Although Robert Faggen doesn't talk with his literature students about what makes a great writer, he is happy to talk about what great writers make. So when an international cast of poets, writers, critics, and scholars gathered recently in Krakow to honor the memory of Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz on the fifth anniversary of the Polish poet's death, Faggen was there, like he'd been in the past, celebrating both a friend and a national heroand talking, yes, about what Milosz made.
The occasion was the Czeslaw Milosz Literary Festival, Oct. 23-26, and Faggen, the Barton Evans and H. Andrea Neves Professor of Literature at CMC, was invited to speak about the contemporary significance of Milosz's classic work on totalitarianism: The Captive Mind. Written in 1953 after Milosz had been granted political asylum from Communist Poland, Captive Mind deals, in the author's own words, "with the dark sides of the communistic system." Joining Faggen for the panel discussion on this topic were Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, human rights activist and former member of the Russian parliament Siergiej Kowaliow, poet and translator Aharon Shabtai, literary scholar Dubravka Ugresic, poet, essayist, and literary critic Adam Zagajewski, and host Adam Michnik, a historian, essayist, and author.
The Festival guest list, designed to engage speakers and audiences in the discussions of Milosz's work as well as the contemporary world challenges he wrote of, also included the gathering of Nobel Laureates Wislawa Szymborska, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott, as well as Korea's most celebrated poet Ko Un, and others.
It was during opening festivities in the city of Krakow, where Milosz lived part-time and ultimately died in 2004 at the age of 93, that Faggen was warmly introduced to Festival-goers by award-winning poets Szymborska and Heaney, not only in appreciation for Faggen's participation, but undoubtedly in recognition of his own longtime support of the great poet's literary livelihood.
"Milosz is, without question," says Faggen, "one of the most important writers of the last hundred years," and is regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.
If proof was needed to further endorse Poland's beloved champion of the liberated mind, coverage of the October Festival in Krakow eclipsed the tension over the U.S. missile reduction in Central Europe and a recent visit from Sen. Joseph Biden, recalled Faggen. Headlines included a lead and supporting stories in the Polish Gazeta newspaper, with the CMC professor quoted prominently in two of the articles.
It's not the first time Faggen and Milosz have shared space in print.
Faggen edited the 1998 book, Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz (Farrar Straus & Giroux)a collection of conversations between Milosz and Trappist monk Thomas Mertonand a number of Faggen's interviews with Milosz, including one that ran in the winter 1994 issue of Paris Review, have been published.
In the years that marked the two men's interactions and evolving friendship, Faggen also brought the poet to CMC's campus to meet with students and talk about his work. And in 1998, he organized at Claremont McKenna the first International Milosz Festival, which received major press here and in Poland, and was attended in its entirety by Milosz himself. Here to toast the Polish writer were the familiar names of Seamus Heaney and Adam Michnik, the poet Edward Hirsch (a close friend of Adam Zagajewski), as well as Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, and Leonard Nathan, who spoke at the festival about the centrality of Milosz for contemporary American poetry.
According to the book Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets, Milosz himself called the Claremont Festival "the feast of friendship, the importance of which for the collaboration of American and European poets I fully appreciate."
Although Milosz's death would precede yet another, more recent tribute to his honor at Claremont McKenna, he did know of its planning: In connection with the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at CMC, a Milosz Institute has been established as a nonprofit 501c3, says Faggen, who is the Center's director. And through a partnership with an institute in Warsaw, Poland, the Milosz Institute has already sent three CMC students overseas for enhanced studies of Milosz's work.
Through the following questions, Professor Faggen discusses these new educational opportunities, as well as the poet's relevance here at CMC, and in the greater literary world. CMC: Can you explain how the Milosz Institute started, and its impact on students? Faggen: Milosz was very interested in having an archive and institute established in his name and was enthusiastic and honored to have it at CMC. The goal of the Milosz Institute and Archive is the preservation of a great writer's archive for students and scholars, as well as the encouragement of ongoing research and discussion of his work and ideas inspired by the legacy of his work.
Students would be involved in many areas of researchfrom literary and historical archiving, study in central and eastern Europe, and literary and historical research and investigation of areas related to Milosz's work: poetics, the relationship of poetry and politics, science and literature, religion and literature, to name a few. We expect scholars from colleges and universities throughout the United States and Europe to visit the Milosz Institute on short-term and long term stays, also interacting with students here at Claremont. CMC: Can you share a little about the students who have already benefited? Faggen: The Milosz Institute has already enjoyed a partnership with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw, Poland, which has funded three Milosz Fellows to study in Krakow. CMCers Meghana Reddy, Ian McGinnity (now studying for the year in Russia) and Jess Mackay, who just graduated, studied in Poland last summer and prepared reports on their experiences.
We will be sending more students to Poland next fall on these fellowship and bringing a scholar from Poland to study at the Institute. CMC: In what way do you integrate Milosz's poetry into your teachings? And, are there particular passages you feel compelled to share? Faggen: I have recently been discussing his work in two classes: American Poetry and Science and Faith in Modern Literature. It is interesting to see how Milosz in the forty years he lived in the United States became an American Poet while also reacting strongly as an outsider to many aspects of American culture. But many American-born poets often place themselves as outsiders within American culture.
So, it is interesting to read his poems, To Robert Lowell, or Ars Poetica?, which was written in Berkeley in 1968, to get his take on the limits of the "confessional" in lyric poetry as well as the relationship of madness to artistic creation.
I also give students his essays on Robinson Jeffers and on Robert Frost to provide a broader perspective on an ongoing debate about science and faith. In this context, his poem, To Mrs. Professor in Defense of My Cat's Honor and Not Only, makes for fruitful discussion about attitudes toward nature.
(Editor's note: Listen to Faggen's reading of Mrs. Professor in Defense of My Cat's Honor and Not Only, as part of the PEN (poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists) American Center World Voices Festival 2005.) CMC: Do you ever talk to students about what makes a great writer? Faggen: I probably never talk about what makes a great writer; I probably talk only about what a great writer makes. And it has not been all that fashionable to be talking "writer," much less "great writer."
Milosz used to call himself instrumental, a conduit of many voices, of multitudes. All this brings up questions of balanceabout how much one talks about the work, context, and biography. In any discussion of a literary work there has to be a balance between subject matter and form.