Conversations with Czesaw Miosz

What is the fate of a great poet who writes in a little-known language? How does he make his work accessible to foreign readers? How does the Eastern European writer bridge the enormous cultural and political gap that defines his concerns but separates him from his Western audience, particularly after the Holocaust, the destruction of Warsaw, and the Soviet domination of Poland after World War II? These are but a few of the questions that Lithuanian-born poet Czesaw Miosz addresses in a series of extended conversations about his life, his writings, and his beliefs.

This volume combines in English translation, two books of interviews published independently of each other in Polish by Aleksander Fiut (1981) and Ewa Czarnecka (1983). In addition, Czarnecka’s volume included a section of critical analysis, omitted here. In part 1, Miosz responds to questions about his life, reflecting on what he has already presented in his memoir, Rodzinna Europa (1958; Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, 1968); in part 2, he addresses critical and interpretive questions about his works; and in part 3, perhaps the most interesting, he discusses literary and philosophical influences in his work.

Miosz makes it clear that for the Eastern European poet there can be no artificial separation of life and art, no retreat into aestheticism or the cultivation of self, no Modernist elitism, and no luxury of ignoring unpleasant political realities. There has been a long tradition in Eastern Europe of linking politics with poetry and expressing patriotic feelings openly and fervently, so that, for the poet, there is no real distinction between public and private sensibility. For Miosz, as for Hungarian critic György Lukács, every act is ultimately political. This does not mean that Miosz is merely a political poet, especially in any ideological sense. Rather he is a nature poet, a philosophical poet, and ultimately a religious poet, with his images and mental landscapes deeply rooted in his native Lithuanian soil and in the Roman Catholic faith of his childhood. Most of all, his poetry derives its strength from the rhythms and cadences of his native Polish language.

Being an émigré or exile is unquestionably the worst fate that can befall a writer such as Miosz. Like the giant Antaeus, the poet loses the power of his eloquence when he is separated from his native language. For Miosz, the exile has been twofold, first from his native Lithuania and later from Poland. In 1951, he requested political asylum in Paris after becoming disenchanted with the postwar Stalinist regime in Warsaw. Eventually he emigrated to the United States, where he had served as cultural attaché from 1946 to 1950, and accepted a position as professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961. There he continued his career as a poet, projecting through his poems the dual consciousness of Old World and New, contrasting images of wartime Poland with the California coast in poems such as “Dithyramb,” and evoking a deep sense of nostalgia for the Lithuanian countryside of his youth. Yet Miosz touches upon the universal experience of exile from the paradise of childhood in a way that allows one to empathize with his particular situation.

Though Miosz has been writing poetry since the 1930’s, when he was a member of a group of young “catastrophist” poets in Warsaw, he first became known in the West through his brilliant study of totalitarianism, Zniewolony umys (1953; The Captive Mind, 1953), which could have earned for him a position on any political science faculty. He is also a novelist of some note, having published Zdobycie wadzy (1953; The Seizure of Power, 1955) and Dolina Issy (1955; The Issa Valley, 1981), with its echoes of Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz (1834; English translation, 1917), as well as his memoirs, Native Realm. It was primarily for his poetry, however, that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. A noted literary historian as well, Miosz has written The History of Polish Literature (1969, 1983) and translated a number of contemporary Polish poets into English, including Tadeusz Róewicz, his friend Zbigniew Herbert, and Aleksander Wat. Miosz has also served as his own translator, earning high praise for the precision and lucidity of his translations.

In the first two parts of these conversations, Miosz traces the development of his career as a poet. He recalls travels with his parents, childhood memories of Wilno, studies at the King Stefan Batory University, prewar travels to Paris, the influence of his uncle, the French poet Oscar Milosz, and his work for Polish Radio in Warsaw. He notes that in an early poem, “Slow River,” written in the 1930’s, he unwittingly foreshadowed the Holocaust in his image of the “crematoria rising like...

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Chicago Tribune. September 6, 1987, p. 6.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, July 15, 1987, p. 1041.

Library Journal. CXII, September 1, 1987, p. 182.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 13, 1987, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, October 11, 1987, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, July 31, 1987, p. 62.

World Literature Today. LXI, Summer, 1987, p. 467.