• Tag Archives Polish poetry
  • “joy – so what if its fleeting?” – Wislawa Szymborska, in memoriam

    Wislawa Szymborska, 1923 - 2012

    I sometimes dream of situations that can’t possibly come true. I audaciously imagine, for example, that I get a chance to chat with the Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I would bow very deeply before him, because he is, after all, one of the greatest poets, for me at least. That done, I would grab his hand. “‘There’s nothing new under the sun’: that’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem. And that cypress that you’re sitting under hasn’t been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same. And Ecclesiastes, I’d also like to ask you what new thing under the sun you’re planning to work on now? A further supplement to the thoughts you’ve already expressed? Or maybe you’re tempted to contradict some of them now? In your earlier work you mentioned joy – so what if it’s fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt you’ll say, ‘I’ve written everything down, I’ve got nothing left to add.’ There’s no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.”

    from “The Poet and The World”:  Nobel Lecture

    And, you, Ms. Szymborska, you too were new under the sun. A hard time you had of it, making your entrance as you did in a time and country when being under the sun was a wretched place to be at all, let alone be new. Poland at the beginning of the 20th century’s ungodly third decade: Hitler was the world’s gift to you at sixteen, with Stalin pawing the earth and snorting at his flanks. After the first set of horrors, you thought communism might mitigate a second. How many like you, young and good, reached ardently for the communist trophy only to find yourselves holding the ball, then the rotten potato, then the turd? No wonder irony was your metier. Rilke warned his young poet off irony lest it master him, but you became irony’s master. You had to: Avoid deportation and forced labor at the hand of the Nazi’s only to have your first book of poems refused publication for being “insufficiently socialist”. A blow, no doubt. Ironic. Necessary. But a blow all the same. And it taught you to sucker-punch like no other poet I know, save, maybe Emily Dickenson.

    But, the cost. Could this be why you published comparatively little during your life, the fear that what you wrote would be insufficiently…something? Your compatriot, Czeslaw Milosz, lamented poetry’s insufficiency in the face of life, event, catastrophe.  Not that you need to explain yourself on this count. Small outputs are by no means unheard of among great poets. Take the Northern gentleman who just joined you on Stockholm’s roster. His published works number far less than yours, and his greatness, like yours, vaporizes all contest. It must be an American thing, this fussing with amounts. I imagine that mineral-level wickedness which so often lit your face in photographs crackling in your voice when you answered the interviewer who asked you why your output is small, “I have a trash can at home.” Oh did you, then, Ms. Szymborska? Which of us addicts of your funny, pointy, waste-laying poems wouldn’t have loved to rustle through your garbage like junkies after needles?

    The obituaries tell us that you had no children. We’d all happily invoke a chestnut, on your behalf, about poets and their poems. But were you aware of the others? Us, I mean. Your readers. We who pressed our minds and hearts against your astonished and astonishing lines, fed on what we found there and grew. We whom you raised to think carefully about things we had barely guessed were there for the thinking; how a beetle, dead on the road, is an opportunity not to be missed for assessing death itself and our inflated sense of importance; how wind blowing from a tree all its leaves but one can teach us about the grim absurdity of violence which can devastate a century, and of which we are, each of us, capable. There have been so many of us. One, Mark Doty, an American poet (you’d have liked him, I think), said of your wrenching poem “Photograph from September 11”, “The genius of Szymborska’s poem lies in its admission that the poet has very little power—and its acknowledgment that she will herein exercise every bit of the power she does have.” Like any good parent, you taught us by example. You were an excellent, if sometimes hard, mother to us. You made us laugh, until we balked in protest. Even Milosz rebelled against your poem “View with a Grain of Sand”, in which you pit inchoate nature against human language to language’s cost, saying “Personally, I think that she is too scientific and that we are not so separated from things.” With all reverence for Mr. Milosz, I think your flintiness tripped him here, so that he got it backwards; your poem speaks of our connection to all things, never mind that the ego and all the rest of the human edifice must go for it to be perceived. Hard. Let’s say it. You were very hard. But, again, such was the time you had of it.

    And now you are gone.

    It’s been and gone.
    It’s been, so it’s gone.
    In the same irreversible order,
    for such is the rule of this foregone game.
    A trite conclusion, not worth writing
    if it weren’t an unquestionable fact,
    a fact for ever and ever,
    for the whole cosmos, as it is and will be,
    that something really was
    until it was gone,
    even the fact
    that today you had a side of fries.


    I found this poem, “Metaphysics”, in Here, the last volume of your poetry to be published in English before your death. For all the weight you lay on this poem’s slim shoulders – life’s damned transience, the nature of existence itself – the question this poem raised for me, and which I could neither answer nor shake, was this: Did you, Ms. Szymborska, ever have a side of fries?

    And who, dear woman, was the last to bring you flowers during your life? My partner, Sam, had a fantasy of one day traveling to Krakow, finding your address, buying an enormous bouquet and laying it at your doorstep with an unsigned card reading, “And you, Ms. Szymborska, you too were new under the sun,” followed by, “Thank you.” It was the kind of fantasy which never had any probability of being carried out, but as long as you were alive, it was a pleasure to mentally rehearse it from time to time. Now you are gone, and we find this, too, very new.

    Thank you for the poems. Thank you…


  • Orpheus and Eurydice, by Czeslaw Milosz —or: Milosz Journeys to the Underworld and Back

    There is a tendency to romanticize the idea of a great artist’s valediction. But there is no law stating that a master’s final work must be a masterpiece.  The last poem in W. H. Auden’s Collected Poems (2007) is “On Architecture”, a wonderful poem by any standard, but not “The Shield of Achilles” or “In Memory of William Butler Yeats”. The last word from Saul Bellow, the greatest American novelist after Faulkner, was Ravelstein, enjoyable but decidedly minor.  Pablo Picasso’s last paintings are haunting, beautiful in their way, evoking a florid eroticism and a horror at death, but they lack the ferocity of vision and layers of formal coherence which gave him the authority to stand beside the greatest artists in history.

    But once in a while, proximity to death seems to lift an artist to a place beyond where he or she has ever been. The artist, at life’s end, stands blinking in a new, preternatural light, and – call it grace – accesses the capacity to make us blink as well. These are the latitudes inhabited by Verdi’s Falstaff, Mozart’s Requiem, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and —Milosz’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”.

    The story of Orpheus, the greatest musician in the world, braving Hades to sing for the release of his beloved Eurydice, fatally snake-bitten on their wedding day, and of their ascent together, allowed on the famous condition that he neither speak to nor look at her before once again attaining the upper world, has held the Western imagination like no other Greek myth, save, possibly, Oedipus. In fact, the whole adventure of Western art, at least since the Renaissance, could be conceived as an “Orphic” romance.  Consider Rembrandt at his easel, year after year sitting before his mirror, descending deep into his life, the success, the ridicule, the patrons and creditors, the women, the death of his beloved Saskia and of his children, pleading his case with whatever gods he found there, then reemerging with a tint of shadow, a thickness of paint, a hue of gold with which to fleck the image of his eyes.  This is how we have learned to think about the creative act.

    So many poets, composers, dramatists and film makers have been drawn to Orpheus that it has become almost the “Moonlight” Sonata of artistic subjects. It takes a poet like Czeslaw Milosz to prompt the question, “what vein of this much-blasted mine has not yet been tapped.”  Before we finish the first line of Milosz’s poem, “Standing on flagstones of the sidewalk at the entrance to Hades”, we know he’s found one. By giving the front door of Hades a sidewalk, he puts us out on the curb, so to speak, from where we glance sheepishly back at our expectations. We know sidewalks. We’ve used them as recently as this morning, in front of the post office or the grocery store. Our right to distance from the ensuing drama has been revoked. We soon learn that Hades, far from being a romantic Dantesque waste, is a corporate edifice with glass doors, corridors, elevators, like an inverted skyscraper, all the more sinister for its banality.

    Milosz has written that what made his era basically different from any other was the motion picture, and his poem all but flickers with the silver screen’s influence: It opens on a noir-like night – fog, wind tearing at a coat and tossing leaves, headlights flaring and dimming. He puts Persephone on an amethyst throne in a garden of withered pear and apple trees, and one can almost sense a slow Tarkovskyian track through the grove of blackened trunks. Like a silent-era master, he directs Eurydice, upon her entrance, to lower her heavy-lashed eyelids and step rigidly at the beck of Hermes. As beguiling as these cinematic effects are – and who would not want to linger over the Kubrickesque electronic dogs, the path “phosphorized” out of the gloomy chiaroscuro, or the suggestive soundscape of echoing footsteps – Milosz’s strong allergy to empty gesture means that every detail draws us ineluctably towards the heart of the tragedy. The gathering tension finally breaks in a shattering crisis of faith just at the moment when faith is most indicated: Orpheus has begun his ascent out of Hades with Eurydice following in tandem with Hermes ready to whisk her back to the Underworld, this time forever, should her deliverer default on his agreement.  Then:

    Under his faith a doubt sprang up
    And entwined him like cold bindweed.
    He knew he must have faith and he could not have faith.

    This is rhetorically very close to Beckett’s “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” But never did two writers diverge more on the question of meaning. In pleading his case to Persephone, Orpheus proudly sings what amounts to the poetic ethos of Czeslaw Milosz:

    Of his having composed his words always against death
    And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.

    Fine.  But Queen Persephone, who knows a thing or two about how people participate in their own captivity, knows something about Orpheus, something which he does not yet know about himself, which goes against all his talking points, and precipitates his crisis.

    I don’t know – said the goddess – whether you loved her or not.
    Yet you have come here to rescue her.

    Love her?  Of course he loves her.  And yet, a careful scan of the poem turns up not one mention of it.  Lest you fear Milosz is subverting what was to have been the whole point of the story, the poem never says he doesn’t love her either.  Its just that, in spite of what Orpheus himself might believe, it doesn’t figure in his motivation to bring her back with him to the land of the living.  What figures is profound need:

    Only her love warmed him, humanized him.
    When he was with her, he thought differently about himself.
    He could not fail her now, when she was dead.

    Need, and obligation. A biographical note is in order here: Milosz survived the death of two deeply loved wives.  The first, Janina, died in 1986.  In memorial to her, he wrote “On Parting with My Wife, Janina”. The second, Carol Thigpen, died in 2002. “Orpheus and Eurydice” is for her.  But, while the poem is profound as an elegy for this late-life companion, the imperative to “not fail” all those who have not escaped death, especially in the charnel house of Eastern Europe during his epoch, was the engine driving his entire intellectual and creative life.  Like all great poems, it is more, by far, than what it claims to be.

    Two attributes of this poem have made it addictive for me.  The first is the tension between the traditional myth and the contemporary accoutrements with which Milosz delivers it.  The second is the ending. “Sun.  And sky.  And in the sky white clouds.” Had we noticed that, until now, there was no sky? No horizon?  And yet, this is not the resolution we had hoped for, or that Orpheus presumably had wanted.  Eurydice did not make it out.  He turned his head too soon.  Or, had she ever been there, following him, at all? It seems his doubts were born out, and his crisis of faith resolved, –negatively. He’s made it out with his skin—

    Only now everything cried to him: Eurydice!
    How will I live without you, my consoling one!

    It sounds as if Orpheus has reached the nadir of despair. But listen. It is not him doing the crying. It is the world which cries to him, wailing out its grief, which is the only authentic response to the scope of its loss.  Of Eurydice, yes.  Of Carol Thigpen, without doubt. But also of Warsaw, Auschwitz, and the gulags; of a now nearly forgotten generation of great Polish poets; of national identity and of human dignity; of the “human hope for the resurrection of the dead.” The twentieth century cannot be brought back for a second chance.  Persephone knew all along this poem was never about Eurydice.  Now Orpheus knows this as well. He’s made the the essential journey, to the Underworld and back.  What better, for him and for us, than to know that such a journey is possible.  For the first time he has genuine freedom, the freedom to ally himself, not with The Lost, but with all that endures.

    But there was a fragrant scent of herbs, the low humming of bees,
    And he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.

    It is hard to imagine a poet shy of ninety, even a great poet like Czeslaw Milosz, arriving at this order of sublimity.

    Here is the poem in its entirety.  It is long.  It will take you six or seven minutes to read it.  I hope you do.



    Standing on flagstones of the sidewalk at the entrance to Hades
    Orpheus hunched in a gust of wind
    That tore at his coat, rolled past in waves of fog,
    Tossed the leaves of the trees.  The headlights of cars
    Flared and dimmed in each succeeding wave.

    He stopped at the glass-paneled door, uncertain
    Whether he was strong enough for that ultimate trial.

    He remembered her words: “You are a good man.”
    He did not quite believe it.  Lyric poets
    Usually have – as he knew – cold hearts.
    It is like a medical condition.  Perfection in art
    Is given in exchange for such an affliction.

    Only her love warmed him, humanized him.
    When he was with her, he thought differently about himself.
    He could not fail her now, when she was dead.

    He pushed open the door and found himself walking in a labyrinth,
    Corridors, elevators.  The livid light was not light but the dark
    of the earth.
    Electronic dogs passed him noiselessly.
    He descended many floors, a hundred, three hundred, down.

    He was cold, aware that he was Nowhere.
    Under thousands of frozen centuries,
    On an ashy trace where generations had moldered,
    In a kingdom that seemed to have no bottom and no end.

    Thronging shadows surrounded him.
    He recognized some of the faces.
    He felt the rhythm of his blood.

    He felt strongly his life with its guilt
    And he was afraid to meet those to whom he had done harm.
    But they had lost the ability to remember
    And gave him only a glance, indifferent to all that.

    For his defense he had a nine-stringed lyre.
    He carried in it the music of the earth, against the abyss
    That buries all of sound in silence.
    He submitted to the music, yielded
    To the dictation of a song, listening with rapt attention,
    Became, like his lyre, its instrument.

    Thus he arrived at the palace of the rulers of that land.
    Persephone, in her garden of withered pear and apple trees,
    Black, with naked branches and verrucose twigs,
    Listened from the funereal amethyst of her throne.

    He sang the brightness of mornings and green rivers,
    He sang of smoking water in the rose-colored daybreaks,
    Of colors: cinnabar, carmine, burnt sienna, blue,
    Of the delight of swimming in the sea under marble cliffs,
    Of feasting on a terrace above the tumult of a fishing port,
    Of tastes of wine, olive oil, almonds, mustard, salt.
    Of the flight of the swallow, the falcon,
    Of a dignified flock of pelicans above the bay,
    Of the scent of an armful of lilacs in summer rain,
    Of his having composed his words always against death
    And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.

    I don’t know – said the goddess – whether you loved her or not.
    Yet you have come here to rescue her.
    She will be returned to you.  But there are conditions:
    You are not permitted to speak to her, or on the journey back
    To turn your head, even once, to assure yourself that she is
    behind you.

    And so Hermes brought forth Eurydice.
    Her face no longer hers, utterly gray,
    Her eyelids lowered beneath the shade of her lashes.
    She stepped rigidly, directed by the hand
    Of her guide.  Orpheus wanted so much
    To call her name, to wake her from that sleep.
    But he refrained, for he had accepted the conditions.

    And so they set out.  He first, and then, not right away,
    The slap of the god’s sandals and the light patter
    Of her feet fettered by her robe, as if by a shroud.
    A steep climbing path phosphorized
    Out of darkness like the walls of a tunnel.
    He would stop and listen.  But then
    They stopped, too, and the echo faded.
    And when he began to walk the double tapping commenced again.
    Sometimes it seemed closer, sometimes more distant.
    Under his faith a doubt sprang up
    And entwined him like cold bindweed.
    Unable to weep, he wept at the loss
    Of the human hope for the resurrection of the dead,
    Because he was, now, like every other mortal.
    His lyre was silent, yet he dreamed, defenseless.
    He knew he must have faith and he could not have faith.
    And so he would persist for a very long time,
    Counting his steps in half-wakeful torpor.

    Day was breaking.  Shapes of rock loomed up
    Under the luminous eye of the exit from underground.
    It happened as he expected.  He turned his head
    And behind him on the path was no one.

    Sun.  And sky.  And in the sky white clouds.
    Only now everything cried to him: Eurydice!
    How will I live without you, my consoling one!
    But there was a fragrant scent of herbs, the low humming of bees,
    And he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.

  • 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.