The Milosz Century

Czeslaw Milosz, 1911 – 2004

Czeslaw Milosz is the first of four Nobel laureates who, were they still living, would be celebrating their centenary this year. His birthday is on June 30th. (The other three are: William Golding, on September 19th, Odysseus Elytis, on November 2nd, and Naguib Mahfouz, on December 11th.)

I don’t know quite how I discovered Czeslaw Milosz. I was an undergraduate, studying music at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, learning about roommates, practicing piano, trying to grasp German augmented fourths and the rules of voice leading, and engaged in all those fumbling efforts to be – or rather, to become – a livable self. Such touching self-involvement – I blush to remember it. Somewhere in the exhausting midst of it all, books had become, for me, both aphrodisiac and sedative: such expanses as opened out between their covers gave me almost the physical sensation of a perpetual flight over a sharp drop. Then again, they settled me, anchored me against the native loneliness common to all head-prone children. Drifting the library stacks, putting my clammy fingerprints on the spines of as many books as possible –nothing better.

It was probably thus that I found Milosz. (He was certainly not assigned reading. I remember bringing one of his poems to a tutorial with one of my English professors, a woman well respected in the department.  She hadn’t heard of him.  I am ever re-learning that not everyone shares my idiosyncratic projects.) The first book of his I read was Unattainable Earth (1986). What fascinated, I think, was that, for a man with such a strange, dark-hued name, he wrote poetry of such apparent transparency, using sentences with clear syntax, easy-to-grasp logic, so that I consistently imagined I understood him.  Occasionally, it seemed he was transcribing my own thoughts.  Like this, which, if taken in at half-glance, and far more indulgently rendered, could have come from my journal at the time:

Who will assure me that I perceive the world the same way other people do?  It is not improbable that I am a deviation from a norm, an oddity, a mutation, and that I have no access to what they experience.  And if that is the case, what right do I have to pronounce general opinions on man, history, the difference between good and evil, society, systems; as if I did not guess that my difference, though hidden, influences my judgements, changes proportions?

Unattainable Earth, p. 64

Twenty years out, I am reading Unattainable Earth once again.  I didn’t, I now realize, get him at all.  Milosz once made the observation (I can’t place the reference off hand) that American students were incapable of grasping, either spiritually or intellectually, Eastern Europe in the 20th century.  My own example would not have disabused him of this impression.  What did I know of cruelty on the scale of apocalypse? Of rubbing one’s eyes awake after the Nazi nightmare, only to be assaulted by the cold, day-lit horror of Soviet occupation? Of betrayals, both craven and coerced? Of the relocation of entire populations from ancestral lands to lands unsympathetic, even hostile, foreign in both language and culture? What know I now, whose learning, all of it, has arisen from the sea of privilege in which I swim? My earnest panting after self-discovery would have been as bewildering to him as would be for me his relentless referencing of every article of his life, even sex, even his dreams, onto the grid of history. Milosz’s century was not mine.

Yet, for all the limitations of my internal resources, some spare nerve in my system remained responsive to his work.  This nerve hummed to its austerity, which was really just the garb put on by chastened ecstasy, for there was always a sense in his poetry that life ought to be given over to unchecked joy, were it not for exigencies.  I kept reading.  I read The Captive Mind (1951), his classic work on the seduction of totalitarianism and its effects on the minds of intellectuals whose raison d’etre is supposedly to think clearly.  I read his autobiographical novel, The Issa Valley.  Of the poems I read at that time, I remember especially “Ars Poetica?”, found in his Selected Poems – nine quatrains, the final two particularly disturbing:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

What, I wondered, could it mean for a poet to write a poem whose status as a poem he repudiates, suggesting that a real poem is something far more perilous than the words he’s arranged here?  Such a formulation could only come from a soul whose world has shattered.

“Ars Poetica?” was written in 1968, during Milosz’s first decade as professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley. One of his most often cited poems, “Dedication”, was written in Warsaw in 1945, and makes for the later a bleak, umbrous backdrop.


You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

There, in the second stanza, was the word I came to associate with Milosz – “epoch”.  In memory, it seemed to turn up in every second poem.  A kind of Biblical grandeur adheres to it, a suggestion of sublimity, and God knows I was all for the sublime in those years (still am, for that matter). But I didn’t know the half of what that word held.

I learned what an “epoch” was in seventh grade.  I went to a school affiliated with the Christian reformed church, Calvinist to the core. Somehow I got it into my daft, adolescent head that I needed to challenge the going wisdom about evolution, to demonstrate how gripping the handles of creationism, if nothing else, showed a lack of imagination. I had a teacher wise enough to let me stage a debate with a girl in my class who would defend the religious party line. So I commenced my ardent research, learning about the Pleistocene, Pliocene, Miocene. Unimaginable stretches of time characterized by tectonic shifts, the ebb and flow of prehistoric seas, the layering of rock and the formation of the fossil record. Epochs. All dreamily abstract.

What I didn’t know is that the tectonic shifts of an epoch can mean the invasion of your country, the subsequent occupation, and the brutal subjugation of you and everyone you know, that it can mean the systematic stripping of all the salient features of your culture, the shredding of your identity, and the murder of your family.  All of which can leave you – let’s say your a survivor – vulnerable to the nostalgic invocation of earlier epochs, with their manor houses and hunting parks, their centers of learning, their Jews.  In other words, an epoch frames what happens to you, to your ancestors, your successors, and what happens can be catastrophe. Milosz’s century was not my century, and yet we were, in a sense, living along side one another, he at Berkeley, me at St. Olaf. And this, somehow, mattered to me.  When he died in 2004, it was as if one of the great guides had left, and, as part of that leaving, had left me to my own devices with only this, that I would do well to be awake to my century.  As always, much was at stake.