On Czeslaw Milosz (1911–2004)

Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh


The following essay was written as a review of the Polish edition of Czeslaw Milosz’s collection This, published in 2000. The poems in This appear in English translation in New and Collected Poems: 1931–2001, published in 2001. Adam Zagajewski’s essay will appear in his A Defense of Ardor, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October.

An Olympic sprinter, cheered on by a vast, admiring stadium full of fans, is tackling the hundred meters. Right off the starting line he leans forward, bent almost to the track itself, staring off into the distant horizon; mid-race he straightens up, erect as Mont Blanc; then as he’s approaching the finish line he curves back, not just from exhaustion but also in tribute to the universe’s hidden symmetry. So it is with the energetic pace of Czeslaw Milosz’s poetry. In the early years he lovingly murmurs spells about the mysteries of worlds and fires, about picturesque disasters; in maturity he observes, praises, and criticizes the real world, the world of history and nature; as he enters the late stages of life he grows more and more obedient to the demands of memory, both personal and suprapersonal.

No, of course he’s not a sprinter; he’s a poet reaching the ninety-year mark, a splendid marathon runner rather, and not at all tired—his book This is one of his greatest achievements. And the stadium was often painfully empty, or filled with hostile or mocking spectators; this athlete had his share of loneliness. But of the athletic metaphor those three postures remain, three angles of our necessary proximity to the earth, which truly characterize the evolution of the poet.

Stendhal supposedly said that literature is the art of selection, since it’s charged with laisser de côté, sifting out the superfluous. Wedekind said something similar—and undoubtedly many other authors have as well, especially the modernists. Czeslaw Milosz’s work would seem to be founded upon the opposite principle: Leave out nothing! But not in the sense of craftsmanship (obviously poetry can’t survive without selection, abbreviation) so much as in the sense of his “poetic politics,” broadly conceived. You only have to reach for the autobiographical Native Realm (1958), The Captive Mind (1953), or virtually any volume of his poetry. In Native Realm, we find sections that are historical, even economic in nature, as if Milosz were saying, I’ll show you that poetry can be made from nonpoetry, that the power of the poetic mind is fueled by ingesting as much of the world as possible, not by retreating into the perilous regions of inner intimacy. Not a flight from the world, not the infamous “escapism” that was the favorite charge of Party critics, but a vast osmosis: this is Milosz’s program. It is not a clinically sterile osmosis, though, nor is it objective or even mimetic. It is personal and in a certain sense ethical, and even therapeutic to some degree, since this poetry’s goal is finally to comprehend the incomprehensible, an operation I’d…

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