Czeslaw Milosz: The Collected Poems, 19311987
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 …
A Poet’s Reply July 21, 1988