Czeslaw Milosz was born 30 June 1911 in Szetejnie (presently Šeteniai, Lithuania). This year marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the day before Poland will first adopt the presidency of the European Union – on 1 July 2011. Could we even imagine a more symbolic correspondence of dates – and a more perfect patron for this event than the author of Native Europe?
The most important event of the Milosz Year is the Literary Festival, which will be taking place in Krakow from 9-15 May. The second edition of the festival is entitled “Native Europe” [the English translation of this book appears under the title Native Realm – trans.], and it will host 130 poets, writers, translators, and scholars from Europe and beyond – from Bielorus, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Ireland, England, Italy, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Turkey, as well as from China, India, Lebanon, South Africa and the Caribbean. Over the course of the week in May they will read their poems to Krakow audiences, participate in large academic conferences and translation workshops, exchange their views and match their experiences in panel discussions and author presentations.
The main topic of the 2nd Czeslaw Milosz Festival is borrowed from Native Europe: the search for roots, the maintenance of identity, and the interaction and dialogue between cultures and traditions. Milosz’s work inspires us take up a wide range of subjects: from the artist’s attempt to define himself spiritually and artistically, to the key 20th century notion of exile and encounters with other languages, cultures, and religions, and the building of a sense of community while maintaining sovereignty. The presence of poets and writers from around the world will open up a universal perspective and exchange of views.
We are living in times of mass and individual (though not always elective) migration, and on an unprecedented scale. Czeslaw Milosz experienced this first-hand. Thousands of people –artists and poets included – resettle and choose to inhabit other countries in other continents. For poets, this change of location forces them to choose the language in which they will write. There are those, like Czeslaw Milosz, whose triumph comes from remaining “true to their tongue,” while others have made their names through writing in a new language. The artist in a new language and cultural environment on the one hand finds himself inspired by new things, local traditions and cultural legacies, and on the other, brings his own heritage, experience, beliefs, mythologies, literary traditions and artistic conventions to this place. This mingling of cultures is one of the central phenomena of the modern world. It provides a chance for enrichment and mutual encounters, and to overcome stereotypes, biases, nationalism, and xenophobia.
In Native Europe, Czeslaw Milosz wrote of the land of his childhood, severed from the modern world by the Iron Curtain – but not with the sole intent of recalling a bygone countryside. The words in the title of this book might illustrate transformations in national consciousness and the concept of “homeland.” When the poet was born to the world in the isolated countryside of Lithuania one hundred years ago, it was a part of Europe through its Mediterranean cultural heritage. It also belonged to the feudal 19th-century structure of Czarist Russia, which preserved its political and economic order in a manner that was light years away from “modern” Europe.
Nonetheless, this Europe was “native” for the young man studying in the multinational and multicultural Wilno, who recognized that his friends called it “Vilnius,” or sometimes even “the Jerusalem of the North.” In Czeslaw Milosz’s youth and early maturity, the dozen or so years between high-school graduation and his decision to remain an émigré in 1951, it was not only the meaning of the word “Europe” that changed, but also the meaning of the ties between people. The Russian Revolution, fascism, Stalinism, communism, the Holocaust, the gulags, resettlement through shifting borders, the deaths of millions of civilians – Milosz bore witness to events that changed the face of the world, and for many years his creative work bore literary testimony to these changes.
On the centennial of Czeslaw Milosz’s birth, we shall participate in the historic occasion of Poland adopting the presidency of the European Union. This symbolic concurrence of dates – the birth of the great poet and the triumph of Polish freedom – should oblige us to consider the people for whom the word “homeland” is more associated with the terms “otherness,” “captivity,” “emigration,” “discrimination,” and “poverty” than with the joys of being at home. May the greatness of the author’s work and his wisdom allow us to find love in participating in the transformations of our world.
Festival Program Director