(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Czesław Miłosz, one of the most highly respected writers of the twentieth century, has accumulated the wealth of a lifetime in his book Milosz’s ABC’s. He suggests he has written this book “instead of a novel, instead of an essay on the twentieth century, instead of a memoir.” Indeed, the book encompasses each of these genres in turn, offering the reader a rare glimpse into the life of a great poet living out his life in the twentieth century.

Milosz’s ABC’s is a collection of short entries covering a wide variety of topics. As the title suggests, Milosz’s ABC’s is arranged alphabetically by subject, much the way an encyclopedia is structured. Generically, the ABC book has its roots in Poland, and since Miłosz writes only in Polish, the choice of the genre seems fitting. There are both joys and difficulties in this choice, however. The structure of the book is from the outside; that is, there is no organic connection between essays that appear next to each other. Their titles simply follow each other in the alphabet. Consequently, the book sometimes seems fragmented and without direction, one random entry following another. On the other hand, the juxtapositions of widely varying topics often open interesting connections between two or more seemingly unrelated topics. In this way, the book sometimes comes close to resembling poetry, where the unexpected image butts up against some other unlikely idea. The reader’s comfort with randomness will probably affect the response to the book. Those readers needing clear, logical transitions will not find them and may be disconcerted by the leaps between entries. Those readers who delight in the unexpected twist of the text will find the abecedarian approach filled with surprise and serendipity.

Miłosz writes biographies of people he knows and of people he does not know, historical essays about Poland and the world, literary criticism, philosophical treatises, and a variety of other less well-defined pieces. Each piece is firmly grounded in the twentieth century (with a few exceptions, such as the entry on the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman), and the totality of the book captures a sense of a recently departed past.

As a reader, it would be possible to build one’s own path through the book, perhaps reading all the biographies first, then examining the philosophy. Another reader might choose to dip into the book at random spots, creating a different set of juxtapositions. Yet another reader might start at the beginning and work through the essays to the last page. Each of these choices would produce a particular kind of reading, different from that produced by another choice.

Miłosz chooses to begin his book with an entry on Ludwik Abramowicz, the publisher of The Wilno Review, an important influence on Miłosz’s early years. In this first entry, Miłosz also introduces his memories of and love for the town in which he grew up. This first essay, then, sets up a number of themes to which Miłosz will return: Wilno, Poland, the twentieth century, and memory.

Miłosz also addresses the horror of the twentieth century in a number of essays. In “Anus Mundi,” an expression that means “the world’s anus,” he reflects on Auschwitz, Poland, and the role of art and poetry in the face of such evil. In addition, he responds to philosopher Theodor Adorno’s statement that “it would be an abomination to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz.” Miłosz himself lived in Poland, the place a German described as “anus mundi” in 1942, and wrote lyric poetry throughout. He counters Adorno’s statement with one of his own, that “gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare themselves for life; they are the body’s rebellion against its destruction.” For Miłosz, poetry offers comfort, and as such must be written in spite of the horror of human existence.

Miłosz writes not only of Polish historic and literary figures, he also includes some Americans in his ABC’s. Two poets who receive very different treatment are Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. Miłosz takes Frost to task for hiding his biography behind the guise of the New England farmer. Indeed, Miłosz goes so far as to say that he does not like Frost’s poetry. Whitman, on the other hand, receives the highest praise from Miłosz: “The divine literatus’ had conquered the distance between the I’ and the crowd, had devoured religions and philosophies, so that instead of contradictions, mortality and immortality both fit into...

(The entire section is 1855 words.)