Loyal Toward Reality

Winter Dialogue

by Tomas Venclova, translated by Diana Senechal
Hydra Books/Northwestern University Press, 148 pp., $22.50

In the introduction to an anthology of Polish poetry that he published some thirty years ago, Czeslaw Milosz remarked that “a historical steamroller” had passed several times through his luckless country, yet Polish poets had frequently benefited from their trials, and had emerged “perhaps more energetic” than their Western colleagues and “better prepared” to interpret the human condition. It was a challenging statement at the time, but the intervening thirty years have shown that not only Polish writers but also writers from the other steamrollered countries of Central Europe have had something of their own to tell us.

Not least among them is Milosz himself. Preeminently a poet (with more than a dozen volumes to his credit so far, not counting the Selected Poems), he is also the author of powerful books that combine memoir with reflections on history (The Captive Mind, Native Realm), a fine autobiographical novel (The Issa Valley), and several collections of critical essays, including Emperor of the Earth, The Witness of Poetry, and Beginning with My Streets. Throughout his career Milosz has brought to his work a sense of urgency about people in difficult times and places. Beginning with the Polish anthology, he has also been a tireless translator and collector of works by other poets, and a generous promoter of the kinds of writing he admires.

Milosz has always seemed to have a clear purpose in everything he has undertaken, one usually related to the stoic way of seeing things instilled by his experience of living through one tragic period after another, beginning with his childhood in Lithuania. But his latest work, an “international anthology” entitled A Book of Luminous Things, strikes the reader on first sight as somewhat eccentric, if not self-indulgent. Consisting of around two hundred short poems by more than a hundred poets, the anthology is explicitly personal and idiosyncratic, reflecting both Milosz’s activities as a translator and a taste, acquired during his long years in Berkeley, for the work of Californian and Asian poets. There are, accordingly, many Asian poets in this anthology, and considerably more Californians than one might have expected. The book includes not only a high proportion of Poles but a surprising number of Scandinavians, as well as a few French poets and occasional works by Greek, German, Spanish, and Portuguese poets. Only two English poets are here and one Russian; and there are no writers at all from South America.

The selections seem arbitrary, almost capricious, at first glance, and raise the question of what Milosz is trying to do. In the introduction, however, one discovers a purpose to his selection that is not so far from his traditional interests as one might think.

I have always felt that a poet participates in the management of the estate of poetry, of that in his own language and also that of world poetry. Thinking about that estate, such as it is at the present moment, I decided I would contribute to its possessions provided, however, that instead …

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