The Witness of Poetry

In the academic year 1981-1982, Czesaw Miosz was invited to give the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University. These six lectures have been collected in a slim volume entitled The Witness of Poetry.

The Witness of Poetry is a deceptive book, lucid but gnomic. The territory it covers is mostly familiar—contemporary poetry is traced to its roots in the nineteenth century—but Miosz’s account of the process is anything but familiar. Ideally, before reading The Witness of Poetry, one should first read Ziemia Ulro (1977; The Land of Ulro, 1984), in which Miosz’s perspective on literary history from the Enlightenment to the late twentieth century is developed in greater detail. While sensitive to nuances of language and style, Miosz is primarily concerned with writers who transcend literary categories to address the spiritual dilemma of mankind.

It is important to stress this point at the outset. The Witness of Poetry has been widely reviewed, and many reviewers have rightly emphasized the contrast between, on the one hand, Miosz’s definition of poetry as “the passionate pursuit of the Real,” and, on the other, what Miosz in his Nobel address referred to as “theories of literature as écriture, of speech feeding on itself”—theories currently so fashionable in American universities. At the same time, however, such an emphasis easily leads to a misperception of Miosz as a kind of no-nonsense realist. The ellipses and the cryptic but richly suggestive aphorisms that characterize his prose are skimmed over in summaries of his argument; all that is strange, esoteric, and highly personal is minimized.

Thus, before undertaking an outline of Miosz’s argument, it may be helpful to quote a passage representative of that which is left out in summary. “One of the strangest regularities to be taken into account by a historian of literature and art,” Miosz observes in his first lecture, “is the affinity binding people who live at the same time in countries distant from one another. I am even inclined to believe that the mysterious substance of time itself determines the similarities of a given historical moment even between civilizations not in communication.” Such speculation (sufficient grounds, at many universities, for denying tenure—a consideration which this professor emeritus is happily beyond) is typical of Miosz’s venturesome metaphysical thought.

The first chapter is entitled “Starting from My Europe.” Miosz begins by noting that “learned books on poetry . . . find, at least in the countries of the West, more readers than does poetry itself.” With this blend of childlike naïveté and sophisticated irony that one often finds in his poetry, he adds:A poet who would like to compete with those mountains of erudition would have to pretend he possesses more self-knowledge than poets are allowed to have. Frankly, all my life I have been in the power of a daimonion, and how the poems dictated by him came into being I do not quite understand.

Nevertheless, he believes that his unaccustomed role as a lecturer on poetics is justified, for he can bring to his audience the “peculiar perspective” afforded by the “extraordinary and lethal events” that have occurred in his “corner of Europe” in the twentieth century: “all of us who come from those parts . . . tend to view [poetry] as a witness and participant in one of mankind’s major transformations. I have titled this book The Witness of Poetry not because we witness it, but because it witnesses us.”

Thus, in the first two paragraphs of the first chapter, Miosz has sketched the themes that animate his “defense of poetry.” First, there is the conflict between the poet’s mode of cognition and the scientific Weltanschauung that has dominated Western thought since the Enlightenment (here represented by literary criticism with pretensions to scientific rigor). Second, there is the emphasis on historical awareness as a weapon against the tyranny of this image of the world. Finally, in the conception of poetry as a “witness,” there is a hint of the messianic hope, transcending any merely literary expression, that informs Miosz’s entire oeuvre—a hope made more explicit in The Land of Ulro:And what of those for whom heaven and earth are not enough, who cannot live except in anticipation of another heaven and earth? For those whose lives, such as they are, remain a dream, a curtain, a blank mirror, and who cannot accept that they will never understand what it really was all about? They will believe for the simple reason that the consummation of their desire can be expressed in no labile human tongue. Only one language can do justice to the highest claim of the human imagination—that of Holy Writ.

In the course of the first chapter, Miosz traces modern poetry to its roots in the France of Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Just when the positivistic scientific Weltanschauung was conquering the middle classes, the underground men of the nineteenth century—Miosz adduces Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevski—began to prophesy the ascent of nihilism. All of this is familiar material, presented freshly from the perspective of a Polish poet....

(The entire section is 2187 words.)


Choice. XX, June, 1983, p. 1448.

Commentary. LXXV, April, 1983, p. 41.

Library Journal. CVIII, May 15, 1983, p. 1004.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 5, 1983, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, May 1, 1983, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, January 14, 1983, p. 68.

Saturday Review. IX, June, 1983, p. 58.

Times Literary Supplement. September 9, 1983, p. 953.

World Literature Today. LVIII, Spring, 1984, p. 332.