A Poet’s Work is subtitled “An Introduction to Czesław Miłosz”; it is really an introduction to the distinct phases of Miłosz’s poetry. It does not pretend to be a biography but is rather a study of Miłosz’s very unconventional traditions and sources for his poetry. Finally, it is an attempt to lead the reader to a truer and fuller response to Miłosz’s works. An uninformed reader who attempts to read Miłosz as he reads other modern or contemporary poets is likely either to sentimentalize Miłosz or to read him with little comprehension. Nathan and Quinn arm the reader with a knowledge of some of the traditions from Polish literature, Simone Weil, Greek philosophy, and Christian theology that make possible a fuller understanding of one of the most important poets of the period.
The book begins not with the earliest works of Miłosz, as one might expect, but instead with a later collection of essays, Widzenia nad Zakota San Francisco (1969; Visions from San Francisco Bay, 1982). The reason for this unusual choice for a beginning is the inadequate and misleading reception of that book—and by implication all the works of Miłosz. The authors object to the “good cheer” of the reviews and their failure to take Miłosz’s belief in the “demonic” seriously.Visions from San Francisco Bay is, in part, a description not of the quaint features of the area but of its “hostile beauty.” The authors cite Miłosz’s response to the “hostile beauty” of Death Valley and other places that resist an easy humanistic reading of the landscape.
Another aspect of Visions form San Francisco Bay is Miłosz’s description of the failure of the critics and readers of an earlier period to take Robinson Jeffers seriously. It deals more centrally with Miłosz’s opposition to Jeffers’ view of the world. Jeffers found comfort in the concept of “pure motion” and placed himself above the petty concerns of man in a landscape of “Basalt and granite.” Miłosz includes one poem in the prose collection, “To Robinson Jeffers.” The poem is a dialogue of Miłosz with Jeffers that ends by finally rejecting the American poet: “Better…than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.” Jeffers, in Miłosz’s view, gave in to the abstract and lost the source of all human good, the particular.
The next chapter, “Poland,” returns to the earliest poems of Miłosz. He was, in this period, a celebrator of nature, a “pure pantheist.” Miłosz belonged to a group called agary (brushwood), the members of which believed that the poet should celebrate nature; man’s role is to live on and die in the earth. He has no other existence. There is then in this celebration of nature an emphasis on death, the only proper union possible with the earth. Nathan and Quinn cite one of Miłosz’s earliest poems, “Hymn,” in which the speaker sees his life as a brief moment within nature: “Roll on, rivers; raise your hands,/ cities. I, a faithful son of the black earth, shall return to the black earth,/ as if my life had not been.”
The early poems are quite impressive, and readers will see a relationship between these poems and those of Walt Whitman. This pantheism, however, is only a temporary phase for Miłosz; it is not, as it was for Whitman, a lifelong position. Miłosz began to question this pantheism in “Dawns” and to refute it in “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto.” The latter poem is written about the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis. The terrible history of the period as well as a personal dissatisfaction with the pantheistic solution makes Miłosz into a very different poet. Moreover, “A Poor Christian looks at the Ghetto” is an indictment of the ealrier poems of Miłosz and those who shared his pantheism. Nature is now seen, as Nathan and Quinn suggest, as “indifferent”: “Bees build around red liver,/ Ants build around black bone.” Nature continues its processes and feeds on the human remains of the Warsaw ghetto. It is a stark and shocking image.
The indictment of “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto” is continued in a series of poems called “The Poor People.” In “The Poor Poet,” Miłosz directly challenges himself as a poet. In “The Poor Poet” there is “only injustice, humiliation, and laughable shame of braggarts.” The poet is also part of this world, since he “knew/ And took from it no profit for myself.” There is no learning here and no transcendence, only shame.
Nathan and Quinn then deal with a problem Miłosz and all Polish writers of this period had. Stanislaw Witkiewicz—a flamboyant playwright, novelist, artist, and philosopher—found life absurd. The prospect of absurdity organized by Nazis and Communists was unendurable, and so, on...
(The entire section is 1964 words.)