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A World Gone Up in Smoke

V

I liked him as he did not look for an ideal object.
When he heard: “Only the object which does not exist
Is perfect and pure,” he blushed and turned away.
In every pocket he carried pencils, pads of paper
Together with crumbs of bread, the accidents of life.
Year after year he circled a thick tree
Shading his eyes with his hand and muttering in amazement.
How much he envied those who draw a tree with one line!
But metaphor seemed to him something indecent.
He would leave symbols to the proud busy with their cause.
By looking he wanted to draw the name from the very thing.
When he was old, he tugged at his tobacco-stained beard:
“I prefer to lose thus than to win as they do.”
Like Peter Breughel the father he fell suddenly
While attempting to look back between his spread-apart legs.
And still the tree stood there, unattainable.
Veritable, true to the very core.

Milosz is wary of the twentieth-century ethos that prescribes negation for poets. He objects to the numerous incarnations of modernism, their linguistic experiments, their rebellion against the literature of the past, their loathing of both the middle class and the common people, and their conviction that our human life suffers from a fundamental lack of meaning. Mockery, sarcasm, and blasphemy are cheap when compared to the evil let loose in the world. The pressures of the times in which he has lived have made Milosz, he claims, write a different kind of poem, the one that would leave a testimony of a radically different experience of what was until then known as reality. In his journals, he compliments American poets on their first-rate technique, but complains that they have nothing to write about in their tedious everydayness, free of historical upheavals. If there’s no sense of history, he argues, there’s no sense of the tragic, which is born of the experience of collective misery.

As much as I would like to agree with him about that, I cannot help recalling the many worthy exceptions. There’s Whitman, for instance, who wrote magnificent poems about the Civil War, and then there’s Emily Dickinson, a poet equally capable of a tragic view of life, who ignored that war entirely in her poems. Isn’t poetry, as Milosz contends, also an exploration of our place in the cosmos? A number of American poets can certainly make a strong claim to have engaged in such exploration. It’s a bad idea and a complete waste of time to prescribe what poets must or must not do because the best ones will always rebel and do the opposite.

In spite of its great cruelties, I praised my time and I did not yearn for any other,” Milosz writes in To Begin Where I Am. Anyone reading his New and Collected Poems, expecting an unending landscape of ruins and sufferings, is bound to be astonished by the delight he takes in nature. In his youth, he tells us, he safeguarded himself against grownups by his passion for his aquariums and his ornithological books. His early hero was the brave nineteenth-century naturalist, someone so ardent about collecting bugs that he completely forgets about his bride waiting at the altar while he climbs a tree in tails to catch a rare species of beetle with his top hat. Later in life, experience of the American countryside restored him, he tells us. “I plunged into books on American flora and fauna, made diplomatic contacts with porcupines and beavers.”

In his poems and essays, however, Milosz also repeatedly proclaims his dislike of nature. He is astonished that its cruelties are usually regarded as “natural,” as the wildlife programs on TV make evident with their images of mutual and indifferent devouring of various species. He is not insensitive, he assures us, to the beauty of mountains, forests, and oceans; nevertheless nature, which is ever present in the imagination of American poets and often identified by them with reality, is nothing more for Milosz than a stockpile of clichés out of Romantic pantheism. The wish to ascribe a benign will to the universe is an illusion. In one of his greatest poems, “To Robinson Jeffers,” he addresses a poet who struggled with that question:

If you have not read the Slavic poets
so much the better. There’s nothing there
for a Scotch-Irish wanderer to seek. They lived in a childhood
prolonged from age to age. For them, the sun
was a farmer’s ruddy face, the moon peeped through a cloud
and the Milky Way gladdened them like a birch-lined road.
They longed for the Kingdom which is always near,
always right at hand. Then, under apple trees
angels in homespun linen will come parting the boughs
and at the white kolkhoz tablecloth
cordiality and affection will feast (falling to the ground at times).
And you are from surf-rattled skerries. From the heaths
where burying a warrior they broke his bones
so he could not haunt the living. From the sea night
which your forefathers pulled over themselves, without a word.
Above your head no face, neither the sun’s nor the moon’s,
only the throbbing of galaxies, the immutable
violence of new beginning, of new destruction.
All your life listening to the ocean. Black dinosaurs
wade where a purple zone of phosphorescent weeds
rises and falls on the waves as in a dream. And Agamemnon
sails the boiling deep to the steps of the palace
to have his blood gush onto marble. Till mankind passes
and the pure and stony earth is pounded by the ocean.
Thin-lipped, blue-eyed, without grace or hope,
before God the Terrible, body of the world.
Prayers are not heard. Basalt and granite.
Above them, a bird of prey. The only beauty.
What have I to do with you? From footpaths in the orchards,
from an untaught choir and shimmers of a monstrance,
from flower beds of rue, hills by the rivers, books
in which a zealous Lithuanian announced brotherhood, I come.
Oh, consolations of mortals, futile creeds.
And yet you did not know what I know. The earth teaches
More than does the nakedness of elements. No one with impunity
gives to himself the eyes of a god. So brave, in a void,
you offered sacrifices to demons: there were Wotan and Thor,
the screech of Erinyes in the air, the terror of dogs
when Hekate with her retinue of the dead draws near.
Better to carve suns and moons on the joints of crosses
as was done in my district. The birches and firs
give feminine names. To implore protection
against the mute and treacherous might
than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.

Milosz admires Jeffers’s stubborn independence, his contempt for the literary fashions of his day, and even his grumpiness. He asks himself in an essay on the poet if he’s like him, and answers that he is not. He could not oppose, he says, the terrifying beauty of nature to human chaos. Unmerciful necessity is unacceptable to us. In the poem, he contrasts the simple peasant culture of his homeland with Jeffers’s blind cosmic force. For him, as for Simone Weil, nature is neither good nor evil. We crave to understand its purpose and yet it eludes our interpretations. We are torn between admiring some detail in it and wishing to make sense of the whole. In an essay on Lev Shestov, Milosz quotes with approval the Russian thinker’s view that, since the Greeks, every philosophy has believed that only the universal is worthy of reflection. The contingent, the particular, and the momentary are the perennial spoilers of the vision of all-embracing Oneness—and that, come to think, is the reason for the age-old quarrel between poets and philosophers:

The true enemy of man is generalization.
The true enemy of man, so-called History,
Attracts and terrifies with its plural number.
Don’t believe it.

Whoever wishes to know the kind of psychological and intellectual turmoil one goes through in difficult historical times will not find a more reliable or eloquent testimony than is to be found in Milosz’s many books of poetry and prose culminating now in his ninetieth year with his selection of his finest essays, and a book of almost 750 pages of new and collected poetry. It is hard to think of another poet in our day who could match the range and richness of his achievement. Milosz has a first-class mind and enormous erudition. He is the chronicler of the disenthrallment with the various “isms” that triumphed and then foundered in his and our lifetime.

I think that I am here, on this earth,
To present a report on it, but to whom I don’t know.
As if I were sent so that whatever takes place
Has meaning because it changes into memory.

His work, with the exception of the few long poems, is extremely accessible, notwithstanding its often unfamiliar Polish and European setting. Poetry of ideas is frequently unbearable to read because the poet is not as smart as he thinks he is. Not Czeslaw Milosz. The brainier he gets, the more enjoyable he is to read. Among the many fine poems in that category I would single out A Treatise on Poetry, composed in 1955 and 1956. It’s tightly written, witty, and simply dazzling. Many of his poems tend to hang together loosely and that often turns out to be their strength. Donald Davie, in his book on the poet, makes an interesting observation about the insufficiency of the lyric to express our historical experience, registering as it does only the individual self.2 A rich life, so it turns out, can never be encompassed with a single point of view; for Milosz so the quest for reality must include a mixture of styles, everything from didactic and narrative poems to a short lyric of just a dozen lines.

Milosz has been fortunate in his many excellent translators. This is true of both his prose and his poetry. Most of the poems in this book are the re-sult of his collaboration with the fine American poet Robert Hass. I can’t judge what they sound like in Polish, or what they lose in translation, but for the most part they read well in English and in a number of instances they end up being magnificent American poems in their own right. Milosz has many styles, many voices. He describes himself as “a city of demons” and that must be the explanation for his large output. He says,

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person….

The effort of his best poems is not to arrive at a conception of reality, but to dramatize consciousness. His recurring theme is the endless quarrel the self has with itself and the world, its inability to resolve its contradictions, while striving at the same time to arrive at some sort of affirming vision. Unfairly I believe, he accuses Pasternak and others, like Beckett, of giving the impression that there is no al-ternative to helplessness. Even some-one as unmodern as Frost is cen-sured for his grim, hopeless vision of man’s fate and for his skepti-cism and constant ambivalence. The imagination is a powerful antidote against anxiety, despair, the feeling of the absurd, and the other afflictions, Milosz has said, “whose true names are surely impiety and nihilism.”3 However, he is suspicious of imagination running wild. Poetry, as he conceives of it, stands against nihilism and is on the side of life. The moralist and the poet in him are often at odds. That poetry has little to do with morality, he finds deeply troublesome.

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.

That element of surprise is much more present in the poems of his old age. If I have a complaint about his earlier work, it is that he rarely lets his imagination take the poem to its own unpredictable end. The “blessed gift of spinning a tale out of a trifle” is how he describes that missing quality in a late poem. It cannot be done, alas, with the intellect. Milosz is one of the few poets who give the impression that he knows what he will say before he says it in a poem, relying on his eloquence more than on the play of metaphors to make his meaning. Starting with the section of his book called “New Poems, 1985– 1987,” that is no longer the case. The poems are more and more the result of unexpected associations. He is still the poet of erudition and memory, surrounded by books of his favorite philosophers, theologians, and mystics, but now it is the small occasions in daily life that give rise to poems. Curiously, he ends by writing the kind of poem he once objected to in American poetry.

How to tell all in the brief time one has? That is among the main wor-ries of these later poems. They are often elegiac—as one would expect—and yet they are frequently cheerful. Lamenting and praising is what Milosz has always done. Yes, there is too much death in the world. Still, there’s also the taste of strawberry jam, the dark sweetness of a woman’s body, well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil, bright-colored skirts in the wind, and paper boats no more durable than we are. “In advanced age, my health worsening,” he begins a prose poem, “I woke up in the middle of the night, and experienced a feeling of happiness so intense and perfect that in all my life I had only felt its premonition.” Even his most somber poems have a touch of that newfound happiness:

ABODE

The grass between the tombs is intensely green.
From steep slopes a view onto the bay,
Onto islands and cities below. The sunset
Grows garish, slowly fades. At dusk
Light prancing creatures. A doe and a fawn
Are here, as every evening, to eat flowers
Which people brought for their beloved dead.

If you still don’t believe that there’s truth in poetry, go and read Milosz and you are very likely to change your mind.

  1. 2

    Donald Davie, Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric (University of Tennessee Press, 1986).

  2. 3

    Quoted in Aleksandr Fiut, The Eternal Moment: The Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Theodosia S. Robertson (University of California Press, 1990), p. 33.

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