• Tag Archives poetry of witness
  • The Polish Orpheus, Czeslaw Milosz, born 100 years ago today

    Vilnius, Lithuania. In a year of commemorations, panegyrics, readings, and discourse around the world, occasioned by the centenary of Czeslaw Milosz, one small memorial will slip by, largely unnoticed: A plaque honoring the poet has been installed on the building where, ninety years ago, he attended secondary school.  The plaque reads:

    Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel Prize laureate and honorary citizen of Vilnius, studied in this building – the former Zygmunt August School – during the years 1921-1929.

    Imagine this building.  Has anyone been to Vilnius?  Anyone seen the place? Imagine young Czeslaw making his way there every day, jostling with friends, his beautiful brow knitting at their antics.  Perhaps he participates.  There he is in a hot classroom, holding his head in his hand, elbow propped on his desk, fingers in his hair, listening to the lesson, or distracted.  His mind was awakening in a world still electric from World War I. The air he and his classmates breathed was coming on swift currents from Red Square, swelling the lungs of revolutionaries as well as peasants isolated in the taiga who may have only just heard that the Tsar was no more.  What jokes did he laugh at? What made him blush? Just the year before he entered the Zygmunt August School, this city, Vilnius (then called Wilno) had been captured by Poland and made the capital of the Republic of Central Lithuania. In his second year, this new geopolitical entity was incorporated into the Polish Second Republic. Economic hardship exacerbated by crop failures across Eastern Europe was drying the tinder of anti-semitism. Unrest was the constant during those days at  Zygmunt August.  His mind learned restlessness.

    And to think, it was all yet to come, all that would lead him to spend the rest of his days diving for the Underworld in search of those he believed must not be left there.  Being descended from a noble family still meant something in those days.  Not yet, his continent’s mass deportations and relocations, the starvation. Still ahead, his study of law, that increasingly ironic enterprise.  Still ahead, Paris, and the intellectual and spiritual influence of his famous older cousin, Oscar Milosz, francophone poet and Swedenborgian Catholic. Not yet, the German occupation, the decimation by the Nazis, not only of Jewish Europe, of Gypsie, gay, disabled, non-aryan Europe, but of thought, of conscience, of the non-animal in Europe. Not yet, the Warsaw Uprising, the Warsaw defeat. Not yet, the hope in communism gutted in the abattoir of Stalinism, the gulags, the rapes, soviet soldiers urinating in the foyers of Polish and Baltic apartments. Still ahead, his first volume of poetry. Still ahead, the destruction of his fellow poets, that generation of Polish “Columbuses” (Edward Hirsch), a holocaust whose burden he would feel upon his shoulders to the end of his life.  And then, incredibly, Berkeley.  Not yet.

    We bring our school years forward with us through time, all the way.  Something of the Zygmunt August School will have been with Milosz on August 14th, 2004.  What that would have been is unknowable to us, but a core feature of his identity, whether learned there or (more likely) at some point nearer his birth, is dramatized by the school’s very name: Zygmunt II August was both the Grand Duke of Lithuania and the last un-elected king of Poland. Lithuania. Poland. Every day, after breakfast, he carried his growing body and mind through those doors swinging open under that name, an ever-present reminder of his country’s centuries long struggle to know itself, a project which became his own. Somewhere along the line he learned to say of himself, “I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian.”

    In this building, presumably no longer a school, Czeslaw Milosz grew from short-trousered childhood into adolescence. Someone will have been the focus of his first look of poignant longing. What did he say to her? Of her? What didn’t he say? Helen Vendler writes of the mature poet, “Like most lyric poets, Milosz was probably not by nature very much a social being, but, given the situation of his life, he cannot help being a historical one.” When did this order of things dawn on him? How did it impact his awakening heart?

    At the beginning of the second decade of this century, a plaque has been placed on a building, memorial to a boy who went to school there in the third decade of the last. The plaque will be seen every day for as long as the building stands.  But the boy is no more. The man is no more. So very much is no more.  And we all know how the life of plaques on buildings goes.  Count up the number of people who will read it even this year and you’ll arrive at  piece of statistical irrelevence. Hard to imagine what those few who take the time to read this plaque will make of it even one generation out.  But, there is the poetry.  The poetry remains. And, for now, at least, it seems it will remain for a long time.



    –When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
    The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
    The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
    What never added up will add up,
    What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.

    –And if there is no lining to the world?
    If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
    But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
    Make no sense following each other?
    And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?

    –Even if that is so, there will remain
    A word wakened by lips that perish,
    A tireless messenger who runs and runs
    Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
    And calls out, protests, screams.


    Happy birthday, Czeslaw Milosz.  Give our regards to Eurydice.


  • 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.