In the West, Miosz observed in wiadectwo poezji (1983; The Witness of Poetry, 1983), “the separation of art and the public has been an accomplished fact” since the time of Charles Baudelaire. Yet “in Central and Eastern Europe,” he wrote thirty years earlier in The Captive Mind, “a poet does not merely arrange words in beautiful order. Tradition demands that he be a ’bard,’ that his songs linger on many lips, that he speak in his poems of subjects of interest to all the citizens.” Czesaw Miosz was himself such a bard.
For thirty years after Miosz went into exile in 1951, none of his books was officially published in Communist Poland. Yet during the years that he was an “unperson”—a poet whose name could not be mentioned in print and whose writings had to be circulated in underground samizdat editions and tape recordings—he became Poland’s unofficial poet laureate. When Solidarity first emerged and a monument was erected in 1981 to the memory of the Polish workers slain in the Gdansk food strikes of 1970, the words on its base were quite naturally taken from one of his poems: “You who wronged a simple man . . . / Do not feel safe. The poet remembers/ You can kill one, but another is born./ The words are written down, the deed, the date.” When the first officially sanctioned edition of his collected poetry since the war was published in Poland in the same year, two hundred thousand copies sold out within a month.
“The poet remembers. . . . ” To Miosz and his Polish readers, that is more than merely a warning or a promise. It is a definition of vocation. What Miosz did in each of his books was, above all, to remember: to keep his and his era’s past alive in the present through the power of his words. Because those words are written mostly in Polish, Miosz can be read in the United States only in translation. He always understood this predicament. “The abyss for me was exile,” he wrote in The Captive Mind shortly after immigrating to the West. “My mother tongue, work in my mother tongue, is for me the most important thing in life.” When he finally broke with his country, he said in The Captive Mind, he fully expected the consequences to be not merely exile but “sterility and inaction.”
“Wrong Honorable Professor Miosz,” he wrote sardonically of himself in the poem “A Magic Mountain,” “Who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue./ Who will count them anyway.” In one section of the cycle “Gdzie wschodzi soce i kedy zapada” (“From the Rising of the Sun”), he summarized his situation with even greater irony and wit. “Oh yes,” he writes, “not all of me shall die, there will remain/ An item in the fourteenth volume of an encyclopedia/ Next to a hundred Millers and Mickey Mouse.” Nevertheless, Miosz remained faithful to both his native language and his Eastern European sense of the poet’s vocation. “Whatever I hold in my hand, a stylus, reed, quill or a ballpoint,” he announces in the opening section of the same cycle, “Wherever I may be . . . / I attend to matters I have been charged with in the provinces.”
Memory has always been his muse, he declared in the early poem “Sroczo” (“Magpiety”). In his Nobel lecture (1981), he explained why. “Perhaps our most precious acquisition is . . . respect and gratitude for certain things which protect people from internal disintegration and from yielding to tyranny,” he wrote. Paramount among those things is memory. Yet, he went on to say, “our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember.” Under these circumstances, he insisted, the poet’s role must be to see and to describe. Yet “’To see’ means not only to have before one’s eyes. It may also mean to preserve in memory. ’To see and to describe’ may also mean to reconstruct in imagination.”
The reader of Miosz’s poetry is immediately struck by this effort “to reconstruct in imagination,” to make memories live again through description. Poem after poem is built of powerful and recurrent images of his Lithuanian boyhood, his World War II youth, and his California émigré adulthood. The poems vary in tone, of course—many strive to make affirmations in the face of the historical tragedies that he has seen in his long life. The strongest and most memorable poems, however, are those in which he recalls the war years and their aftermath with a survivor’s painful guilt....
(The entire section is 1876 words.)