste time trying on the several new jackets we brought back from the store after pestering everyone, telling them that we’ll return them if they don’t fit.
After Carol’s death the situation changed so that, at Miłosz’s behest, I became, using his words, something like a majordomus. My son captured the situation quite pithily, “Kind of like a wife, but not for bed.”
Last Poems and ars moriendi
The collection Last Poems is composed of forty-four compositions (among them one prose commentary) collected by me from the Cracovian residence of the poet. They were found in, if you will, among many different carrier compartments: folders in the poet’s desk, notebooks, the poet’s and Carol’s computers, also folders which during the poet’s life we called „archival,” and which I collected, according to their contents, in various parts of the apartment on Bogusławski Street in Kraków.
This edition of the poems has as its foundation computer print-outs input by the author himself and print-outs of poems that I worked on with the poet when he was still among us, and dictated straight into my computer. Thus, the Last Poems are composed of works sent to print by the author (twelve pieces) and ones unpublished during his lifetime. The poems that the poet left to their posthumous fate I treated just like the ones we worked on during his lifetime: I established the last versions, copied them out, left the author’s unique punctuation and diction, and established the breaking of lines. The first-drafts were compared with the author’s and my computer drafts, and the hand-written versions contained in the folders. The computer drafts of the poems usually were readable and unambiguous.
The Last Poems generally came into being in 2002 and 2003 in Kraków. Miłosz did not dictate any poems in 2004. Judging by the computer versions of the poems „A Dream: Plurality” (Mara: Multiplicity) and „On Salvation” (O zbawieniu) it seems that they are the earliest poems from the volume and could have come into being around the time when the collection THIS was being written, meaning around 2000. The poem „The Rat – Catcher’s Fife” (Flet szczurołapa) I also found (besides the print-out in a folder in the Professor’s desk) in a folder called the „vanilla folder” in the Miłosz household, with Miłosz’s hand-written label „New,” and put away a while ago into the archival shelf. Carol used to buy these folders in America, because we had no luck finding them in Poland, whereas both Miłosz and Carol liked to work with them, because they had a simple construction and did not cause any archival troubles. The folder „New” contained poems that the author included within Second Space, except for „The Rat – Catcher’s Fife”.
The dates in brackets were put there by me and mark out the period in which the author worked on the poem or (if the date is precise: day, month, year) the date of the last session after which the author did not change a thing in the poem. Some dates can be still further refined, or at least it is possible to establish the chronology of the poem’s genesis. This would require a comparison with what was written in the notebooks, print outs and also my notes. In the last part of his creative career Czesław Miłosz usually did not date poems. The only date in this collection that comes from the author’s pen is the date attached to the poem „Presence” (Obecność) — Tuesday 23 VII 2002, in a handwritten copy of the poem in a notebook. In the published collection of Last Poems it is incorrectly marked with brackets.
The poem „In a Garrisoned Town” (W garnizonowym mieście) has an interesting history: before he gave it to Krzysztof Myszkowski (changing „France” for „Paris” before committing it to print in the Kwartalnik Artystyczny), Miłosz first printed David Weinfeld’s translation in Hebrew in a journal run by a devotee of Miłosz’s poetry, Joseph Ozer, who for months had been asking for a poem.
The poem „Heaven” (Niebo) has in the computer print-out two versions of its title, „Heaven” and „Temptation.” Even though the author never chose a title for the poem, he later dictated a commentary for this poem, which he called „A Commentary for the Poem ‘Heaven.’” The only draft of a poem is „Lord Syruć,” (Pan Syruć) a nobleman’s wandering tale about one of Miłosz’s predecessors. I put it together from loose, unnumbered pages, with hand-written insertions of the author. Even though the sentences come together into a kind of whole and it is possible to compare this composition with the author’s notes in the appropriate notebooks with the hope that this might have been the author’s intention, I must clearly note that it is only a draft of a poem, because the author, in opposition to all the remaining poems, never showed, read, nor dictated it to me, as was his habit.
We worked over the last poem during December 2003. On 22 December 2003 during the last working session devoted to versification and poems he gave that poem the title „Goodness” (Dobroć).
Czesław Miłosz’s collection Last Poems, published in October 2006, caused the appearance of many inaccuracies which were especially related to its creation, that is, the poetic workshop of the „late Miłosz.”
In the last poems you can hear a certain kind of diction used by Miłosz. It is the same as in the collections THIS and Second Space, and there is nothing unusual about this, since they were written during, more or less, the same period. There were no painful editorial choices when it came to this collection. There are a several versions of a few lines, but these lines do not weigh in on the strong voice of the whole.
The volume Rays of Dazzling Light and Other Poems (Jasności promieniste i inne wiersze) published by Zeszyty Literackie contained the first editions that Miłosz sent to the journal between 1984 and 2004. They also give us a glimpse into the author’s work on form. We can trace the changes made by the author along the road from the first edition of a poem to its final state in a collection of poems. We can see how with the passage of time the form of a poem takes on a form that is closer to prose in the author’s mind, or vice-versa; we see how the author cuts a seemingly flowing text into autonomous fragments, giving them titles in the next collection (Cf. „On Being a Poet” from Zeszyty Literackie in 1995; later changed into several pieces and placed in Road-Side Dog in 1997). We are not concerned with writing sketches nor note-book entries, instead what matters is Miłosz’s search for a form that is adequate to this expansive and self-contradictory nature. Miłosz did not abandon these searches until the end, after all, he still had his voice, but he decided to not use it anymore to write poems.
The thesis that the last poems were sketches or of a notebook variety needs to be considered with the context of Miłosz’s whole work, that is, if that sort of consideration has any sense within the context of twentieth century literary production.
The self-interpretive work of Miłosz is also a kind of commentary to the Last Poems. At the same Last Poems shed light the previous volumes of poetry and prose. The collection Literary Pantry (Spiżarnia literacka) which he dictated from the start of February 2003 (a few months before he notified editor Tomasz Fiałkowski that he wanted to do a cycle of articles for Tygodnik Powszechny) until May 2004, which he then published weekly in Tygodnik Powszechny is a sort of paying of debts of gratitude to people whom he met during his long life. This collection of short articles is a natural continuation of ABC’s he did in 1997 and 1998 and as is the poem „Leonor Fini,” devoted to the eccentric female life partner of Konstanty A. (Kot) Jeleński, Miłosz’s friend. A perfect motto for many of Milosz’s books is the poem „Human Histories” (Historie ludzkie) and it can only be understood in light of the chronicling passion, nay, obsession of its author.
Among other things, we will find in Last Poems the poem entitled „If,” that stubbornly repeats a phrase from a poem in Second Space, „If there is no God.” It is certain that it is also a trace of the author’s search for a formula to say what the author struggled with all his life; he struggled so much that he repeated whole sentences and titles (Cf. The poem „Presence” from the volume Second Space and Last Poems). There are many places in Miłosz’s work which lead us to the feeling of déjà lu. Senile mantras or conscious turns of thought? When it comes to poetry, does this question have any sense?
To castigate Miłosz while reading his Last Poems for his old age, blindness, states of depression, to grant him, as it were a beggar’s discount for declining powers, would not only provoke laughter from Miłosz in the grave, but also all living and dead blind poets starting with Homer. And anyway it is a source of incessant „animal” joy for me when I read about it in reviews of „the later Miłosz.” For more than thirty years Miłosz took up old age as a theme (and in so many ways!), he witnessed to the slow shutting up of the senses, but it never struck him to beg the reader for mercy because of it.
What strikes me in Miłosz’s poetry, and not only the „later,” is the compelling elegiac tone. Shedding tears over what’s been lost: beauty of the body and life. „So much guilt behind them and such beauty!,” he wrote in „Biography of an Artist” (Biografia artysty) from the volume Facing the River (Na brzegu rzeki, 1994). The „Late Ripeness” of an artist must be an age of crisis. There seems to be no cure for this. „Who was to describe them, / And didn’t” as he put it simply and briefly in „Human Histories” from the volume Last Poems.
2004 was a year of an exemplary ars moriendi, Czesław Miłosz designated that year for putting in order his earthly, especially his literary, estate. At Miłosz’s request, I made an inventory of his poetic stock. I read him almost all the poems which later made it into the Wiersze Ostatnie. He added the following commentary to this reading, ”None of these poems are designated for hasty publication.” From our conversation it appeared that ”hasty” meant immediately after his death.
Miłosz detested being hurried and he disliked chaotic rushing, especially when it came to poetic material. He had his own internal rhythm and an unshaken consciousness of form, which he only dismissed when it was necessary. You could say that when he was ready, he was ready for certain. Living in a rush culture of quick and easy publishing it is very difficult for us to understand what it means to do poetry for over seventy years in humble service to one’s own daimonion.
After the poet’s death till June 2016, I took care of his Krakowian heritage, meaning, all that I have lived with daily for the past twenty years: Miłosz’s residence in Kraków, his furniture, paintings, trinkets, clothes, archives, and library. Everything remains just as it was when he was alive, when I used to come to work for him. Now you can come and see how this kind of man lived.
For me, working with Miłosz, being with him all day long, was like being locked in a submarine: it was a total submersion in Miłosz’s world, coupled with incredible pressure from within and without. Now, thirteen years after his death, I continually test myself against the saying of Simone Weil that Miłosz liked to cite, “Distance is the soul of beauty,” and I try to understand what I saw and heard while working with him.
I think that the secret of Miłosz’s poetry lies in its immense lyric weight, which suprises us and its elegiac elements which are not over-sublimated, accessible to every heart and mind which has not dried up. Otherwise, what to make of the piles of letters addressed to Miłosz from ordinary readers, from many generations, from the whole world which I see daily in the Kraków archives—some of them I remember well. I also think that maybe it is time to remove the seal of intellectualism usually used to enclose Miłosz’s poetry and simply let it speak in our own personal readings.
The Last Poems are neither the poet’s testament, nor the closing to his rich life, because the poet never meant to close his creative work with this volume. However, they are a confirmation of the protean nature of their author. A confirmation that he was a homo religiosus, who even though he might have bickered with religious and philosophical systems, he nevertheless tried to preserve the trusting religiosity of child and who always asks the same fundamental questions: Is salvation within reach of man? What is its nature? What does man get up for in the morning? And what does he fall asleep with?
Just as Miłosz does: he touches upon primary things, the very first and the very last ones.
English version of the Polish text „Glosa do Wierszy ostatnich Czesława Miłosza”. Translated by Artur Rosman.