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:
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:
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.
December 20, 2001
Czeslaw Milosz, Beginning with My Street, translated by Madeline G. Levine (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), p. 223. ↩
Donald Davie, Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric (University of Tennessee Press, 1986). ↩
Quoted in Aleksandr Fiut, The Eternal Moment: The Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Theodosia S. Robertson (University of California Press, 1990), p. 33. ↩