Czesław Miłosz Miłosz, Czesław (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Czesław Miłosz 1911–

(Has also written under pseudonym of J. Syruc) Polish poet, essayist, novelist, translator, and editor.

Miłosz, the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in literature, is often called Poland's greatest living poet, although for political reasons his work has not been published in Poland for over forty years and he has been in exile since 1951. He writes nearly all of his poetry in Polish, saying that "poetry can only be written in the language one spoke in his childhood." In his essays, Miłosz emphasizes the important role that he believes history must play in poetry, and in his own work can be seen the effects of his exposure to the political and military turbulence which characterized Eastern Europe during the first half of the twentieth century.

Miłosz was born and educated in Lithuania, a small Baltic country which has been under the control of Poland or Russia for most of its existence. While studying law at the University of Vilnius, Miłosz wrote poetry and was a founder of a leftist literary group, the "Catastrophists," which prophesied a cataclysmic global war. Miłosz spent World War II in Warsaw, writing, editing, and translating for the Polish resistance. After the war, he served Stalinist Poland as a diplomat for several years but left his country in 1951 because he objected to compulsory "Socialist Realism" and felt that the regimentation of cultural life under the totalitarian regime made it impossible for him to continue there as an author. He went first to France, and since 1961 he has lived in the United States, teaching Slavic literature at the University of California at Berkeley.

In his collection of essays The Witness of Poetry (1983), Miłosz contends that the most meaningful poetry fuses the individual with a particular historical circumstance. Referring to the radical upheavals which have plagued Eastern Europe, Miłosz views poetry as "a witness and a participant in one of mankind's major transformations." He contrasts the poetry of Eastern Europe, tied to history and universalized by the magnitude of such tragedies as the Nazi blitzkrieg, the Holocaust, and the oppression of Soviet domination, with Western poetry, which tends to emphasize the individual and to be introspective and confessional. Miłosz considers Western poetry a statement of personal alienation, while Eastern European poetry gains strength "when an entire community is struck by misfortune." In the aftermath of World War II atrocities, Miłosz believes that one of poetry's most important functions is to bear witness to the reality of tragic events. In a 1945 poem he asks, "What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?" and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he stated: "Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were and by wresting the past from fictions and legends."

Miłosz's early poetry, most of which has not been translated, was apocalyptic. In the early 1940s, when the predictions of Miłosz and the other Catastrophists had been realized, Miłosz began writing anti-Nazi poetry which was published clandestinely. His war poems are his best known in the United States and many critics say they are his most powerful. Some of these poems express the guilt of the Holocaust survivor. Critics note Miłosz's restraint and most agree that he effectively communicates the horror and anguish of the time. Miłosz commented in The History of Polish Literature (1969): "When a poet is overwhelmed by strong emotions, his form tends to become more simple and more direct." Even in his recent work. Miłosz has for the most part avoided the experimentation with language that characterizes much modern poetry, concentrating more on the clear expression of ideas. His later poetry sometimes verges on rhythmical prose and contains many classical elements, including a respect for balance and form and an economical style. However, much of his work is also strongly emotional and acknowledges a transcendent spirituality. Critics have commented on the influence of Miłosz's Roman Catholic background and his Manichean fascination with good and evil both in his poetry and his prose A humanistic outrage at the evil in the world, whether it is Nazism in Europe or corruption in California, is a hallmark of his work. English language collections of Miłosz's poetry include Selected Poems (1973; revised 1981), Bells in Winter (1978), and The Separate Notebooks (1984).

Although Miłosz considers himself primarily a poet, he has also treated the historical events of twentieth-century Eastern Europe in a variety of respected prose works. His first American publication, Zniewolony umysl (1953; The Captive Mind), is a study of the effects of communism on creativity which he wrote to explain his defection from Poland. It is a stridently antitotalitarian work in which Miłosz tells the true stories of four unidentified writers under a totalitarian regime. Dolina Issy (1955; The Issa Valley), about Miłosz's youth in Lithuania, has been variously described as an autobiographical novel, a lyric novel, and a long prose poem. Miłosz said in his Nobel Lecture that "the landscape and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me"; these are most apparent in Issa Valley, which reveals his strong feeling for the ancestry and history of Lithuania as well as his love of nature. Rodzinna Europa (1959; Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition) is a more expository, autobiographical work which incorporates historical events of Europe with the story of the growth of an intellectual. As in The Captive Mind and The Witness of Poetry, Miłosz deals with the effects of social and political upheaval in Eastern Europe on its intellectuals and distinguishes between intellectual life in Eastern Europe and in Western societies. Miłosz's later works, both his poetry and a collection of essays, Widzenia nad Zatoka San Francisco (1969; Visions from San Francisco Bay), often touch on his feelings of loss associated with living in exile. Miłosz feels that exile is a universal state in the twentieth century, and the committee which awarded him the Nobel Prize called him "an exiled writer—a stranger for whom the physical exile is really a reflection of a metaphysical … exile applying to humanity in general." Miłosz has also written several scholarly works dealing with Slavic literature and numerous philosophical essays.

While Miłosz has always elicited interest among academics, his reputation grew significantly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Many of his works were then reprinted or printed for the first time in English; more importantly, Miłosz received his first officially sanctioned publication in Poland since 1936. In 1981, he visited his country for the first time since his exile and was hailed as a symbol of the resurgence of freedom in Poland. Criticism of Miłosz's work has tended to focus first on his stimulating political and moral ideas and his historical content, and only secondarily on the literary merits of the work; negative criticism on either count has been scant. The exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky called Miłosz "one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest."

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 11, 22 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Burton Raffel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Czeslaw Milosz is one of those rare writers who survives transplantation. Forced into exile, most writers, even so well-established as Thomas Mann, even so heralded and carefully tended as Joseph Brodsky, tend to slowly atrophy. Cut off from the root of all style, the praktik of a language, their work becomes increasingly disoriented…. But Milosz has managed to hold on to his inner world…. Kenneth Rexroth notes, in his brief introduction [to Selected Poems], that Milosz's own poetry has now "crossed the borders of language and stands in translation as amongst the very small body of truly important poetry being written in English and French today." Whatever posterity may think, the statement seems to me pretty much indisputable. (pp. 145-46)

Milosz' noblest and truest voice [can be heard in the poem "Dedication"]. Something has been lost in translation, but even without the music of the original this can, as Rexroth says, cross the borders of language and speak to us, reach us. Nor does the voice suffer from age and/or transplantation….

["Throughout Our Lands"] is not simply European, it seems to me specifically Polish. The hard exterior crust, lightly and transparently stretched over the softer and gentler interior spaces, strikes me as typical of Zbigniew Herbert, or Antoni Slonimski, or Tadeus Rozewicz, or Adam Wazyk—or Czeslaw Milosz. It is attractive to many American poets: some have...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Harlow Robinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Milosz's poetry and prose is political only in the higher sense of the word. The seemingly irresolvable plight of modern industrialized man—his loss of identity (national and personal), and especially his "refusal to remember"—disturbs and inspires Milosz's work. One has the feeling that Milosz has been dragged into the political arena reluctantly, that he would have been content to sit at his desk behind volumes of classics and foreign dictionaries. The times into which he was born, however, determined otherwise: neutrality and detachment, especially for a Lithuanian-Pole who was 28 when the Nazi blitzkrieg rolled into Warsaw, became an impossibility….

By nature an artist who demands a cold distance from his material, Milosz has been pushed by the circumstances of his (and his country's) history to immediately confront cruelty, death and destruction.

This combination of control and passion is one that Milosz shares with other great poets of the twentieth century: Osip Mandelstam in Russia, T. S. Eliot in England. (In Milosz's words: "The voice of passion is better than the voice of reason. / The passionless cannot change history.") Never romantic or maudlin, Milosz has rejected nothing of his long odyssey from the pagan green valleys of Lithuania to the emptying cafés of wartime Europe to the desolate concrete freeways of California. (p. 737)

A sense of this geographical and moral dislocation informs the poetry collected in [Selected Poems]…. Some of the most powerful and successful [poems] are from the wartime years, when he worked as an editor and writer for Resistance publications in besieged and ruined Warsaw. "Café," dated 1944, contrasts present reality with history in a way that is characteristic of much of his poetry….

In all the poems collected here one senses the weight of the culture that lies behind the words: Latin theological training in Catholic Vilnius, a legal education, café afternoons in Paris, where Milosz spent much time in the 1930s...

(The entire section is 842 words.)

John Bayley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Issa Valley] is an idyll of immense charm and poetic depth, a story without much conventional plot about a boy growing up in the Lithuanian countryside and raised largely by grandparents proud of their Polish background….

The portraits in this novel will remind readers of those classic figures drawn from Tolstoy in Childhood and Boyhood, and by Aksakov in his family memoirs. But Milosz is more humane than Tolstoy and less "creamy" (in literary historian Prince Minsky's word) than Aksakov. The child of The Issa Valley accepts his elders with unconscious and uncomprehending love, but the pattern of their days and their being is created with a great poet's unobtrusively vivid...

(The entire section is 1425 words.)

Joseph C. Thackery

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] the modern poetry of the West there has been an almost exclusive concentration on perception for perception's sake, ignoring both myth and history. For years one would not have known from the pages of American poetry magazines that there were dangers from fallout, war in Vietnam, starvation abroad, or nations striving for freedom while immersed in bondage. (p. 2)

However, to poets like Milosz, Tadeusz Rozewicz, and Zbigniew Herbert, all of whom saw the Warsaw ghetto gutted and later beheld Warsaw itself leveled and then throttled by a new authoritarianism, philosophy became an imperative of spiritual survival. As Milosz himself points out in his History of Polish Literature, 1969, the...

(The entire section is 1858 words.)

P. J. Kavanagh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ever since his publication of The Captive Mind in the 1950's Czeslaw Milosz, born a Lithuanian, a famous poet in Polish, has been a man worth listening to. In that book he almost lovingly charts the subtle entrapments by which a totalitarian regime can gain the support of intellectuals…. In another splendid book, Native Realm, he also marks the slow degrees of his disenchantment which led, in the end, to his arrival in the West, which he is by no means enamoured of either….

What he has to offer [in Visions from San Francisco Bay] is a foreign and valuable scintillation. He comes from a Central European culture where 'intellectuals'—and apparently poets there fall into that...

(The entire section is 617 words.)

Tom Alessandri

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Visions from San Francisco Bay] Milosz gives us the underpinnings of those bleak themes (The Captive Mind, Native Realm, The Issa Valley) that the Stockholm judges awarded so highly. And Milosz is nothing but honest with us. He variously searches, gets lost, theorizes and struggles to manage the hodgepodge that is his own life and the life of polymorphic Berkeley. He is the exile on the pavement, amid all the wanderers stoned on cannabis, religion, politics and ecology….

This artistic honesty and variety is not, however, without its shortcomings. The prose can be intense and thick, so painfully personal that it nearly forbids admittance, particularly in sections of rather esoteric...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Hugo Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Visions from San Francisco Bay] is a course of bromides on The American Way of Life And Where It Is All Heading: intellectual tummy rumblings. Like Polonius, Milosz is full of Philosophy…. The datedness of everything he says is always camouflaged by [its] wooden latin abstractedness. 'I do not number myself', he informs us, 'among those who seek unusual landscapes, nor do I take photographs of Nature's panoramas'. We are to understand that he has weightier matters to contend with, but he sounds more like a pantomime dame than a poet. (p. 44)

For Milosz, society is a board game for the senile, with easy-to-spot trends and tendencies boldly outlined in black and white: 'The police ban on...

(The entire section is 342 words.)

Alfred Kazin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "The Witness of Poetry", Mr. Milosz] constantly reminds us of a West-East axis in poetry drawn from contrasting human experiences; if he thinks ours more fortunate, he also, like his hero Dostoyevsky, thinks our writers pitiable.

He draws fervently on the terrible experiences of Polish poets in our time. But far from apologizing for poetry that may well be thought too extreme in the West, he just as fervently believes that the elemental strength of poetry, its ancient ritual quality, is realized "when an entire community is struck by misfortune, for instance the Nazi occupation of Poland."…

What Mr. Milosz presents is obviously the great divide in his mind between West and...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Adam Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Defenses of poetry have been around almost as long as poetry itself. Both rarely have much effect on the real world—the world outside of poems, in which wars are fought, people die, and ideals are tarnished. Perhaps, suggests Milosz, the blame lies partly with the poets themselves. Perhaps they and those who defend their craft have grown afraid of reality, afraid to see it clearly and speak about it in words we can all comprehend. (pp. 58-9)

[Milosz] speaks in The Witness of Poetry with the sort of quiet, preeminent brilliance that makes his defense … a classic for our time…. Milosz works outward from the facts of his life—his provincial origins, his classical and Catholic education,...

(The entire section is 263 words.)

Leon Wieseltier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Is non-eschatological poetry possible?" A smart shudder of embarrassment passed through the crowd at Harvard University when Czeslaw Milosz asked this question. It seemed to put the burden of proof upon the enemies of the eschaton. It was surely not a proper question of poetics. The occasion was the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, which were not set up as a spiritual exercise. But Czeslaw Milosz's were….

The Witness of Poetry, the text of his Norton Lectures, is the credo of a great poet. It reveals that Milosz is really a religious thinker. His religiousness is not "tacit," as a critic recently claimed; it is explicit, as it has been in his poems for many years. What is tacit, in this book,...

(The entire section is 990 words.)

Reginald Gibbons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Milosz calls one of his chapters [in The Witness of Poetry] "Poets and the Human Family," and it is that bond, which he explores both historically and critically, that marks the best work, in Poland or anywhere. Milosz does not call for poems about political situations. Rather, he seems to wonder how good work can be written, no matter how private its subject matter, without the poet having been aware of the pain and threat of the human predicament, so tormented in so many ways and places—including our own neighborhoods and courtrooms and bedrooms, in our own history both social and familial. Milosz describes a poetic style that is apparently not very adaptable to American life—the characteristically...

(The entire section is 312 words.)

Thomas H. Troeger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Witness of Poetry] is not a remote essay on poetics, requiring an intimate knowledge of contemporary verse, but is accessible to any thoughtful reader. Many great issues of twentieth century faith echo in the fresh, clear voice of a poet who is free of our usual theological jargon and therefore able to help us look anew at the nature of hope, the necessity of eschatology, and the importance of being related to some larger domain of image and myth than the subjective world of the individual. (p. 491)

Milosz believes that the future of poetry is dependent on more than literary fashion and the genius of independent artists. The Zeitgeist must ultimately affirm some perspective of hope…....

(The entire section is 742 words.)

Jascha Kessler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his magnificent collection of poems, The Bells in Winter, published at the time when [Milosz] won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago, we could see the full flowering of his poetic art, which, like his autobiographical writings, always expresses in poignant, visionary lyrics a world that sees the historical past and the personal past as present, living memories, and thus juxtaposes the richness of the present with the ever-present and richly-remembered, richly-evoked past.

Now we have a new collection of poems that epitomizes Milosz's career as a poet. It is called The Separate Notebooks. I think that is an appropriate title for a work that gathers poems from Milosz's...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The works in "Selected Poems" have] been, in the wake of the Nobel, reviewed less as poems than as the work of a thinker and political figure; the poems tend to be considered en masse, in relation either to the condition of Poland, or to the suppression of dissident literature under Communist rule, or to the larger topic of European intellectual history…. [The new collection, "The Separate Notebooks," contains] poems written as early as 1934 and as late as 1980. Its appearance offers an occasion for a consideration of Milosz's work as a modern poet….

Apparently, there takes place frequently in Milosz's poetry that rise in temperature which comes when two words that have never before lived side...

(The entire section is 2649 words.)

Norman Davies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Land of Ulro," first published in Polish in 1977, examines Milosz's state of mind and intellectual preoccupations in the last phase before he achieved international fame. Its preoccupation is the decline of European civilization since the 18th century, but it is an extremely personal book, written largely for the author's own purposes and possibly for a handful of fellow Polish literati. In the end, one has to accept that Milosz is engaged here in nothing more than "a personal adventure," recording his private impressions. The chosen means are consciously inadequate for the scope of the theme. One learns much about Milosz himself—his nostalgia, love of the esoteric, delight in ideas as wonderful playthings and...

(The entire section is 1594 words.)