Over a decade ago, a mention on the Mars Hill Audio journal, followed a few days later by a serendipitous stumbling over his Selected Poems (1973) in a now defunct book store in New Orleans, led me to discover for myself the poetry and prose of the Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. It’s a tribute to the power of coincidence, or perhaps just to providence. This same volume is one I always carry with me: slim enough to fit into a bag (unlike the bulky New and Collected Poems 1931-2001), yet at the same time profound and imaginative enough to satisfy and inspire.
Milosz was born before the First World War in the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, in what is now Lithuania, but which at the time was merely one province of the multi-national Russian Empire. Like the members of many landowning Lithuanian families, Milosz grew up speaking the language of nearby Poland; so he is a “Polish” poet who continued to write in that language during his exile in France and then in the United States, where he taught for many years at the University of California at Berkeley. Milosz was educated in Poland after the Russian Revolution, and then lived through the German and Soviet invasions and the occupation of that country in 1939. Milosz survived Nazi rule in Poland during the Second World War, and then Communist Poland after the German defeat. He worked as an official of the Polish government before defecting to the West in 1951, after which he wrote The Captive Mind, an early example of a growing disillusionment with communism among the intelligentsia. He died in 2004, sometime after the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and of the Soviet Union itself.
Milosz was a Catholic, though straightforward “religious” themes are not his main concern. Nevertheless, there is a moral and artistic seriousness about Milosz’s poetry and prose that provides points of connection for Christian believers. The quality of moral seriousness stems at least in part from Milosz’s firsthand encounter with the great totalitarian systems of the twentieth century, Fascism and Communism. To turn such desperate stuff into art is the work of a poet with great gifts. As Milosz himself writes, “In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:/a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us …” (“Ars Poetica?”).
Milosz is serious about history. To read poems like “Album of Dreams” or “Throughout Our Lands” is to be struck by vivid images drawn not only from Milosz’s own experience but from his historical imagination. He paints on a broad canvas of historical events, drawing as well on his own particular memories and experiences, in a way that avoids pastiche. One is confronted by the image of a violin placed on the top of bundles stacked by evacuees; by the picture of an empty station platform in the winter of some Eastern European or even Siberian town; by Father Junipero Serra (now recently canonized) riding on mule-back through California. This is an astonishing range, and examples could be multiplied.
Other poems take the reader to Krakow in 1880, to the sinking of The Titanic in 1912, or up to the near present at the Yale Center for British Art and the Beinecke Library. In a later poem, “Lithuania, After Fifty-Two years”, Milosz (who lived into his 90s) reflected that his boyhood memories may be the last remaining trace of those particular people and places. Yet he also reflects, “Paulina died long ago, but is./And, I am somehow convinced, not just in my consciousness” (“Throughout Our Lands”). Milosz is not limited by his own memories, but only by a free-ranging imagination. As he wrote in “Throughout Our Lands”, “Between the moment and the moment I lived through much/in my sleep/so distinctly that I felt time dissolve/and knew that what was past still is, not was.”
Milosz wrote in the “Introduction” to his 2001 collection of poems:
I lived amidst scenes of horror in the twentieth century — that was reality, and I could not escape into a realm of “pure poetry” as some descendants of French symbolism advised. Yet our hot-blooded reactions to inhumanity rarely result in texts artistically valid …. The history of the twentieth century prompted many poets to design images that conveyed their moral protest. Yet to remain aware of the weight of fact without yielding to the temptation to become only a reporter is one of the most difficult puzzles confronting a practitioner of poetry. It calls for a cunning in selecting one’s means and a kind of distillation of material to achieve a distance to contemplate the things of this world as they are, without illusion. In other words, poetry has always been for me a participation in the humanly modulated time of my contemporaries.
Another theme for Milosz is the relation between the universal and the particular. The characteristic move of the poet is to begin with the particular, as in the poem “What Does it Mean?”: “Over a glass of red wine,/I muse on the meaning of being this not that.” Then in the poem “Heraclitus” from the same period he writes, “Those toes in a sandal,/A girl’s breast so fragile under Artemis’s hand,/Sweat, oil on the face of a man from the fleet/Participate in the universal, existing separately.”
“Particular existence keeps us from the light,” later in the poem, seems to be in the voice of the philosopher, expressing that tradition’s perennial concern for transcendence and suspicion of the particular; but the necessary connection for Milosz between the particular details of existence and whatever universal truth there is seems undeniable.
The particular had its hooks in the poet, but as a means of transcendence. In the poem “Capri” Milosz harks back to his early Catholic upbringing but not in a particularly orthodox way.
If I accomplished anything, it was only when I, a pious boy, chased after
the disguises of the lost Reality.
After the real presence of divinity in our flesh and blood which are at
the same time bread and wine,
Hearing the immense call of the Particular, despite the earthly law that
sentences memory to extinction.
It is the particular that issues the call to transcendence.
As a keen observer Milosz positively reveled in the minutiae of human existence, precisely in these particulars that provided his starting place as a poet. Just about everything is fodder. In the poem “No More” he writes, “If only I could describe the courtesans of Venice/As in a loggia they teased a peacock with a twig” (a great poetic line, by the way), and then proceeds to do exactly that: describe those courtesans, that is, in some detail. I still recall my amusement when discovering that “a pink corset with ribbon floating” was a pivotal image in the poem “Album of Dreams”: a rather lighthearted note to sound in such a serious poem that carries such historical weight.
There is an obvious common thread that connects Milosz’s use of history and his concern with the relationship between particulars and the universal. It is through historical particularity that we come to what is universal and transcendent. The Incarnation itself is a case in point. For Christians, the specific “stuff” of the sacraments become vehicles of grace. We might congratulate ourselves that this is a Christian insight that belongs to a Catholic sensibility, if the jarring facts of history did not give Christians and others so much to pause over and mourn. Still, Christian faith points us toward redemption, and Milosz never loses his poetic hope, even in the face of a horrific century. Christians ought to take history seriously, but never be intimidated by it.
Reading about poetry can never be a substitute for the experience itself! If not Milosz, someone else; but you will be hard pressed to discover a surer guide to the human experience or a more gifted voice to interpret it.
Bishop John Bauerschmidt’s other posts may be found here.