The Separate Notebooks

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The poetic work of Czesaw Miosz, the 1980 Nobel Prize laureate and arguably the greatest living Polish poet, has been made more or less accessible to English-speaking readers over the past decade thanks to the assiduity of numerous, mostly American, translators, including the author himself—Miosz, a resident of the United States since 1961, often shares in his translators’ labors. The Separate Notebooks, his third American collection following Selected Poems (1973) and Bells in Winter (1978), is the fruit of just such a collective endeavor, with two prominent American poets, Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky, acting as translators in close collaboration with the Polish-American critic Renata Gorczynski and Miosz himself. The results of this concerted effort are impressive; the translations sound stylistically fluent and unconstrained, while being, at the same time, semantically exact and faithful to many of the poems’ original characteristics. Unlike the previous two collections, this is a bilingual edition, which offers the Polish-speaking reader the special pleasure of observing how ingeniously the originals’ difficulties have been overcome by the translating team.

One misfortune the Nobel Prize for Literature holds for its recipients is that the laureate, subjected to public scrutiny and faced with exorbitant expectations, more often than not finds it impossible to continue his work. This rule certainly does not apply to Miosz, who has not allowed his poetic development to be disturbed by trivial accidents like this or that literary prize; on the contrary, the line of his artistic growth has risen steadily in the five years following his Nobel Prize. The Separate Notebooks, however, provides proof not only of Miosz’s most recent achievements but also of the consistency of his lifelong evolution. As were the two previous collections, this is actually a cross section of the poet’s entire output, from the earliest phase of his career, represented here by poems of the 1930’s, such as “The Song” or “Slow River,” to the World War II period, among others, the famous poem “Campo dei Fiori” and the extensive lyrical sequence “The World (A Naive Poem),” to the postwar years. Within the latter phase, Miosz’s work from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s is illustrated, first of all, by his long poem, or rather collage, composed of poetic and prosaic fragments, which has lent its title to the entire collection.

Miosz has often been described as a poet formed, first and foremost, by the experience of twentieth century history—by the catastrophic mood of the 1930’s, World War II, which he spent in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, and the observation of Communism at work in postwar Eastern Europe. This is certainly, if only partly, true; in particular, the powerful poem “Campo dei Fiori,” which speaks of the extermination of the Warsaw Ghetto and “the loneliness of the dying” when faced with the indifference of the external world, gives credence to the view that Miosz’s ethical system was built on the foundation of his historical experience. There is, however, another perspective from which Miosz’s poetry must be viewed simultaneously. It is highly significant that during the war years he wrote not only poems such as “Campo dei Fiori” but also “The World,” a poem of a completely different type, deliberately ahistorical. The poem is an attempt to reconstruct the metaphysical basis of the world’s Being as seen through the eyes of a child; the war is absent here or rather present only insofar as it provides the unspoken reason for why the world’s foundations must be raised anew. These two poems’ proximity in time—both “Campo dei Fiori” and “The World,” were written in 1943—offers an important clue to Miosz’s poetry. In fact, what is most characteristic in him is exactly this peculiar fusion of two perspectives—the poet has always viewed human existence in both its historical and metaphysical dimensions. Miosz’s skill in blending these two dimensions culminates in his most recent work, of which the long poem mentioned earlier, “The Separate Notebooks,” is a prime example; the autobiographical content serves here to demonstrate how an individual life can be molded by the course of History while still being subject to unchangeable laws of Existence.

Miosz’s own system of metaphysics and ethics is an extremely complex one, and it cannot be elucidated by referring to his poetry alone; an indispensable key...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Choice. XXII, October, 1984, p. 276.

Hudson Review. XXXVII, Autumn, 1984, p. 498.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 2, 1984, p. 8.

The Nation. CCXXXIX, December 22, 1984, p. 686.

The New Yorker. LX, March 19, 1984, p. 138.

Times Literary Supplement. July 13, 1984, p. 778.