Thursday, March 10, 2016

When the Nobel Laureate came to Grinnell...

In 1985 Grinnell College hosted Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), distinguished poet and prose writer who had won (among many other honors) the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. Milosz was invited to present the Thursday morning Scholars' Convocation, and also to take part in a couple of informal sessions with students and faculty. Since at that time I taught a survey course on the history of modern eastern Europe, I was asked to introduce Milosz at convocation. It was my only time ever to shake hands with a Nobel laureate, and I am sure that I, blinded by the sun of fame, overdid the introduction. Nevertheless, it was a rare occasion, and one that remains fixed in my memory. What I did not realize then was how that visit would echo back upon Grinnell, and become fixed in a small corner of that great writer's opus.
Czeslaw Milosz (from a 2011 Lithuanian stamp)
The convocation was, predictably, packed. With the rise of the Solidarity labor movement in the 1970s and the 1981 imposition of martial law in Poland, things Polish had come to occupy a large place in the news. Milosz, who had at one time served the post-war Polish government but whose Captive Mind (1953) had dissected the lure and moral failure of Stalinist communism, was therefore not only a gifted poet, but also something of a lightning rod on Poland's failed post-war history. Naturally, therefore, many came to hear him, as much for his political as for his literary views.

In those days Scholars' Convocation almost always convened in Herrick Chapel—a grand auditorium, but perhaps not the best site for non-religious, academic discussions. Speakers stood behind the chancel-like podium, and those who introduced them sat on a small pew behind the podium, off slightly to the side, permitting a view only of the speaker's back. The audience, meanwhile, assembled in wooden pews better intended for early twentieth-century sermons than late twentieth-century lectures. They were obliged to look up to the speaker, whose podium stood on a platform a few feet above the auditorium floor.

Because my own education had focused upon Russia, rather than upon eastern Europe, my mental map of eastern Europe's several languages, changing borders and political systems was not all that firmly established. Most of what I knew of eastern Europe had come from the course I taught, but it was only a survey in which I usually learned at least as much as my students.  I was, therefore, nervous about the introduction I had to make, and so I typed out the whole thing, anxious not to make a bad impression. I do not now recall exactly what I said, but I am certain that it was too long, too detailed, too officious. Finally, however, I yielded the podium to Milosz and sat down.
Undated picture of Grinnell House from when it was the official residence of the Grinnell College President
Milosz had arrived in Grinnell on Wednesday, and had overnighted at Grinnell House where a large dinner was held in his honor. Neither that night nor next day did the poet seem worried about the talk he was to give Thursday morning. No doubt he had done this sort of thing many times, dropping in on College X to give a talk—any talk—and he had no doubt gotten used to ad-libbing, living mainly off his reputation and general knowledge. I wondered what he might say at Grinnell, but as I took my seat on the platform behind him, I readily perceived that he intended to wing it. Although he carried his briefcase up to the podium, plunking it down at his feet, he placed no notes or papers on the podium. After thanking Grinnell for the invitation (and the no doubt generous honorarium), Milosz began to speak...ex tempore. What Milosz said in those first minutes I have now forgotten; I imagine that he spoke off the cuff about circumstances in Poland. What I recall clearly is that, after a few minutes and having exhausted whatever thoughts he had on the subject, he fell silent. More than a half-hour of the convocation period remained, but silence prevailed in Herrick Chapel. A panic seized me: what should I do if Milosz sat down? I supposed that Nobel laureates can do whatever they please, but that did not help assistant professor Kaiser!
Undated photograph of Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) (
Luckily, Milosz did not sit down; instead, bending down behind the podium (so that those in the audience lost sight of him), he began to rummage through his brief case. After what seemed like a very long time (but was, I suppose, only a minute or two), he stood again at the podium with a book in his hand, and began to speak about another poet, Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998). And this is what I remember from that morning's talk, because until that moment I knew nothing about Herbert, who, Milosz told us, had recently published Report From the Besieged City and Other Poems (in Polish). Reading from the text, then interrupting himself to comment, Milosz emphasized the importance of this work, whose title guaranteed that readers would associate it with martial-law Poland. But Herbert clearly had a much longer Polish perspective in view:

...the siege has lasted a long time the enemies must take turns
nothing unites them except the desire for our extermination
Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor regiments of the Transfiguration
who can count them...

Milosz carried on this public reading and commentary spontaneously, without any outline or notes—occasionally flipping through pages in search of something specific. I remember him referencing Mr. Cogito, that "everyman" whom Herbert had first introduced in poetry a decade earlier and whose moral compass Herbert—and Milosz after him—endorsed. It was remarkable, and one of the more informative talks I heard in all my years at Grinnell.

My memory is fuzzy about how the convocation ended; I have the impression that at some point Milosz simply stopped, rather than concluded. Students rushed off to lunch, the chapel emptied, and Milosz himself soon departed, our encounter with literary greatness having passed into memory. My nervousness faded, and, as Poland subsequently emerged from that dark night that martial law had brought about, I forgot about Mr. Cogito and the besieged city.

Until one day some years later (I think it must have been around the change of the millennium) a poet friend of mine—Dr. Alex Moffett—told me about a letter he had received from yet another poet (John Mole, Magdalene College, Cambridge University) who, on reading a 1985 Milosz poem ("A Portrait With a Cat"), had found a mysterious reference to Grinnell, and had written Alex to inquire what the referents were.

A little girl looks at a book with a picture of a cat
Who wears a fluffy collar and has a green velvet frock.
Her lips, very red, are half opened in a sweet reverie.
This takes place in 1910 or 1912, the painting bears no date...
I contemplate the painting in Grinnell, Iowa...

I could recall no such painting, but I guessed that it must have hung in Grinnell House when Milosz stayed there during his 1985 visit. Always attracted by a little mystery, I started to inquire. Milosz had reported the artist's name, Marjorie C. Murphy, so I had a clue, and soon learned that Marjorie Connor Murphy (1888-1980) had lived in Santa Barbara, CA where she had painted and taught painting. More to the point, after the death of her husband, John Frederic Murphy (1887-1957, graduated Grinnell College 1910), she had donated to Grinnell College a collection of Piranesi prints, at the time valued at about $60,000. Packaged with the Piranesi prints was an unspecified number of her own paintings, including, it seemed, the picture that had so attracted Milosz's attention that he had immortalized it in a poem.
Untitled painting of Marjorie Connor Murphy (1888-1980) (image courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections and Archive)
But when I inquired, I learned that this particular painting was no longer part of the college art collection. Perhaps because the painting, having hung in an unprotected environment and menaced daily by daylight and the elements, had faded or suffered other damage, it had been de-accessioned at some point after Milosz's visit. A slide of the painting remained, however, and I was able to have it copied, entrusted it to Alex, who in turn sent it on to John Mole in England.
So, twenty years after his visit to Grinnell, a brief echo of that visit reverberated across the Atlantic Ocean. Milosz himself never returned to Grinnell, and after his 2004 death was buried in Krakow's Skalka church. Alex Moffett, too, soon went to his eternal reward, hoping there to rejoin his wife, Virginia, who had died in 1997. Marjorie Murphy's painting of the little girl with the book of a green-frocked cat has never resurfaced, and presumably never will. But the little girl and her cat survive in a poem whose genesis depended upon the visit to Grinnell of a Nobel Laureate in Literature.

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