Czesław Miłosz

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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...

(This entire section contains 1194 words.)

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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 includeSelected 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

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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 successfully incorporated at least some of this complex, subtle mixture of stances and evasions and confessions and truths and lies into their poetry. But the whole thing is peculiarly Polish property; it is Milosz's birthright, and no matter how he has managed to bring it across the Atlantic to us, undimmed, undiminished, we need to be grateful….

[Even] in Warsaw, even in 1944, Milosz could begin his "A Song On the End of the World" with wry tenderness…. (p. 146)

We may be reminded of Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts," but there is no need to write an urgent letter to Milosz, in Berkeley, to ask if he had been reading Auden, in English or in translation. The intensity and duration, the sympathy, of the poet's vision is something Auden (and no English poet after Hopkins) could achieve. The fierce and yet gentle power of "as it should always be" is, again, both European and specifically Polish European.

So too is this entire book, even the one poem written directly in English…. A life's work is here beautifully on display: an extraordinarily fine book. (p. 147)

Burton Raffel, in a review of "Selected Poems," in The Denver Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer, 1976, pp. 145-47.

Harlow Robinson

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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 and later in the 1950s. Milosz is the first to admit that his poetry is not easy, that it is not written for the masses….

Another theme that runs through all of Milosz's writing is nationality—actually, the relativity of nationality. As the child of a landowning family in Lithuania, a pagan country until 1386, Milosz grew up surrounded by a weird clash of languages, religions and traditions that gave him first-hand knowledge of how language is both identity and the means of oppression…. "The landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me," he remarked in accepting the Nobel Prize.

It is with these landscapes and spirits that The Issa Valley, first published in Polish in 1955 and now translated into English for the first time, is populated. This charming, lyrical prose poem is a nostalgic return to the poet's youth in Lithuania, an attempt to recapture and understand the springs of his creativity. Though touted as a novel, it is not really a work of fiction. Indeed, Milosz has said that "I do not consider myself a fiction writer at all…." (p. 738)

Thomas, the boy protagonist of the book, is a sensitive, wise-beyond-his-years observer, fascinated by the strange tribal rites and small romantic tragedies that surround him. There is no plot in the traditional sense; rather, this is a Lithuanian, bucolic Portrait of the Artist told in a restrained, almost timid tone. We learn less about Thomas's feelings and psychology than about the strange creatures—both human and animal—that he watches with such bemused intensity. Milosz is an intensely private writer. He looks out at the world, absorbed with other beings and with history rather than with himself. After the nearly sickening self-absorption of so many modern writers, it is a relief and pleasure to read a poet with a sense of propriety.

As in the poems, ancestry and history are major concerns in The Issa Valley…. The sense of place is strong and sure; it establishes a first innocent point of reference for the tumult of war and nationality that would follow. Cataclysmic events in the outside world—even World War I—are only distant echoes in this isolated fairy tale world.

Russian writers—especially Turgenev and Gogol—seem to stand behind this boyhood chronicle…. From Gogol come the kindly—and evil—forest spirits that torment and tantalize Thomas's friends and relatives. (pp. 738-39)

Thomas accepts these phantoms—even loves them. They are all part of the wonderful communion of nature that surrounds and nurtures him; he prefers them to the uncertain and tedious attentions of alternately attentive and uninterested relations. One feels that these benign and enigmatic Lithuanian forest spirits are profoundly important to Milosz's poetic identity, to the quietly sensuous music of some of his lines.

The Issa Valley is not a sensational book. It is not an especially profound one. The mood is Chekhovian, autumnal, of small and subtle changes in a late November sunset. But in our age of loud superlatives, such an assuredly quiet voice sounds with refreshing and welcome authority. (p. 739)

Harlow Robinson, "Passion Is Better than Reason," in The Nation, Vol. 232, No. 23, June 13, 1981, pp. 737-39.

John Bayley

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[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 power. As the book progresses we understand more and more of the nature and outlook of the hero's grandfather, who is at first a painting in words, like Ghirlandaio's Old Man. The hero's grandmothers are similarly memorable. (p. 29)

Meantime he's growing up, hunting and dreaming, taking in portents both from nature and from the age-old accessibility of the human consciousness around him. He communes, too, with lives that form subplots to the novel; the mistress of the priest who killed herself with rat poison when he sent her away; the forester haunted by the Russian soldier he has stalked and killed in the forest; a Polish small landowner who teaches the hero to shoot, and whose Lithuanian housekeeper—primitive, contemptuous, and bewitching—leads her own mysterious life in a corner of the narrative. (pp. 29-30)

It takes a masterpiece to reveal the sheer unreality of our modern creative modes and poses, and Milosz's novel is such a masterpiece. Its account of childhood in a valley inhabited by an "unusually large number of devils" has no obvious originality, nor is it in any sense a strikingly distinctive work; but, strangely enough, even the fact that it is a translation only appears to accentuate its closeness to real things, for it seems to be about those things and not about the author's invention of them, odd or novel. It makes us realize the extent to which an American masterpiece tends to be about itself only, and has to be…. Such comparisons are not wholly invidious: it is a fact that a writer like Milosz is effortlessly master of a primeval world, of which the art of the West no longer has any conception, and can only reconstitute in solipsistic magic, the supermarket gothicism of Edna O'Brien or Joyce Carol Oates….

Of course there is a strong element of pastiche in Dr. Zhivago, an element of fin-de-siècle fantasy, and The Issa Valley is not free from pastiche either. It could hardly be otherwise with a book written today about a boy growing up in the small valley, the countryside of the author's childhood. But both Pasternak and Milosz are poets, poets of the first class though of very different kinds, and this difference is shown in the texture of their prose. In the case of Milosz experience emerges as a quality that overrides the impossibilities of translation. A poet so good that he can be translated is a supreme paradox, one which many poets today, and readers of poetry, would refuse to recognize, so strong is the tendency now for poetry only to congeal and inhere in the carefully exploited accuracies and idiosyncrasies of a language. (p. 30)

The fact that what Milosz says comes across with such primary force and impact is itself an indication that, as a poet in the largest sense, he is an ideal kind of recipient of the Nobel Prize. It is possible that there are real differences here, though of a wholly indefinable kind, in the nature of languages themselves: some are more amenable than others to moving sideways, to acquiring a kind of international potential. (pp. 30-1)

Even more striking than the fact that this poetry remains poetry in another language—with the advantage, it is true, of having been translated in collaboration with the poet himself—is the sense of a shared experience that Milosz manages to give, a limpid repose upon the way things are that is no less than our sense of wonder at them. (p. 31)

There is in a way nothing personal about them. Milosz's world is collective—a place for everything and everything in its place. He is one of the few poets who do not give the impression of seeing something in his own special way. The self in his poetry is not impersonal but effortlessly manifold, like the emotions and sensations in its records…. We become our relations, our moments, each other, even our graves; at least we do so if we live in the kind of dense and populous relation with the world which Milosz records and celebrates. The relation to the past moment in his poem is the same as that to his grandmother's grave in The Issa Valley. In The Issa Valley too we see the beginnings of the poem "Diary of a Naturalist," however much later on that poem was written, in an experience of the young boy…. Milosz does not sentimentalize the adolescent's worship of nature, as predatory as the beasts it moves among. The Issa Valley is full of hunting and hunting expeditions, as memorable as those in Pan Tadeusz, or Aksakov and Turgenev. (pp. 31-2)

The characters in The Issa Valley—grandfather, grandmothers, neighbors, the local forester, are all members of a household, even though the Lithuanian peasant shows at moments an atavistic hostility to the Polish pan, or local gentry. As in Tolstoy, the more closely integrated the members of a family, the more peculiarly individual they appear. In this pre-American melting pot the racial and social mix produces not uniformity but a matured exactness of distinction, of the kind found in nature itself and worshipped by Milosz when he writes as a botanist and ornithologist.

That habit of exactness explains the twin paradox of Milosz's distinction as a poet: his sense of things as they are, and yet his power—almost a conscious power it sometimes seems—of projecting what he writes out of the absolute linguistic form which poetry usually demands. His own poetic temperament and upbringing again offer a clue. He has a sense of a poet as "not just one person," an instinct akin to Keats's perception of the poet as a man in whom personality has been exorcised in the intensities of negative capability. But Keats's poetry, in all its richness, its vulnerability as language, is held down to the very words in which it was first uttered. Milosz's seems to aspire to some ideal language, almost to Wordsworth's "ghostly language of the ancient earth," and not the earth only—the sky too, the steady rationale of a sentient universe.

It is the same with the novel. Despite its immensely local subject and setting there is nothing in the least provincial about it. (p. 32)

He was conscious always of the precarious and provisional nature of the country in which he grew up, and how complete would be its extinction when the moment came. France, he points out, survived a German invasion and conquest without undue discomfort, and would have done so even if the Germans had remained the winning side. For Poland—the new nation—defeat would mean calamity and extinction. The young Milosz got the nickname of "catastrophist" from the tone of the poems he wrote in the years before the war, but, though history was to prove him altogether too accurate a prophet, his own survival during the time of apocalypse chastened him. He was too honest not to see that survival is its own form of humiliation, one that subdues not only the pride of the ideological visionary—and Milosz then was a believing Marxist and revolutionary—but the impulse to denunciation of such ideology, a counter-attitude.

Life itself, and the reverence for it, becomes then the precious thing to be explored and celebrated. It is this lucid humility which sets Milosz apart from Solzhenitsyn, a self-martyred soul who inhabits a country where conviction is more important than reflection, where the vowels are deeper, the shapes of speech more minatory. Solzhenitsyn's power as a writer demands that life should be intensified, directed, and organized, in the Russian style; Milosz's provenance makes him conservative and freedom-loving in a wholly different sense. In his novels and poetry, life and time are caught in an unending study of awareness…. (p. 33)

John Bayley, "Return of the Native," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXVIII, No. 11, June 25, 1981, pp. 29-33.

Joseph C. Thackery

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[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 imperative centered on poetry for the very pragmatic reason that poetry took up less physical space in the Underground. Its adventures and its explorations thrived. Nevertheless, as Milosz has written: "Nazi rule did not spur clear thinking about the future. Literature registered emotional reflexes ranging from pain, hatred of the occupier, through horror, pity, sarcasm, and irony." The Occupation had revealed society not as an entity in itself, but as a dilating and fragile shell in which human relationships could be molded at will. The writer was well fed, but held to account for every word.

Between 1945 and 1949, the censors became more quiescent; there were few forbidden subjects and debate centered on what literature should "be" under socialism. But from 1949 to 1955, the new ruling class thoroughly suffocated free expression. Soviet models, forced upon writers in the interest of "modernization" of the state, drew a sterile pall over literature. (pp. 2-3)

From 1956 to the present, however, a broad new realism has intervened…. Poets have dared the censors in order to produce unconventional and adventuresome work…. However, the earlier spiritual affliction suffered by the experimenters in reconstituting their philosophy is poignantly illustrated by Milosz in his History: "The act of writing a poem is an act of faith, yet if the screams of the tortured are audible in the poet's room, is not his activity an offense to human suffering?"

The work of the three Catastrophists,… Rozewicz, Herbert and Milosz himself, exemplifies this dilemma. Each sought spiritual survival in a different way….

All three Catastrophists blend history and myth. But it is preeminently Milosz who fixes on history as backdrop, with man as an absurd social phenomenon, thrust into the mise en scène as if at the hands of some ironic and impersonal god. Although analogies to Eliot's "Four Quartets" are observable in Milosz's conceptions of time past, time future and time merging, he has refused to examine the world, as did Eliot and Lowell, in terms of his own anxiety. Instead, the authority of poetry is to be tested by a journey through history, the response to the pilgrimage being a rejuvenating sense of wonder. (p. 3)

Wonder and philosophical absolution … inform Milosz's "A Song on the End of the World," in which Armageddon is always in esse, but an old man, knowing that "the whole of the world is greater than its horror" (Selected Poems …), goes on tying up his tomato plants. Appreciation of how this poet has been able to synthesize history and a sense of its horror with survival and absolution may be gained by a discussion of his syntactic intentions. These aims are powerfully illustrated by six poems in a section of his major oeuvre, Bells in Winter. They are "The Unveiling," "Diary of a Naturalist," "Over Cities," "A Short Recess," "The Accuser," and the apotheosis poem, "Bells in Winter." Together they search for a poetry that will be at once harsh and mollifying, that will enable men to understand, if not to rationalize, the debasement of the human spirit by warfare and psychic dismemberment, while simultaneously establishing a personal modus vivendi and a psychology of aesthetic necessity.

Three concerns appear to influence the poet's approach: (1) his sense of the betrayal of speech, (2) his conception of Heraclitean change, and (3) his belief in apokatastasis or restitution and restoration, versus katastasis or establishment and fixity. A fourth phenomenon, which may arise only in subliminal consciousness of the reader, is what might be called "the third language," deriving from unexpected shifts of meaning in the transitions from one vocabulary to another. We consider these categories in order. Thus, in "The Unveiling," the poet suggests the fallibility of the tools of literary creation—words…. "Over Cities" expands the scope of betrayal; it deals with the dangers of reason itself and the trivialization of art by "intelligence": "Yet while we hear everyone advising us to understand clearly causes and effects, let us beware of those perfectly logical though somewhat too eager arguments."…

"The Accuser" is in effect a trial at law in which a generalized Other, perhaps God (though certainly an impersonal God), acts as the poet's prosecutor, judge and jury. He charges that the optimism of creativity cannot gloss over horror and that there is never either time enough or a locus poenitentiae when all are guilty. Words fail in the end and leave only the life impulse: "—Yet I have learned how to live with my grief. /—As if putting words together has been of help."

The title poem, "Bells in Winter," sets forth the poet's belief in restoration and recovery—the conviction that form is eternal—the cut oak, the sacrificed lamb are "annihilated" but their forms "exist forever." It is the vehicle of the form—the word—that is inadequate…. (p. 4)

Milosz's second major semantic trend is toward the full apprehension of Heraclitean change. In this mode, evidence of the influence of Eliot, the Bergsonian élan vital and the Symbolists echo through his conception of "reality." It is as though he had pulled together the remotest philosophical insights into a pragmatism that is both the rock in the river and the water that flows over the rock. (pp. 4-5)

The form of "The Unveiling" itself suggests a time past merging into time present and future, as in Eliot's "Burnt Norton." Thus, the poet repeatedly shifts back and forth from his early life to his San Francisco refuge. Interpersed are "choruses" like those in Greek drama, half-accusatory, half-grieving, as if the poet were keeping a sharp eye on himself that he might not betray his aesthetic responsibility. But, as "Diary of a Naturalist" implies, permanence is not to be achieved in mere survival: "That boy, does he already suspect / That beauty is always elsewhere and always delusive?"

Though it is not the most powerful of the six poems (in this writer's opinion, "Over Cities" has that distinction), "A Short Recess" comes closest to the poet's insight that man is an absurd "occurrence" in the immensity of time and history and that evanescence overhangs every artistic effort…. (p. 5)

"A Short Recess" teems with an action imagery in the manner of Shakespeare's Tempest. The subjunctive mood suggests time lost, squandered, never to come again…. In this poem, and indeed, in the generality of Milosz's work, we are cast against a four-dimensional landscape of sky, mountain, plain, horizon and time—primordial and indeterminate. Man cowers in the foreground, indistinguishable in his own perspective. Let him begin to concentrate on detail, on the putatively definite, and meaning becomes progressively indefinite. The same displacement occurs at the other end of the reality scale: in the world of the quark, the neutrino, the particle, man is as absurd and inconsequential as when he is pasted like a wafer against the universe. (pp. 5-6)

Milosz's third preoccupation is with the tensions between katastasis (fixity) and apokatastasis (restoration). In these opposing conceptions, set forth in "Bells in Winter," the poet struggles with his hatred and unwillingness to forgive…. He wonders if his sense of the immortality of form coupled with the promise of restitution in the Christian Bible is sufficient to stem the anxiety of never measuring up to self-image. Similar doubt occurs in "The Unveiling": "When will that shore appear from which at last we see / How all this came to pass and for what reason?"

In "Diary of a Naturalist" a schoolroom lecture by a Doctor Catchfly suggests that because of his learning, man wrongly sees himself as the center of all importance; he must therefore account for his waste of nature and his insensitivity to the agony of non-human life. The drive of the intellect toward science fails as salvation, but religious awakening may be no adequate substitute because it contains its own denial and the hope for peaceful stasis is vain…. (p. 6)

The poet's impulse toward renewal wilts under the impact of savagery, but under the principle of apokatastasis, it cannot be killed. He submerges himself in the creative process so that the muse, the "other," may take over the task for which he feels inadequate. Though this release to subconscious powers creates anxiety, there is always a new vision, hard-won, but uplifting, as in "The Unveiling"….

A kind of distorted salvation arises just because humanity is so vulnerable. In "Bells in Winter" the poet dreams that his double, a Greek youth, is relating the story of this condemnation by St. Paul in Corinth for having committed incest….

This dream releases the poet from anxiety. He can once again picture the writing room of his youth. His imagination restores his one-time servant Lisabeth to her rightful human importance. The city is roofed with a canopy of bells as she, the personification of all persecuted womankind—tortured witch, outcast wench, mourning wife, mother of felon—attends mass and lines out her missal with her dirty fingernail. The memory saves the poet from hatred and confirms that form is eternal and therefore aesthetics, its vehicle, is timeless. (p. 8)

Milosz adventures far beyond metaphor to plunge the reader into the sense of double existence, inside and outside time; indeed into the "cosmogonic moment of creation" in which there is in effect no time, only the creative élan and its reverberations in the soul….

Analysis of Milosz's poetry leads one to the opinion that no other poet in the world could have written it in quite the way it exists. This statement is not a tautology; nor is it self-evident; it is the product of an empathy that moves the reader to elect this great man as spokesman of the millions of dead of the Holocaust, the Gulags, the Polish and Czech uprisings, and the added millions of those who will go on dying in an imperfect world. The former captive of authoritarianism is the living analogue of the double metaphor—the outsider released by virtue of his alienation from the obligation to follow the crowd. The Catastrophists, and especially Milosz, have expanded their reach precisely because they have achieved freedom from the self-absorption that inhibits the poetry of western democracies: the you-under-this-tree-sensing-me-under-that-tree syndrome. Their holistic sweep of expression is comparable to the shared necessity of micro- and macro-physics to hypothesize in metaphor: "neutrino," "helix," "black holes," "googol." It suggests that when mankind's bus stops extend to the stars, poetry may once again, as in primordial times, become a part of everyday life. (p. 10)

Joseph C. Thackery, "Czeslaw Milosz: The Uses of a Philosophy of Poetry," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XIX, No. 2, April, 1982, pp. 1-10.

P. J. Kavanagh

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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 category—are expected to use their intellects; to discuss, in a manner we would foolishly find embarrassing, large matters; to arrive at conclusions and to publish them….

Now, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, settled in California, he shows no signs of changing his Central European ways. Visions from San Francisco Bay is a collection of essays whose inviting titles remind us how caught we are in a set of belle lettrist evasions. What English poet, for example, would risk 'A short digression on Woman as Representative of Nature', 'On Catholicism', 'On Censorship', 'On Virtue'? And say what he really thought on these topics, without looking over his shoulder?

Perhaps Milosz is able to do this because he has known of so many real knocks on the door in the small hours of the morning. He has worked in the interests of Moscow, has been a refugee, has starved, has survived the Warsaw Uprising by hiding in a boiler and, above all, has seen the political and physical destruction of his native Lithuanian culture. He could be called the quintessential European man of our time, who has experienced in his own person the history we, thankfully, have only known at several removes.

So, what does he make of us, and of 'the illegitimate child of Europe' as he calls the United States, from his perch in the most extreme manifestation of it, California? The answer is disconcerting. We are used to dire warnings; we are even accustomed to careful cheerfulness. What we do not often come across is a kind of detached glee—at awfulness; an ungloomy recognition that we cannot go on as we are—in any direction. He holds up a mirror and shows us ourselves, without blame and with no suggestions either, and in the mirror he himself is also reflected.

American writers seem to detest their country, they go on and on about its soulessness, and so forth. What they detest Milosz seems to like…. He has little time for America's well-heeled rebels. Of course he also knows about the 'alienation' of so much American life. Well, so be it. (This is what I meant by 'glee':) 'If so, then it is truly a privilege to live in California and everyday to drink the elixir of perfect alienation….' (p. 23)

He is like a brilliant talker at a café table and we willingly join him, entranced, because he knows what he is talking about, he has been there…. [In the last essay of the collection, Milosz] gives the key to the energy behind these pieces; perhaps 'glee' is not the right word after all: 'I am certain only of my amazement. Amazement that something like America exists, and that humanity still exists, though it should have exterminated itself long ago…. [Whenever I take up my pen] I treat that act only as the exorcism of the evil spirits of the present. (pp. 23-4)

P. J. Kavanagh, "Exorcist," in The Spectator, Vol. 249, No. 8056, December 4, 1982, pp. 23-4.

Tom Alessandri

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[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 philosophizing. But when Milosz focuses on particular persons or places, his essays move with excitement….

Milosz is marvelous at the abutment of all the world and its history with 1969 Berkeley (year of the original publication in Polish). The America of self-denial and Puritan repression is dying and is being replaced by the individualistic "condensed virtue" of technology. The West agonizes over its rootlessness, turns philosophic eyes East and concludes by marketing a super micro-chip to digest the Vedas.

Visions from San Francisco Bay is a series of opaque meanderings—honest and honestly tortured. It requires courage to write and just as much courage to read.

Tom Alessandri, in a review of "Visions from San Francisco Bay," in America, Vol. 147, No. 20, December 18, 1982, p. 399.

Hugo Williams

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[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 marijuana is causing the whites to draw nearer the blacks because of the similarity of their situations.' This is pretty keen. But he has the benefit of 20 years' hindsight, remember. Self-evident truths have a way of disintegrating in his hands, which is always useful….

Milosz didn't take kindly to the hippies he found lying about everywhere in his adoptive country. He accuses them of all manner of nonsense once his blood is up…. The concept of him defending lumberjacks and others from the 'scorn' of this rabble provides a rare laugh in his book. For Milosz is your typical East European Nobel-Prize-winning New American Capitalist, randy with respectability. He is terribly grateful to America for putting him up and he can't forgive these whippersnappers (who must be grandfathers by now) for not seeing it his way.

He is even funnier about the French: 'During all the years I lived in Western Europe, I did not have a single offer from any institution concerned with propagating knowledge,' he explodes…. I must say, his conceit, which blinds him to all self-knowledge is genuinely international. Perhaps the French noted the hollow at the heart of this academic jet-setter's particular brand of intellectual Esperanto and steered him discreetly westward, into the setting sun. (p. 45)

Hugo Williams, "Bromides," in New Statesman, Vol. 104, No. 5, 2700 & 2701, December 17 & 24, 1982, pp. 44-5.

Alfred Kazin

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[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 East—between our "alienated" poetry, full of introspective anxiety, and a poetry emerging under constant tyranny where "a peculiar fusion of the individual and the historical took place, which means that events burdening a whole community are perceived by a poet as touching him in a most personal manner. Then poetry is no longer alienated." This may sound like a formula, and in fact it is a traditional one in Eastern Europe, where a more "social" sense of literature (not necessarily engagé but less self-celebrating than ours) has long operated. Mr. Milosz on the subject of American mass media reminds me of many a Russian, then and now, scornful of Western culture….

Mr. Milosz speaks not only from the Polish experience of atrocity but from independent religious zeal. He lovingly recalls what Polish culture owes to Latin and the cultural unity with the West inspired by the Catholic Church….

Mr. Milosz's own strength as poet and critic owes much to his tacit spirituality. Years ago, when I discovered him at Berkeley, I made a particular note of his saying, "Nothing could stifle my inner certainty that a shining point exists where all lines intersect."…

Mr. Milosz is scornful of everything that is trivial and trivializing in contemporary poetry. No one concerned with the survival of poetry in our own culture can miss what a Polish poet resident in California means when he says: "When poets discover that their words refer only to words and not to a reality which must be described as faithfully as possible, they despair."… Poetry to Mr. Milosz is profoundly a recall, not a mere impression of present experience. It more resembles—or should—"the cries of Job" than the endless defenses of the ego in our society….

The spiritual aloneness that Mr. Milosz celebrates in the teeth of Nazi-Communist despotism is not what we Americans call a "failure in interpersonal relationships." If ever there was proof of the great divide between West and East, between a worried civilization and a tormented one, "The Witness of Poetry" furnishes it. Writing out of the Polish agony, Mr. Milosz sighs that left-wing Latin American writers are not on his wavelength.

What Mr. Milosz's Harvard audience made of his brilliant but scattered observations is anybody's guess. There is not only a great divide between East and West, but in Mr. Milosz's orphic rambling style a divide between one sentence and another. When he writes, "What can poetry be in the twentieth century? It seems to me that there is a search for the line beyond which only a zone of silence exists, and that on the borderline we encounter Polish poetry," I thought of how much "silence" is actually present in Mr. Milosz's lectures, as in his poetry. The "discontinuity" in European civilization that he feels to be the effect of war and occupation operates in his own style to a marked degree. In one sense this is the famous elusiveness of modernist poetry, forever making its way up and down "the stairway of surprise." Where successive lines do not continue an image or thought, silence seems to intervene. In Czeslaw Milosz's lectures the sense of "silence" between thought and thought is poignant. It expresses all that a Polish poet returned from hell cannot say to an American audience. (p. 20)

Alfred Kazin, "Writing Out of the Polish Agony," in The New York Times Book Review, May 1, 1983, pp. 1, 20.

Adam Gussow

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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, his experience in Poland during the catastrophic years of World War II—to explain why true poetry is and always has been "the passionate pursuit of the Real."

Milosz's chief target in these pages is the French symbolist poets, those lonely fin de siècle souls who retreated from society into art for art's sake, and took most of modern literature along with them. Such cultivated alienation, insists Milosz, was a luxury possible only in societies with relatively stable social structures. Today's unsettled world demands poets who, like Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, will speak for rather than against the enduring values of their communities. Profound and accessible, passionate without a trace of sentimentality, The Witness of Poetry glows like the sun in a late autumn sky. (p. 59)

Adam Gussow, in a review of "The Witness of Poetry," in Saturday Review, Vol. 9, No. 8, May-June, 1983, pp. 58-9.

Leon Wieseltier

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"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, is his politics. The politics, to be sure, are anti-Communist; and the authority of Milosz's anticommunism is pretty much absolute. He is angry at universalism and utopianism…. Milosz reveres, instead, human custom. And he reveres the Roman patrimony of his country…. (p. 32)

Milosz brandishes a belief in miracles. "The desire for the miraculous … the universal human longing for liberation from what is cold as two times two is four" is what he defends against all forms of determinism. It is like Simone Weil's defense of grace against gravity, which Milosz admires. (He was one of the earliest partisans of her work.) By the miraculous, however, he does not mean the epiphanous. He wants not a disruption of the natural order, but a more strenuous relationship with it. His subject—in his poetry and in his prose—is the proper interpretation of appearances. He calls poetry "the passionate pursuit of the Real"; the capital R refers to something more than ordinary cognition, but not quite to mysticism. Milosz is a poet of the subject-object relationship. He never quits the senses. He trusts them more than the mind. Their relationship to reality is immediate, and they offer a kind of certainty; this certainty is quietly celebrated in The World (A Naive Poem), a cycle of poems that may be the most beautiful Milosz has written. His literary and spiritual style, in fact, can be characterized as vrai naif.

The Norton Lectures begin with the observation that "both individuals and human societies are constantly discovering new dimensions accessible only to direct experience." Directness is Milosz's criterion of spiritual significance. His book is an attack on all forms of indirection, on all the interceptions of experience by ideas. This master of form and historian of literature speaks sternly against the contrivances of classicism, because they clutter the elementary connections between the writer and the world, and even close them off; "a quarrel exists between classicism and realism," he writes ruefully, between aestheticism and a really ambitious art. Milosz's poetry is written, therefore, from a principled plainness. In this respect he is like George Herbert: "Is all good structure in a winding stair? / May no lines passe, except they do their dutie / Not to a true, but painted chair?" Art's traffic is with things, which are an avenue of access to truth; and truth is simple, and comes sometimes in small sizes. Many of his lyrics are tranquil studies of telling details. ("Mittelbergheim," an early poem, is a deeply affecting prayer for this poetic project.) In Milosz's hands, metaphysics are modest.

If this were all, however, Milosz would be only the heir of Rilke. It is not all. The experience of history accompanies the experience of nature. The thesis of The Witness of Poetry is that these experiences are epistemologically similar. "The historical dimension," Milosz hastened to add in his first lecture, is also directly discovered. And, later: "The twentieth century has given us a most simple touchstone for reality: physical pain." Pain, too, is immediate—so immediate that conteinporary philosophers have worried that it is not possible to know another person's. It, too, is certain. It, too, when it comes from tyrants and torturers, is a form of the subject-object relationship—a rather pure form. And nothing is more naive than pain. There is a reason, therefore, that Milosz's acquaintance with terror reminds him of his acquaintance with trees. Both are revealed; and the consequence of revelation, of the feeling that forces from outside have intruded, is a sense of situation, of what is above and what is below. When Milosz writes that "all reality is hierarchical," this is not the usual sentimentality for order, or love for law. It is the lesson of a life that has consisted in the constant learning of its own limits, which have been taught by gardens as well as by prisons. The pursuer of the Real pursued by the real—that is Milosz's full plot.

Milosz's book is very concerned with the pessimistic tone of modern poetry. His concluding lecture "On Hope" offers optimism on the basis of what Milosz takes to be a new need for the past that the spread of knowledge and the reproduction of art are purveying across the planet. It is not terribly persuasive—certainly not as persuasive as his own pessimism, which he has not successfully shed. He still sounds a bit like a "catastrophist," as his literary circle in Wilno in the 1930s was called; and catastrophism is rather right in a world that may be wrecked by nuclear war or wrecked by totalitarian rule. As Milosz himself admits, there is a high price to be paid for "the human family" to which the poet Oskar Milosz, a millenarian cousin who died in 1939, aspired. "If we must choose the poetry of such an unfortunate country as Poland to learn that the great schism … is curable, then the knowledge brings no comfort." Yet there is comfort elsewhere. The World (A Naive Poem) includes a poem called "Hope," which provides a rather different prescription against pessimism than the one he gave at Harvard…. (pp. 33-4)

Leon Wieseltier, "The Real and the Revealed," in The New Republic, Vol. 189, No. 5, August 1, 1983, pp. 32-4.

Reginald Gibbons

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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 laconic, bitter, ironic style of many Eastern European poets, whose distrust of language comes not out of semiological distaste for blatant reference to the tangible world, but out of having been lied to, and having had to lie, in situations where life was trampled by oppressive institutions and lawless men. Milosz's book can be read as a polemic, but to do so would be to regard it too warily, too defensively. It is rather a tender and sorrowful account of what it is that poetry has been called to witness in our time, and how poetry has tried to answer that call. (p. 192)

This is … a book of the rarest and most valuable kind of criticism, and an example of the very best of that kind. It creates a perspective from which to view poems, and while Milosz's point of view may have limits or blind spots, or may see sometimes only what is harshly illuminated, he offers a profound corrective to many of the current assumptions not so much of criticism but of poetry itself. (p. 193)

Reginald Gibbons, in a review of "The Witness of Poetry," in TriQuarterly 58, No. 58, Fall, 1983, pp. 191-94.

Thomas H. Troeger

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[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….

[Milosz traces] the increasing isolation of the artist, the impact of science, a kind of "mandatory" hopelessness that arose with realism, and the devastations of modern war. Thus his literary reflections become a journey into the conteniporary soul, not simply the individual's but the corporate soul of our shared humanity.

This does not mean that Milosz denies the importance of the individual or puts down our peculiar experience—all charges which I believe a cursory reading of him might awaken from our jealously privatistic age. Quite the opposite, he eloquently affirms the acuity of the particular…. Like all poets, Milosz understands incarnational dynamics, but he is concerned about the greater pattern and perspective that poets embody in their verse. Does poetry witness only to the inner experience of the artist or to some grander constellation of meaning?

Drawing on the work of an earlier, distant relative, Oscar Milosz, the author traces how poetry "withdrew from the domain common to all people into the closed circle of subjectivism"…. The result has been a breakdown between the "Poets and the Human Family" (the title of chapter 2) so that twentieth century verse has become more and more an enclosed aesthetic sphere inaccessible to all except the literati who understand the complexities of its isolated self-expression. Both Oscar and Czeslaw consider this phenomenon to be a tragic rending in the spiritual fabric of our culture and its literary expre's on.

Oscar, writing in the 1930s saw poetry as "'a passionate pursuit of the Real'"…. Mark the capital R—not just what is personally real, but what is Real in a larger, transcendent sense. (p. 492)

Czeslaw then suggests that poetry can only be reconnected to that greater "'soul of the people'" by moving beyond an exclusive concern with the self to eschatological poetry concerned with "Salvation and Damnation, Judgment, the Kingdom of God, the goal of History—in other words, to everything that connects the time assigned to one human life with the time of all humanity"….

Milosz's literary discussion suggests that two of our culture's most popular values—authentic experience and the primacy of the individual—may be at odds with each other. We tend to assume that the more idiosyncratic our experience, the more genuine it is. But in fact, this is to limit the sources of experience and expression to what Oscar Milosz called the "'paltry ego,'" the "'often empty and always cramped ego'"….

The poets—and I would add all of us—must rediscover the world larger than our own private little world, the truth greater than our own private little truth, the reality that is not constricted to the dimensions of our mind and imagination, no matter how lively they may be….

Milosz does see redeeming possibilities for the future. His vision is not rooted in some return to the past but in a pattern of liberation that he believes is the developing salient characteristic of our age. (p. 493)

Milosz helps us to hear how some of the major issues that have occupied twentieth century theology resonate in the experience of a significant poet. He elucidates how important it is that the individual creative act be related to a larger realm of meaning….

Milosz's "passionate pursuit of the Real" is an inspiring witness to what it means to see and hear and say the truth with precision and power.

Finally, but most importantly, here is an affirmation of hope that springs from insights into the soul, from an awareness of the pain and devastation of our age, from a broad historical and literary perspective that points to this good news: humanity is redeemable. (p. 494)

Thomas H. Troeger, in a review of "The Witness of Poetry," in Theology Today, Vol. XL, No. 4, January, 1984, pp. 491-94.

Jascha Kessler

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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 whole life, as well as trenchant, mysterious, lovely prose passages from his journals. This is, then, a composite work, not even arranged chronologically; rather it's put together in mosaic fashion, so that many experiences and many themes are explored and rendered brilliant by mutual reflection. And yet it is not a coherent whole, not in the usual sense, even as a mosaic; instead it projects the sense of a whole because in fact Milosz's lifelong effort is the attempt to integrate what cannot be integrated: the constant experience of disruption, dislocation and terror, for that was his fate as a man who was always at the center of events, both in politics and in art, yet who managed to escape from all those disasters alive, though doomed never to be whole. And yet, that sense we get of a whole, from this book, if not of wholeness, is no accident, because Milosz, now in his old age, though hardly decayed, casts his mind back and forth over his life, wondering how he has managed to survive and what he can make of things. Furthermore, by offering his early poems, we can understand the profound pathos of a poet who can remember and recall in words those times and places and people who have vanished utterly and forever….

[Everywhere] in these poems Milosz sees and marvels at the naked pathos of created beings—trees, animals, waters, men and women; everywhere the mark of the historian and humanist is deeply impressed, so that the uniqueness of mere existence, so fragile and vulnerable to time and evil, is always his subject. Yet, Milosz also believes that somehow the truth of the forms that were and are and perished survives, and is everlasting.

Jascha Kessler, "Czeslaw Milosz: 'The Separate Notebooks'," in a radio broadcast on KUSC-FM—Los Angeles, CA, February 29, 1984.

Helen Vendler

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[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 by side suddenly mingle—provoking what we feel in English when we read of Marvell's "green thought," Traherne's "orient and immortal wheat," Donne's "unruly Sun," or Keats' "sylvan historian." This breaking down of "natural" compartments is one of the most powerful effects of poetry, which by its concision and free play can represent better than most prose the fluid access of a daring and unhampered mind to its own several regions. Such linguistic versatility—combining words that have never been combined before, but doing it with a sublime justice and propriety, so that the effect is not a jolt but a confirmation of rightness—gives perhaps the highest pleasure that poetry exists to confer. But in reading Milosz we are barred, as foreigners, from knowing that pure bliss of the newly created linguistic object as a reader of the mother tongue knows it. We are also barred from hearing the indispensable falls of sound and cadence.

If we cannot hear Milosz's native euphonies, and if we miss many of the surprising and (we are told) immensely touching effects of his diction as he searches into long-forgotten or darkened corners of the Polish past and brings them, by a word, into an alignment with the present, what can we bear away from a reading of the poems? We find in them, first of all, a truncated autobiography (to be read against the autobiographical essays of "Native Realm"). The poetic autobiographer, like the prose one, is reticent…. He is not a "confessional" poet; his voice is, one might say, disinterestedly personal. For Milosz, the person is irrevocably a person in history, and the interchange between external event and the individual life is the matrix of poetry. Like most lyric poets, Milosz was probably not by nature very much a social being, but, given the situation of his life, he cannot help being a historical one. There is an eerie solitude in Milosz; it sometimes seems that he has suffered the twentieth century all alone, vividly aware of historical cataclysms—those he saw in person (the war, the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, the subsequent Russian occupation, and Communist rule in Poland) and those of Europe in general—yet living in catastrophe as a hermit…. (p. 138) There are two convictions, both of them mentioned in Milosz's introduction to "Native Realm," that are important for his poems. The first is that "one can get at man only obliquely, only through the constant masquerade that is the extension of himself at a given moment, through his historical existence." All of Milosz's poetry has, even if sometimes unwillingly, this historical grounding: through circumstance humanity is made visible. At the same time, it is the second conviction that seems to me the more important in isolating Milosz's idiosyncrasy as a poet: he says that if the "chaotic richness" of "the particulars of our fate" did not exist "we would not constantly be aspiring to form achieved by a process of elimination." Milosz offers this as an axiom, and for him it is: form is the achievement, by the poet, of a paring away, of a refinement of original multiplicity into elemental leanness…. Milosz is a stern poet; forbidding and austere lines appear in most of the poems. But they rarely occur alone; they are accompanied by a relenting, a thawing mildness. And it is in this peculiar balance between a juridical, frowning severity and a lyrical, melting attachment that Milosz's power to unsettle us lies. Of course, there are other characteristic aspects of his writing; the one most often remarked on is a gift for classical aphorisms. The aphoristic, or gnomic, sentence offers a linguistic form for Milosz's historical irony—an irony that sees, by virtue of historical length and breadth, beyond the individual case, even if that case is one's own. Poets with a tendency to universalize become (at their worst) deprived of an individual voice; poets who forget that their own fate is part of the common lot fall into self-pity. Milosz's grimness has not blunted the antennae of his painful sensibility; and, conversely, his own exposed nerves have not fatally distracted him from the historical events he has recorded almost involuntarily.

Milosz is more intellectually conscious of his own aesthetic than many poets are. He says, for example:

        Particular existence keeps us from the light
        (That sentence can be read in reverse as well).

The struggle between a clarifying, if inhuman, light and the darkness of particular fate underlies everything that he writes, and provides, in fact, an endlessly fertile resource for invention, as particulars and light dispute each other for room in his work.

From the start, Milosz was a natural ecstatic, destined for intense and radiant perception. (One of the aphorisms reads, "From childhood till old age ecstasy at sunrise.") But everything in his life after his childhood was a scourging of his natural temper. (pp. 138-39)

Milosz reads like a soul who has received a wound from which he has never recovered: an air of doom now hangs over every moment of joy, so that the simplest happiness appears always as a reprieve or furlough from an evil sure to reassert itself. The precariousness of life and writing is always felt in Milosz; his contemporaries who died or were killed or were silenced (not only in Poland but in all of Europe) contribute to the voice he has become—a voice almost necessarily that of a generation rather than (or as well as) that of a single man. The "I" who speaks many of the poems speaks for all who witnessed the dissolution of Europe…. Milosz finds transparently simple ways of expressing the evaporation of materiality and spirituality alike. As bombs render one's native streets unrecognizable, and as all codes of ethics fall at once, space swarms and letters flicker and vanish: Milosz's free pillaging of all historical eras opens out his canvas. It is only by such an oblique treatment of the destruction of Warsaw that Milosz succeeds in treating it at all.

As [Stanislaw] Baranczak points out, Milosz rejects symbols in favor of metonymy and synecdoche, those figures of speech which represent a whole by a thing allied to it or by a part of it. The originality with which Milosz finds the briefest of words for inner events is one of the reasons to read him. "The years have transformed my blood," he says, "and thousands of planetary systems have been born and died in my flesh." As in the best poets, we feel this account to be not figurative at all but the most literally truthful way of saying what has happened. What is this changing set of interplanetary relations but a concise history of a Polish intellectual's inner life from the forties to the sixties? The sort of change Milosz wants to describe can only, for him, be described in those terms usually reserved for the life and death of immensely long cycles; what we gain from his language is a sense of indecent speeding up, as one inner galaxy after another is conceived, brought to being, and annihilated.

His own compulsion to write sometimes drives Milosz to bitterness and anger…. He finds himself condemned to "odious rhythmic speech/Which grooms itself and, of its own accord, moves on." If such passages testify to the guilt of the survivor, they testify as well to the tormenting distance every poet feels between the miraculous Aaron's rod of art and this world "where men sit and hear each other groan." (pp. 139-40)

In the surpassingly beautiful "The World: A Naïve Poem," a sequence of twenty poems written in 1943, Milosz renders a past of depth and profound feeling in the simplest measures and the simplest words available to a poet, as though only the first syllables of the mother tongue could be words deep-rooted enough for the deepest of primal experiences. "The World" is the most opalescent of Milosz's sequences; it exists as pure light against a background of abysmal darkness, preserving that doubleness of perspective—extreme joy recalled in extreme despair—which is Milosz's unique discovery in the art of poetry….

All of "The World" is written in primer style. It is a style in which, one feels, it is impossible to lie, or even to shade the truth. Blake, one of Milosz's masters, knew this when he wrote his songs.

In "The World," the sweetness of Milosz's recollection passes from the visual and the personal to the religious, with three childlike poems on the three highest, or "theological," virtues—faith, hope, and love—which make up the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth poems of the sequence. After that, the child goes abroad to the forest and sees the skies, the kingdom of the birds, who live in a "free, high, shining place," here he first grasps the possibility of far voyaging. In the single frightening poem, the child becomes Blake's little boy lost in the forest, but, as in Blake, he is found by his ever-watchful and kind father. The security and beauty of the world as it should be, and as we all feel it could be if it were governed by faith, hope, and love, is the theme of the father's rescue of the trembling child. This poem, the most radiant and sacred of the sequence, is called "Recovery;" it must be remembered that it was written in the devastated landscape of Warsaw in 1943. The father speaks:

   Here I am—why this senseless fear?
   Soon now the day will come, and night will fade….

To imagine this steady parental reassurance in the most simple and fundamental words of the mother tongue, in the metres immemorially present in hymn and nursery rhyme, is to remind oneself of what this father's voice must sound like in its original Polish, as it embodies the oldest dream of all, underlying our most primitive infant memories—that the universe is, as Carlyle said, not a charnel house but godlike, and our father's. Since this dream is the mythical projection of a faith in being, of a hope for reality, and of a reciprocal love, the poem stands firmly as an essay in archetypal forms, as a predication of the deepest values, and as an anguished personal memory of an incinerated culture. (p. 140)

It is clear … that Milosz has a powerful inner investment in antagonism. In his poetry, cultures are set in opposition; world views clash; existence struggles with annihilation; learning vanquishes, and is vanquished by, ignorance; laughter and weeping succeed each other; contempt vies with grief. Milosz is not a writer of one chief emotion (as we might think of Blake as chiefly a poet of indignant vision, or of Crane as supremely a poet of Platonic longing). It seems sometimes that Milosz's poems should split open from the sheer internal pressure of their confined contents. What is confined is often at the same time both mysterious and intelligible, if hard to acknowledge. The sequence "Album of Dreams" is a striking group exhibiting this pressure. The dreams retold are dated, as if to give them the force of testimony:

                       NOVEMBER 23

               A long train is standing in the station and the platform is empty.
               Winter, night, the frozen sky is flooded with red.
               Only a woman's weeping is heard. She is pleading for something
               from an officer in a stone coat.

In this brief glimpse, there is both a general emptiness of landscape and a fullness in the tableau of suppliant and officer; there is both purpose (the long train) and negation of intent (the empty platform); there is darkness and yet a suffusion of blood suggested in the red sky; there is the original, silent scene and the shocking intrusion of weeping and pleading; there is the abject humiliation of the woman and the adamant implacability of the stony officer. Such antagonisms are sensually, aesthetically, ethically, and intellectually unbearable. A more sentimental poet might have represented the hopeless woman and the inhuman officer as a tableau of social protest, but in Milosz's dream logic the woman and the officer represent, philosophically speaking, the irresistible force and the immovable object, and it is that conjunction (philosophically inconceivable) which the aesthetic of the poem must mirror, and does, in its irreconcilable items of presence and absence, reality and surrealism, flesh and stone, silence and the sound of agony. In little, this is the pattern of the best of Milosz's work. To read it is to feel that one's interior being will crack from incorporating such incompatible pressures.

A strong-minded poet of this sort risks an almost vicious power if he permits one force-field to dominate, unmitigated by another; and Milosz's poems of lethal scorn, though memorable, sin perhaps in allowing no shelter from their commination. (p. 143)

Milosz's later poems—those collected in "Bells in Winter" and "The Separate Notebooks"—incorporate long ruminations on self, body, language, the past, good and evil. They can seem less pure and less corrosive than the earlier poems, though any true comparative judgment could be made only by a Polish-speaking reader. Milosz's dark spirit of mockery lives in them side by side with his racked religious yearning. His gibes and his prayers vie with each other for room, his macabre visual caprices co-existing with his ineffable simplicity of recollection. It is almost impossible to convey the turbulence of mind produced in a reader by such a succession of mental and visual leaps; that turbulence is the aesthetic on which Milosz stakes his claim. (p. 144)

Milosz's elaborate inner system of grids is in one sense the common possession of any European intellectual—the grid of history, the grid of class structure, the grids of manifold visual experience, the grid of plural ethnic and religious allegiances. But in Milosz the grids are curiously permeable to each other, and the mobile flickering of language darts from one to the next, impelled by a rapid and nearly inhuman intelligence keeping a violent welter of feeling just barely in subjection. Milosz speaks both from within the Heraclitean flux and from above it. (p. 145)

There are no direct lessons that American poets can learn from Milosz. Those who have never seen modern war on their own soil cannot adopt his tone; the sights that scarred his eyes cannot be seen by the children of a young provincial empire. A thousand years of history do not exist in American bones, and a culture secular from birth cannot feel the dissolution of the European religious synthesis, on which Milosz dwelt in "The Witness of Poetry," his recent Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. But the work of Milosz reminds us of the great power that poetry gains from bearing within itself an unforced, natural, and long-ranging memory of past customs; a sense of the strata of ancient and modern history; wide visual experience; and a knowledge of many languages and literatures. Not, as in Pound, the self-conscious allusiveness of the autodidact, returning obsessively to the books of his formative years, but, rather, the living and tormented revoicing of the past makes Milosz a historical poet of bleak illumination. (p. 146)

Helen Vendler, "From Fragments a World Perfect at Last," in The New Yorker, Vol. LX, No. 5, March 19, 1984, pp. 138-40, 143-46.

Norman Davies

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"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 self-indulgent distress as an "external alien" in a bad world growing worse. But one would look in vain—since Milosz had no such intention—for a comprehensive analysis of the alleged decline of civilization. In this sense, "The Land of Ulro" is a minor work in the Milosz repertory, less focused than "The Captive Mind," less compelling than "Dolina Issy." It is an intimate divertissement, peppered nonetheless with stimulating insights and packed with food for thought about our drift toward disaster.

Like Milosz himself, one has to be intrigued by the "elaboration of intricacies." In the course of this ramble through his memories and literary experiences, he inevitably leaves a trail of clues about the salient features of a complex personality. The pleasure is in the traveling rather than in the arrival.

First and foremost, Milosz is a Polish inteligent—not just an intellectual in the Western sense, but a member of a social caste whose traditional function is to nourish the nation's cultural and spiritual values in opposition to the demands of an alien and repressive state. (pp. 1, 16)

[Milosz] was obliged to emigrate; but his inner eye is firmly fixed on that cultural homeland far away to which he belongs. Like all exiles, he protests against the pain produced by the physical separation from his roots, especially since fate has condemned him to live in the materialistic and "puerile" civilization of the United States; but it is also clear that he has no regrets, and in the stimulating contact with his pupils at the University of California, a number of valued consolations….

Second, Milosz is an anti-Nationalist, or rather an adherent of Poland's older and more respectable multi-national tradition. People forget that the Polish society into which Milosz was born was an amalgam of many nationalities, languages and religions, united not by any common ethnic origins but rather by experiences and values shared over the centuries….

Milosz, like his idol [the 19th-century poet Adam] Mickiewicz, thinks of himself primarily as a Lithuanian, with his home beside the waters of the Niewiaza, although he freely admits that Polish is the only language in which he can properly communicate….

It is in this context that one must examine Milosz's self-confessed rebellion against his Polishness. On the one hand, he was driven to exaggerate his Lithuanian identity…. On the other hand, he was also driven at an early stage of his career into a skeptical stance toward Roman Catholicism…. However, one suspects that his religious rebellion had always been more superficial than real. Precisely in view of his lasting doubts and frictions, Milosz remained a profoundly religious person, gamely baring his "Roman Catholic soul" which he had once judged unbecoming for an avant-garde poet.

The central theme of "The Land of Ulro" is the steady decline of European civilization thanks to the growth of scientific thought and the resultant divorce of spiritual and secular values. All the intellectual guides Milosz chooses to consult at length—Mickiewicz, Dostoyevsky, Swedenborg, Blake and Oskar Milosz—were preoccupied with religion. True enough, they were all eccentrics and heretics…. [All] of them were religious rebels who rejected conventional religious thinking in their search for a more worthy religion. Czeslaw Milosz hankers to be the same.

Third, and by extension of his anti-Nationalism, Milosz is a devout European. There are few words here of politics in the narrow sense, and no mention of a European ideal. But the assumption that European civilization is, or rather was and ought to be, a coherent whole informs the entire work. (Apropos, see Milosz's earlier volume of memoirs, "Rodzinna Europa"—"Native Realm"—of 1957.) "The Land of Ulro" is saturated with allusions to the European classics, the ancients and English and French authors, to Goethe repeatedly, and tellingly to Dante, in whose "Divine Comedy" Milosz clearly venerates that long lost unity of religious and secular thought. Equally, there is immense respect for the Russian masters whose literature, though not their country, Milosz counts as a brief but integral element of European civilization….

It is not difficult to make play with some of the author's foibles. One can see, for example, why Oskar Milosz loomed so large in his nephew's estimation. but it is problematical for most non-nephews to accept him as an authority on a par with Dostoyevsky or Mickiewicz. If the arcana of Milosz the uncle may be inspiring to the few, they are likely to be confusing to the many. A poet who cultivated "deliberate obscurity" is destined to remain fairly obscure. At times, reading "The Land of Ulro" is reminiscent of Milosz's own reading of Swedenborg—"to wander through a hall of mirrors arousing a range of conflicting emotions," from mockery and boredom to awe and assent.

Yet the language is lucid, even where the subject matter is opaque. The book makes no pretense at structured argument, and the reader has to meander round Milosz's 41 chapters which include numerous digressions and a series of set-piece lectures—on Dostoyevsky and the religious imagination of the West, on Mickiewicz's Romanticism, on Blake's Prophetic Books, and on Oskar Milosz's "Les Arcanes," all with extensive textual quotations….

"The Land of Ulro," it turns out, is Blake's name for "that realm of spiritual pain such as is borne and must be borne by the crippled man," where men "rage like wild beasts in the forests of affliction" and in their dreams "repent of their human kindness." At first, when Milosz is writing eloquently about his own sense of alienation both from the Polish national ethos and from his decadent Western refuge, it appears that he is an Ulrian exile par excellence. But then, although he confesses enigmatically to having submitted to the fashions of the contemporary world, he seems to suggest that spiritual growth and repentance have given him a sufficient degree of strength and certainty to stand apart. (p. 16)

One half of him reminds us that his esteemed and tormented masters, not least the schizophrenic Swedenborg, often bordered on madness. But the other half wants to stay in their company. He cannot bring himself to forecast the advent of a "Third Era," an "Age of the Spirit," in the manner of the Polish Romantics. But he still wants to dream of "a civilization in which man will be freed from the servitude of Ulro" and of a renewed "human environment" where the lies and oppressions of modern life will be recognized in their spiritual, not merely their socioeconomic and behavioral, dimensions.

The reader, in fact, never gets a full view of Milosz's target area. The topography of Ulro is not adequately mapped out. Blake's triad of English villains—Bacon, Newton and Locke—evidently spreads the initial confusion, but who exactly was it that widened and extended their false trails? The modern social sciences, especially psychiatry and sociology, are curtly rejected. Freud and Marx are briefly denounced for their "pseudo-religions," but Jung is treated seriously. H. G. Wells is cited, together with the science fiction genre as a whole, for work of "perfect despair." These subjects, particularly Marxism, of which Milosz can speak brilliantly and from hard experience. merit greater exposition….

Milosz's theme, the decline of European civilization since the 18th century, is hardly a modest one, and the range of erudite references, from A to Z—Akhmatova to Zdziechowski—is suitably impressive. Many of the byways of the book, such as the Jewish Cabala, the Polish Socinians or the French Albigensians, are revealing. Yet the overall approach is curiously idiosyncratic and unsystematic. Each of Milosz's five main figures are discussed at length in relation to each other—Blake's debt to Swedenborg, Dostoyevsky's parallels in Mickiewicz, Oskar Milosz's latent sympathy for the others, had he been familiar with them all—but none are examined in the context of their times. There's nothing much, for example, about the philosophers of the Anti-Enlightenment. Although 19th-century concepts of progress and scientific humanism, and the conflict between religion and science, are central to the argument, Darwin is not mentioned. Among the moderns, there are tributes to Simone Weil and Samuel Beckett, but almost nothing on the Existentialists, who may not be entirely irrelevant….

Milosz eventually apologizes for the shortcomings, and craves tolerance for a book "both childish and adult, earthbound and ethereal." But one's tolerance is repaid. Obstinate in his private beliefs, highly individualistic, skeptical of all authority, fearful of coercion, a messianist manqué, Milosz is more Polish than he cares to admit. He could never aspire to the mass appeal of Walesa or to the inspirational charisma of John Paul II. But in his chosen field of literature he exudes the defiant stance, the freedom of spirit and the depth of cultural commitment of his homeland, which more than any other is truly a "Land of Ulro" on earth. (p. 17)

Norman Davies, "The Making of His Mind," in The New York Times Book Review, September 2, 1984, pp. 1, 16-17.


Miłosz, Czesław (Vol. 22)