Czeslaw Milosz, an American

In Memoriam: Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)

As Reviewed By: Christopher Bakken

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 it.

[private]In 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
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

His 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 salve.

The 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.

The 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.

Milosz 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.

In 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.

In 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 of Auschwitz.

Though 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.

His 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 the preface 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.”

In 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 ‘progressive’ nonsense.”

He 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 immediately.”

His 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.

Milosz 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.

About 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
My eyes, as with those who know the value
Of visible things. I keep quiet as is proper
For a man who has learned that the human heart
Holds more than speech does. I have left behind
My native land, home, and public office.
Not that I looked for profit or adventure.
I am no foreigner on board a ship.
My plain face, the face of a tax-collector,
Merchant, or soldier, makes me one of the crowd.
Nor do I refuse to pay due homage
To local gods. And I eat what others eat.
About myself, this much will suffice.

It 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.”

How 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 look like?

For 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.

How 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 pastoral, “Mittlebergheim:”

I keep my eyes closed. Do not rush me,
You, fire, power, might, for it is too early.
I have lived through many years and, as if in this half-dream,
I felt I was attaining the moving frontier
Beyond which color and sound come true
And the things of this earth are united.
Do not force me to open my lips.
Let me trust and believe I will attain.
Let me linger here in Mittlebergheim.

I know I should. They are with me,
Autumn and wooden wheels and tobacco hung
Under the eaves. Here and everywhere
Is my homeland, wherever I turn
And in whatever language I would hear
The song of a child, the conversation of lovers.
Happier than anyone, I am to receive
A glance, a smile, a star, silk creased
At the knee. Serene, beholding,
I am to walk on hills in the soft glow of day
Over waters, cities, roads, human customs.

Unabashedly 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 in “Mittlebergheim.”

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
Only if I brought myself to make a public confession
Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and demons
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself a lost man.

Forgetting 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

Poetry 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,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people, grief and pity joined us.
We forget-I kept saying-that we are all children of the King.

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-
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef-they dwell in us,
waiting for fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.[/private]

About Christopher Bakken

Christopher Bakken iGoat Funeral (recipient of the Texas Institute of Letters' prize for the best book of poetry in 2006) and After Greece (which won the 2001 T. S. Eliot Prize in Poetry). He is also the co-translator of The Lion's Gate: Selected Poems of Titos Patrikios. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in The Paris Review, Raritan, Gettysburg Review, Literary Imagination, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania.
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