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A Poet’s Reply

In response to:

Witness from the June 2, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

It is not an accepted custom for an author to express in public his dissatisfaction with a review of his book. I feel, though, that the article “Witness” by A. Alvarez in the June 2 issue of your magazine has so tenuous a connection with my Collected Poems which he supposedly reviews, that my remarks might be taken as they are intended, i.e., as the expression of my concern with certain general problems.

With our planet shrinking and distances becoming smaller every year, how does it happen that people continue to be provincial, or, worse, to grow more and more provincial? Why should even continental Europe remain for an Englishman an area full of white spots marked “ubi leones”? And why is it so difficult to approach one of those exotic writers who were born a few hundred miles east of Greenwich? These questions were among the first I asked myself upon reading Mr. Alvarez’s article.

Granted, some horrible events of mass genocide and of deportations took place in my part of Europe and not in England or America. This adds an aura of nightmare to the vagueness that has always characterized the presence of Central and Eastern European countries in the Western imagination. Yet those events occurred many decades ago and facts, through direct testimonies, statistical data, innumerable books are available to whoever wishes to acquaint himself with the history of our century. I brought, unfortunately, my share to the body of knowledge on the subject, by writing, in prose, The Captive Mind and Native Realm. I say: unfortunately, because the effectiveness of such books in dispelling mythologies is doubtful; moreover, they distort the image of their author in the minds of readers and of literary critics, by presenting him as more obsessed with historical events than he is. My struggle as a writer in exile has consisted in liberating my neck from those dead albatrosses; in fact for a long time my name was connected with my books in prose available in translation, while the poetry that I have been publishing since 1931, only slowly made its way to the reading public abroad thanks to its English versions. I am grateful to America and proud of being now one of its poets, reaching young audiences who treat me primarily as a poet. You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I saw Mr. Alvarez copiously quoting from my old prose books instead of dealing with my poetic oeuvre sufficiently exemplified by Collected Poems.

History. Society. If a literary critic is fascinated with them, that’s his choice, if, however, he is insensitive to another dimension, he risks to curtail his right to reflect on literature. Perhaps some Western writers are longing for subjects provided by spasms of historical violent change, but I can assure Mr. Alvarez that we, i.e., natives of hazy Eastern regions, perceive History as a curse and prefer to restore to literature its autonomy, dignity, and independence from social pressures. Art of a given epoch has some common features independent of the place in which it is created and those common features often mark its style stronger than do the differences between societies and socio-economic systems. No doubt there is in our century a body of world poetry and an international community of poets, whether they write in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Serbocroatian, or other languages. As everyone knows, successive waves of revolutionary change in versification, in syntax, in structure of a poem have reached various shores. What is perhaps one of the most dramatic aspects of the twentieth-century poetry, is a clash between historical experience and the high exigencies of modern or post-modern style, self-imposed by poets. If not for that clash, poets, especially those well mangled by the historical wringer, would remain no more than witnesses. But a raw material of reports, desperate notes from prison, letters, and emotional yet bad poems also bears witness while the voice of a poet should be purer and more distinct than the noise (or confused music) of History. You may guess my uneasiness when I saw the long evolution of my poetic craft encapsuled by Mr. Alvarez in the word “witness,” which for him is perhaps a praise, but for me is not.

Am I really so exotic an animal that I deserve to be exposed in a separate cage bearing a label: “Far Away”? Could not a question be asked as to what is the place of my poetry in the framework of contemporary poetry in general? And if an author and his co-translators have put together a volume of poems in translation of five hundred pages, are not they right being curious to hear an assessment by a critic?

As to the “far away.” Mr. Alvarez says of me: “He was born in Lithuania, a country that has vanished utterly into the Soviet maw, the bulk of its people transported by Stalin to somewhere beyond the Urals.” Well, these words were written, I suppose, in London, a city distant by little more than a one-hour flight from Vilnius, the capital of the Soviet Lithuanian Republic. The three Baltic independent states were incorporated by force in 1940 into the Soviet Union and hundreds of thousands of their inhabitants were deported to gulags, yet a flight to Vilnius would convince Mr. Alvarez that the bulk of Lithuania’s three million population is there and speaks their native tongue.

I wrote in the Fifties in the defense of the Balts in the Captive Mind and I have no reason to be ashamed of my activity as an essayist. Also, an insane course of history tore out of me during the war anti-Nazi poems of anger and solidarity with the victims. And yet we should distinguish between our duty to preserve memory and our natural desire to move forward with our affairs of the living. Poetry should not freeze, magnetized by the sight of evil perpetrated in our lifetime. My objection to Mr. Alvarez’s method of literary criticism is that he seems to be impervious to the dynamics at the very core of any art: after all, a poet repeatedly says farewell to his old selves and makes himself ready for renewals.

Czeslaw Milosz

Paris, France

A Alvarez replies:

Dear, dear. I thought I had written an enthusiastic and sympathetic review of a poet whose work I greatly admire. I am sorry that Professor Milosz has felt impelled to provide proof, if proof were needed, that in the world of letters there is no pleasing anybody.

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