Czeslaw Milosz Essay - Critical Essays

Milosz, Czeslaw

Milosz, Czeslaw 1911–

A Lithuanian-born poet now living in the United States, Milosz wrote for the Polish underground in Warsaw during World War II then fled to Paris. There he wrote The Captive Mind, a prose work, in which he explained the effects of Communism on creativity. He is considered a major poet in Poland and writes primarily in Polish. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Unless they are ideologists, and unless they are low on essential intelligence, poets perhaps inevitably write of the great public events of the world, of matters of state, in a tone which if it isn't ironic sounds rather like it. Milosz keeps the balance well and honorably between the evil and the good of the world, if at times he seems to be dipping a thumb lightly into the tenderer scale. When people are ready to assume that versified professions of universal compassion and protests against generalized tyranny are in themselves signs of nobility of mind, then they are likely to believe that irony in poetry is a sign of meanness of spirit. Fear of this may account for Milosz's slightly comic warnings and for the occasional deliberate-sounding paean in his later work….

[It] is rare for Milosz to be portentous or solemn. Neither is he wittingly or unwittingly "confessional": a mode of mixing the public and the private whereby, though the result may be distasteful, no one cares to express a dislike for it in public. Frequently—something I have forgotten to mention—Milosz is extremely amusing: an epithet not to be used dismissively, or even lightly. He has one great advantage, at least poetically speaking, and one great quality: his wounds are not self-inflicted ones, and he does not wear them on his sleeve.

D. J. Enright, "Child of Europe," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 NYREV, Inc.), April 4, 1974, p. 29.

Milosz's poems are compact of judgment, and in two senses of the word: discernment and condemnation….

Milosz is clearly one of James's "people on whom nothing is lost." Reading these poems one has the impression that all his life experience is constantly available to him. This has the result that much of the book is what one suite of poems is called, an "album of dreams." The dream-work fuses the last waking thought with shards of distant or buried experience, foreshortens and warps the space-time of the poem, resulting in a sort of meta-tense, the everlasting Now that came into being with Milosz (and thanks to these poems will outlast him)….

Milosz's poetic voice is defined by two extremes: stark parataxis, each line a sentence, with no subordination, on the one hand, and on the other a skillfully controlled long surging period that gathers force from line to line. (p. 37)

Clarence Brown, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), May 2, 1974.

Although [Czeslaw Milosz] is considered by many to be the greatest living Polish poet, his writing is scarcely known here, aside from one prose work, "The Captive Mind," which appeared at the height of the McCarthy era, when it was received as simply another anti-Communist testimonial. But "The Captive Mind" is far more than a work of political invective; it is an elegy for destroyed values and, indirectly, an autobiography. In it, Milosz argues that Marxism had not been a belief for Polish intellectuals so much as a form of escape from the anguish of personal identity. Twenty years later, the book remains one of the finest ever written about the lure and the inner cost of totalitarian ideology. It is also a key to Milosz's conviction that poetry must be a moral as well as an esthetic discipline, that poetry must translate the anguish of personal experience into a framework of values which defend against "skepticism" and "sterile anger" and thereby defend against the lure of ideology….

[On] the evidence of ["Selected Poems"] Czeslaw Milosz seems one of the few genuinely important poets writing today. His "Selected Poems" is a carefully constructed book, spanning the work of 40 years. Its central portion is devoted to poems written during and shortly after World War II, when Milosz was a freedom-fighter in occupied Warsaw. Its first and last sections contain the poems of exile, among them many of the finest he has written. (p. 6)

Although Milosz is a poet of many subjects, the experience of loss casts shadows across all his work and amounts to an interpretation of life itself….

To be born, for Milosz, is to join the diaspora of the living, expelled into the world of strangers, taught to speak a stranger's tongue. It is also to learn the utterly gratuitous power of the world to crush the life it nurtures. One hears, in the background, the experience of the adult whose world has collapsed without meaning. The diaspora of steel and brutality; the hand which strangles absurdly or, equally absurdly, caresses.

Milosz differs from modernist poets like Yeats or Stevens who erected private systems of belief because they no longer trusted the solidity of traditional values. Milosz's language asserts the continuity of his culture simply and unself-consciously. Although he uses the elliptical techniques of modern poetry, there are frequent references in his work to the Bible, Polish history and Christian morality. Perhaps this is a special form of militancy on the part of Milosz, resembling the discreet militancy of Russian poets like Pasternak, Mandelstam or Brodsky. Against the strident claims of an ideology that pretends to wipe clean the slate of history in order to create new values and a "new man," against the discontinuity of war and exile, the poet offers a modest voice, speaking an old language.

But this language contains the resources of centuries. Speaking it, one speaks with a voice more than personal. In its idiom, exile is not simply an autobiographical but a Christian experience. Milosz's power lies in his ability to speak with this larger voice without diminishing the urgency that drives his words….

[Since] Milosz settled in the United States, an important new element has entered his poetry. The images of Poland that provide nostalgic substance in his later work are answered by a counterpoint of speedways and white California cities, by images of Point Lobos and San Francisco, above all by the interrogating presence of the American wilderness. These more recent poems are among the finest Milosz has written. In them, he carries on the same crucial argument about the limits of human nature that towers starkly and simply in the poems written during the war. But his adversary is different now. It is not the faceless abyss of Nazism, or the leaden routines of totalitarian existence; it is American innocence. It is the American belief that a life without limits is possible, and necessary….

Milosz reminds us that animals undoubtedly killed their prey in Eden, too, that our "purest" pleasures may be a form of self-deception, "an artifice of cunning self-love." Without the acknowledgment of human limits—what Christianity calls original sin—man is all too easily captivated by the devils within who "play catch with hunks of bloody meat." (p. 7)

Paul Zweig, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 7, 1974.

Even though he has a great many other interests, Czeslaw Milosz regards himself primarily as a poet. He has also written prose, some of which, like The Captive Mind, has been translated into many languages….

Although Selected Poems focuses primarily on the last ten years, it goes back several decades and includes poems written in Nazi-occupied Poland….

In intellectual scope this collection is breathtaking. In displaying the poet's originality and freshness of imagination, the poems glitter in all colors of the rainbow. There is an underlying unity of style, but there are hardly two poems alike. Milosz never strikes exactly the same chord. In 1944 in Warsaw, the poet felt that his poetry was "like an insult to suffering humanity." A short poem, "Gift," sings high notes of almost angelic bliss. Perhaps the most representative of the poet's irony are the opening lines of his "Counsels": "If I were in the place of young poets / (quite a place, whatever the generation might think) / I would prefer not to say that the earth is a madman's dream." (p. 156)

George J. Maciuszko, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1975.

A political refugee who sought asylum in America, Milosz is considered one of the best contemporary Polish poets. More lyrical than an Auden, he combines a somewhat didactic though just analysis of modern ideological hell with a moist, earthy Slavic tenderness. His scrupulous insights into recent history with which he is all too familiar shape themselves into accurate and acrid epigrams. One may imagine him cultivating his California garden, almost in bliss, and yet aware of how untrue and dull our moral landscape has become. (pp. lx-lxi)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring, 1975).