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, “The Capital,” describes Warsaw [1918–1939] and makes an assessment—almost poet by poet—of the state of Polish poetry in the first three or four decades of the century, particularly of its failure to account for the reality that overwhelmed that city. The third section, “The Spirit of History,” on the war years [1939–1945], is a meditation on the nature of history, on language, and on raw force…. The fourth section, “Natura” [1948–1949], makes a startling leap. The war is over. The narrator is sitting in a boat on a lake in northern Pennsylvania, waiting for a vision from the books of his childhood: a hoped-for glimpse of the American beaver. It is a meditation on nature, on Europe and America, and on the role of the poet in the postwar world.
Such a brief account of a half-century—Kraków in the Belle Époque; literary Warsaw in the pre-war years; Nazi-occupied Warsaw in the time of war; nature in the postwar New World—reveals the matter, but not the manner, of Milosz’s alternately austere and torrential poem.
It is useful, then, that Hass’s subdivisions help us to appreciate Milosz’s varying choices of manner. There are, first, the poet’s unexpected changes of focus. We see the “beautiful times” of Kraków in 1900—its monuments, its poets, its newspapers-on-a-stick in the coffeehouse, its waiters:
Cabbies were dozing by St. Mary’s tower.
Kraków was tiny as a painted egg
Just taken from a pot of dye on Easter.
In their black capes poets strolled the streets.
Nobody remembers their names today,
And yet their hands were real once,
And their cufflinks gleamed above a table.
An Ober brings the paper on a stick
And coffee, then passes away like them
Without a name.
This passage reveals the characteristic traits of Milosz’s imagistic renderings of history: the sharp miniaturization of a city to an egg; the ele-giac present-day note struck in “Nobody remembers”; the intense focus on an observed detail (“their cufflinks gleamed”); the almost unnoticed glide of the past tense into the present; and the stealthy slide from the present of action into the eternal present of the vanished—“their cufflinks gleamed…./ An Ober brings the paper…/…then passes away like them/Without a name.” As the poet seesaws between 1900 and 1955, we feel his imaginative unrest in the fluctuation of details, as the diminutive scale of the egg yields to the human scale of the poets, as the “real” past is obliterated by the mention of “today,” as the tenses melt and diverge.
As for “Part Two: The Capital: Warsaw, 1918–1939,” here Milosz’s unwieldy task is to chronicle the labor it took to drag a nineteenth-century literature of Romantic Polish nationalism into the modern world. “In Poland,” he says, “a poet is a barometer.” He enumerates the failed strategies resorted to even by poets he admired, when they struggled with the social reality of Poland after World War I:
There had never been such a Pléiade!
Yet something in their speech was flawed,
A flaw of harmony, as in their masters.
The transformed choir did not much resemble
The disorderly choir of ordinary things.
Here are three such poets, described, like the others, in Milosz’s brief verse-sketches—in truth, epitaphs. The first poet, Jan Lechonå«, author of a 1918 poem “Herostrates” (named after the arsonist of Artemis’ temple), decides to turn away from history to nature but subsides into nostalgia; the second, Antoni Slonimski, dedicates himself to an Enlightenment rationalism which he sees vitiated by political violence; the third, Julian Tuwim, a visionary embarrassed by his own visions, lapses into conventional thinking. All three poets are finally trapped in cul-de-sacs of their own making:
Lechonå«-Herostrates trampled on the past.
He wanted to see green spring, not Poland.
Yet he was to meditate all his life
On Old Poland’s dress and antique manners….
What of Słonimski, sad and noble-minded?
Who thought the time of reason was at hand,
Giving himself to the future, proclaiming it
In the manner of Wells, or some other manner.
When the sky of Reason had grown bloodred,
He gave his waning years to Aeschylus…
[Tuwim] aspired to long poems.
But his thought was conventional, used
As easily as he used assonance and rhyme,
To cover his visions, of which he grew ashamed.
From particular writers, Milosz turns more generally to groups; the avant-garde poets are dismissed for having subsided into a decadent and emasculated doctrine of art-for-art’s-sake tinged with a retrograde nationalism. And then, bafflingly, there were the Stalinist poets indifferent to the crimes of Stalin, represented here by Lucjan Szenwald, “a Red Army lieutenant” who, in spite of his repellent beliefs, wrote good poems:
Poetry has nothing to do with morals,
As Szenwald, a Red Army lieutenant, proved.
At a time when, in the gulags of the north,
The corpses of a hundred nations whitened,
He was writing an ode to Mother Siberia,
One of the finer Polish-language poems.
As Milosz catalogs the spirit in which a frustrated modernism struggled for expression and found it either partially or not at all, he suggests his own bewilderment when, as a young man, he was looking for convincing aesthetic models and finding the available ones inadequate to his desires. But then, as war erupts in Europe, his life is changed forever, and his art as well.
At this point, A Treatise on Poetry erupts, too. The leisure for pre-war retrospect allowed in Part I, the literary inventory permitted in Part II, cannot survive under bombardment. In the searing “Part Three: The Spirit of History: Warsaw, 1939–1945,” a new barbaric primitivism erases all of culture—art, law, literature, architecture. The canto opens with nine bleak and scathing lines in which, by a relentless ritual antiphony of “When” and “Then,” civilization is undone:
When gold paint flakes from the arms of sculptures,
When the letter falls out of the book of laws,
Then consciousness is naked as an eye.
When the pages of books fall in fiery scraps
Onto smashed leaves and twisted metal,
The tree of good and evil is stripped bare.
When a wing made of canvas is extinguished
In a potato patch, when steel disintegrates,
Nothing is left but straw huts and cow dung.
Some will be reminded here, as the technology of war meets the landscapes it lays bare, of Anselm Kiefer’s fallen wing on a stubble-field, a version of the twisted pastoral evoked also by Paul Celan, who, in his “Deathfugue,” evoked the golden hair of Faust’s Margarete along with the hair-turned-to-ashes of the incinerated Shulamith. Milosz’s nine-line overture opens the themes of Part III: How to write the history of war? How to describe the unspeakable events of the Polish war years, including the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto?
The wrath of History takes Warsaw in its grasp, and Milosz’s manner imitates the chaos of incommensurate detail as ordinary life persists side by side with war. Death inhabits the market along with chickens and geese. Nobody pays attention to dying Jews. The river flows on as before. The usual smugglers ply their boats taking depth-soundings. Church bells ring over crematoria. This is the atmosphere perceived by Milosz’s Hegelian Spirit of History; it exhibits the meaninglessness and disorder that he finds at the core of his own experience and that serves him as the cauldron of a new reality. Milosz rises to his best panoramic and fragmented style in creating the landscape for his Hegelian phantom:
Chickens cackle. Geese stretch their necks from baskets.
In the town, a bullet is carving a dry trace
In the sidewalk near bags of homegrown tobacco.
All night long, on the outskirts of the city,
An old Jew, tossed in a clay pit, has been dying.
His moans subside only when the sun comes up.
The Vistula is gray, it washes through osiers
And fashions fans of gravel in the shallows….
Where wind carries the smell of the crematorium
And a bell in the village tolls the Angelus,
The Spirit of History is out walking.
He whistles, he likes these countries washed
By a deluge, deprived of shape and now ready.
It is worth stopping on such a passage—Milosz’s take on the moment when the world becomes psychically unmanageable—to see how the poet conveys its disorder. The account is full of common things: chickens, geese, osiers, bell. It sketches in the contours of the old village—the sidewalk, the Vistula, the church tower—and mentions a clay pit at “the outskirts of the city.” It confirms the continuation of immemorial habits—the marketing, the recitation of the Angelus. It even records the poet’s inveterate recognition of aesthetic moments: the river “fashions fans of gravel in the shallows” as it washes through the reeds. But in the midst of these ever-familiar things, new and horrible facts have to be accommodated in the mind: the bullet making its incision; the victimized and dying Jew; the sound of moaning; the smell
of burning bodies. The habit of noticing aesthetic detail, chillingly, goes on unabated: the look of the “dry trace” of the bullet—a sight unseen before—has to find its verbal formulation.
Milosz’s manner here—as he uses a panning lens, stopping punctually for a moment at each sight—abandons cause and effect for a set of indigestible and grammatically equal sentences. His sequence of thoughts—this; that; the other—declares the impossibility of any logical subordination, rational hierarchy, or even intelligibility: “Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and'”—as Elizabeth Bishop said despairingly of history in “Over 2000 Illustrations.” It may seem irrational to remark, between bullets and corpses, on the beauties of the Vistula, to record that the bullet makes its unfamiliar trace near “bags of homegrown tobacco.” Yet how else can a writer be faithful to the reality of war, which may change very few things and yet change everything? Milosz, never a poet to shade the truth, is willing to present, uncensored, this panorama of the empirically undeniable, to record “the disorderly choir of ordinary things”: and for that very reason the Spirit of History is revealed to him, whistling appreciatively at the possible opportunities for postwar cultural revolution.
Milosz is unwilling, however, to adopt the nihilism of the Spirit of History, whose only relish is for extirpation, and whose only claim is that of Necessity. The poet names History “an inferior god to whom time and the fate/Of one-day-long kingdoms is submitted.” There are divinities superior to History, and for Milosz these include human memory, freedom, happiness, fidelity, and, not least, mathematics and universal Forms:
Plato and his ideas: on the earth hares, foxes, and horses run about and pass on, but somewhere up above the ideas of hareness, foxness, and horseness live on eternally, along with the idea of the triangle and Archimedes’ law principle, which have not been overturned by chaotic, death-contaminated empirical evidence.
Yet where so many poets have failed either to tell the truth or to find an adequate form, how can anyone succeed? In an eloquent passage that reaches from plainness to sublimity, Milosz asks how a poet is to avoid “two sharp edges”—the Scylla of falsifying idealism and the Charybdis of dismissive rationalism:
With what word to reach into the future,
With what word to defend human happiness—
It has the smell of freshly baked bread—
If the language of poets cannot search out
Standards of use to later generations?
We have not been taught. We do not know at all
How to unite Freedom and Necessity.
In a dream the mind visits two sharp edges.
Woe to the unearthly, the radiant ones.
While storming heaven, they neglect the Earth
With its joy and warmth and animal strength.
Woe to the reasonable, the heavy-minded.
Their lies will extinguish the morning star,
A gift more durable than Nature is, or Death.
It is thrilling to watch Milosz’s maneuvers between the edges, as he veers from the bluntest abstraction—“We do not know at allHow to unite Freedom and Necessity”—to biblical anathema—“Woe to the unearthly…/Woe to the reasonable.” He then moves on to the morning star, and the symbol of hope is said to be not (as one might expect) “nobler” or “more sublime” than Nature or Death, but more “durable” (a word of plain empirical carpenter-like recommendation). It is at moments like these that one is grateful for the readableness of Hass’s translation: it does not get in the way; it is transparent; it renders the urgency of these choices for the Milosz of 1955, weighing his past in the French exile to which his calling has brought him. The poet’s education in Catholicism had given him a weakness for “the unearthly, the radiant ones”; the practice of diplomacy had exposed him to the claims of “the reasonable, the heavy-minded.” It is characteristic of the poet’s lifelong search for a tertium quid that he opposes to these two claims not a third ideology of his own, but an image and an emotion: the radiant star of hope. In the same way, in representing human happiness, Milosz gives it not a definition but a smell—the morning fragrance of new-baked bread. In spite of his powerful intellect, Milosz never forgets that the poet’s strength comes from the presence in his language of the senses, the muscles, the fingertips, the body that is at once corporeal and virtual.
Part III continues as the war climaxes in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, an event tersely described elsewhere by the poet Anna Swir (born 1909), who, like Milosz, lived through those days of revulsion and ineffaceable trauma. She sets the stage, and then moves to the uprising itself:
Warsaw was transformed into a wasteland filled with corpses, ruins and smouldering ashes. That part of the population which survived the inferno was driven out and deported to various concentration camps. After the capitulation, German soldiers systematically burned and dynamited the remaining buildings….
Corpses lay about in the streets, and the stench of rotting bodies rose from the ruins. Despite these horrible conditions, the city put up a heroic struggle for sixty-three days.1
In describing the last year of the war, Milosz adopts the dispassionate manner of a chronicler, recording how young poets fell one after another in untimely and violent deaths:
Copernicus: the statue of a German or a Pole?
Leaving a spray of flowers, Bojarski perished….
Trzebinå«ski, the new Polish Nietzsche,
Had his mouth plastered shut before he died….
Baczynå«ski’s head fell against his rifle….
Gajcy, Stroinå«ski were raised to the sky,
A red sky, on the shield of an explosion.
American readers, turning to Milosz’s notes, will read the histories of some of these poets’ deaths, well known to Milosz’s Polish readers. I quote a few sentences from the notes to show the rich underpinning of narrative on which Milosz’s swift poetic shorthand depends.
For Bojarski, a note on a youthful gesture turning fatal:
A statue of Nicolaus Copernicus…stands in the center of Warsaw…. On May Day in 1943… three poets…decided to lay flowers in the national colors at the foot of the monument. It was a students’ prank. An exchange of shots with the German police ensued and one of them, Waclaw Bojarski, was mortally wounded.
As for Tadeusz Gajcy (1922–1944), he is considered, together with Baczynå«ski, the most gifted poet among his contemporaries:
In the Warsaw Uprising, together with a friend, the poet Zdzislaw Stroinå«ski (1921–1944), he was in an action in a neighborhood which was the scene of particularly fierce battles. The street changed hands several times. The Germans dug a tunnel, mined the building the poet’s unit was defending, and blew it up.
With this roll call of the fallen, Treatise on Poetry begins to seem one repeated death knell for the poets of modern Poland. Those just mentioned were a decade younger than Milosz, but the direct or indirect death toll included many who were older. As one reads Milosz’s notes, the names accumulate: Wladyslaw Sebyla (1902– 1940), executed by the Russians at Katyn Woods; Tadeusz Zelenå«ski (1874– 1941), executed by the Nazis; Jan Lechonå«, a political émigré who committed suicide in New York in 1956; Józef Czechowicz (1903–1939), killed by a German bomb in Lublin; Lucjan Szenwald (1909–1944), killed in an accident while his unit of the Red Army was fighting in Poland. To these Milosz adds, as a group, the young nationalist poets “who were children when the war broke out…. [They] perished one by one, in Auschwitz, in street executions, in combat.”
The carnage around him gave Milosz’s own survival a freakishness that sharpened both his senses and his testimony. It is the sheer weight of facts borne by A Treatise on Poetry that lends the poem its somber coloration. It is an assemblage of reflections, yes; but those reflections are erected on an infernal ground with which the whole world is now familiar, at least from photographs of barricades, gravepits, and crematoria. In a brief characterization of the poetry of his era, Milosz once remarked on that poetry’s “mixture of macabre and humorous elements, its preoccupation less with the ego than with dramas of history, [and] the relish with which it handles and remodels moral maxims.”2 Unusual in a peacetime lyric, these become normal features in poems composed at a time when the maxims of received “culture” are exploded, and when the poet must try to encompass, by irony and humor as well as by horror, the grotesque and criminal spectacle of war.
Many of Milosz’s notes to A Treatise on Poetry reflect his own wartime and postwar perplexities. “The mysterious link between poetry and politics is complex, difficult to analyze,” Milosz writes, “yet its existence was understood by many twentieth-century poets who had analogous experiences in their own countries during these years of war and revolution.” And what is this link? “It meant that a mental act, securing a grasp on reality, preceded the poetic act, if the poem, however noble its intention, was not to be mere words.” The trouble with most political poetry is that it is self-deluding. Milosz had to refuse to write “the sort of patriotic poetry that appeared in innumerable underground publications.” He adds, “The number of patriotic anti-Nazi poems was astronomical. Useful at a given moment, they served the purpose of inciting heroic resistance, but their artistic life was short.” They had fallen into the imitation of past styles of both thought and form. It was Milosz’s genius to find for the Treatise a manner of symphonic complexity, ranging from the dulcet to the catastrophic, from the percussive to the pastoral.
How can Milosz end Part III of his poem? With the replacement of post-war with Communist Poland, the Spirit of History has seemed to conquer. Milosz invents a slavish hymn to the Spirit of History, sung by those who are prepared to succumb to Communist rule as inevitable—but that turned out to be no solution for the defecting poet himself. Leaving the dilemma of history open for the moment, Part III edges near its close toward the most unrepresentable topic of the war: the extermination of Poland’s Jews. In recognition of the Shoah (Milosz adopts that name), Part III exhibits, as it approaches its end, not a lyric by Milosz himself but a song in tercets, voiced by one of the Jews killed in concentration camps. The condemned singer, who goes from future to past during his song, declares that “only a child of the ghetto could utter the words” that would have purified the soil of Poland; but even had such a poet been born, he was annihilated with the rest:
When they put a rope around my neck,
When they choke off my breath with a rope,
I’ll turn around once, and what will I be?
When they give me an injection of phenol,
When I walk half a step with phenol in my veins,
What wisdom of the prophets will enlighten me?…
Soil of annihilation, soil of hate,
No word will purify it ever.
No such poet will be born.
For even if one had been called, he walked
Beside us to the last gate, for only
A child of the ghetto could utter the words.
In confessing that he cannot be, has not the right to be, the poet of the Polish Shoah, Milosz leaves a gaping hole in the Treatise, the abyss of the murder of the Jewish population.
And because the writer of the Treatise sees his nation’s literature in ruins, with its young poets cut off, he winds down the merciless Part III, to the reader’s utter surprise, with an elegiac collage of Eliotic fragments—a short song by an anonymous Jewish poet; lines from the nineteenth-century Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz; and bits of an old Polish Christmas carol rewritten in 1925 by the avant-garde poet Titus Czyzewski (1883–1945). Literature dissolves as Poland dissolves, and, the last we hear of it, it is returning to its roots in the sonic babble of folk song and rustic instruments. “On feast days,” says the sophisticated and war-exhausted narrator, “we heard another music,” and he summons, through Czyzewski’s mediation, a rustic carol which begins:
Ho la ho la
Lambs bleat baa baa
Shepherds run to see
Come to the stable
As soon as you’re able
Ho la ho la
Even Jack with his stutter
Sings to the Mother
The Holy Mother
Who could have expected such a verse to serve as the stylistic counterbalance for the obliteration of Warsaw? Yet the poet’s manner here resembles that of his famous Blakean “naive” sequence The World, written in 1943 as the pure and ideal opposite of the terrors of devastated Warsaw. Just as Czyzewski’s carol returns to the spontaneous “first idea” of musical and poetic patterning, so, as the canto closes, the narrator, blankly resting from digging potatoes, lights a cigarette and thinks that since everything else has returned to the primal, he should perhaps be reaching not for a match, but for something more primitive, a “tinderbox with flint”:
So many things have passed, so many things.
And while no work accomplished helps us,
Titus Czyzewski returns with his Christmas carol.
The double bass used to boom, so he booms.
I rolled a cigarette and licked the paper.
Then a match in the little house of my hand.
And why not a tinderbox with flint?
The wind was blowing. I sat on the road at noon,
Thinking and thinking. Beside me, potatoes.
Milosz’s poetic is summed up in that last line, as “thinking” sits side by side with “potatoes.” The conflagration of Part III comes to a fatigued and stoic end, with a faint “ho la” and “baa baa” still echoing in the air.
And, finally, “Part Four: Natura: Pennsylvania, 1948–1949,” with its disturbing opening lines: after the nostalgia, intellectuality, and savagery of Milosz’s first three cantos, it may seem shocking to arrive at Part IV and read the gentle pastoral beginning:
The garden of Nature opens.
The grass at the threshold is green.
And an almond tree begins to bloom.
From an Inferno to a Paradiso. Was this, I wondered, where Milosz would end? Fleeing from history to dwell in the garden of Eden? I should have known better: for all his naturalist’s love of the biological world, Milosz knows, looking at Nature in the form of a butterfly, that its colors are “inexpressible, formed elsewhere, hostile to art.” Yet, posted as a diplomat to Washington in 1948, and tempted to defect to America, the poet travels to a lake in the woods of northern Pennsylvania to pursue his search for the American beaver, remembered from books of his childhood. It is night, and Milosz is almost invisible; but the beaver, sensing a human presence, dives underwater to conceal himself; and the poet announces regretfully that “my scent in the air, my animal smell,/Spreads, rainbow-like, scares the beaver:/ A sudden splat.” There follows a beautiful suspended moment in which the poet almost becomes the animal self he had longed to behold:
I remained where I was
In the high, soft coffer of the night’s velvet,
Mastering what had come to my senses:
How the four-toed paws worked, how the hair
Shook off water in the muddy tunnel.
But the poet must return to himself as he acknowledges how the beaver differs from him—it lives without self-consciousness, and he cannot:
It does not know time, hasn’t heard of death,
Is submitted to me because I know I’ll die.
This failed attempt to take on an unselfconscious New World existence presages Milosz’s inability to forsake Europe for an apolitical solitude. “I remember everything,” he says; he is a citizen not of nature but of history. Only poetry, he is certain, can preserve the existential detail of history as it was: and history now offers itself to the poet not as a grisly specter but as a muse. As Keats cried out to Psyche, in his moment of vocation, “Yes, I will be thy priest,” so Milosz, in a moment of immense poignancy, summons the first historian, Herodotus, and crystallizes the vow of his calling—to preserve the past in images. He reaches for the powerful metaphysical image of the plumb line as a symbol of virtue:
Yes, to gather in an image
The furriness of the beaver, the smell of rushes,
And the wrinkles of a hand holding a pitcher
From which wine trickles. Why cry out
That a sense of history destroys our substance
If it, precisely, is offered to our powers,
A muse of our gray-haired father, Herodotus,
As our arm and our instrument, though
It is not easy to use it, to strengthen it
So that, like a plumb with a pure gold center,
It will serve again to rescue human beings.
It is hard to refrain from quoting all the sublime moments of canto IV, for example the hymn to America (“America for me has the pelt of a raccoon…. America’s wings are the color of a cardinal”), and the ode to October. But I must mention at least the conclusion of the Treatise, a passage full of silent tears. Milosz, after all, is unable to shed his past; he sails back to Europe on the churning ocean of Nature, deprived, like Wordsworth, of any consoling mythological vision of Proteus:
It’s not fulfilled: the old hope that Neptune
Will show his beard, trailing a retinue of nymphs.
Nothing but ocean which boils and repeats:
In vain, in vain.
Happiness—epitomized by a verse of Horace learned at school—is not in prospect for this traveler. Horace’s mythological tableau of love and music was voiced in liquid words: Iam Cytherea choros ducit Venus imminente luna, “Already Cytherean Venus leads choruses, dancing under the rising moon.” The poetry that pierced the boy Milosz in secondary school—so much so that he carved it into his wooden school bench, to have it before him always—seems now to represent nothing but an unavailable, or forever lost, sensual and aesthetic utopia. And so, in the desolation of his return to Europe the poet, recalling the storm winds of war, summarizes the burden of civilization:
The ship’s body, creaking, carries the freight
Of our foolishness, vagueness, and hidden faith,
The dirt of our subjectivity, and the homeless
White faces of the ones who were killed in combat.
Carries it where? To the isles of bliss? No,
In us storm winds drowned that stanza of Horace
A penknife worked into a wooden bench at school.
It will not find us in this salt and void:
Iam Cytherea choros ducit Venus imminente luna
The Latin line, without a final punctuation mark, ends the Treatise on Poetry. The lyric verse, the poet has said, “will not find us”: but in our gloomy denial of it we have found it nevertheless. Memory, saturating the very atmosphere of the return journey to Europe, has dredged it up as one of those free-floating unpunctuated fragments shored against “the dirt of our subjectivity” and the drained faces of the war dead. It is no surprise to learn that the Polish translator of The Waste Land was the young pre-war Milosz.
Milosz’s huge and amazing serial meditation, an epic on the conflict of History and Poetry, will find an adequate commentary only from those who can read it in Polish. Yet even in English, the Treatise on Poetry seems to me the most comprehensive and moving poem of this half-century. It will be excerpted and anthologized; and its blunt assertions about what poetry must, and must not, attempt will become part of the collective ars poetica of our culture.
There exists, still untranslated, an earlier verse-treatise by Milosz, the Treatise on Morals, written in Washington in 1948, and described by Milosz as “a poem that mocks socialist realism.” It is said to end with “a prediction of coming annihilation.”3 The newly available Treatise on Poetry makes one curious about its brother poem, and makes one hope that the poet and his steadfast translator may one day turn it, too, into English.
Czeslaw Milosz, working energetically still, will be ninety on June 30, 2001. Behind him stretch his millions of written words—poems, novels, essays, a history of Polish literature, lectures, articles, translations, introductions, anthologies, letters, transcribed conversations, and interviews. Milosz has the indomitable strength of the committed writer, urgently pouring out, for the past seventy years, works too numerous, and too complex, to be grasped in their entirety by any single reader’s mind. His restless curiosity has led him into far regions of political, religious, literary, and personal acquaintance, some of it memorialized in the curious book just published here under the title Milosz’s ABC’s, vigorously translated by Madeline Levine.
Like everything else Milosz has written, it is fascinatingly unpredictable in its sentiments and its assertions. It is an alphabet book, with varying numbers of entries under each letter: for “A” there are twenty-nine entries, for “Z,” two. These entries are sometimes playful: under “A” we find not only proper names (“Abramowicz,” “Alik”) but also “Adam and Eve” and “After All” and “Alcohol.” Milosz’s ABC’s is an eclectic collection, and one that must be read not as an encyclopedia but as a journal of memories. In an “Envoi,” Milosz explains the nature of the book:
My time, my twentieth century, weighs on me as a host of voices and the faces of people whom I once knew, or heard about, and now they no longer exist. Many were famous for something, they are in the encyclopedias, but more of them have been forgotten, and all they can do is make use of me, the rhythm of my blood, my hand holding the pen, in order to return among the living for a brief moment….
Perhaps my ABC’s are instead of: instead of a novel, instead of an essay on the twentieth century, instead of a memoir.
Milosz does not mince words: Simone de Beauvoir is called “a nasty hag”; repelled by the entertainment industry, Milosz says, “Los Angeles horrifies me”; the entry on Rimbaud opens with the reproving sentence, “He caused his mother and his entire family a great deal of grief.” This unbuttoned quality makes Milosz’s ABC’s entertaining, if sometimes intemperate.
But the truculent Milosz is not the only Milosz we meet in the ABC’s. In his many brief biographies of persons unknown (at least to an American reader), Milosz shows himself a master of the informal sketch—a genre part picture, part biography, part gossip, part obiter dicta, but rarely (given the circumstances of Milosz’s life) uninvaded by tragedy. A sample entry on one Mieczyslaw Kotarbinå«ski, a painter, though it begins genially, turns dark:
Mieczyslaw wanted to help his fellow man, including Jews. For that, he was incarcerated in Pawiak prison and was executed in 1943.
Such sudden reversals of tone, more than any single piece of information, convey Milosz’s anguish at the reversals of history, as execution writes the epitaph for friendship. Another such entry on the journalist Witold Hulewicz begins with a joke about his taking a woman on a motorcycle ride (“they would always say the same thing: ‘Shake before using'”)—and ends, “Arrested in August 1940, he remained in prison until June 12, 1941. An admirer of German poetry and music, the author of a book about Beethoven, he was shot at Palmiry on that day.” A lesser writer than Milosz would have suppressed the introductory reminiscence of the indecent joke; but the principal stimulus to Milosz’s innovations in poetry came from his resolve to let jokes coexist with martyrdom, irony with pathos, wit with denunciation. Beholding twentieth-century reality, he devised the cinematic montage that we call the Miloszian manner.
In the ABC’s, there are interesting mini-essays on writers—Frost, Dostoevsky, Whitman. Those who think of Milosz as a religious writer will find themselves occasionally taken aback: he says of Dostoevsky that “he wrote in a letter to Mrs. Fonvizin that if he were ordered to choose between the truth and Christ, he would choose Christ.” Milosz then dryly adds:
Those who would choose the truth are probably more honorable, even if the truth appears on the surface to deny Christ (as Simone Weil argued). At least they are not relying on their fantasy and not constructing idols in their own image.
Milosz’s ABC’s should be savored in small doses, not only as a collection of pensées but as a book of historical snapshots. We see the young Milosz, his wife, Janka, and his friend the writer Jerzy Andrzejewski producing together, in occupied Warsaw, the first underground chapbook of Milosz’s poetry:
Antoni Bohdziewicz supplied the paper and the duplicating machine, Janka sewed the books, and Jerzy helped out…. Janka was very sober-minded and inclined to irony, and she did not care for the Conradian lyricism…she saw in Jerzy’s work, as she would tell him frankly during our vodka-drinking sessions at the Under the Rooster bar.
But after this companionable glimpse of writers defying perilous odds with conversation and vodka, Milosz’s writing slips almost involuntarily into historical elegy, and the tone turns tragic:
My dearest shades, I cannot invite you to converse with me, for behind us, as only we three know, lies our tragic life. Our conversation would develop into a lament in three voices.
Even here, in the least ironic, most lyric moment of his ABC’s, Milosz’s analytic objectivity glimmers through, defining his own lyric genre of lament. Every one of his poems, it could be said, is “a lament in three voices”—the personal, the historical, the ironic. He has always stubbornly refused to give up any one of the three; and his tempestuous and overwhelming Treatise proves the worth of that tenacious resolve.
May 31, 2001
Postwar Polish Poetry, edited by Czeslaw Milosz (University of California Press, third edition, 1983), pp. 70–71. ↩
Czeslaw Milosz, Postwar Polish Poetry, p. xii. ↩
Ewa Czarnecka and Aleksander Fiut, Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Richard Lourie (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), pp. 142–143. ↩