Witness on the front line of history
ESSAY: The centenary of the birth of the late Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz will be celebrated at Dublin Writers Festival next week. GERARD SMYTHsalutes the Polish poet whose personal narrative always seemed in step with the seismic events of the 20th century
WHEN CZESLAW MILOSZ died in 2004, after a long and remarkable life, it was clear from the many tributes paid to him that a unique and essential voice had been taken from the estate of poetry. I was in Cracow at the time of his death, which was announced as a solemn national story in the newspapers and on radio and television. During the following days my inability to understand Polish was no obstacle to grasping the huge sense of national loss and sorrow that was in the air. He was, even after more than 30 years in the US, a poet who belonged to his nation.
When, after the collapse of communism, he returned to the country that had nursed him, it was very much with the status of a hero. Indicative of this was the banner that greeted him on his visit to the Gdansk shipyard, which said: “The People Will Give Strength Unto Their Poet.” That Milosz had become the Polish people’s poet was everywhere evident in those unforgettable days of mourning.
Witness is a frequently overused, as well as burdensome, word when it comes to certain poets of the 20th century. But Milosz had been a poet on the front line: he lived under two tyrannical regimes, that of the National Socialists and then that of the communists. These two great catastrophes of his homeland, and his insight into the ideologies from which they sprang, informed and haunted his understanding of the human condition.
Even as a 25-year-old, when he wrote one of his most famous poems, the terse nine-line Encounter,he was well on the way to comprehending the world and doing so “with wonder”:
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive.
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
He remained undaunted by the extreme circumstances of a life that began in Lithuania, where he was born in 1911 when it was under Russian tsarist rule. His personal narrative seemed always to be somewhere within the radius of the seismic events that defined the 20th century, including the Russian Revolution, two devastating world wars and the occupation of his homeland. His odyssey placed him in Warsaw during the uprising of 1944, and later in the intellectual and creative cauldron of postwar Paris. In the 1960s he was at Berkeley when it was the hot spot of US social and political radicalism, a movement he admonished as one that included “every stupidity” he had seen before.
When the French writer Jean Cocteau announced that “poetry is indispensable” he could have had in mind any number of the poems Milosz wrote during the Nazi occupation of his country. Cocteau, of course, qualified his proclamation by adding “if I only knew what for”, but had he read a poem such as Campo dei Fiori, written in 1943, he would have found the answer.
The poem, one of the most powerful in the Milosz canon, is ostensibly about the burning of the 16th-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno as a heretic in the Roman square of the poem’s title, but it is also a condemnation of the Nazi genocide of the imprisoned population in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto and a less than subtle critique of those Poles who went on with their lives in a state of indifference to the atrocity. In an interview not long before his death he described the poem as being “born out of a sort of moral obligation”.
“There are people who say that what I described was just a literary metaphor. But in fact I passed the ghetto as I was riding the tram and saw the horror with my own eyes . . . The main theme of the poem is the vulnerability and aloneness of the dying person,” he said.
It is one of those rare poems in which poetry’s indispensable moral force is at work. He later looked back on his writing of that period with an unnecessary touch of self-doubt and scruple:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throat will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
( Dedication, 1945)
In a tribute after his death, Seamus Heaney said that Milosz was aware of “poetry’s need to descend from its high vantage point and creep among the nomads on the plain”. His deeply humane poetry did just that, often expressing experiences that were common to many. He was not interested in making literature “an innocent pastime for a very restricted elite”. But the collective drama of personal, political and cultural situations and what he called the “many historical knots” – repeated throughout his life – demanded that his work should harbour that sometimes risky mix of poetics and polemics.
Like Donne, he was a poet of the carnal and the divine. He once referred to himself as the “only Polish poet with a metaphysical temperament”. He was not one for the shallow orthodoxies (though there are poems that are clearly and deeply marked by his Catholicism and its doctrines ), and in his poetic imagination there is something of the mystic. His erudite mind engaged with the notion of God in a way that did not exclude the independence of thought at the core of every sentence he wrote.
His fellow Polish poet Adam Zagajewski reminds us that Milosz is not only a poet of great intelligence but also one of “great ecstasy”. To have such ecstasy, and remain unyielding to the way of despair, in such an utterly dysfunctional and disordered world as the one of which he was a citizen – a world that also tested his faith – is his remarkable triumph. His poetry (and its readers) was the beneficiary of the crisis of thought that came with history’s nightmares.
In his introduction as editor of the revelatory mid-1960s anthology Post-War Polish Poetry, Milosz iterated his “distrust of poetry which indulges in negation and in a sterile anger at the world”. In his essay Against Incomprehensible Poetryhe reiterated that view by quoting Auden’s remark that poetry “must praise all that it can for being and for happening”. Throughout his considerable body of work there is abundant testimony to his belief in that pronouncement. The primary Milosz response is one of gratitude:
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Apart from the magnificent gift presented to us in Milosz’s compendious Collected Poems, there are other aspects of his writing life that complement the poetry, and a protean abundance of it: his poetic memoir-novel, The Issa Valley,as well as the various philosophical, religious and political treatises, as he liked to call them. He was a great rescuer of the neglected and forgotten: an essay that compellingly begins, “There was once a young woman by the name of Sorana Gurian,” is actually about the Kiev-born philosopher Lev Shestov but leads into a discourse on Simone Weil.
He takes us on unexpected journeys. Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, was born in Vilnius, which he celebrates in several poems but also in the prose work Dictionary of Wilno Streets, a wonderful topographical odyssey through the city that is almost Joycean in its fixation on matters of local detail
In Fellowship of Poets,her riveting account of the friendship between Milosz and the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, Irena Grudzinska Gross declares that his talent was a rare one, “characterised by masterly craft, versatility, diligence, fecundity, all-encompassing curiosity, sureness of pitch, continuous development, capacity for many genres, unshakable dignity linked to a sense of humour”.
He was indeed an amalgam of all these things, and needed to be to confront and deal imaginatively with the complexities of his country’s experiences as well as his personal ones.
Photographs of him in ripe old age, a stately figure with walking cane in hand, not only convey an image of his pre-eminent stature as national bard of Poland but also suggest the poet as sage. However, it is perhaps in a quote he borrowed from Whitman that he draws his self-portrait and makes his own judgment on himself and his work:
I am the poet of reality.
I say the earth is not an echo
Nor man an apparition.
Solidarity, Solitude, Revolution: Czeslaw Milosz, A Centenary Celebration takes place next Saturday at 7.30pm at the Samuel Beckett Theatre as part of Dublin Writers Festival. The keynote speech is by Adam Zagajewski, with contributions by Seamus Heaney, Dennis O’Driscoll, Julie O’Callaghan and Gerard Smyth. Tickets cost €15 (€12.50 concessions)