• Tag Archives poetry
  • 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.

  • Derek Walcott won’t save you (part 3)

    A certain fatigue can set in when reading too much Derek Walcott at a go, like contending with a twice-too-large serving of boeuf bourguignon.  The impression I sometimes get of him is that of a 19th century novelist who, do to a fluke paper shortage, decided to funnel his torrential sensibilities into poetry. Middlemarch filed into iambic pentameter.  Or Moby Dick. Here are the opening lines of chapter 22 of his 1974 autobiographical poem, Another Life.

    Miasma, acedia, the enervations of damp,
    as the teeth of the mould gnaw, greening the carious stump
    of the beaten, corrugated silver of the marsh light,
    where the red heron hides, without a secret,
    as the cordage of mangrove tightens
    bland water to bland sky
    heavy and sodden as canvas,
    where the pirogue foundered with its caved-in stomach
    (a hulk, trying hard to look like
    a paleolithic, half-gnawed memory of pre-history)
    as the too green acid grasses set the salt teeth on edge,
    acids and russets and water-colored water,
    let the historian go mad there
    from thirst.  Slowly the water rat takes up its reed pen
    and scribbles. Leasurely, the egret
    on the mud tablet stamps its hieroglyph.


    There is an over-stuffedness about this, like the house of a lottery millionaire crazed for magnificence. The gift is formidable.  I particularly love lines five through seven, “as the cordage of mangrove tightens/bland water to bland sky/ heavy and sodden as canvas,”.  But by the time I reach line fourteen, with the historian gone mad from thirst, and realize I have been reading an actual sentence, I am quite out of breath.

    V. S. Naipaul famously wrote, “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.”  Walcott writes as if his life depended on proving this statement false. He has made it his ultimate concern to carry The Caribbean before the world, as if shouldering its golden palanquin alone, saying “Here. Here is our indispensable presence.”  But, like a skilled diplomat, he is as involved with the culture he is addressing as with the culture he is presenting. And so, a dynamic tension advances on his nerves, directing his pen (one almost imagines it a quill): On the one hand he has insisted that a life in St. Lucia is all his poetry requires. The narrator of his his 2004 book, The Prodigal, is told that Paris will change his life.  His response:

    I like my life.


    You think here is enough?

    For me it is.


    Anyway I can see Martinique from here.

    On the other hand, he has repudiated the “Black Word” movement, a stance towards writing espoused by the literary descendants of Langston Hughes, who believed it was critical for black writers to eschew the European tradition at every turn and blaze their own formal and linguistic trail.  Walcott cites his own melting pot ancestry – Dutch and British as well as African – as evidence that Tennyson and Yeats are his inheritance as much as the African jungle. A lover of The Islands, it is Europe’s ear he cherishes.

    Walcott’s childhood home on Chausse Road, Castries, St. Lucia

    Sam’s question, “Why is Derek Walcott considered so great?”  is now, I believe, stalking its answer:  I would propose that this ambivalence – his home, a twenty-seven mile by fourteen mile  reprieve from Caribbean waters, held up against the legacy of Auden – is at the core of his strength as a poet.  Far from dividing his art, making him half-hearted in either direction, it has given him a singleness of purpose.  His outsized ambition could perhaps best be described as a West Indian iteration of Stephen Dedelus’s famous battle cry near the end of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Such rhetoric is naturally vulnerable to grandiloquence, but if his poems occasionally succumb, it is the error of a gifted boy from the provinces singing too loudly in the King’s church.  In this, it participates in a universal drama. It is one of the central tasks of our lives to press for certain reconciliations: between who we are and who we wish we were, what we are and what we could be, where we are, where we imagine it is better to be, and where, at last, we are most ourselves. And, in the course of these spiritual negotiations, can it be said we are, any of us, really alive if we don’t sing sometimes too loudly?

    Here, from the thirteenth chapter of The Prodigal, is Walcott at his most moving . This passage comes after the narrator has journeyed to Europe, fast on the heals of self-understanding, and has returned at last to his island home.


    So has it come to this, to have to choose?
    The chafe of the breakers’ moving marbles,
    their lucent and commodious statuary
    of turbulent stasis, changing repetition
    of drizzling spray that glazes your eyes
    like the marble miracles of the Villa Borghese?
    Do not diminish in my memory
    villages of absolutely no importance,
    the rattleing bridge over the stone-bright river,
    un-ornate churches, chapels in the provinces
    of light-exhausted Europe. Hoard, cherish
    your negligible existence, your unrecorded history
    of unambitious syntax, your clean pools
    of unpolluted light over close stones.


  • Derek Walcott won’t save you (part 1)

    Derek Walcott

    This morning I told Sam I was going to be writing a post on Derek Walcott.  “I don’t understand why he’s considered so great,” he said.  “With the exception of that one poem about the birds, the poems of his I’ve come across have seemed so specifically about the Caribbean.  What does he have to say to an ordinary guy living in Denver?”  Sam is one of the most avid readers of poetry I know, actually much more skilled at it than I, so his question warrants a serious attempt at a response.

    I’ll begin by mentioning another poet altogether: Three years ago I had the opportunity to meet Mark Strand.  For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Strand is one of America’s preeminent poets.  Born in 1934, he is a member of what I would call a golden generation of American poets born between 1920 and 1940 which includes W. S. Merwin, Philip Levine, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, Amy Clampitt, Galway Kinnell, Adrianne Rich, and Charles Simic, all of them born between 1920 and 1940.  There were great poets before them, and there are many fine younger poets at work now, but something in America’s water between the two world wars yielded an unprecedented effulgence of poetic genius.

    Mark Strand

    At 75, Mark Strand radiated upon those of us gathered his pronounced Clint Eastwood brand of handsomeness, the kind that insists on reminding you of its owner’s age. How much trust does one allot for the work of a tall handsome poet? On the one hand, physical beauty makes no difference at all.  Only the words matter, the words, how they are arranged, and to what end.  On the other hand, one can’t help wondering what tangled vines it helped clear for him from the universal jungle’s narrow and precarious path.  As if to illustrate, he told a personal anecdote that could not have happened to just anyone.  He told a story about meeting Auden:

    During Strand’s time as a student at Antioch University, W. H. Auden visited the campus, and the privilege fell to him to usher the great poet around. At the end of the day, Auden, Strand, his wife, and a friend went to the friend’s apartment for a glass of brandy.  Only problem, the friend had but three glasses.  It was decide that Wystan Hugh and Mark would share a glass.  The brandy was poured.  Auden took a sip.  Then, from the opposite side of the glass, Mark took a sip.  Auden rotated the glass to sip form where Mark’s lips had been.  Mark turned the glass, seeking an unsullied portion of the rim, whereupon Auden again placed his lips on the same coordinates.  And so it went, Auden’s lips pursuing, Strand’s  pursued.  All around the glass.

    A story like this holds several thrills.  First, there is the delight in the way the mind makes meaning.  It is the delight a poet takes in raising the mundane to the level of, if not truth, than at least wit.  Marvelous, isn’t it, that something as archetypal and untamed as the erotic chase can be channeled into a few drinks from a brandy glass.  The world seems better for this, more beautiful. Or at least more manageable.

    W. H. Auden

    Then there is the pleasure of its subject: It is a story about Auden for God’s sake! One of my first poetic idols.  So this is how, in one instance, the great man operated without paper and pen.  And there I was, mere feet away from someone who had known him. My narcissism positively quivered in the reflected glow.

    Finally, it was Mark Strand, one of America’s finest, doing the telling.  Mark Strand, to whom Harold Bloom gives over a loving section of his new book, The Anatomy of Influence. The story humanized him, as it humanized Auden.  It humanized him, but how glamorously!  Before winning the Pulitzer Prize, before becoming Poet Laureate, this man shared an escapade, if only small-scaled and symbolic, with the man who wrote The Shield of Achilles. Me? Today, I ate an egg sandwich.

    I asked Mr. Strand which poets he loved the most.  “Derek Walcott.”  Not a moment’s hesitation.  In his opinion, Derek Walcott is the greatest living poet in English (a position that I would argue once belonged to Auden).  “His use of language is…Shakespearean.”

    By coincidence, I had recently purchased Walcott’s Selected Poems (2007).  I had sniffed at it, read some poems, read lines or stanzas from others.  But, taking Strand’s cue, I decided to dive in and read it from cover to cover.

    I was not a Walcott virgin.  Back in 1992 or 1993, after he won the Nobel Prize, I went straight to the Denver Public Library and checked out his volume, The Fortunate Traveler (1981).  I copied out some of the poems (I’ve always loved doing this), including what became, and remains, one of my favorites, “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”. It is the “poem about the birds” Sam cited as the exception to his general impression of Walcott’s work. Not surprising. It is one of the high points of poetry in English.  It begins: “Then all the nations of birds lifted together/the huge net of the shadows of this earth/in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,/ stitching and crossing it.”

    When I got to the section from The Fortunate Traveler in Selected Poems, I discovered that the very first poem in this section, entitled “Piano Practice”, is dedicated to none other than Mark Strand! At one and a half pages, it is what would be for most poets a poem of medium length.  For Walcott it is positively concise.  It begins with three wonderful lines: “April, in another fortnight, metropolitan April./A drizzle glazes the museum’s entrance,/like their eyes when they leave you, equivocating spring!”

    On a hunch, I reached for my copy of Strand’s New Selected Poems, flipped through the pages.  I knew it had to be there.  Sure enough.  There, on page 243, from his 1998 volume, Blizzard for One, was, in seventeen lines of iambic hexameter, “The View”, for — Derek Walcott.

    More on Walcott, Strand, Auden, and a go at Sam’s question in my next post.