Seamus Heaney on Czesław Miłosz’s centenary
Seamus Heaney, The Guardian
Czesław Miłosz was a veteran of European turmoil. His fellow Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney pays tribute to a Polish poet poised between lyricism and witness
There is a story that Czesław Miłosz, on a return visit to his birthplace in Lithuania some 50 years after he had left, walked up to an oak tree and embraced it. An image of the return of the native, of course, but also an image of someone drawing strength – the psychic, moral and physical strength of a great poet – from his home ground.
The man with his arms around the trunk had needed all the strength he could muster to be able to stand alone for the previous half century, to be an exile, see his home country invaded, witness the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, the destruction of the ghetto, the doomed uprising of the Poles against the Germans and the eventual seizure of power by the communists. All of which formed a prelude to his 40-year stint as a professor in the Slavic languages department of the University of California at Berkeley.
Miłosz, whose centenary occurs this year, was born to a family of Polish-speaking landed gentry, a group that related to Poland rather as the Anglo-Irish gentry did to England. Over a lifetime, memories of the old manor grounds and surrounding woods provided him with his own vision of the land of youth. He attended university in Vilnius and as a young man moved to Warsaw, where he survived the war, working in the underground resistance, publishing anti-Nazi poems and, in 1943, writing "The World", one of the most bewitching sequences of the century.
What "The World" did, at a moment when brutality and atrocity were the daily reality, was to create a picture of the very opposite state of affairs. In this idyll, children are trusting and secure, parents kind and reliable, the landscape and seasons a storybook delight. And all this was presented while the country was in the cruel grip of the occupying army. But the childlike idiom – Miłosz called it "a naif poem" – was a deliberate artistic ploy that drew on William Blake’s "Songs of Innocence" and scenes from an idealised childhood Lithuania. It was a case of beauty holding a plea with rage, a kind of answer to Shakespeare’s question about how such a thing might be done.
One of the words that recur in Miłosz’s prose and poetry is "incantation", meaning rhythmical language dictated, he would affirm, by a "daimonion". And from beginning to end the poems do seem to arrive with an unforced certitude, to be touching down into the here and now out of an elsewhere, as if he were "no more than a secretary of the invisible thing". And that brimming creativity gives credence to his traditional sense of himself as the inspired poet:
Whatever I hold in my hand, a stylus, reed, quill or a ballpoint,
Wherever I may be, on the tiles of an atrium, in a cloister cell, in a hall before the portrait of a king,
I attend to matters I have been charged with.
And yet the poem which opens on these long perspectives ("From the Rising of the Sun") is suddenly dramatising the displaced person’s predicament in an immediate heartfelt idiom:
Never again will I kneel in my small country, by a river,
So that what is stone in me could be dissolved,
So that nothing would remain but my tears, tears.
"I attend to matters I have been charged with": having outlived many of his Polish contemporaries, having watched the Soviets clamp down in Poland, Lithuania and the other Baltic states, Miłosz saw it as his writerly responsibility to bear in mind the dead who had perished in the uprising and the concentration camps and those others who were still suffering in the gulags. Hence his poem "Dedication" and its much-cited lines, "What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?".
He was poised between lyricism and witness. In "The Poor Poet", written in Warsaw in 1944, the eponymous poet finds that his pen is putting forth twigs and leaves and blossoms and a scent that is "impudent", "like an insult to suffering humanity". This sense of guilt and the impulse to rebuke (himself as much as others) is a constant throughout the work, and never more powerfully deployed than in The Captive Mind, the prose book by which he was principally known in English until the poems began to be translated and published from the late 1970s (and then came the Nobel prize in 1980).
The Captive Mind attends sternly to matters Miłosz was charged with. Written in France in the mid-1950s, it is a j’accuse directed at members of the Polish intelligentsia who had succumbed to the lure of Marxism. It is, however, written with such insight into those particular minds as they become captivated that it is clear the poet must have thought and known, "There but for the grace of God go I". And in fact Miłosz had gone a little bit of the way, had worked as a secretary in the diplomatic service of the People’s Republic of Poland, a post he relinquished when it became clear that the regime was being sovietised and Stalinised.
The Captive Mind is as much a meditation as it is a polemic, yet Miłosz had an equal or more than equal gift for praise and elegy: "It seems I was called for this," he would eventually declare, "To glorify things just because they are." And yet such praise was hard-earned since there was always an inner accuser or sceptic who could see his kind and his calling as "A tournament of hunchbacks, literature".
It was the strange destiny of this poet so entangled in dread historical experience to end up in 1960 in Berkeley. This was the dawn of the era of the loose garment and the waterbed, of flower power and the love-in, and Miłosz, veteran of the European turmoil, was to spend almost the whole of his life there. His eyrie was a small house on a hill above Berkeley, which afforded with hallucinatory clarity a view of San Francisco Bay. "I did not expect to live in such an unusual moment . . . / Roads on concrete pillars, cities of glass and cast iron, / airfields larger than tribal dominions." At the same time, as his poem "Gift" attests, California wasn’t all anti-Vietnam protests and lightness of being: it did provide him Edenic moments.
Miłosz, however, had his own counter-cultural practices, attending Sunday Mass at the Catholic church near the university, and the visionary qualities that prevail in the poems have their origin in his strongly religious sensibility. There is something unabashed about his readiness to pull out all the stops, as at the end of "And yet the books", where the books, "In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up, / Tribes on the march . . ." "will be there on the shelves, well born, / Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights".
This impulse towards the transcendent contributed to his faith in poetry itself, up until the very end when he returned to the land of his "faithful mother tongue" and lived in Kraków. As he writes in his poem on reading the Japanese poet Issa: "To know and not to speak. / In that way one forgets. / What is pronounced strengthens itself. / What is not pronounced tends to non-existence."
What distinguishes Miłosz as a poet is the abundance and spontaneity of the work, his at-homeness in so many different genres and landscapes, his desire for belief and his equally acute scepticism. Chiefly, however, what irradiates the poetry and compels the reader is a quality of wisdom. Everything is carried and feels guaranteed by the voice. Even in translation, even when he writes in a didactic vein, there is a feeling of phonetic undertow, that the poem is a trawl, not just talk. And this was true of the work he did right up to his death in Kraków in 2004.
Miłosz once wrote: "The child who dwells inside us trusts that there are wise men somewhere who know the truth." At this centenary moment, he himself has become one of those wise men.