Czeslaw Milosz, an American
In Memoriam: Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)
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In Letters from an American Farmer, frontier agrarian J. Hector St. John de Crevècoeur posits that
Men are like plants; the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow. We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment.
Ideology, faith, and vocation, intrinsic to being as oxygen, beget
biology and personality. This organic recipe for what we become is one that
immigrants, exiles, and other such transplants believe in their most
optimistic moods, if they can put aside their nostalgia for a lost
homeland. It also forms
an unlikely bridge between the eighteenth century Crevècoeur and the
Lithuanian poet, Czeslaw Milosz, whose personal biography corresponds
uncannily to the continental biography of Europe in the twentieth century,
and who owned an American passport when he died in Krakow in August of
2004. Milosz understood
transplantation, what it costs the human being, but he also felt the
necessity of bearing fruit, not in spite of the local soil, but because of
his “Ars Poetica?” (that titular question mark hinting at the
impossibility of summarizing an art which, according to Milosz, was
dictated to him by a spirit daimonion), the poet declared that:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
encounters with history made him certain that “home” and “self”
share the same instability, since they are organically linked. To maintain a fixed idea of either would involve monumental
denial, since that would require a willed ignorance of historical fact,
the reality of shifting borders and exile.
To be defined only by history is not an option either.
As Derek Walcott puts it, “For every poet it is always morning in
the world. History a
forgotten, insomniac night; History and elemental awe are always our early
beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world,
in spite of History.” By
the time of his death, Milosz represented one of the best specimens we had
of the writer as survivor, but also of the writer who embraced his
poetic vocation in spite of history with an almost antiquated sense of
poetic duty. For him,
art would need to serve as both irritant and
poet’s life opens like a Baltic epic: he was born in 1911 in Lithuania,
to Polish-speaking parents whose membership in the gentry became nearly
insignificant after the country was incorporated into Tsarist Russia.
His father, a civil engineer, was drafted into the Tzar’s army during
World War I to build bridges along the
front. Rather than leave his
family behind, Czeslaw and his mother accompanied him; so in 1917, at the
outbreak of the October Revolution, they were stationed on the banks of
the Volga in the ancient trade-center of Rzhev, located along the central
train line to Moscow.
most formative years of his boyhood, as described in his essay,
“Happiness,” were spent back in Lithuania at his grandparents’ farm,
with its three orchards and its “huge oaks and lindens” hiding in
their shade a river haunted by a genius loci, one that would remain
present to him throughout his life, even during his years “on the far
shores of the Pacific.” This
Wordsworthian childhood is crucial to all the poetry he wrote, as is the
fundamental pattern of his life established already in his first decade,
with its alternating periods of historical cataclysm and pastoral idyll.
“Thus as a child,” Milosz reflected, “I was primarily a
discoverer of the world, not as suffering but as beauty.
The trees of the park, the orchards, and the river founded a
separate realm of intensified, radiant reality more true than anything
situated outside.” The
farm, not to mention his country, was later swallowed up by the Soviet
Union and the orchards were razed to make way for collective farms.
entered literature in the 1930’s, publishing several books and
co-founding the literary group “Zagary.”
He also had his first encounter with Western Europe: after
finishing his law exams in 1931, he and two other students (nicknamed
“Robespierre” and “Elephant”) traveled to Prague and then
attempted to paddle a dilapidated canoe down the Rhine and its tributaries
from Bavaria toward the Colonial Exposition in France. This journey, as it is narrated in his memoir Native
Realm, took them “from ecstasy to ecstasy,” and reads like a lost
chapter of Huckleberry Finn; it
culminated in Paris, where he made acquaintance with his relative, Oscar
Milosz, an expatriate living in Fontainebleau (in a hotel room filled with
cages of African sparrows) who wrote in French and who had managed to
create a literary life for himself outside the Polish-speaking world, a
model Milosz himself would need to emulate soon enough.
1937, he took a job with Polish Radio in Wilno, but was transferred to
Warsaw just in time to be sent to the front as a radio operator at the
start of World War II. When
he returned to Wilno in January, 1940, he watched Lithuania’s neutrality
disappear, as he describes it, sitting “in Rudnicki’s café across
from the Cathedral, suddenly a loud clanking of iron, the invasion of
Soviet tanks.” Since he was
already something of a cultural and literary figure, this set of
circumstances proved to be the most dangerous of his life.
“What would have happened if I had not escaped from Wilno?” he
later asked himself, “I would have….been sent away to join the polar
bears. I was too well known
there.” His harrowing
adventure back into Poland—hiding in haylofts, wading through swamps,
and finally running like “a wild rabbit” across both Soviet and
Nazi-occupied territories—would mark the last time he touched Lithuanian
soil for four decades.
the early 1940’s, working for awhile as a janitor at the library of
Warsaw University, Milosz was active in the resistance, attending secret
poetry readings and mimeographing an anti-Nazi journal and a new volume of
his own poems, what he understood to be “the first literary work
published in occupied Warsaw.” He
and his wife Janka lived, ironically enough, in an abandoned apartment on
Independence Avenue, in a building later destroyed by artillery fire
during the Uprising, from which he witnessed executions and the beginnings
of the “great roundup” of men throughout the center of Warsaw—those
who comprised the “labor force” used to build the concentration camp
emigration would have had its appeal after the war, he rejected the option
to become, as he put it, “someone outside [his] true estate—Polish
poetry,” and accepted diplomatic posts in Washington, New York, and
Paris on behalf of the new Polish government.
His discomfort with the system’s authoritarian flavor was
magnified with each brief return to Poland, and though the authorities
seized his passport in 1950, he was allowed to return to Paris; he
then broke with the Warsaw government
for good in 1951, leaving him in exile.
years in Paris were his most politically radical, during which he produced
his most famous book of prose, The
Captive Mind, a study of “how the human mind functions in the
people’s democracies.” In
to this book he asserts that social realism, the ultimate degradation of
art under totalitarian regimes, “forbids what has in every age been the
writer’s essential task—to look at the world from his own independent
viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward
in the interest of society as a whole.”
This kind of forbidden writing, Milosz continues, “preaches a
proper attitude of doubt” against the “trumpet-blare” of a
dictatorship, and “the orchestra in the concentration camp,” where
Milosz says he “as a poet,” had his “place already marked out…
among the first violins.”
1960, the University of California at Berkeley created a position for
Milosz as a Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature, and he became a
U.S. citizen in 1961. His
existence in California was often charmingly pedestrian, granting him the
leisure to contemplate his metaphysics, and his past, while trying to foil
the persistent deer that emerged from the brush each evening to devour the
heliotrope in his garden. As
described in his journal A Year of
the Hunter (which offers readers a sample of the poet at his most
ornery), this transplantation to California also brought him to the brink
of the American continent and all it stood for, including its liberal
idealism. During the Free
Speech Movement, Milosz exercised an indignant patience for his academic
colleagues, having witnessed elsewhere the dangers of a leftist philosophy
pushed to its ultimate conclusions. He
claimed his “isolation in Berkeley was rooted in [his] negative
evaluation of American liberals, and the people who might have become my
friends all had those slogans encoded in their minds.”
Milosz bristled while his Berkeley colleagues, in reaction against
the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, saw to it their students became
“appropriately indoctrinated” and babbled “shameful
was equally distrustful of the behavior of many American poets,
demonstrating “a certain skepticism toward the privilege that American
poets appropriate for themselves, the privilege of being certified
madmen….the Romantic myth that identifies greatness with deviance.”
The psychodramas of the Confessional poets, in particular, earn
from Milosz a hilarious dismissal: “Whenever Robert Lowell landed in a
clinic I couldn’t help thinking that if someone would only give him
fifteen lashes with a belt on his bare behind, he’d recover
poetic touchstone in America was instead the California “inhumanist”
Robinson Jeffers, whose poetry he felt had been stupidly ignored by
American academics. Jeffers’
isolated stone house in Carmel was a symbolic place of pilgrimage for
Milosz during the years he was inventing the latter phase of his poetic
style in Hymn of the Pearl
(1981) and Unattainable Earth
(1986). Like those of
Jeffers, the poems Milosz wrote in California (including “The View,”
“A Felicitous Life,” “Distance,” “Winter, “ “Table I” and
“Table II”) are marked by the landscape’s tectonic beauty and they
frequently contemplate the size of the hemisphere.
felt that geographical imperative as much as any other American poet.
His exile was not without its bouts of remembrance and guilt, since
with the benefit of such distance his past began to clarify, and he could
not help passing judgment on the privilege and difficulty of his position
there. In “Winter,” one
of the dozens of poems he would write about the end of his life (he lived
so long he had to keep writing these), the poet in his seventies
announced: “And so I am here, approaching the end/ Of the century and of
my life. Proud of my
strength/ Yet embarrassed by the clearness of the view.”
We can be thankful he had another two decades of such clarity.
his own biography, which is impossible to avoid and difficult to contain
in any assessment of Milosz’s career, the poet expressed some
ambivalence, as in his poem “Greek Portrait,” written in Washington,
D.C. in 1948:
My beard is thick, my eyelids half cover
is difficult to measure how much this ironic indifference to the facts of
his own existence corresponds to a feigned humility.
After all, Milosz dedicated much of his career to prose
recollections; his volume of selected essays, To
Begin Where I Am, is a hefty door-stop, even though it only includes a
single chapter of The Captive Mind,
snippets from his memoir Native
Realm, just one of his Harvard lectures from The
Witness of Poetry, and none of his journals.
There is no doubt that Milosz’s life will remain emblematic of
what the twentieth century and its celebrated
tyrants could do, even to those who survived.
Perhaps this is the reason American poets have been too ready to
gaze upon the idea of Czeslaw Milosz’s life while overlooking his work.
This fact was not lost on the poet, who was clearly uncomfortable
with his celebrity as an exile
and found irony in the “difference between the fates of poetry in
Western Europe and in America. The
myth of European culture commands American poets to envy their European
colleagues, whereas it ought to be the other way around.”
his poetic output will be remembered is not so easy to predict.
In a recent piece on National Public Radio, Andrei Codrescu, a
commentator who knows something about literary Eastern Europe, granted
that Milosz “was a great essayist,” but asserted that, “at least in
English, Milosz was a mediocre poet,” adding that “his Nobel…was not
a measure of genius, but an election to a highly political club.”
Setting aside the politics of the Nobel and Codrescu’s admission
that he “doesn’t read Polish,” this skepticism points to a larger
question: was Milosz a great poet or did he represent for us the figure
of the great poet—complete with bushy eyebrows, noble morality,
erudition, and tormented past? The
very image of what we want our poets to
several generations of American poets, the answer seems to be “both,”
and his poetry—yes, in Robert Hass’ collaborative English
translations—has proven indispensable.
It offered a remedy for the long Confessional hangover afflicting
our poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century; next to the output
of Milosz’s seven decades of writing, so much American poetry looks
naively insulated, simpering, satisfied more than anything with itself.
Milosz’s poetry confronted history because he had one and it had
to; autobiography in the American sense had to take a second seat.
His poems needed to exist. Few
American poets brought that necessity to the table, and our encounters
with his poetry (and all Polish poetry, for that matter, or at least
including the poets most available to us in translation: Herbert,
Szymborska, and Zagajewski) has substantially broadened the scope of our
collective poetic ambitions.
to sum up Milosz’s particular vision?
No poet, having witnessed what he witnessed, could bear to adore
life on earth as much as he did. It
may just be as trite and simple as that.
The evidence of this adoration is written everywhere in his poetry,
though nowhere as beautifully as in his greatest poem, his ultimate
I keep my eyes closed. Do not rush me,
high, frothy, ecstatic, Whitmanian-sounding in English because the timbre
of Whitman is that of the King James Bible, there’s a psalmodic
sweetness and elevation managed subtly here.
The poem joins that line of our greatest hymns to plenitude, one
that springs from Shakespeare’s utterance “Ripeness is all,” through
Keats’s “To Autumn” and Stevens’s “Credences of Summer.” The
rhapsodic recurs in Milosz always, but it is rarely in such proportion as
While his tendency is toward the high, his poetry was most often
tempered by the magnetic counterforce of the low.
His poems are typically plain-spoken, imperative, with fleeting
moments of icy detachment, even satire.
And they are frequently discursive, rarely much involved in their
own eloquence or erudition, often striking the ear as rather prosaic, in
that their logic is essayistic and they sometimes lack the kind of
distillation we traditionally desire from poetry in English.
His “Ars Poetica?” registers this fact when he opens that poem
by remarking: “I have always aspired to a more spacious form/ that would
be free from the claims of poetry or prose.”
It would be a stretch to call his body of work balanced
between the high and the low, though the marks of an aspiration toward
that are everywhere. In his famous poem, “A Task,” he prescribes for himself
the project of refusing the poetics of lamentation and bitterness we might
expect after Auschwitz:
In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life
the “pure and generous” in poetry is a form of ideological
self-censorship, Milosz understood, no less a sham than social realism,
which produced a cloying poetry of nothing but praise.
In A Defense of Ardor, Adam Zagajewski (writing about Milosz),
reminds us that
and doubt require one another, they coexist like oak and ivy, like dogs
and cats….Through doubt, poetry purges itself of rhetorical insincerity,
senseless chatter, falsehood, youthful loquacity, empty (inauthentic)
euphoria. Released from
doubt’s stern gaze, poetry—especially in our dark days—might easily
degenerate into sentimental ditties, exalted but unthinking song,
senseless praise of all the earth’s forms.
The praise of earth’s forms.
This phrase could be used to sum up a huge proportion of Milosz’s
poetic project. But his
were thinking songs, and his praise was sensual and sensible, devout and
skeptical. As he put it in
“Encounter,” a poem from 1936, “I ask not out of sorrow, but in
wonder.” By the end of his career, the questions and doubt persisted,
so too the continued sense of “waiting for fulfillment,” but also a
feeling of sustained release. In
“Late Ripeness,” from what would turn out to be his last collection, Second Space (2004), Milosz takes his last bows without any
slackening of his artistic attention:
Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
Awe remained fundamental to his sense of vocation from start to finish, as did right seeing, and a fruitful inclusiveness that is recognizably American. The end of “Late Ripeness” strikes a familiar Whitmanian chord:
Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago—