Nobel Laureate Poet Czeslaw Milosz Dies

Nobel Laureate Poet Czeslaw Milosz Dies
Vanessa Gera | Warsaw | August 14

AP -Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, known for his intellectual and emotional works about some of the worst cruelties of the 20th century, died Saturday, his assistant said. He was 93.

ed. I’ll post excerpts of his work over the course of the weekend

Milosz died at his home in Krakow surrounded by his family, the assistant, Agnieszka Kosinska, told The Associated Press by telephone. The exact cause of death was not immediately known.

“It’s death, simply death. It was his time – he was 93,” Kosinska said.

Milosz had lived in Krakow since the fall of the Iron Curtain allowed him to return home after almost 30 years in exile in France and the United States, a time in which he became a prominent symbol for anti-communist dissidents.

He was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1980, an honor that coincided with the emergence of the Solidarity worker protest movement that shook communist rule in Poland.

Milosz’s best-known works include “The Captive Mind,” a study of the plight of intellectuals under communist dictatorship. It brought him international fame in the early 1950s.

Prime Minister Marek Belka called Milosz “a great Pole” Saturday.

“With his heart and pen he showed us the way, explained reality, and prompted us to do good,” Belka told the Polish news agency PAP.

Born to a noble family in what is now Lithuania, Milosz lived through the World War II Nazi regime and the Stalinist tyranny that wiped out the culture in which he grew up.

Once a diplomat for communist Poland, he broke with the regime and emigrated to the United States, coming back to live in his native country only after Poland won freedom in 1989.

He was “a witness to crucial and terrible events of the 20th century, and an original and contrary thinker – and feeler – about them,” said Robert Hass, a University of California at Berkeley professor who translated Milosz’s poetry.

Milosz’s poetry was praised for its enormous range of subject matter and technique, and its mix of sensuousness and references to culture, religion and philosophy.

He described his outlook this way:

“How do you write about suffering and still be able to approve of the world at the same time? If you really think about the horror of the world, the only suitable attitude seems to be to reject it,” Milosz told the Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny in 2001.

“I’ve always regretted that I’m made of contradictions. But, if contradiction is impossible to overcome, we have to accept both its ends.”

Milosz also carried the burden of being an intellectual in exile, one whose poems were only published in his native country after he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

“The birth of Solidarity and martial law made Milosz a myth, which he couldn’t entirely shake off – a myth of anti-communist militant, fighter for freedom,” said Milosz biographer Lukasz Stadnicki. “Even if he didn’t want it, he had to face the role of national prophet.”

Exile and the feelings of being a foreigner intensified the theme of memory in his work. He often explored the problem of roots in his writing.

“The Issa Valley,” published in 1955, tells the story of the poet’s childhood. “A View of San Francisco Bay,” published in 1969, traces the poet’s efforts to find his own place in the United States where, in his words, he “remained an outcast.”

Milosz was born on June 30, 1911, in Szetejnie, now Lithuania, and studied law at the University in Vilnius. There, he published his first book of poems, “Three Winters,” in 1936.

The themes of his early poetry were a portent of his later works, a historical perspective combined with individual experience of the world, expressed in simple images of the idyllic and the apocalyptic.

After World War II, Milosz served in communist Poland’s diplomatic service as a cultural attache in New York and Paris. In 1951, he severed ties with the government and sought political asylum in France, entering into cooperation with a Paris-based institute that specialized in Polish emigre literature.

The Cold War peak of the early 1950s was a period of great loneliness for him, during which he said he often thought about suicide. His works, written in Polish, did not reach his native country because of communist censorship, and he was unknown to foreign readers.

In 1960, Milosz left France for California, where he spent more than 20 years as Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Berkeley. English-speaking audiences got access to his poetry only in 1973, when some of his work was translated in “Selected Poems.”

At 90, Milosz said he was still up at night writing poems.

“It’s not possible to be sated with the world. I’m still insatiable,” he said. “At my age, I’m still looking for a form, for a language to express the world.”

Milosz is survived by two sons. His first wife, Janina, died in 1986. His second wife, Carol, a U.S.-born historian, died in 2003.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

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  • Account

    The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.

    Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
    Like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
    Would have tended nevertheless toward the candle’s flame.

    Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
    The little whisper which, thought it is a warning, is ignored.

    I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
    The time when I was among their adherents
    Who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.

    But all of them would have one subject, desire,
    If only my own — but no, not at all; alas,
    I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
    I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.

    The history of my stupidity will not be written.
    For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.

    Berkeley, 1980

    My Faithful Mother Tongue

    Faithful mother tongue
    I have been serving you.
    Every night, I used to set before you little bowls of colors
    so you could have your birch, your cricket, your finch as preserved in my memory.

    This lasted many years.
    You were my native land; I lacked any other.
    I believed that you would also be a messenger
    between me and some good people,
    even if they were few, twenty, ten
    or not born, as yet.

    Now, I confess my doubt.
    There are moments when it seems to me I have squandered my life.
    For you are a tongue of the debased,
    of the unreasonable, hating themselves
    even more than they hate other nations,
    a tongue of informers,
    a tongue of the confused,
    ill with their own innocence.

    But without you, who am I?
    Only a scholar in a distant country,
    a success, without fears and humiliations.
    Yes, who am I without you?
    Just a philosopher, like everyone else.

    I understand, this is meant as my education:
    the glory of individuality is taken away,
    Fortune spreads a red carpet
    before the sinner in a morality play
    while on the linen backdrop a magic lantern throws
    images of human and divine torture.

    Faithful mother tongue,
    perhaps after all it’s I who must try to save you.
    So I will continue to set before you little bowls of colors
    bright and pure if possible,
    for what is needed in misfortune is a little order and beauty.

    Berkely, 1968

  • Dedication

    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.

    Campo di Fiori

    In Rome on the Campo di Fiori
    Baskets of olives and lemons,
    Cobbles spattered with wine
    And the wreckage of flowers.
    Vendors cover the trestles
    With rose-pink fish;
    Armfuls of dark grapes
    Heaped on peach-down.

    On this same square
    They burned Giordano Bruno.
    Henchmen kindled the pyre
    Close-pressed by the mob.
    Before the flames had died
    The taverns were full again,
    Baskets of olives and lemons
    Again on the vendors’ shoulders.

    I thought of the Campo dei Fiori
    In Warsaw by the sky-carousel
    One clear spring evening
    To the strains of a carnival tune.
    The bright melody drowned
    The salvos from the ghetto wall,
    And couples were flying
    High in the cloudless sky.

    At times wind from the burning
    Would driff dark kites along
    And riders on the carousel
    Caught petals in midair.
    That same hot wind
    Blew open the skirts of the girls
    And the crowds were laughing
    On that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.

    Someone will read as moral
    That the people of Rome or Warsaw
    Haggle, laugh, make love
    As they pass by martyrs’ pyres.
    Someone else will read
    Of the passing of things human,
    Of the oblivion
    Born before the flames have died.

    But that day I thought only
    Of the loneliness of the dying,
    Of how, when Giordano
    Climbed to his burning
    There were no words
    In any human tongue
    To be left for mankind,
    Mankind who live on.

    Already they were back at their wine
    Or peddled their white starfish,
    Baskets of olives and lemons
    They had shouldered to the fair,
    And he already distanced
    As if centuries had passed
    While they paused just a moment
    For his flying in the fire.

    Those dying here, the lonely
    Forgotten by the world,
    Our tongue becomes for them
    The language of an ancient planet.
    Until, when all is legend
    And many years have passed,
    On a great Campo di Fiori
    Rage will kindle at a poet’s word.

    A poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto

    Bees build around red liver,
    Ants build around black bone.
    It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,
    It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam
    Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.
    Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls
    Engulfs animal and human hair.

    Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,
    Ants build around white bone.
    Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,
    Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.
    The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the foundations.
    Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,
    With one leafless tree.

    Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,
    With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.
    He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,
    He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,
    The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.
    Bees build around a red trace.
    Ants build around the place left by my body.

    I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.
    He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch
    Who has sat much in the light of candles
    Reading the great book of the species.

    What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,
    Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?
    My broken body will deliver me to his sight
    And he will count me among the helpers of death:
    The uncircumcised.

    Warsaw, 1943

  • Preface To A Treatise On Poetry

    First, plain speech in the mother tongue.
    Hearing it you should be able to see,
    As if in a flash of summer lightning,
    Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road.

    And it should contain more than images.
    Singsong lured it into being,
    Melody, a daydream. Defenseless,
    It was bypassed by the dry, sharp world.

    You often ask yourself why you feel sham
    Whenever you look through a book of poems.
    As if the author, for reasons unclear to you,
    Addressed the worst side of your nature,
    Pushing aside, cheating thought.

    Poetry, seasoned with satire, clowning,
    Jokes, still knows how to please.
    Then its excellence is much admired.
    But serious combat, where life is at stake,
    Is fought in prose. It was not always so.

    And our regret has remained unconfessed.
    Novels and essays serve but will not last.
    One clear stanza can take more wieght
    Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.

    Now that is poetry! spk

  • It’s a very good translation, yet it takes a few liberties with the original.  It makes for a better translation but just for comparison here is my literal translation – adusted only slightly so that the syntax makes some sort of sense to an English speaker, not for artistic purposes – A Nabokovian translation.

    Let the mother tongue be simple
    So that everyone who hears the word
    Sees the apple tree, river, turn in the road,
    As one sees in a summer’s lightning flash.

    But it cannot, however, be image
    And nothing mroe.  She has been tempted for centuries
    By the swaying rythym, dream, melody.
    Defenceless she was bypassed by the dry, sharp world.

    Many ask today what does it mean
    This shame, if they read a book of verse,
    As if to a baser nature in himself
    The author spoke with unclear intentions.
    Pushing thought away and cheating thought.

    With a seasoning of humour, jest, satire,
    Poetry can still make itself liked.
    Its excellence is then appreciated.
    But those struggles, where life is at stake
    Are fought in prose.  It was not always thus.

    And regret has remained unconfessed.
    Romances, treatises serve not endure
    Because one good verse weighs more
    Than the weight of many laborious pages.


    Czeslaw Milosz

    My ears catch less and less of conversations, and my eyes have weakened,
    though they are still insatiable.

    I see their legs in miniskirts, slacks, wavy fabrics.

    Peep at each one separately, at their buttocks and thighs, lulled by the
    imaginings of porn.

    Old lecher, it’s time for you to the grave, not to the games and amusements
    of youth.

    But I do what I have always done: compose scenes of this earth under orders
    from the erotic imagination.

    It’s not that I desire these creatures precisely; I desire everything, and they are
    like a sign of ecstatic union.

    It’s not my fault that we are made so, half from disinterested contemplation,
    half from appetite.

    If I should accede one day to Heaven, it must be there as it is here, except that I
    will be rid of my dull senses and my heavy bones.

    Changed into pure seeing, I will absorb, as before, the proportions of human
    bodies, the color of irises, a Paris street in June at dawn, all of it incomprehensible,
    incomprehensible the multitude of visible things.

  • I met Milosz in the seventies in New York.  He was an awesome poet, and an even more awesome human being.

    To lose both Milosz and Cartier-Bresson–we are all diminished.

    Compare Milosz and Cartier-Bresson with little Bush–not really the same species, are they?

  • Conversation with Jeanne

    Let us not talk philosophy, drop it, Jeanne.
    So many words, so much paper, who can stand it.
    I told you the truth about my distancing myself.
    I’ve stopped worrying about my misshapen life.
    It was no better and no worse than the usual human tragedies.

    For over thirty years we have been waging our dispute
    As we do now, on the island under the skies of the tropics.
    We flee a downpour, in an instant the bright sun again,
    And I grow dumb, dazzled by the emerald essence of the leaves.

    We submerge in foam at the line of the surf,
    We swim far, to where the horizon is a tangle of banana bush,
    With little windmills of palms.
    And I am under accusation: That I am not up to my oeuvre,
    That I do not demand enough from myself,
    As I could have learned from Karl Jaspers,
    That my scorn for the opinions of this age grows slack.

    I roll on a wave and look at white clouds.

    You are right, Jeanne, I don’t know how to care about the salvation of my soul.
    Some are called, others manage as well as they can.
    I accept it, what has befallen me is just.
    I don’t pretend to the dignity of a wise old age.
    Untranslatable into words, I chose my home in what is now,
    In things of this world, which exist and, for that reason, delight us:
    Nakedness of women on the beach, coppery cones of their breasts,
    Hibiscus, alamanda, a red lily, devouring
    With my eyes, lips, tongue, the guava juice, the juice of la prune de Cythère,
    Rum with ice and syrup, lianas-orchids
    In a rain forest, where trees stand on the stilts of their roots.

    Death, you say, mine and yours, closer and closer,
    We suffered and this poor earth was not enough.
    The purple-black earth of vegetable gardens
    Will be here, either looked at or not.
    The sea, as today, will breathe from its depths.
    Growing small, I disappear in the immense, more and more free.

  • Jacob Levy (Volokh) in memoriam selection

        City of My Youth

        It would be more decorous not to live. To live is not decorous,
        Says he who after many years
        Returned to the city of his youth. There was no one left
        Of those who once walked these streets
        And now they had nothing, except his eyes.
        Stumbling, he walked and looked, instead of them,
        On the light they had loved, on the lilacs again in bloom.
        His legs were, after all, more perfect
        Than nonexistent legs. His lungs breathed in air
        As is usual with the living. His heart was beating,
        Surprising him with its beating, in his body
        Their blood flowed, his arteries fed them with oxygen.
        He felt, inside, their livers, spleens, intestines.
        Masculinity and femininity, elapsed, met in him
        And every shame, every grief, every love.
        If ever we accede to enlightenment,
        He thought, it is in one compassionate moment
        When what separated them from me vanishes
        And a shower of drops from a bunch of lilacs
        Pours on my face, and hers, and his, at the same time.

    For Jacob’s take on Milosz see

  • LONDON – 17 August 2004 – 495 words

    Czeslaw Milosz – a life infused with faith

    Jo Siedlecka

    The Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, died at his home in Krakow, Poland on Saturday. He was 93.

    Best known as a poet, Milosz also wrote novels and dozens of essays. His translations of Polish writers introduced many foreign readers to the literature of his homeland. His poems were an inspiration to the Solidarity trade union movement fighting the communist regime in Poland in the 1970s and ’80s.

    Faith infused all his writing. A committed Catholic, Milosz was drawn to the Book of Job, where suffering tests a man’s faith in God but does not break it. Milosz translated many books of the Bible from Hebrew and New Testament Greek into Polish. His favourite books were Psalms, Job and Revelations.

    Professor Robert Faggen, from Claremont McKenna College in California who edited Striving Toward Being: The Letters of Merton and Milosz (1997) said: “He had a profound understanding of the history of religion and the Christian church. One of the questions he would always be asking is: ‘How could a just and good God have created a world so filled with cruelty and torture?’ “

    Professor Faggen said: “He is without question one of the heroic figures of 20th century poetry, although ‘heroic’ was a mantle he shunned. At the Solidarity monument in Gdansk, you have icons of three figures: Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II and Milosz.”

    Faggen said the Pope and the poet began corresponding over Milosz’s treatise on theology and its justifications of evil.

    “One of the things the Pope said to him was: “In your poetry, you take two steps forward and one step back.'” Czeslaw replied: ‘Holy Father, how in this century can I do otherwise?’ “

    Born in what is now Lithuania, Milosz moved to Poland and survived the Nazi occupation during World War II and the Soviet takeover that followed. His poetry gave witness, creating a literary record filled with anger and irony but not despair.

    Milosz credited French wartime philosopher Simone Weil for teaching him to live with contradiction. He wrote about this conflict in several poems. Explaining his own rationale for the existence of God, he said: “It’s not up to me to know anything about heaven or hell. But in this world, there is too much ugliness and horror. So there must be, somewhere, goodness and truth. And that means somewhere God must be.”

    Paying tribute to Milosz, Lech Walesa, former Polish president and Solidarity leader said: “”He inspired, encouraged and strengthened us. He belonged to the generation of princes, great personalities.”

    Czeslaw Milosz is survived by two sons. His first wife, Janina, died in 1986. His second wife, Carol, died in 2003.

    Although he was ill, Milosz kept writing until shortly before his death. In a poem called ‘Meaning’ he wrote in 1991:

    When I die, I will see the lining of the world
    The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset
    The true meaning, ready to be decoded.

  • Czeslaw Milosz, 1911-2004.
    The Door Stands Open
    by Seamus Heaney

    For quite a while now, those who knew Czeslaw Milosz couldn’t help wondering what it was going to be like when he was gone. In the meantime he more than held his own, writing away for all he was worth in Kraków, in his early nineties, in an apartment where I had the privilege of visiting him twice. On the first occasion he was confined to his bed, too unwell to attend a conference arranged in his honor, and on the second he was ensconced in his living room, face-to-face with a life-size bronze head and torso of his second wife, Carol. His junior by some thirty years, she had died from a quick and cruel cancer in 2002, and as he sat on one side of the room facing the bronze on the other, the old poet seemed to be viewing it and everything else from another shore. On that occasion he was being ministered to by his daughter-in-law, and perhaps it was her hovering attentions as much as his translated appearance that brought to mind the aged Oedipus being minded by daughters in the grove at Colonus, the old king who had arrived where he knew he would die. Colonus was not his birthplace, but it was where he had come home to himself, to the world, and to the otherworld; and the same could be said of Milosz in Kraków.

    “The child who dwells inside us trusts that there are wise men somewhere who know the truth”: so Milosz had written, and for his many friends he himself was one of those wise men. His sayings were quoted, even when they were wisecracks rather than wisdom. A few days before he died I had a letter from Robert Pinsky, telling of a visit last month to the hospital where Czeslaw was a patient. “How are you?” Robert asked. “Conscious,” was the reply. “My head is full of absurd bric-a-brac.” It was the first time I had ever detected a daunted note in any of his utterances. A couple of years earlier, for example, a similar inquiry from Robert Hass had elicited the reply “I survive by incantation”–which was more like him. His life and works were founded upon faith in “A word wakened by lips that perish.”

    This first artistic principle was clearly related to the last Gospel of the Mass, the In principio of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word.” Inexorably then, through his pursuit of poetic vocation, his study of what such pursuit entailed, and the unremitting, abounding yield of his habit of composition, he developed a fierce conviction about the holy force of his art, how poetry was called upon to combat death and nothingness, to be “A tireless messenger who runs and runs/Through interstellar fields, through revolving galaxies,And calls out, protests, screams” (“Meaning”). With Milosz gone, the world has lost a credible witness to this immemorial belief in the saving power of poetry.

    His credibility was and remains the thing. There was nothing disingenuous about Milosz’s professions of faith in poetry, which he once called philosophy’s “ally in the service of the good,” news that “was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.” Such trust in the delicious joy-bringing potential of art and intellect was protected by strong bulwarks built from the knowledge and experience that he had gained at first hand and at great cost. His mind, to put it another way, was at once a garden–now a monastery garden, now a garden of earthly delights–and a citadel. The fortifications surrounding the garden were situated on a high mountain whence he could view the kingdoms of the world, recognize their temptations and their tragedies, and communicate to his readers both the airiness and the insights that his situation afforded. In one of his poems he compares a poem to a bridge built out of air over air, and one of the great delights of his work is a corresponding sensation of invigilating reality from a head-clearing perspective, being liberated into the authentic solitude of one’s own being and at the same time being given gratifyingly spiritual companionship, so that one is ready to say something like “It is good for us to be here.”  

    Milosz was well aware of this aspect of his work and explicit about his wish that poetry in general should be capable of providing such an elevated plane of regard. Yet as if to prove the truth of Yeats’s contention that without contrarieties there could be no progression, he was equally emphatic about poetry’s need to descend from its high vantage point and creep about among the nomads on the plain. It was not enough that the poet should be like Venus in Auden’s poem “The Shield of Achilles,” looking over the shoulder of his artifact at a far-off panorama that included everything from kitchen comedy to genocide. The poet had to be down there with the ordinary crowd, at eye level with the refugee family on the floor of the railway station, sharing the smell of the stale crusts that the mother is doling out to her youngsters even as the boots of the military patrol bear down on them, the city is bombarded, and maps and memories go up in flames.  

    Awareness of the triteness and the tribulations of other people’s lives was needed to humanize the song. It was not enough to be in the salons of the avant-garde. Certain things, as he says in “1945,” could not be learned “from Apollinaire,/Or Cubist manifestos, or the festivals of Paris streets.” Milosz would have deeply understood and utterly agreed with Keats’s contention that the use of a world of pain and troubles was to school the intelligence and make it a soul. The discharged soldier of “1945” has received just such schooling:  

        On the steppe, as he was binding his bleeding feet with a rag
        He grasped the futile pride of those lofty generations.
        As far as he could see, a flat, unredeemed earth.

    And what, in these drastic conditions, has the poet to offer? Only what has accrued to him through custom and ceremony, through civilization:

        I blinked, ridiculous and rebellious,
        Alone with my Jesus Mary against irrefutable power,
        A descendant of ardent prayers, of gilded sculptures and

    Tender toward innocence, tough-minded when faced with brutality and injustice, Milosz could be at one moment susceptible, at another remorseless. Now he is evoking the dewy eroticism of some adolescent girl haunting the grounds of a Lithuanian manor house, now he is anatomizing the traits of character and misdirected creative gifts that led some of his contemporaries into the Marxist web. From start to finish, merciless analytic power co-existed with helpless sensuous relish. He recollects the fresh bread smells on the streets of Paris when he was a student at the same moment as he summons up the faces of fellow students from Indochina, young revolutionaries preparing to seize power and “kill in the name of the universal beautiful ideas.”  

    No doubt the intensity of his early religious training contributed to his capacity to let perpetual light shine upon the quotidian, yet this religious poet was inhabited by another who was, in a very precise sense, a secular Milosz, one afflicted by the atrociousness of the saeculum he was fated to live through. The word “century,” usually preceded by the definite article or the possessive pronoun, first-person singular, repeats and echoes all through his writing. It was as if he couldn’t go anywhere without encountering, as he does in his poem “A Treatise on Poetry,” “The Spirit of History … out walking,” wearing “About his neck a chain of severed heads.” And it was his face-to-face encounters and contentions with this “inferior god” that darkened his understanding and endowed everything he wrote with grievous force.

    His intellectual life could be viewed as a long single combat with shape-shifting untruth. “The New Faith” upon which the communist regimes were founded was like the old man of the sea, a villainous fallacious Proteus who had to be watched, wrestled with, held down, and made to submit. Just how much stamina and precision this entailed can be seen in the almost inquisitorial prosecution of argument and accusation that characterizes The Captive Mind, the book that he introduced like a bell and candle between himself and his Polish contemporaries who had succumbed to the Marxist tempters. The sense of personal majesty which developed around him in old age derived in no small measure from his having survived this ordeal, which sprung him into solitude and left him a wanderer, as capable in the end of self-accusation as he had been of accusation.

    Once, after a poetry reading at Harvard where, as I later wrote, he had seemed to combine the roles of Orpheus and Tiresias, he said to me, “I feel just like a little boy, playing on the bank of a river.” And the poems convinced you that here, too, he was telling the truth. In fact, Milosz gave the lie to Eliot’s line that humankind cannot bear very much reality. The young poet who started out with his peers in the cafés and the controversies of Warsaw in the 1930s was present when those same young poets were dying in the gunfire during the Warsaw Uprising, their memorials little more than graffiti in the rubble of the devastated city. The old man, the sage of Grizzly Peak Boulevard in Berkeley, veteran of the Cold War, hero of Solidarity, friend of the pope, was at once the child “who receives First Communion in Wilno and afterwards drinks cocoa served by zealous Catholic ladies” and the poet who constantly heard “the immense call of the Particular, despite the earthly law that sentences memory to extinction.”  

    I know Milosz’s poems only in translation, but they come through so convincingly in the “target language,” you forget that their first life is in Polish. Reading him in English, you are in thrall to a unique voice, a poetry cargoed with a density of experience that has been lived through and radiated by an understanding that has rendered it symbolic. It’s not just that one trusts the ear and the accuracy of those poets who have done the translating, although their contributions in this regard have been indispensable. It’s more that one can hardly not intuit the sheer weight of human presence, prose content, and musical transmission that must subsist in the original, away beyond our linguistic reach. The poetry as a whole is eminently comprehensible and unignorable. It is equally well supplied with occasions of surprise and recognition. It can move from sumptuous evocation to solo articulation. Its easy-as-breathing cadences, its often unexpected simplicity (as in a bewitching early poem such as “Encounter”) and its equally unexpected but persuasive obliquity (“Far West,” for instance) convince you of the truth of Milosz’s frequent claim that his poems were dictated by a daimon, that he was merely a “secretary.” Which was another way of saying that he had learned to write fast, to allow the associative jumps to be taken at a hurdler’s pace, not to give “the meddling intellect” too much time to intervene. When he tells us that his poem “Ars Poetica?” was written in twenty minutes, I believe him and rejoice.  

    Part of the secret and much of the power came from his immense learning. Milosz’s head was like one of those Renaissance theaters of memory. Schoolboy Latin, Thomist theology, Russian philosophy, world poetry, twentieth-century history, the dramatis personae of the age (many of whom were his close companions)–you have only to read a few pages of Milosz’s copious prose to realize how present all of this was to him, and how flimsy and inadequate the old cliché “a well-stocked mind” turns out to be in his case. The poetry is the fine flower of an oeuvre that extends to autobiography, political argument, literary criticism, personal essays, fictions, maxims, memoirs, and much else that is original, frolicsome, ominous, more or less unclassifiable.  

    Other poets have written voluminous prose. Among his near contemporaries in English one can think of Hugh MacDiarmid and W.H. Auden, both gifted with vigorous intelligence and a rage for order. But MacDiarmid, for all his compendiousness, seems to protest too much. Auden is closer, in that he too is compelled to examine the middle state of human life and can never forget the border states of beast and angel; but compared with Milosz, Auden tends toward don-speak, and doesn’t appear to suffer as much from the complicating drag of the contingent: you get serious speculation, but it tends to lack the interesting impairment of specific personal gravity. I love Milosz because there is such guarantee in his tone, a guarantee that the performative prose-writing persona is being kept under constant scrutiny by a more penitent, more punitive side of himself. What we get in the prose, as in the poetry, is the speech of the whole man.

    And yet Milosz was always impatient with “the insufficiency of lyric,” as the poet Donald Davie expressed it, and indeed the insufficiency of all art, deeply conscious of the unattainability of the reality that surrounds us. His yearning for a more encompassing form of expression than is humanly available was a theme to which he returned again and again. “Arranging colors on a canvas is a paltry thing compared with what calls out to be explored.” Yet he also exulted in the certainty that he was called as a poet “to glorify things just because they are,” and maintained that “the ideal life for a poet is to contemplate the word is.”  

    In pursuit of this ideal, Milosz brought poetry beyond the chalk circle of significant form and opened it to big vistas and small domesticities. His poems sometimes have the head-on exclamatory innocence of child art (“O happiness! To see an iris”), sometimes the panoramic sweep of synoptic historical meditation, as in “Oeconomia Divina”:

        I did not expect to live in such an unusual moment…  
        Roads on concrete pillars, cities of glass and cast iron,
        airfields larger than tribal dominions
        suddenly ran short of their essence and disintegrated…
        Out of trees, field stones, even lemons on the table.

    Yet by diagnosing the onset of this lightness of being Milosz effectively halted it for his readers, and much of his staying power as a poet will continue to reside in his exemplary obstinacy, his refusal to underprize the thickness of the actual and the sovereign value that can inhere in what we choose to remember. “What is pronounced strengthens itself./What is not pronounced tends to non-existence.”

    Thinking of Czeslaw during these past months, seeing him in my mind’s eye marooned on his bed, visited by friends yet always with his eye fixed steadily on the life-obliterating wall ahead, I couldn’t help but see him also in the light of two works of art that have about them a typically Miloszian combination of solidity and spiritual force. The first is Jacques-Louis David’s painting, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of the death of Socrates. The sturdily built philosopher is on his high bed, bare to the waist, finger in the air, sitting upright and expounding to his crowd of friends the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The picture could well carry as an alternative title or caption the words “I permitted myself everything except complaints”–a remark made by Joseph Brodsky, which Milosz quoted with high approval and which could apply with equal justice to Milosz himself.  

    And the other work, probably brought to mind by that tableau of Milosz face-to-face with the bronze likeness of his wife, is an Etruscan sarcophagus in the Louvre, a mighty terra-cotta sculpture of a married couple reclining on their elbows. The woman is positioned on the man’s left side, couched close and parallel, both of them at their ease and gazing intently ahead at something which by all the rules of perspective should be visible in the man’s outstretched right hand. But there is nothing to be seen there. Was it a bird that has flown? A flower that has been snapped away? A bird that is approaching? Nothing is shown, yet their gaze is full of realization, as if they are in the process of settling for the bittersweet answer Milosz provided to his own question to life:

        Out of reluctant matter
        What can be gathered? Nothing, beauty at best.
        And so, cherry blossoms must suffice for us
        And chrysanthemums and the full moon.

    I  was in our back garden, in sunlight, among flowers, when the call came. There was a fullness about the morning that was Californian. An unshadowedness that recalled his poem “Gift,” written in Berkeley when he was sixty: “A day so happy.

    Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden./ Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers….” Thanksgiving and admiration were in the air, and I could easily have repeated to myself the remark that he once made to an interviewer, commenting upon his epigram “He was thankful, so he couldn’t not believe in God.” Ultimately, Milosz declared, “one can believe in God out of gratitude for all the gifts.” So when the cordless phone was carried out and I heard the voice of Jerzy Jarniewicz, I knew what the news would be, but because I had been long prepared, I wasn’t knocked askew. Instead, there was an expanding of grief into the everlasting reach of poetry.

    In the Dublin sunlight, the figure of the poet in his hillside garden above San Francisco Bay merged with the figure of Oedipus toiling up the wooded slope at Colonus, only to disappear in the blink of an eye: when I looked he was there in all his human bulk and devotion, when I looked again he was not to be seen–and yet he was not entirely absent. There and then I could have repeated the words of Sophocles’s Messenger as he reports the incident which for all its mysteriousness has the ring of a common truth:

            He was gone from sight:
        That much I could see…
            No god had galloped
        His thunder chariot, no hurricane
        Had swept the hill. Call me mad, if you like,  
        Or gullible, but that man surely went
        In step with a guide he trusted down to where
        Light has gone out and the door stands open.

  • Czeslaw Milosz, 1911-2004

    Leon Wieseltier | Sept 12

    The death of a man is like the fall of a mighty nation,” declared Czeslaw Milosz in one of the many poems in which he speculated upon the experience of dying. The poem explains that the fall occurs because the nation is no longer mighty, ”its cities are empty, its population dispersed / . . . its mission forgotten, its language lost.” Yet it is the death of this man that is like the fall of a mighty nation, but a nation full and undispersed, its mission honored and its language imperishable. The magnitude of Czeslaw Milosz, who died in Krakow on Aug. 14 at the age of 93, is almost unimaginable. He was a hero of the history of his time and a hero of the literature of his time. For friends and for strangers, for lovers of liberty and for lovers of beauty, he was, for more than half a century, an indispensable man. Milosz discharged his obligations to his age and his obligations to his soul with the same diligence and the same depth. The stability of his mind, its preternatural composure, was one of the great sanctuaries of the 20th century, a prophecy of the eventual emancipation. He had the rare gift of knowing how to be at once troubled and unperturbed. When light was needed, he was light; when stone was needed, he was stone. Milosz’s spiritual intensity never interfered with his historical clarity. His inner freedom seems never to have failed him. His life and his work justified, in all their complexities, the most elementary belief in the power of the truth. He had the face of a hawk and the heart of a dove. He was as tough as time, or almost.

    ”Like many of my generation, I could have wished that my life had been a more simple affair.” In the ancient and awful year 1951, with that quiet sentence, Milosz began ”The Captive Mind,” his lucid and crushing analysis of the intellectual and psychological disfigurements of totalitarianism; and in that same year he defected from Communist Poland (he was the cultural attaché at the Polish embassy in Paris at the time) and began his long and fecund exile in France and then in the United States. ”The Captive Mind” is one of the classics of anti-Stalinism, which is to say it is one of the glories of an exceedingly inglorious period in the intellectual history of the West. Milosz insisted that the war against totalitarianism was at its foundation a war of ideas: ”It was only toward the middle of the 20th century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.” The road from concepts to corpses was short and straight. But Milosz resisted the impulse to make a romance out of his side, out of the right side. ”Speculative thought is vile,” he remarked in an essay on Pasternak. His revolt against one theory was not animated by another theory. ”My own decision proceeded not from the functioning of the reasoning mind, but from a revolt of the stomach.” He always spoke of tyranny and its defenders with a kind of aristocratic disgust — but he was liberalism’s aristocrat, one of the princes of the faith that freedom comes first. Democrats are history’s real nobles.

    As a consequence of his many disputations with totalitarianism — and of some of his early poems, such as ”Campo dei Fiori,” the lament for the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, ”the lonely / forgotten by the world,” that he wrote in Warsaw in 1943 as the ghetto was burning — Milosz became renowned as a witness to his time. This diminishes not only his achievement as a writer, but also his achievement as a rebel. For the struggle against Communism was also a struggle against historicism, against the belief in the sufficiency of history for the understanding of life. Milosz’s teaching was that history was no more to be granted the last word. One does not live entirely, or even mainly, for one’s time. The soul exceeds its circumstances. So even in his dissent, history did not command Milosz. Did the totalitarians justify their utopia with an ideal of totality? Then they could be vanquished by denying them the whole. He accomplished his severance from history in his poetry. In the bleakest hours of World War II, Milosz produced a masterpiece called ”The World,” a sequence of 20 ”naive” poems ”written in the style of school primers,” in which the rudiments of a child’s world — the road, the gate, the porch, the dining room, the stairs, the poppies, the peonies — are portrayed with the indomitability of genuine innocence. Against the horror, he pitted pastoral! And all the while he was working with the Polish underground. There were two ways, then, of resisting evil: engagement and disengagement; attachment and detachment; action against it and contemplation despite it. In his dark era, Milosz was the master of this complication, this salvation, of consciousness.

    ”They are incomprehensible, the things of this earth,” he exclaimed in one of his many doxologies of the phenomenal world. His reading of East Asian poetry confirmed Milosz in his preference for poems that ”honored the object, not the subject.” Oppressed by the reductions of the intellectuals, and in arms against their consequences, he chose to learn about things from the things themselves. The great depravity notwithstanding, he extolled ”the holy word: Is.” All that he required for a justification of existence was a description of existence. ”Description demands intense observation, so intense that the veil of everyday habit falls away and what we paid no attention to, because it struck us as so ordinary, is revealed as miraculous.” Is this mysticism? Not precisely, though it approaches Simone Weil’s characterization of prayer as ”absolutely unmixed attention.” I remember the long conversation in a wintry airport in 1982 when we cemented our friendship with the discovery that we shared an envy of mystics. His hostility to materialism carried this suave and profoundly modern man all the way to the old metaphysics. Milosz’s otherwise withering intellect was gladly patient with mystery. In the traditional cosmologies, in the religious pictures of the world, he found unceasing stimulation, for his poetry and his philosophy. ”If I accomplished anything, it was only when I, a pious boy, chased after the disguises of the lost Reality.” He was not embarrassed by the crudities of religion: they were the imagination’s answers to the mind’s questions. They created the ”second space” (that is the title of a forceful collection of new poems that will be published, now posthumously, by Ecco Press next month) without which he saw no possibility of human flourishing.

    Milosz’s verses speak often of God and often to God. But there was nothing settled or doctrinal about his God. The annals of suffering insulated him against some of theism’s complacencies. ”Wandering on the outskirts of heresy is about right for me,” he wrote not long before he died. He was just ”a chaplain of shadows.” Milosz was indebted to religion not least for the pleasure of doubt. He experienced a religious crisis in his youth that rattled his Catholicism and ”set me searching.” His journey led him not to churches but to saints, and to a conviction about the heterodox nature of truth: to ”modes of eccentric vision.” (He admired even Swedenborg.) Milosz’s journey was the antithesis of Cavafy’s journey. ”Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. / Without her you would not have set out. / She has nothing left to give you now,” the Greek poet famously instructed Odysseus in ”Ithaka,” one of the founding documents of modern irony. For Milosz, by contrast, the journey was not the goal, the goal was the goal. Irony, for which he had a wicked appetite, was not adequate as a meaning for life. He was a man without illusions, holding steadfastly to a confidence in what he could not see.

    His confidence was vindicated. He survived the flood. The waters receded. He returned home. Finally his spirit could be unconvulsed by history. The lyrics abounded. But in recent months the news from Boguslawski Street was not good. Milosz was dying. There arrived a precious gift from his bed, a thin red volume with a detail from Titian pasted on its cover, called ”Orpheus and Eurydice,” a poem in memory of his wife, in which Orpheus is hailed as ”having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness”; and in the inscription in Orpheus’, I mean Czeslaw’s, hand, I saw, for the only time in the years I knew him, evidence of weakness. I thought of Heine, an earlier poet in an earlier battle for freedom in Europe, dying in his bed in Paris, and then I thought of Arnold’s severe reflection at Heine’s grave, that Goethe was ”destined to work and to live” but Heine ”only to laugh and to die,” and then I thought that my friend, in his richness and his resilience, had truly been granted all the destinies. He had come to work and to laugh and to live and to die. And so mourning is now restrained by thanksgiving as blessed Milosz would have wished.

    You gave me gifts, God-Enchanter.
    I give you thanks for good and ill.
    Eternal light in everything on earth.
    As now, so on the day after my death.

    Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

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