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Witness

Czeslaw Milosz: The Collected Poems, 1931–1987

Ecco Press, 511 pp., $30.00

Four years ago Milan Kundera published in these columns an essay called “The Tragedy of Central Europe.”* The tragedy in question was not so much war and occupation, the massacres, destruction, and humiliation at the hands of ignorant invaders; it was, instead, the loss of what Central Europe once embodied: European culture. Central Europe, for Kundera, was not just a collection of small and vulnerable nations with difficult languages and tragic histories; it was the intellectual and artistic center for the whole of Western civilization and the last stronghold of the intelligentsia, a place where essays counted for more than journalism, and books had more influence than television.

Long before Kundera wrote his article Czeslaw Milosz had described a typical day in the life of Central European man. On August 1, 1944, the day the Warsaw uprising unexpectedly began, Milosz and his wife were caught in heavy gunfire while on their way to a friend’s apartment to discuss—what else?—poetry in translation. Face down for hours in a potato field, with machinegun bullets zipping over his head, Milosz refused to let go of the book he was carrying. After all, it was not his to throw away—it belonged to the library of Warsaw University—and anyway, he needed it—assuming the bullets didn’t get him. The book was The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot in the Faber & Faber edition. All in all, it was a very Polish situation: bullets and modernism, the polyglot in the potato field, ashes and diamonds.

Milosz has all the other characteristics of Central European man. 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. Like his great Lithuanian predecessor Adam Mickiewicz, Milosz writes in Polish and is fluent in several languages. He has also suffered a typically Central European fate—exile. Half his long life has been spent teaching in Berkeley. In other words, he is a man whose only true home is in books, in language; he carries his country around in his head.

The one language Milosz might be expected to speak is German. He claims, however, to understand only two phrases, Hände hoch! and Alle männer vrraus!, mementos of the five years he spent in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. His fellow Polish poets, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz, also got their education during the war; whence the starkness of their poetry—Rozewicz’s minimalism, Herbert’s austere, ironic morality. But they were both teenagers when the Germans marched in and the terrible years of Hans Frank’s Government-General were their high school. Milosz, however, was born in 1911 and had published two books of poetry before 1939, so his style was formed in less savage times and what was lost—“a world gone up in smoke” he called it in a poem written in 1941—concerned him as much as what was being done.

What the war taught him as a poet had to do, above all, with priorities:

I could reduce all that happened to me then to a few things. Lying in the field near a highway bombarded by airplanes, I riveted my eyes on a stone and two blades of grass in front of me. Listening to the whistle of a bomb, I suddenly understood the value of matter: that stone and those two blades of grass formed a whole kingdom, an infinity of forms, shades, textures, lights. They were the universe. I had always refused to accept the division into macro-and micro-cosmos; I preferred to contemplate a piece of bark or a bird’s wing rather than sunsets or sunrises. But now I saw into the depths of matter with exceptional intensity.

That is from Milosz’s brilliant and understated autobiography, Native Realm. The experience of total war taught him the supreme value not of art but of life itself, of being, of brute survival in a wholly destructive element.

In The Captive Mind, his somber denunciation of the sovietization of Eastern Europe, he described a similar experience, transposed into the third person, and drew the necessary aesthetic conclusions:

The work of human thought should withstand the test of brutal, naked reality. If it cannot, it is worthless…. A man is lying under machine-gun fire on a street in an embattled city. He looks at the pavement and sees a very amusing sight: the cobblestones are standing upright like the quills of a porcupine. The bullets hitting against their edges displace and tilt them. Such moments in the consciousness of a man judge all poets and philosophers. Let us suppose, too, that a certain poet was the hero of literary cafés, and wherever he went was regarded with curiosity and awe. Yet his poems, recalled in such a moment, suddenly seem diseased and highbrow. The vision of the cobblestones is unquestionably real, and poetry based on an equally naked experience could survive triumphantly that judgment day of man’s illusions. In the intellectuals who lived through the atrocities of war in Eastern Europe there took place what one might call the elimination of emotional luxuries. Psychoanalytic novels incite them to laughter. They consider the literature of erotic complications, still popular in the West, as trash. Imitation abstract painting bores them. They are hungry—but they want bread, not hors d’oeuvres.

Before the war Milosz’s sense of impending doom had earned him the title of “catastrophist.” In the face of a catastrophe greater than he could ever have imagined his own early prose appeared to him paltry and self-indulgent. So did his youthful literary ambitions. He peddled a pamphlet of his verse—printed by an underground press and sewn together by his wife-to-be—in the same spirit and for the same motive as he peddled black-market cigarettes and blood sausage: because he was penniless. Poetry had become, in every sense, a means of survival, a matter of life and death.

The poems he wrote during the war and published in 1945 as Rescue are a kind of atonement for his earlier frivolity and a reparation made to those who did not survive. The two prose passages I have quoted are glosses, in their different ways, on “Dedication,” the famous poem that ended the 1945 volume:

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is the valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city,
And the wind throws the scream of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

The war released Milosz into an adult world where rhetoric, dogma, and ambition seemed so much childishness. This adult world, however, did not exclude childhood. At the heart of Rescue, among poems about ruined Warsaw and the destruction of the ghetto, about grief, deprivation, and random death, is a beautiful sequence called, ironically perhaps, “The World.” The poems are short, calm, so simple as to seem almost translucent, and their subject is the lost world of Milosz’s childhood in the deep Lithuanian countryside (the same world that he later wrote about—less convincingly, I think—in his autobiographical novel, The Issa Valley). In their restrained and tender way, they bring “news / From a world that is bright, beautiful, warm, and free,” and they make Milosz’s subsequent exile seem inevitable. They confirmed him as a poet whose continuing theme, however stern and “naked” the reality he dealt with, was always that of loss.

In Central Europe the war did not end when what Richard Eberhart called “the fury of aerial bombardment” was over. The Stalinist repression that followed merely translated the problem of survival into different terms: moral instead of physical, personal truth in the face of state-imposed hypocrisy. The kind of poetry imagined by Milosz and those like him—poetry that occupies the moral high ground yet is proof against ridicule and impervious to pretension—became more urgently necessary and correspondingly less easy to publish. “A new, humorless generation is now arising, / It takes in deadly earnest all we received with laughter,” Milosz wrote in 1946, when he was a Polish diplomat in New York. Five years later, having decided that historical inevitability and the good of the cause were no longer excuses he was willing to tolerate, he went into exile, first in France, where The Captive Mind was vilified by Sartre’s captive left, then in California. It was not an easy decision. “I was afraid to become an exile,” he wrote, “afraid to condemn myself to the sterility and the vacuum that are proper to every emigration.” For the poet, whose work partly depends on nuances and allusions that only his countrymen can pick up, the vacuum of exile is inevitably more absolute than for the prose writer:

Novels and essays serve but will not last.
One clear stanza can take more weight
Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.

But not in translation. Although Milosz supervises the English versions of his work and has been well served by his collaborators, his poems have a richness and sinuous flow that make you believe that a good deal has been lost in translation.

The vacuum of exile exists in many forms, the two foremost being the loss of audience and the loss of subject matter. Eventually, Milosz’s poems did filter back into Poland, but not officially until long after he had defected, so for years his effective audience was reduced to bickering and malicious café clubs of fellow exiles. But for a poet whose subject matter was loss, who already considered himself to be in exile, like Adam, from some lost Eden of Lithuanian childhood, physical exile merely strengthened him in his themes and preoccupations. As a result, “the sterility of exile” has never been Milosz’s problem. The Collected Poems runs to more than five hundred pages and his serious, wondering, adult tone of voice never lapses into affection or self-consciousness.

Perhaps this is because Milosz has always been a poet of place, a marvelous describer of everything from details—“the tiny propellers of a humming-bird”—to atmosphere. It is ironic that he should have written so vividly in Polish about California:

With their chins high, girls come back from the tennis courts.
The spray rainbows over the sloping lawns.
With short jerks a robin runs up, stands motionless.
The eucalyptus tree trunks glow in the light.
The oaks perfect the shadow of May leaves.
Only this is worthy of praise. Only this: the day.

His long years in the perennial Californian spring, however, have not softened his vision of the world or of his business in it. “Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill at ease in the republic,” he says of himself, and from that unease is born his steady concentration on the essentials of the poet’s task when everything superfluous has been removed: “gradually, what could not be taken away / is taken. People, countrysides. / And the heart does not die when one thinks it should.” All that is left is language. “You were my native land; I lacked any other,” he writes in a poem on “My Faithful Mother Tongue.” And the poem ends, “what is needed in misfortune is a little order and beauty.” This need for the beauty and order of poetry as an alternative to the disorder of homelessness has been Milosz’s constant theme. At the end of Unattainable Earth, published in 1986 and his last book before the Collected Poems, there is a poignant poem on the “Poet at Seventy.” It is followed by a kind of prose footnote that encapsulates his whole life’s effort:

To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.

Milosz’s pursuit of order and beauty has been curiously disinterested. Someone once said that 90 percent of the Oxford Book of English Verse is about God or death or women. Not so in Milosz’s poetry. He is a Catholic and the Church figures in his verse, but less for God’s sake than because its rituals recall his early upbringing. As for women: in his whole Collected Poems I found only a single love poem—an exceptionally beautiful one called “After Paradise.” That leaves death, and the truth is that the people who appear in his poems are mostly ghosts from the past. Milosz is a poet of memory, a witness; his real heroes are the dead to whom his poems make reparation. Perhaps exile makes it hard to forget the past and part of its burden for the poet is the need to bring the imagination to bear on people and places that no longer exist. But, as he explains in a marvelous late poem called “Preparation,” living emotions keep getting in the way:

Still one more year of preparation.
Tomorrow at the latest I’ll start working on a great book
In which my century will appear as it really was.
The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.
Springs and autumns will unerringly return,
In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay
And foxes will learn their foxy natures.

And that will be the subject, with addenda. Thus: armies
Running across frozen plains, shouting a curse
In a many-voiced chorus; the cannon of a tank
Growing immense at the corner of a street; the ride at dusk
Into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire.

No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with bright flame; a bull- dozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.

I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.

Like other major witnesses of this century—Primo Levi, Zbigniew Herbert—Milosz is a moralist: his work does not pronounce or make judgments; it simply takes as its criterion human decency—disinterested, modest, and not willingly misled:

poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

Letters

A Poet’s Reply July 21, 1988

  1. *

    The New York Review (April 26, 1984).

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