The 8th Miłosz Festival is over. What was this edition like?

Should poetry talk about current events? What is discovering one’s own language all about? What makes us include some artists into the canon, while forgetting about others? Poets talked about all this during the four festival days.

“The Seizure of Power” – this motto, taken from Czesław Miłosz’s 1953, was the main theme of this year’s edition of the festival. Despite the fact that some could expect it to convince the guests to make declarations concerning their views and to comment on current events, the festival conversations somehow managed to avoid contemporary politics and other world events.

To understand the contemporary world

The invited artists seemed to agree with the words of Ewa Lipska, who during the meeting with the festival audience said that poems do not talk about politics. “Such pieces are like leaflets that may spark emotions, but soon afterwards they disappear and cease to exist”, she explained.

This does not mean that poets turned their eyes away from difficult topics and changes taking place in the contemporary world. Quite to the contrary. Bosnian poet Ferida Duraković talked about building oneself anew while one’s own language and homeland are falling apart into pieces, while Russian poet Elena Fanailova touched upon building intellectual bridges between the West and the East, and Alicja Rosé, a Polish poet, devoted her time to the condition of contemporary Europe. “When I set out on a journey across the continent, many friends accused me of escapism. They said I was running away when so many important things were happening in the country. All while I wanted to leave to understand what is happening with Poland and Europe, and then to talk about it with my own voice,” she explained.

Taming the language

Most festival guests understood the seizure of power primarily as taking control over the language. Both a foreign one – which was touched upon by translators during their debate – as well as a native one. The latter ability was mastered by all the poets; however, some of them decided to challenge themselves even more, just like Ewa Lipska, who decided to put technical dictionaries to use in her poetry, or Simon Armitage, who draws upon colloquialisms and language of everyday life. “In the 1980s, when I started doing poetry, I noticed how everyday language is used in advertising and politics, so I wanted to see if it could be used in poetry,” Armitage said. “I was looking for a language that would be outward-facing, clear and understandable even to those who do not deal with literature on a daily basis, one that would not require complicated explanations.

Sometimes, the festival guests seized power over memory by recalling characters and names of long-forgotten authors. This was the case with the discussion dedicated to Anna Świrszczyńska – a poet who, although once mentioned alongside the greatest, today remains outside the main circulation. The festival also recalled Yiddish poets, whose works resounded during the reading of the My Wild Goat anthology.

More than discussions

Although meetings with poets were a staple of the Miłosz Festival, they were not its only point. During the four festival days we listened to a master lecture by Tomasz Venclova entitled “Despair and Grace.” The most outstanding living poet from Lithuania explained what is the key to understanding Miłosz’s work. “His works are imbued with knowledge about humanity, devoid of exaltation, sometimes they seem to be a cry of mad despair tamed by reason. It  is what poetry is for, so that we can cope with despair.” The lectures were complemented by the “Vita Activa ’19” debate. For more than an hour, Tadeusz Sławek and Karolina Wigura sat with Krzysztof Czyżewski and debated on the condition of society in a politicised world, putting forward the thesis that the fear of the return of totalitarianism, which dominated in the 20th century, was replaced by the fear of the future, of the unknown to come.

The programme also featured the Off Miłosz stream, dedicated to avant-garde lyrical trends, concerts, events for children and an open-air book fair.

Mordercze ballady win the Wisława Szymborska Award.

The festival concluded with the Wisława Szymborska Award gala. The distinction went to Marta Podgórnik for her volume Mordercze ballady. “Poetry can reach the last bastions of emotion, empathy, discord with the world – it can also accompany us, in a simultaneous and authentic delight in its fragments. It is able to oppose the dictates of politicians and fashion, literary conventions, as well as the press and publishing circles, in its power, it is also able to overwhelm the artist who created it,” said Dorota Walczak-Delanois, a member of the award committee, during the Sunday gala. And although these words are a part of her praise, they might as well be a summary of this year’s edition of the Miłosz Festival.

The Miłosz Festival is organised by the City of Krakow, Krakow Festival Office and the City of Literature Foundation.