When my friend Olga, back from a trip to her hometown of Krakow, handed me her souvenir copy of the leading daily with the breaking headline SMIERC POETY across its front page, I glibly misread it as DEATH TO THE POET, giving the literal “death of poet” a slightly grimmer edge. The boldface target was the Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz. Years ago, he had come to reflect that “poetry is a constant self-negation.” Yet he had skillfully put off a final contradiction, surviving, until recently, unimpaired as a writer. He was 93 when he died last August.
Milosz came out with new books regularly during all but the first 23 years of his extended lifetime. In part, the rebounding dialectic derived from a close attention to rapid and compelling historical developments in his “provincial” corner of Europe, precisely where the Second World War broke out before the general trauma from the first had cleared. Much of his contrariness was translatable, even contagious to American poets of the past two generations, ever since the first U.S. publication of a selection of his poems in 1973. Two months after his death, the previously scheduled American translation of his most recent poems appeared, in articulate versions by Robert Hass, as Second Space (FSG, 2004). Milosz announces himself already a “chaplain of shadows,” adding: “With me here is the memory of a great illusion.”
By his own account, he understood at the start that he was inheriting a poetry of diminished means, with the first postmodern wave in its thinning ebb. Still, he looked to larger, earlier models, Whitman for one, and was lucky to find a splendid mentor in the much older Oscar Milosz, a distant cousin. Paris was still the cultural capital when the two met there in 1931. The elder Milosz, a French poet, had started as a decadent, but survived an attempted suicide to become a Catholic mystic. Fluent in a number of languages and even erudite in the esoteric orders, he also was active as a Lithuanian diplomat. He encouraged the still impressionable Czeslaw to allow coarser, less polished subjects into his poetry.
In the 1940s, he became a keen, even visionary witness. “You whom I could not save” is how he begins “Dedication,” the endpiece in his book of wartime poems. Thereafter he made remarkable progress as a poet veering between “amazement and shame.” He cultivated a plain style, became more loosely realistic, a phenomenalist and scholar in the best sense of the word, directing by choice a continuing enquiry into “modes of eccentric vision.” He still read Dostoyevsky, gave up on Nietzsche, took to the exotic allegories of Swedenborg and William Blake, and vouched for Henry Miller.
Four years in America serving as cultural attaché of the first postwar Polish government left him unpersuaded. He even consulted with Albert Einstein on whether to stay abroad by defecting. Much to Milosz’s surprise, the most celebrated of refugees advised him to go back home. In the end the poet did both, returning briefly just to gauge the hazard, then making a public break with the increasingly repressive Polish regime. As he summed up neatly in the only poem he wrote directly in English: “Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill at ease in the republic,/in the one I longed for freedom, in the other for the end to corruption.”
He spent the 1950s in France, settling just outside Paris. With a wife and two boys to support, he was at times nearly destitute but stayed determined to earn his way as a writer. The first years of exile proved most productive. He wrote The Captive Mind, an indictment of the political system he had renounced. Two novels followed: Seizure of Power, in 1953, about the Warsaw uprising, and The Issa Valley, a figurative return to his formative boyhood in the Lithuanian environs that now seemed to be permanently inaccessible to him. It was in this retrospective book that Lithuania began to take on the aura of an almost mythological concept, in part simply by a poet’s typical enhancement to make his childhood exclusively Edenic, but mainly to reconcile some incongruous and overlapping strains of local history into his developing sense of self. The theme figured in his memoir Native Realm as well, and remained an abundant source for many future poems.
Wider international fame began with his relocation to Berkeley in 1961. His first significant contribution to American letters was the anthology Postwar Polish Poetry, a potent mix of high-grade civic poems, with subsequent individual volumes on Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Swir, and Aleksander Wat. Several collections of essays confirmed the lively rapport he kept up with Polish writers who mattered to him.
After he was awarded the Nobel, Milosz began to focus on an overview, perhaps prompted to reconsider the priority he had given to history as an actual yet transient factor in his work. He now expanded the longer sequences with precise and elaborate notes. The highly readable supplement he prepared for Treatise on History, for instance, doubled the poem’s length. Though a thoroughgoing skeptic from the age of 16, when he first read Schopenhauer, he grappled with moral and spiritual issues, absorbing radical, heretical thinkers like Lev Shestov and Simone Weil. In his 70s, he prepared to translate the “Book of Job” and the “Song of Songs” by learning Hebrew.
Whether lasting things will keep stays an open question. According to Milosz, the poet may be predisposed to resolve the crux as “one who constantly thinks of something else.” That most essentials have a taunting, tantalizing aura becomes for him the given. It may pay to remember here Santayana’s paradox that Robert Lowell so much relished: “There is no God, and Mary is his mother.” In the two-stanza late poem “Gathering Apricots,” Milosz makes his own peculiar call-and-response on the loss of his wife a communal prayer in the scholastic form of text with commentary, with a stray hope sustained on his insistence and the clinching last line a kind of chorus: “And form itself as always is a betrayal.”
There is a rich vein of vivid anecdotal digression threading his last books. Some have the resonance of authentic parables. In one, he is reminded of a time when he relocated to the countryside, to be away from Warsaw while the Nazi suppression of the uprising was under way there. He has gone out for a stroll on the first sunny day following a confining spell of rain. The dirt road is punctuated with puddles, and he stops at one of the larger ones to watch a tight flock of ducks and ducklings splashing away in the muddy water. There is a farmer nearby, sitting on a bench outside his hut, and Milosz can’t help voicing aloud his wonder that the ducks are not frolicking in the cleaner waters of an adjacent stream. The farmer throws up his hands and exclaims: “If only they knew.”