Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who lived his last decades in California, was born on this day, June 30, in 1911.
I am told on good authority that we should pronounce his name “Chess-wov Mee-woash,” but I can’t get used to saying those L’s as W’s, so now I stumble over his name whenever I have to say it out loud. That’s probably appropriate, because so much of his poetry is about things that can’t be spoken, or at least things that can’t be said quite right.
Milosz wrote a lot of books. The Captive Mind made him famous, but I find it pretty hard reading. His Witness of Poetry is probably the best place to get an idea of what he’s up to artistically. I recommend jumping into the large volume of his Collected Poems and finding something that grabs you.
Milosz was no one-trick pony, but he did have a handful of themes and approaches that he kept coming back to in all his work. One of those themes is his own artistic quest to testify accurately about himself. He is always holding up his hand and saying “Here I am,” in ways that continually astonish the reader. My personal favorite Milosz book is his Visions from San Francisco Bay, because though it is a fragmented and flawed book, it is a coherent essay on the spiritual significance of California which only Milosz could write. When he holds up his hand and says “Here I am” from Berkeley, CA, he tries to speak for his Lithuanian ancestors, for the continent of North America, for the territorial spirits of California, and for himself after midlife.
His elliptical autobiography Native Realm is full of good stuff, too, and mixes some light humor with the heavy brooding and bewilderment that are his signature style. He begins the book by pledging allegiance to his Eastern heritage: “No, I will never imitate those who rub out their traces, disown the past and are dead, although they pretend they are alive with the help of mental acrobatics.” He goes on to conjure up all that he has seen during a life in which “new images canceled out none of the old” and he had to speak in spite of “the pressure from this reality I have swallowed.” Milosz praises a meticulous biographical essay he once read because it gave such attention to small physical details of the subject’s surroundings: “one can get at man only obliquely, only through the constant masquerade that is the extension of himself at a given moment, through his historical existence.” He calls his autobiographical work “a token of respect for those undergrounds that exist in all of us and that are better left in peace.”
Milosz often set for himself a task that he knew in advance was impossible. His poetic vocation was to declare something that couldn’t be said straightforwardly, and he advanced toward that goal with a panoply of strange techniques. In the California book, Milosz said “I am always aware that what I want is impossible to achieve. I would need the ability to communicate my full amazement at ‘being here’ in one unattainable sentence which would simultaneously transmit the smell and texture of my skin, everything stored in my memory, and all I now assent to, dissent from.” Why bother trying to say the unspeakable? “Each of us is so ashamed of his own helplessness and ignorance that he considers it appropriate to communicate only what he thinks others will understand.”
His goal was to speak his own existence fully, without suppressing the incommunicable mystery of being. He was always looking for “that single phrase which, were it truly weighed, would suffice as a life’s work.” It wasn’t because he thought he was so special, but simply because he was himself, and he as a poet was responsible for bearing witness to that bit of reality about which he had inside knowledge. But he wanted to find a voice or a phrase which would articulate even the parts and layers of himself about which he didn’t have knowledge.
There is nothing degrading in our fundamental incapacity to lay bare all the particulars of our fate. If it were any different, if that chaotic richness, in the presence of which our faculties are like a circle of lantern light in the darkness, did not exist, we would not constantly be aspiring to form achieved by a process of elimination, and probably the art of writing would disappear. It is enough that we realize to what extent thought and word are incommensurable with reality. Then it is possible to set one’s limits consciously.
What Milosz excelled at was speaking in such a way that he and his reader could become aware of what was speaking through him. Was it an epoch, a century, speaking through him? A culture, or a clash of cultures, using his voice? Was he his family heritage, his religion, the soil and weather? Were Lithuania and California taking turns talking in his voice? Above all, what spiritual forces were having their say when he freely chose the words and lines of a sentence?
Because he relentlessly sought this goal, Milosz can be a hard poet to read. But I’ve always found him worth grappling with, because everybody should become more aware of what forces are speaking through them. Milosz is a writer whose whole life’s work was to identify those forces.
Dozens of his poems would illustrate the point well, but Ars Poetica? is probably the clearest.
I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though its an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.
What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?
It’s true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking
or that I’ve devised just one more means
of praising Art with thehelp of irony.
There was a time when only wise books were read
helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.
And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.
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.