Miłosz, Czesław (Vol. 11)
Miłosz, Czesław 1911–
Born in Lithuania, Miłosz is a poet and essayist now residing in the United States. An early preoccupation with the history and landscape of his native country matured into a philosophy of poetry which Miłosz explains as the "consciousness of an epoch." His verse is noted for its blending of classical and modern elements. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
[Miłosz's] study of the relationship between the creative writer and the oppressive state, The Captive Mind, has become something of a classic and achieved a popularity in the West which his essays and poetry can hardly hope to attain. Yet many who know the Polish language consider poetry to be his greatest achievement.
Because of his double vision (Eastern and Western) and his double role (politician and poet) Miłosz is especially sensitive to the delicate balance a critic must maintain….
[Miłosz has attempted] to find a middle ground between the extremes of the public and private person, between the journalist or propagandist and the practicer of Ketman…. [In] his sociological essays, his fiction and in particular his poetry this search for a critical perspective is a constant theme. (p. 36)
[This question]—can one ultimately find the proper perspective from which to criticize his age?—has not been answered directly in Miłosz's work, though the constant movement he portrays would seem to indicate a negative response. But for Miłosz the value is not in attaining such a perspective (which may well be humanly impossible) but in seeking it, for the critic of his age is made more sympathetic, more human, by the very uncertainty in which he finds himself. (p. 41)
Victor Contoski, "Czesław Miłosz and the Quest for Critical Perspective," in Books Abroad (copyright 1973 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 47, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 35-41.
I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that Czesław Miłosz is one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest. Even if one strips his poems of the stylistic magnificence of his native Polish (which is what translation inevitably does) and reduces them to the naked subject matter, we still find ourselves confronting a severe and relentless mind of such intensity that the only parallel one is able to think of is that of the biblical characters—most likely Job. But the scope of the loss experienced by Miłosz was—not only from purely geographical considerations—somewhat larger.
Miłosz received what one might call a standard East European education, which included, among other things, what's known as the Holocaust, which he predicted in his poems of the late thirties. The wasteland he describes in his wartime (and some postwar) poetry is fairly literal: it is not the unresurrected Adonis that is missing there, but concrete millions of his countrymen. What toppled the whole enterprise was that his land, after being devastated physically, was also stolen from him and, proportionately, ruined spiritually. Out of these ashes emerged poetry which did not so much sing of outrage and grief as whisper of the guilt of the survivor. The core of the major themes of Miłosz's poetry is the unbearable realization that a human being is not able to grasp his experience, and the more that time separates him from this experience,...
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Czesław Miłosz's seemingly accessible poetry has not revealed even a fraction of its riddles. The more intensely one reads "Three Winters" (1936), "Rescue" (1945), not to mention "Treatise on Poetry" (1956) and "From Where the Sun Rises" (1974), the richer and more enigmatic they seem. Surely the emigration of the poet … was not favorable to critical reflection. But even the earlier work is filled with contradictions and intimations that eloquently testify to the resistance which Miłosz's poetry presents to interpretation…. Homogeneous yet multiform, Miłosz's poetry puts a stop to tendencies whose sense eludes even the most sympathetic of readers. The writer worked against the principle which was gaining ascendancy in Poland at the beginning of this century: the principle of autonomous poetic language.
Hence the abundance of contradictory labels attached to Miłosz. Romantic magus? Lover of classical harmony? Prophet of destruction? Ironic skeptic? Only recently, rather late and ashamed, do we understand, and not without the help of the poet himself, the cohesion of intentions which he probably had right from the beginning, even if unconsciously. In other words, we grasp the concept of poetic language that he has elaborated. It is this which gives us the rules of a given reading and through this we get at his esthetic tastes, philosophical convictions and religious inspirations. And it is for this reason that everything that was once written about Miłosz is not very helpful to us today. It is better to treat the circumstances of the debut, the literary polemics and the political experiences parenthetically. (p. 387)
From its inception Miłosz's lyric is characterized by a preference for dialogue, or at least for polyphonic utterance. It reveals doubt, division; the motive behind the dialogue is the pressing search for an ever-retreating truth. In other words, the polyphony indicates a cognitive understanding of the function of poetry. What, after all, do words like cognizance, knowledge or rescue mean, words which in Miłosz are similar in meaning? Poetry for him is not a symbolic reaching into the essence of things; nor does he rely on the rational relationships of logical conclusions. It is understood instead as an unending discussion, a relentless and haughty (because it is not accessible to everyone) search which is at the same time full of anxiety because the truth is grim. Equal partners in this discussion seem to be the mind and the body, individual experiences and the recurrent patterns of history, fleeting occurrences and the reflections of philosophers.
In order to articulate his feelings and aspirations, the poet must express himself with many voices and call doubles into momentary being, doubles with whom he nonetheless does not entirely identify. Practically every statement, whether an entire poem or a part of it, is presented as if it were being quoted and is thereby supplied with a certain amount of credibility. Its meaning is rarely given outright. It is instead revealed in relationship to other statements: in order to understand what a given voice is really saying, we must remember its partners. But the personae themselves are not immutable, because each dialogue changes and shapes those taking part in it. Sometimes the same motifs appear in various guises, tinged with pathos or irony. One cannot penetrate this poetry by relying on symbols, topoi or key words. Their significance is always relative, as in a musical quartet where one cannot listen more carefully to the first violin than to the second, nor more to the cello than to the viola. But that is exactly how Miłosz is read—which, after all, should not surprise us. The Polish, Slavic and even continental lyric of those years was dominated by homophony, and the innovation of Miłosz's technique was not even apparent to him in the beginning. (p. 388)
Miłosz has moments of revelation and intoxication with nature, but not more frequently than moments of dread and insatiety. Is he not, in fact, amazed by civilization's every effort and by the difficulty of erecting a culture which is, as he claims, the actual content and motor of history?
The split that is doubt—and its accompaniment, the polyphony of expression—[runs] … within the idea of nature, the concept of history, and also within the concept of the poet. Proof of this is the fact that Miłosz's penchant for dialogue becomes stronger during and after the war, beginning with the lyric (where the poet yields to the voice of a clearly delineated protagonist), continuing with montages of quasi-dramatic monologues ("Voices of Poor People," 1943; "City Without a Name," 1969), lyrico-didactic tracts ("Treatise on Poetry," 1956) and finally, in a multi-voiced symphony ("From Where the Sun Rises," 1974). In the last of these the poet makes use of various forms from aphorism to ode, from lyrical...
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A basic problem in all Czesław Miłosz's poetry is the philosophical and artistic subdual of change, not only as observed on the surface of phenomena—in the ephemerality of human existence, in the succession of historical epochs or in the eternal cycle of nature—but also in the deep structure of culture, in the continual reassessment of signs, meanings and values. The poet doggedly labors to construct a dam of poetry on the Heraclitan river, a dam which is constantly undermined by the rapid currents of change. It is in this way that he also attempts to save himself from his own disintegration into oblivion and nothingness. Images of biological disintegration assault his imagination with too much insistence to...
(The entire section is 2735 words.)