A Treatise on Poetry
At times, a poem is so powerful that it bursts the bounds in which it was written—the bounds of language, geography, epoch. The notorious modern case is The Waste Land—an untranslatable poem, one might have thought, except that it has been universally translated, universally read, and universally—strange though it may seem—understood. Coming upon a poem of that degree of power is a revelatory experience. Thanks to Czeslaw Milosz, born in 1911, and his translator, the poet Robert Hass, another such poem, Milosz’s Treatise on Poetry—written in 1955–1956—is appearing in English for the first time.
English-speaking readers of Milosz have been tantalized since 1988, when Milosz’s Collected Poems was published, by its brief five-page excerpt from a long poem called A Treatise on Poetry. Somewhere in Polish, we realized, there nestled a hidden store of thoughts on poetry by one of the great writers of the twentieth century. What did such a treatise say of the pre-war twentieth century of Milosz’s youth? Of poetry, in Poland and in the world? Of the war that Milosz saw at first hand in Nazi-occupied Warsaw? Of art in general? Of the obligations of the artist? Of the connection between political matter and aesthetic form? We knew, from other poems, and from his essays and interviews, that Milosz was concerned with all these ques-tions—but we still could not read in English the dryly named poem that might embody his most intense verse reflections.
Now we have the whole Treatise, translated by Robert Hass, and accompanied by Milosz’s incisive historical and ideological notes (first published in the recent Polish reissue of the Treatise). To enter the current of this poem is to hurtle downstream through history on a flood of eloquent and passionate language that is in turn philosophic, satiric, tender, angry, ironic, sensuous, and, above all, elegiac. While writing the Treatise, Milosz, at forty-four, was living a life of extreme uncertainty, financial insecurity, and emotional strain. He had burned his bridges with his native country four years before, when, as the first secretary at the embassy of the People’s Republic of Poland in Paris, he had asked for political asylum in France. This was a catastrophic act for a poet, since a poet’s self is inseparable from his language; and Milosz did not fit easily into Polish nationalist émigré society in Paris, where he was regarded with suspicion as a former diplomat of the Communist regime. It was in this time of dislocation and desolation that Milosz turned to a fierce questioning of his own past and that of literary Poland, writing the Treatise at the height of his poetic powers.
I quote from Robert Hass’s brief outline, in his “Translator’s Note,” of the four cantos of the Treatise:
The first section of the poem, “Beautiful Times,” describes Kraków and Polish culture at the turn of the nineteenth century [Milosz’s subtitle is Kraków, 1900–1914]. The second section …