It was stuffy hot in the crowded hall at Poland's Union of Writers. Every seat, every available inch of space, was occupied by those who had come to hear the poems of Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish emigre' who was awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.
An historical event, Poland's literati called it, at a time when historical events seem to be happening almost daily somewhere in Poland. Milosz, of course, could not be here because he defected to the United States almost 30 years ago from his job as a cultural attache' at the Polish Embassy in Paris.
The presence of television crews gave the evening a sort of official sanction, although Milosz is referred to in the 13-volume Polish encyclopedia as an enemy of the people's Poland. His poetry had been largely banned from publication here.
Richard Matuszewski, former poetry editor for the Warsaw publishing house Cztelnik and a friend and contemporary of Milosz, told the audience of trying to assemble a collection of the poet's works for publication. The intention was to get Milosz, 69, into print in Poland either before he won a Nobel prize or before he died.
Generally speaking, it is easier for Polish emigre artists to receive recognition in Poland once they are dead since then they can no longer speak out against the powers that be here.
But the Polish playwright, Victor Gombrowicz, who died in 1969, proved the exception. He had left a stumbling block even after his death by instructing his wife to permit publication of his works in Poland only if his memoirs -- which contain political statements unacceptable to Poland's communist leadership -- would be published first.
To avoid a repeat of this untenable situation with Milosz, it was decided in Polish writing and publishing circles to press for publication of his works before his death.
The authorities balked. Even last year, when there was word that Milosz had been nominated for a Nobel, Matuszewski was informed by the director of the PIW publishing firm that permission to print Milosz would not be approved by Jerzy Lukaszewicz, then head of ideology and propaganda in Poland.
The mention of the name of the dreaded former chief censor drew deep booing from the audience, as Matuszewski related the story. Lukaszewicz is gone now, discredited and dismissed two months ago in a Politburo shakeup during the middle of the Baltic seacoast strikes.
On the day Milosz won the Nobel prize, he received a telegram of congradulations from Polish President Henryk Jablosnki. The poems and other works are expected to appear soon in officially approved Polish editions, lacking only the most political work.
A man in the audience at the Writers' Club whispered to one standing next to him, "Lukaszewicz is out, Milosz is in," and smiled, as if to say that Polish justice is, after all, now as good as any other.
Gustav Holoubek, considered by some to be Poland's finest actor, read a selection of Milosz's poems dating from the mid 1940s to the 1970s. But no matter how emotively read, Milosz's poems are still difficult to understand -- "complex and erudite, challenging and demanding, changing between different moods and levels, from elegiac to furious, from abstract to extremely concrete," said the Swedish Academy of Sciences in making the award.
The poems selected for reading included several from the early postwar period:
"In Warsaw," in which Milosz wrestles with both the love and the mournfulness he feels for Poland. "I didn't want to love like this, it wasn't my intention," he writes. "I didn't want to feel so much pity, it wasn't my intention."
"Campo di Fiori," which is also rich in constrasting images of festivity and dying and which, in the end, presents the poet as the voice protesting human indifference.
In addition, several more recent poems were recited, including "My Faithful Tongue," in which Milosz attacks the Polish language as "the tongue of the humiliated, the tongue of the unwise and those hating themselves perhaps more than they hate other nations, the tongue of confidants, the tongue of the confused." It is a skeptical, ironic poem that tells of Milosz doubting whether anything he writes has meaning, but which leaves the sense that it does.
"We picked the poems that echoed most in ourselves," explained Jozef Hen, Polish author, vice president of the Writer's Union and an organizer of the Milosz poetry reading. "Milosz has in himself the Polish sickness, as we call it. He is always troubled with his Polish fate. The unhappiest country, he said of Poland once."
During his frequent lectures on Milosz, especially to young audiences, Matuszewski said he is often asked about the poet's political views, about what it was that got Milosz on the official blacklist.
"I tell them like it is, that they were slightly different times back then when great pressure was exerted on artists.
"One of the great paradoxes of Milosz winning the Nobel prize now," Matuszewski continued, "is that normally the award opens the way for an author to be published and known around the world. In the case of Milosz, it is the opposite. Now we can know him here."