New and Collected Poems, 1931–2001
In this world
p align=”center”>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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.