• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A World Gone Up in Smoke

In this world

we walk on the roof of Hell

gazing at flowers


They wrote as if History had little to do with them”—that’s how I imagine some future study of American poetry describing the work of our poets in the waning years of the twentieth century. Like millions of their fellow citizens, they believed they could, most of the time, shut their eyes to the world, busy themselves with their lives, and not give much thought to evil. A hermetic literary culture, Czeslaw Milosz would say, is a cage in which one spends all one’s time chasing one’s own tail. To realize from one’s own experience that there’s nothing, no matter how vile, that human beings will not do to one another was until recently a knowledge reserved for the thousands of immigrants whose life stories, had they been able to make sense of them, would have still sounded farfetched and incoherent. Anyone who lived through and survived the many horrors of the last century found himself with an experience nearly incommunicable to someone who still had faith in the basic goodness of man.

Milosz spent the years between 1939 and 1945 in Warsaw, when, as he says, “Hell was spreading over the world like a drop of ink on blotting paper.” That war and the years of occupation were much bloodier in Poland than in the West. In Eastern European countries, populated as they were by people meant to be completely exterminated or used solely for manual labor, the war killed millions and nearly destroyed the entire moral foundation of these societies. The unthinkable happened, replacing overnight what one used to regard as normal life the day before. In one of the earliest poems in New and Collected Poems, written in 1932, Milosz acknowledges the seemingly impossible task the poet now has before him:

One life is not enough.
I’d like to live twice on this sad planet,
In lonely cities, in starved villages,
To look at all evil, at the decay of bodies,
And probe the laws to which the time was subject,
Time that howled above us like a wind.

Czeslaw Milosz was born in 1911 in Szetejnije, a region of Lithuania contested after Poland became an independent state in 1918. His father was a civil engineer who served in the Imperial Russian Army in World War I, and traveled with his family all over Russia erecting bridges and fortifications behind the front lines. The young poet studied at King Stefan Batory University in Wilno (present-day Vilnius), from which he received a law degree in 1934. He published poems in a student magazine at the university, where he was also involved in leftist politics—he later said that those who had no acquaintance with Marxism would have trouble understanding its appeal. Afterward, he traveled to France on a scholarship to study literature. His first book of poetry, A Poem on Frozen Time, came out in 1933, followed by Three Winters in 1936. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Milosz joined the underground resistance movement and remained in Warsaw throughout the Nazi occupation. After the war, he became a cultural attaché at the Polish embassies in Paris and Washington. He defected in 1951 and lived for the next ten years in France.

In 1953, he published The Captive Mind, a shrewd and still unsurpassed analysis of the seductions of totalitarian rule for writers and intellectuals. This melancholy tale of how people of good will sold their souls made his name familiar to readers in the West. Milosz emigrated to the United States in 1961 and began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. While his works were banned in Poland, he continued to write in Polish, refusing to shed one identity and language for another as many other exiles had done. In 1980 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

If Milosz impresses us today as a man of uncommon clearheadedness in an age of Manichaean ideological passions, that’s not how he was regarded fifty years ago by many of his Polish and Western literary contemporaries, who were either open or secret admirers of the Soviet Union and “people’s democracies.” What Milosz had to say about his experience of totalitarianism was of scant interest to them. “Nothing is more depressing,” he wrote later, “than the sight of people who believe that they are following collective manias of their own free will.”1 These were the days when Sartre lauded civil liberties in Russia as incomparable and claimed that prison camps there, if they actually existed, were accidental while they were an integral part of the capitalist system. Truth about Stalinism and the sufferings of people under communism was not Sartre’s great concern. Like many other writers and intellectuals, he wanted to be on the side of History, whose laws had suddenly become intelligible and could be manipulated to ensure a happy future.

What is this monster, historical necessity, that paralyzed my contemporaries with fear?” Milosz asks in an autobiographical piece, now collected in To Begin Where I Am. And his answer is Hegel’s (and Marx’s) Spirit of History. It is the same blind force that rules the cruel world of nature in which everything that happens to us is pre-determined. Our wishes count for nothing since its laws are beyond appeal. In short, individually we do not exist, only historical processes do. One cannot fight History, so better shut up and submit to the inevitable.

Milosz did not. Only today can we fully appreciate how solitary and how heroic his resistance was. To steer one’s way between the ideologies of the left and the right and keep one’s integrity as much as one is able to was no small accomplishment in a century when so many others, who ought to have known better, behaved despicably. It was like “choosing between madness (a refusal to recognize necessity) and servility (an acknowledgment of our complete powerlessness),” he later wrote. Writing in The Captive Mind about the situation of the intellectual in Eastern Europe, he describes his own predicament and the reason for his exile as well:

He has been deceived so often that he does not want cheap consolation which will eventually prove all the more depressing. The War left him suspicious and highly skilled in unmasking sham and pretense. He has rejected a great many books that he liked before the War, as well as a great many trends in painting or music, because they have not stood the test of experience. The work of human thought should withstand the test of brutal, naked reality. If it cannot, it is worthless. Probably only those things are worth while which can preserve their validity in the eyes of a man threatened with instant death.

After millions of deaths in that war, the reproach Milosz made to the arts was that they ignored or veiled the dark forces that were about to be unleashed. Even religion and philosophy were accomplices pulling wool over our eyes to distract us from what was taking place. Milosz’s chief complaint in an essay, “Ruins and Poetry”—and it lies at the heart of all his literary work—is that much of literature in the West lacks a sense of hierarchy when appraising experience. It confuses what is important and what is trivial, making itself in the process frivolous and forgettable. All reality is hierarchical, he writes, because human needs and the dangers threatening people are arranged on a scale—say from a pinprick to mass murder. Whoever comes to realize the existence of that scale behaves differently from someone who has the luxury to disregard it. The poetic act, for Milosz, depends on the amount of historical reality in the poet’s mind. One can claim, for instance, that a sonnet of Mallarmé’s is a typical work of the nineteenth century when civilization appeared to be something guaranteed. But how is one to write poems among the ruins and the stench of carnage of occupied Warsaw or any other city in the world yesterday or today?


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 screams 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.

This poem comes from a sequence “Voices of Poor People” published in the book Rescue in 1945. It already contains many characteristics of Milosz’s style. The language is plain and yet supremely eloquent. He has no use for poetry that turns its back on the public and seeks only aesthetic perfection. The Symbolists’ dream of distilling the language of the tribe into an elixir of pure lyricism is for him at best a charming delusion. For Milosz the high point in French poetry comes not with Mallarmé but with Apollinaire’s “Zone” and Blaise Cendrars’s “Easter in New York,” both published in 1913. He also approves of Whitman, who influenced these two French poets and who himself claimed that the great poets are known by the absence of tricks in their work. Milosz comments in a note to his long poem A Treatise on Poetry (1955–1956):

We sustain the existence of the realm of poetry only through daily effort. It is wrested from the world not by negating the things of the world, but by respecting them more than we respect aesthetic values. That is the condition for creating valid beauty. If it is obtained too easily, it evaporates.

In the century of diverse literary avant-garde movements and traditionalist backlashes, he is not afraid to promulgate what he calls “realistic poetics.” For him, the mental act of securing a grasp on reality must precede the poetic act. “As I am, so I see,” wrote Emerson. There’s a hard, cold, sober side to Milosz’s poetics that is almost classical. As far as he is concerned, the poet who refuses to face our tough and predatory reality is living in a fool’s paradise. Seeing clearly is a moral issue for him. In his poem “Bobo’s Metamorphosis” he praises a painter and disparages Zbigniew Herbert, his great Polish contemporary, who in a poem called “Study of the Object” said mischievously that the most beautiful object is the one that does not exist:

  1. 1

    Czeslaw Milosz, Beginning with My Street, translated by Madeline G. Levine (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), p. 223.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print