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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 of theory, I brought to it something of practice….

My proposition consists in presenting poems, whether contemporary or a thousand years old, that are, with few exceptions, short, clear, readable and, to use a compromised term, realist, that is, loyal toward reality and attempting to describe it as concisely as possible. Thus they undermine the widely held opinion that poetry is a misty domain eluding understanding.

Milosz seeks “objectivity,” as defined by Goethe in his conversations with Eckerman: “Each manly effort… turns its force from the inward to the outward world. In important eras, those who have striven and acted most manfully were all objective in their nature.” Such objectivity, according to Milosz, is best achieved through removing oneself from life’s daily round and the cultivation of a faculty for intense contemplation. He is drawn to Schopenhauer’s idea of the artist as engaged in a completely “unpractical” activity, seeking to attain beauty by purging himself of all temporary urges and emotions. “Art,” he writes, “liberates and purifies, and its tokens are those short moments when we look at a beautiful landscape forgetting about ourselves, when everything that concerns us disappears, is dissolved, and it does not matter whether the eye that looks is that of a beggar or a king.”

For Milosz, Taoism and Buddhism, with their contemplative philosophies, have much in common with Schopenhauer’s ideas, and he is impressed by the ability of Asian poets to perceive the inner reality of the world through an intense scrutiny of its surfaces. In a note to a poem by the ninth-century Chinese poet Po Chü-I, Milosz explains that he has included so many Asians in his collection as “my attempt to jump over the barrier built by time between them and us. In this I behave like many of my contemporaries who discover that what had been, until recently, the trappings of exoticism has masked the eternal man.”

Proclaiming, as he has before, his preference for “classicism” over “romanticism,” Milosz would seem to be aiming his anthology against the extreme individualism of much recent American poetry. He is against the image of the poet as self-explorer and sole inventor of his universe and also against the fashionable infatuation of many poets with poststructuralist theory; he is evidently impatient with their appetite for abstraction, and their banishment of physical realities from poetry in favor of linguistic play. Not for nothing does Milosz compare himself to an art collector who, “to spite the devotees of abstract art, arranges an exhibition of figurative painting.” His favorite modern painter, he writes, is Cézanne, whose words he quotes: “Whatever I do, I have the notion that this tree is a tree, this rock a rock, this dog a dog.” And like Schopenhauer, Milosz deeply admires the Dutch painters of still lifes, who present to the viewer, in Schopenhauer’s words, “the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artists, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.”

Milosz has divided his anthology into eleven sections. Each is equipped with a brief explanatory preface, and each poem has a short note telling us why it has been included. These comments are often so brief and general that they can act as an irritant to the reader, and to my mind are best ignored. Free to concentrate on the poems themselves, one discovers that they do indeed exhibit the qualities of immediacy, concreteness, objectivity, and contemplativeness that Milosz admires, and that abstraction is consistently held at bay. They also suggest an approach to art that Milosz nowhere mentions explicitly, but that I would call “commitment”—not political or ideological commitment in the sense that the term is usually used, but commitment to what, for want of a better word, could be called humanism.

This quality emerges from many different poems but it is best illustrated by the most explicitly programmatic work in the anthology, an unfinished lyric by Walt Whitman that starts off a section called “The Secret of a Thing.”

I am the poet of reality
I say the earth is not an echo
Nor man an apparition;
But that all the things seen are real,
The witness and albic dawn of things equally real
I have split the earth and the hard coal and rocks and the solid bed
of the seaAnd went down to reconnoitre there a long time,
And bring back a report,
And I understand that those are positive and dense every one
And that what they seem to the child they are
[And that the world is not a joke,
Nor any part of it a sham]

The point of an anthology, of course, is not for the reader to like everything, but to understand its purpose, to encounter familiar work in a fresh setting, and to discover writers one was unaware of before. For me it was very enjoyable to revisit the poems of Whitman, Roethke, Szymborska, Dickinson, Frost, Denise Levertov, and Zbigniew Herbert, and particularly rewarding to read excellent poets that I didn’t know at all or knew only slightly: Jean Follain, Jaan Kaplinski, Anna Swir, David Wagoner, Al Zolynas, and the Chinese poets Po Chü-I and Tu Fu.

A Book of Luminous Things is a book that gives much pleasure and is genuinely moving. It is a wonderfully idiosyncratic anthology, full of works that are hard to find and have never before been brought together. “Luminous” is a word to be used with caution but is an excellent description both of the book’s contents and of its wise and benevolent compiler.

One of the many Polish poets included in A Book of Luminous Things is Adam Zagajewski, whose third book of poems in English translation, Mysticism for Beginners, has recently been published. Milosz recognized his young compatriot’s talent very early, and in his introduction to Tremor, Zagajewski’s first book in English, he welcomed his poems as “an homage paid to our Central Europe and to the unity of Europe artificially divided into ‘the West’ and ‘the East.”’ Milosz might as easily have been speaking about his own work as about Zagajewski’s, but the praise was well earned, and Zagajewski has continued to grow in stature as a truly European poet.

Like Milosz, Zagajewski started his literary career as a dissident, and seems to have had affinities with Milosz from the very beginning. In the late 1960s in Cracow, for example, he helped to found a poetic circle, Teraz (“Now”), dedicated to the Miloszian notion that Polish poetry should be topical and concrete, rather than veiled in lofty abstractions, and in 1968 he was active in student protests (provoked by the banning of a poem by Mickiewicz) against state censorship. In 1974 he stirred up an angry controversy in Polish intellectual circles with a book of criticism, co-written with Julian Kornhauser, called The World Not Represented, in which he attacked postwar Polish literature for its lack of political engagement and its evasion of moral and ethical issues. A little later, he co-edited an underground literary periodical, Zapis (“Record), directed against the cultural establishment, and paid his first visit to Western Europe.

Returning to Cracow in 1981, Zagajewski arrived just in time to see the imposition of martial law, an experience he laconically recalls in his new collection:

I returned to the town
where I was a child
and a teenager and an old man of thirty.
The town greeted me indifferently
but the streets’ loudspeakers whispered:
don’t you see the fire is still burning,
don’t you hear the flame’s roar?
Get out.
Find another place.
Search for it.
Search for your true homeland.
(“Search”)

Zagajewski found a new homeland in Paris, “a just city! where foreigners aren’t punished,/a city quick to remember/and slow to forget,/tolerating poets, forgiving prophets/for their hopeless lack of humor.” When Zagajewski published Tremor, in 1985, the artificial division of Europe still seemed permanent and irreversible, and his exile irrevocable. Many of the poems were set in the two cities where he had grown up, Cracow and Lwów (awarded to Ukraine when the Soviet Union moved its boundaries westward after World War II), and some were about his bitter experiences of martial law (“A Warsaw Gathering” and “Iron”). But even then, Zagajewski was moving beyond dissidence, much as Milosz had done before him.

  1. *

    Since writing this review, I have learned of the impending publication, in late November, of yet another book by Milosz, a “miscellany of poems, parables, essays and epigrams” to be called Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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