Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596
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 geopolitical, Miosz positions himself “on the border of schizophrenia,” willing neither completely to reject nor completely to accept linkage of his “peculiar case” with “the messianic hope” of his native land, the Poland whose modern history of subjugation and partition has often made it a nation in exile, living on in name (or memory) only.
Because to live on the border is to live simultaneously in two (or more) places and in no one place at all, Miosz feels “ill at ease” both in a Poland ruled by communist tyranny and in an America of moral lassitude and “aimless bustle.” Miosz eventually does make his separate peace and is able to say (though not with complete conviction), “this is my home.” saying so does not assuage the feelings of guilt and shame to which his poem gives eloquent voice. In fact, rather than easing his sense of spiritual discomfort, rather than narrowing the distance between the image of the self he should have been and the mere shadow that he is, Miosz accentuates the dis-ease and widens the schizophrenic gap. At this point, the only explanation he feels he can possibly offer is the Catholic concept of Original Sin. Anticipating Rao’s objection, Miosz concedes that he is relying on “a ready argument,” but he also points out that the phrase itself—Original Sin—does not adequately express the idea Miosz wishes to convey.
Rejecting Rao’s Hindu-Socratic claim “that liberation is possible,” Miosz accepts his own sinful state. Unlike Rao, who emphasizes what man can become, Miosz emphasizes what man in his “hidden essence” is. Just as he earlier came to question his own optimistic vision of “a permanent polis,” he now questions Rao’s different but equally hopeful vision. Instead of moving ahead to the realization of either, Miosz moves back beyond the Poland evoked at the beginning of the poem to the very origin of his dis-ease and spiritual exile, to the Original Sin that is the sign of his weak and divided nature. Against both the vanity of the ego and the visions of human utopias, Miosz posits the sinful self accepting his agony, struggling with himself, praying “for the Kingdom,” and “reading Pascal.”
Forms and Devices
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432
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 is no rhyme, but the repetition of similar syntactical phrasings, along with the formal devices previously mentioned, impart to the poem its own sense of order and direction. In this way, “To Raja Rao” comes to embody in its very structure and movement Miosz’s conception of poetry as a “search for direct forms” and “the passionate pursuit of the real.”
Within the poem’s enabling epistolary structure, Miosz conducts his “search for direct forms” in the language of “simple speech.” The artful “simple speech” of “To Raja Rao” contributes not only to the poem’s immediacy and accessibility, but to the appearance of the poem as unmediated personal experience. As already noted, however, “To Raja Rao” is not confessional in style and bears little similarity to the works of the American confessional poets Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Although he believes that poetry “comes only from pain, only from personal experience,” Miosz contends that art must never be merely or even chiefly subjective. Poetry, he maintains, is not self-exposure; it is, rather, the “distillation” and “transformation” of life into art via form, or rather the “search for direct forms” previously mentioned.