(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Czesław Miłosz in his late eighties has published a charming, pungent yet thoughtful, and profound meditation on his life and on the nature and function of poetry, art, philosophy, and religion. He creates as his persona a traveler through the countryside of his youth, rural Poland, observing from the seat of his cart and pondering as he goes the nature of life. “I went on a journey in order to acquaint myself with my province,” he comments, and he thinks as he goes of the roadside dogs that challenge the traveler, that announce boundaries and borders, that guard the private and public weal. Thus he writes of the poet as a roadside dog, barking, giving unintelligible utterance to the appearances of passersby, of all of humanity, the poet in one of his oldest capacities as seer, yet ironically so.

One of his constant themes is epistemological, the nature of knowing, asking always in one way or another how one knows things. What is knowing? How does one accomplish it? What good is it? How is it used? How, for that matter, is it faked? In “Love of Knowledge,” he meditates on a “subject” for poem or a book, a man who discovers that the gap between what one should know as a professor and what one can know is insurmountable. Thus, those in the profession reach a tacit agreement: “that they would not be held responsible for actually reading the works of celebrities whose names they liked to invoke,” that all one had to do was to master the professional jargon to advance quickly and surely. On the other hand, in a beautiful and profound haiku entitled “Autumn,” Miłosz shows how to perceive and reverence one very real kind of knowledge: “Cathedral of my enchantments, autumn wind, /I grew old giving thanks.” Knowledge born of the senses is a blessing bestowed by the creator for which the poet is profoundly grateful. Just as William Carlos Williams focused attention on the importance of sheer physicality—the tangible substance, shape, and color of, for example, “The Red Wheelbarrow”—so Miłosz invites readers to contemplate a “Watering Can” in a prose meditation that elevates a green watering can in a garden shed as an object fit for memory because of the poet’s “training in noticing things.” Miłosz has a profound respect for “things,” even more so the acts of noticing and knowing and reflecting on them, because, he says, in “clinging to distinctly delineated shapes, does our hope reside, of salvation from the turbulent waters of nothingness and chaos.” A few pages earlier, he has reminded readers of the unbreakable and necessary connection between perception and language. The poet is obliged to polish “the language of his predecessors” because that language in its “rhythm and the order of syntax” provides a barrier to one’s chaos.

Thus Miłosz argues strongly through his specific, tightly observed perceptions of physical reality a necessary connection between poetry and salvation. Yet there are places even a poet cannot go. In “You Don’t Know,” he observes that one cannot know what goes on in the heads, the perceptions, of others, a fact with stunning implications for propaganda, truth, media, politics, and, appropriately, art. He thinks a great deal about the meaning and reputation of the work that an artist produces. In “Our Community,” he asks how meaning is made, received, understood, preserved, and communicated; in “Warmth,” he argues that once the living, vital presence of the poet or artist has passed, what is left is only a simulacrum of the genuine power, the perception, the created moment that only “the bodily presence and animal warmth of those who are organisms at the same time” maintain. After death, what is left is only the stuff of dissertations.

On the other hand, Miłosz marvels that despite the physical changes that occur over a long life, one is still the “same instrument” that once was obsessed with erotic and emotional passion. “How is this so?” he asks throughout the book. Perhaps because the meaning-making instrument, the mind, is always at play. The desire and capacity and compulsion to “insert meaning” also insert and insist on the power of falling in love. What an impossibly optimistic and powerful statement! Having lived a long and productive life and being capable of reflecting profoundly on its meaning and significance, he is concerned with the nature of his oeuvre. In “Eighty- five Years,” he meditates on the occasion of a celebration of his life and work, calling it “a cold weighing on a balance of my gains and losses,” the losses the “false words that have issued from my pen . . . irrevocable because they have been printed.” Despite the “trash on the way to a few notes perfectly pure,” Miłoszis remarkably optimistic about the power and appropriateness of the work of a poet, whose “language itself unfurled its velvet yarn in order to cover what, without it, would equal...

(The entire section is 2009 words.)