Milosz: A Biography review – Polish poet’s journey to Nobel fame
Andrzej Franaszek recounts the life of Czeslaw Milosz, an exile from Europe who rose from obscurity to being feted by Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky
Czeslaw Milosz: stepped into the empty space in American poetry. Photograph: Louis Monier/Getty Images
Milosz: A biography
Imagine a poet from the Aran islands, teaching for years in China, who suddenly wins the Nobel Prize. Translated into Chinese, he reads all over the country and is hailed as the greatest Chinese poet of his day. This despite his insistence (what do they know in China of the internal situation of Aran which torments him, or its relation with the Irish mainland?) that he is wholly other than they imagine him.
A similar situation was experienced by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, an obscure professor of Slavic studies in Berkeley, after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.
Whether or not his fame as an English-language poet was based on misunderstanding, there was an empty space in American poetry to be stepped into. Elizabeth Bishop had died in 1979, Robert Lowell two years earlier. Clever emptiness, and the competent mediocrity of the creative writing schools, were the dominant modes. The field was open for an exiled European poet, loaded with moral content – a celebrity arrived, as Seamus Heaney put it, “from where the real thing still happened”.
How late that celebrity came and at what personal cost is spelt out in this biography by a Polish insider. For decades, “wrong honourable Prof Milosz”, as he called himself, lectured to a handful of students while his second self wrote in Polish. Alcohol-driven, philandering, a workaholic with a body of poems and prose comprehensible only to émigré friends in Paris, it was Joseph Brodsky, recently and sensationally arrived from the East, whose good offices got for him first the Neustadt, then the Nobel award. A man for whom, only five years previously, no one could be found to organise a festchrift on his retirement, was now being feted by Solidarity as the great returnee, the keeper of the Polish conscience. Such is the fine line between fame and oblivion.
Milosz was born into minor Lithuanian gentry in 1911, the year after Tolstoy died. The age of the novel, it can be seen retrospectively, was giving way to fractured avant-gardism, war, the collapse of sacred European values. After an infancy in flight from the Germans, then the oncoming Bolsheviks, the poet grew up in the fake idyll of interwar Poland, shot through with suicidal neurosis and artistic catastrophism, with Hitler on one side, Stalin on the other. Their eventual pact, in August 1939, “brought all of Europe’s poisons to the surface”, as he later wrote. As the first Nazi bombs rained down on Warsaw, he slept deeply in a haybarn. “At last, the nonsense was over.”
The “dark instinct”, as he called it, that drew him back to Nazi-occupied Warsaw, “the most agonised spot in all of Europe”, can also be construed as the poet’s instinct to be at the centre of energy, if not morality. The terror of the war years, lived through in that city, seems for Milosz to have been a coming into health – artistically and personally –for the first time in his life. With Janka, his companion and later wife and mother to his two sons in America, he lived quietly on the outskirts, ridding himself stylistically of Polish romanticism (his critical attitude to the martyrdom of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 was never forgiven him in some Polish quarters) and writing, instead, in Voices of Poor People, the dry dispassionate etchings of apocalypse that constitute the beginnings of Polish irony, now so influential in English-language poetry.
Others find peace in the idolatry of country
Which can last a long time,
Although little longer than the nineteenth century lasts.
He also, more ambiguously, wrote Campo di Fiori, a vision of the burning Warsaw ghetto seen from a funfair on the other side of the wall. Later disowned as “immoral” by the poet himself, it can now be seen as a template for the poem of liberal guilt by practitioners like Seamus Heaney, faced with other ambivalences.
That same hot wind
Blew open the skirts of girls
And the crowds were laughing
On that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.
Representing Red Poland in its Washington embassy after the war – in the eyes of contemporaries “a handshake with the devil” – brought on, eventually, a fresh crisis.
Recoiling from “birth, copulation and death” (America) and “the Hegelian bite of history” (Soviet Russia), his defection to the west in Paris was a minor cause celebre in 1951, after which – alone, impoverished, in disrepute on all sides – he wrote The Captive Mind, his study of the despairs and conformities of intellectuals in the postwar void. It brought him, at the time, a strange, unwanted fame as a political thinker, but what keeps it in print is its delineation of corporate fear and cowardice, as relevant in today’s academic world as ever it was under communism.
Nonetheless, it was academe that brought him to California in 1960, for the rest of his working life. Tenured but remote, his poetry proscribed in Poland, unknown in America, he saw himself as “a miser asleep on a mattress filled with money. Because no one knows about it, the mattress will end up on a rubbish dump.” Lonely, with a depressed wife and a troubled son, he lectured on, through the hippie “revolution”, to his handful of students.
I covered my face with my hands and those sitting on the benches kept silent.
They were unknown to me, for my age was over and my generation gone.
In fact, a new generation, this time English-speaking, was to rediscover him and he was to reign with unchallenged moral authority over the American scene for his remaining decades, and, to an extent, despite elements of resentment, over his native Poland as well. Sage posturing – the aged Verkovensky in Dostoyevsky’s Possessed, with his raised finger and “mais distinguons!” – was occasionally indulged in, and he clearly enjoyed his fame while pretending to be appalled by it. It can fairly be said that the American poetry world, since his Nobel award in 1980, was dominated by non-Americans like Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott and himself, and nothing so far has replaced them.
‘Man of contradictions’
Milosz described himself as “a man of contradictions”. Steeped in Thomist catechetics of a kind familiar to Irish mid-century generations, he would have been happier, perhaps, dining with John Charles McQuaid than reading to rapt audiences of secular liberals at the Dún Laoghaire poetry festival. His Irish acolytes, including Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll, seem to have seen in him what they needed – a moral hero – rather than what he insisted he was, a bushy-browed Caliban eyeing the available talent (as I witnessed myself) well into his 80s.
My lord, I loved strawberry jam
And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.
Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,
So what kind of prophet am I?
A European to the core, “the granularity of historical time” was always more to him than wide American skies, and in his final years he went home. His long exile may never have taken him to China, like our hypothetical Irish poet, but he did, in fact, visit the Aran islands once, after a festival. By then, his own islands, Poland and Lithuania, had surfaced again like the lost Atlantis – if not forever, then long enough, at least, for him to be buried there.
Harry Clifton’s Portobello Sonnets is published by Wake Forest and Bloodaxe Books. He was Ireland professor of poetry from 2010 to 2013