The Poem

Czesaw Miosz composed “To Raja Rao” immediately following a long theological discussion he had in Berkeley in 1969 with the Indian writer and philosopher Raja Rao, a man whose international stature, literary and philosophical interests, theological bent, and (perhaps most important) bicultural background parallel Miosz’s. It soon becomes apparent, however, that “To Raja Rao” deals less with these parallels than with the quite different ways in which the two writers—one a Catholic Pole, the other a Hindu Indian—deal with the “malady” introduced in line 2, but never specifically defined anywhere in the poem. This absence does not mean that the poem is merely or even chiefly confessional. “To Raja Rao” is Miosz’s attempt to understand and explain the nature and cause of this malady, and in this way define and explain his own essential being to an addressee who, whether Rao or some other reader, shares his general predicament, though not necessarily his background or his understanding of what that predicament means and what it entails.

Looking back, Miosz characterizes his life in self-exile in terms of displacement, unreality, and restless longing, his “hope of moving on.” (Miosz asked for and was granted political asylum by France in 1951; he accepted a teaching position at the University of California at Berkeley in 1960 and became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1970). Conflating the psychological and the...

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Forms and Devices

Read in the context of Miosz’s other poems, “To Raja Rao” seems at once anomalous and familiar. Of the 181 poems included in The Collected Poems, 1931-1987 (1988), “To Raja Rao” is the only one originally written in English. It is written, however, in one of Miosz’s favorite forms, the epistolary (though only two such poems appear in The Collected Poems). The epistolary form suits “To Raja Rao” particularly well. By addressing, or apostrophizing, Rao and by beginning the poem in medias res, as if the poem is continuing their conversation, Miosz creates a sense of immediacy that the poem’s stanzaic structure reinforces. Miosz divides his fifty-two-line poem into eighteen short stanzas. Eight of the eighteen are just two lines long; four are three lines; and six are four lines, with four of these relatively long stanzas clustered at the very center of the poem. Conventional terminology—couplet, triplet, even the more broadly defined quatrain—simply does not apply here; Miosz’s stanzaic units are too irregular in form for that. On the other hand, the poem is far from structureless. The stanzas are, after all, from two to four lines each; and Miosz’s line length follows a similarly flexible pattern. Lines expand or contract in individual stanzas as need dictates at a particular point in the poem, thus creating a variable but nevertheless rhythmical structure. Just as there is no narrowly defined metrical pattern, there...

(The entire section is 432 words.)