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A Conversation With Czeslaw Milosz

IN 1980, POLAND was suddenly in the news: the shipyard strikes of July and August; the Workers’ Accord between Solidarity and the government which, for the first time, allowed independent trade unions in Eastern Europe; the continual threat of Soviet invasion. During this time another Polish phenomenon burst onto the American consciousness: Czeslaw Milosz, who was awarded the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. Some, especially those ignorant of Milosz’s work, supposed it was because of politics that Milosz had been launched into prominence. However, Milosz had been selected in May–months before the mediafest surrounding Poland, Gdansk, and Solidarity began. More importantly, just as a long history of worker-state tensions, chronic economic problems, and national frustration exploded onto our evening news in the summer of 1980, so Milosz also had behind him decades of major poems, essays, and other literary activity that became crystallized in his award. In the previous issue of Artful Dodge, W.S. Merwin mentioned the impact that Milosz’s The Captive Mind had on him and other writers in the early ’60s; however, the book–and Milosz in a way–had subsequently disappeared during the left-leaning fashions of the late ’60s and early ’70s. To those who had read this Polish writer previously–not for politics bt for an insight into th literary mind grappling with totalitarianism, as well as for his scrupulous concern with literary and cultural aesthetics–the recent recognition of Milosz as one of the most vital voices of our century was not unusual.

Unusual, though, has been Milosz’s life. Born in 1911 to Polish parents living in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius (Wilno, in Polish), Milosz–in the same way that Albert Camus was alienated from Parisian literary life–felt himself an outsider to the more homogeneous aspects of interwar Poland. Nonetheless, this did not keep the young Milosz from immersing himself in the cultural and literary life of Wilno. He made his literary debut in 1930, and before World War II he became one of the most visible poets of the Second Vanguard, a movement which tried to take literature away from quarrels about form and into a realm more reflective of the troubled times and sensibilities. Since then, the writers of this group have been more commonly known as the “Catastophists&quote;–even more so since their apocalyptic visions of the 1930s turned out to be all too true.

Early in the war, Milosz, after many adventures, reached Warsaw from Wilno and stayed in the Polish capital throughout the occupation, working with the underground presses and editing an anthology of anti-Nazi poetry, Invincible Song. After the war, he was an officer for cultural affairs in the diplomatic corps of People’s Poland. In 1951, he chose to settle in the West, first in France, where he won the Prix Litt�raire Europ�en, and then at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has been professor of Slavic languages and literatures since 1960. Despite his absence from his country, his work has continued to be known by his fellow Polish writers, due to underground publishing and to the smuggling of his books into Poland. Since he received the Nobel Prize, the Polish government has no longer been able to ignore his impact on Polish letters; he has thus been able to return to his country, and his work has appeared in the official press.

But the reader who has not yet sat down with a book of Milosz may wonder: Why is he so important? More than the fact that he has lived through the occupation, the holocaust, and the Stalinist period in Eastern Europe, Milosz’s special value dates back to his earlier experiences as an outsider to his dominant culture while at the same time being busily engaged in it. His ability to love and criticize simultaneously the entire realm of his Poland, his Europe, his world belies an aesthetic sensibility both deft and deep. Milosz has that rare gift of seeing centuries in the movement of a man’s arm at a table, the rare gift of talking in the same breath about the long dead adn the still fragilely alive. His work at turns faces the dark and faces the light, trying to keep both in balance, in proper perspective. The voice too may change, from dark sobriety to darting wit, and this voice, as in much of great poetry, is not lost in translation.

For the American reader, several volumes of his verse are available in English: Bells in Winter (Ecco Press, 1978), Selected Poems (Ecco Press, 1980), and Separate Notebooks (Ecco Press, 1984). His translators have included Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Peter Dale Scott, Lillian Vallee, and the poet himself. As for his prose, the following are just a few of the titles available in English: The Captive Mind (on literature under pressure in postwar Eastern Europe), Native Realm (an attempt at autobiography fashioned from the fertile fields of Europe at peace and the ashes of Europe at war), and Emperor of the Earth (a book of essays on various literary and philosophical visionaries, such as Simone Weil or Stanislaw Brzozowski, who somehow managed to stand apart from Marxism, or utilitarianism). All of them attest to Milosz’s incisive and exacting mind, his demands for the simultaneous observance of tradition and the freshness of the moment. If this special issue of Artful Dodge is indeed about “the Crossroads of Asia and Europe,” Czeslaw Milosz is a weary but devout pilgrim from the lands of the heart. —Daniel Bourne

Daniel Bourne: In The Captive Mind you wrote: “The work of human thought should withstand the test of brutal, naked reality. If it cannot, it is worthless. Probably only those works are worthwhile which can preserve their validity even for a man threatened with instant death.” How did the lyric poetry and love songs you wrote during the Warsaw occupation meet these criteria?

Czeslaw Milosz: My quotation doesn’t mean, I hope, that I would like to see only topical peotry in such situations. I highly value poems that are strong enough to survive even when they are completely detached from the surrounding reality in poetic subject and tone. A very strong poem, a lyrical poem, draws its strength from its perfection and can withstand such a reality. Here I can quote from Simone Weil, who said that the highest test of a work would be to place it in the cell of a man confined to many years of solitary confinement; if the work were indeed of enduring value it would not lose its power of perfection over the years in that lonely cell. I might add, too, that a lyric poem can be a defiance thrown to the world of inhumanity. I wrote a long cycle of poems, entitled “The World,” which was such a defiance.

Jurek Polanski: Facing an occupation by the country of Goethe, Schiller, Heine and Beethoven–when Europe seemed to be committing cultural suicide–were there any convictions that you arrived at in order to sustain life and poetry, to uphold art rather than abandon it?

Milosz: If I’m not mistaken, in one of my books I quote Martin Luther who, when asked what he would do if the end of the world were tomorrow, answered that he would plant apple trees.

DB: That is, performing an act that is not necessarily logical but still necessary for survival?

Milosz: Yes, of course. I wrote under a kind of compulsion during the occupation.

DB: Do you have the sense that you might have taken on the burden of the writers who died during the war? The sense that as a survivor you’re somehow their voice, too?

Milosz: In a way. Of course, when the war began I was 28, and most of the new-generation poets were 18 or 19. So the bulk of poetry written by many of the younger poets at that time was considerably different from mine. They saw my poetry only as a kind of foreboding, a forecast of the catastrophe of Nazism. But that view was narrowing. My poetry and the poetry of my generation dealt with the general catastrophic situation of makind in this century, of which a series of revolutions, including the Nazi revolution, were the last part. As to the responsibility–of course. There is in my poetry a feeling of death and a feeling of someone who has survived.

DB: You are often described as being a member of the avant-garde in pre-World War II Polish literature. Since then, of course, you’ve become a very prominent figure concerned with literature and society. Was there a point when you saw yourself change from being principally involved with aesthetics and literary concerns to being more preoccupied with the world-at-large?

Milosz: As if the avant-garde was just the opposite of serious poetry!

DB: I didn’t mean it that way.

: Well, the term avant-garde is used in the history of Polish literature to delineate certain movements of the ’20s and ’30s. First of all, from a purely metrical point of view, Polish poetry at that time was undergoing transformations in versification equivalent to those being attempted by English and American poets of that period–Ezra Pound, Stephen Spender, William Carlos Williams. Concerns with the “world-at-large,” as you say, actually appeared very early in my poetry. In 1933, I and a colleague of mine, Zbigniew Folejewski (who is now a professor in Canada), published an anthology of socially-committed poetry, but in so doing we behaved very fanatically because we excluded all poems with traditional rhymes and quatrains–even if they were good.

JP: In your poem “Dedication,” you wrote: “That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,/That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,/In this and only this I find salvation.”

Milosz: I consider myself, to a large extent, to have been saved by poetry. At one time, I was too much under the influence of philosophy, and I noticed that that was very detrimental to my internal equilibrium. I had to go back to poetry to save myself from philosophy. To this day I still believe that in poetry there is much more wisdom. For example, in the work of the American poet better known than all others taken together, Walt Whitman.

JP: I was thinking of Pound.

Milosz: No, unfortunately I am in disagreement with all the intelectual trappings of Ezra Pound. I feel that he is an example of a badly digested fascination with history.

DB: But what about his poetry, his poetic sensitivity?

Milosz: His contribution is serious as far as his impulsiveness, his ability for embracing a lot of humanist yet diverse feelings. In those respects I suppose that Pound can be considered an heir to the finest classical desire.

JP: In Prywatne Obowiaki, you mentioned such disparate writers as Oscar Milosz, Robinson Jeffers, and Cavafy as examples of bezinteresownosc.

Milosz: Yes, in the sense that each was writing against the currents of his day. Bezinteresownosc, or disinterestedness, is in this sense writing without seeking any public acclaim. Cavafy turned to the past and the Hellenic world during the final decade of the nineteenth century, a time when poetry was largely experimental. I have some theories as to why this earlier world suited him. Oscar Milosz, for his part, was in conflict with his contemporaries too; he was extremely critical of the French poetry of his time. Maybe the only French poet of his time whom he respected was Paul Val�ry. So instead he opted for European poetry of the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, directly stemming from Goethe, Heine, and so on. Milosz, I might add, has been an important influence on me, as a poet and writer and also as an initiant into the polemics of twentieth-century poetry. Robinson Jeffers also presented a lonely figure, turning against experimentation and the influence of French symbolism upon American poetry. Taking this literary stand and an equally unpopular political one during World War II (when he was basically anti-war and opposed to American involvement in the war) mean a diminishing of popularity for Jeffers.

DB: In your poem “To Robinson Jeffers,” you wrote:
And yet you did not know what I know. The earth teaches
More than does the nakedness of elements. No one with
gives to himself the eyes of a god. So brave, in a void,…

Better to carve suns and moons on the joints of crosses
as was done in my district. To birches and firs
give feminine names. To implore protection
against mute and treacherous might
than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.
Are you criticizing all Western writers who attempt a poetry of ferociousness, while not having lived through the horror of the Polish and East European holocaust?

Milosz: No. The conflict here is between an individual focus and a certain collective societal aura so typical of the part of Europe from which I come. As my late friend Witold Gombrowicz maintained, the notion of the individual is underdeveloped in my part of Europe, while there is such an aura around the individual in the West. This is a conflict and, as far as Jeffers is concerned, viewing mankind and nature with the eyes of a god is maybe presumptuous.

JP: A number of East European writers, among them Solzhenitsyn, have accused Western writers of frivolity or lack of depth. And Witold Gombrowicz, in 1953, in his Dzienniki, noted of you: “Where he makes the effort to be different from Western writers, he is most important to me. I sense in him the same which stirs within me: reluctance and disregard mixed with better helplessness.” What is your response to that, and what is your relationship to Western writers?

Milosz: My attitude toward Western writers is different than that of Russian writers. Being a Pole, I have the feeling of belonging to the West and quarrelling with it at the same time. I imagine that Western literature holds for me a great source of reflection. I mentioned Walt Whitman; it would be very hard for me to name a poet with whom I feel a greater affinity. It is also my suspicion that the Russian bard Mayakovsky was strongly influenced by Whitman, by what is good in Whitman. Maybe I have a certain image of hope in and affirmation of the world, for which I look to Western poets but rarely find. I am much more optimistic as a poet, in spite of the tragic elements in my poetry, than many contemporary American poets.

DB: Since you have won the Nobel Prize and have come into prominence in the same way Solzhenitsyn did–as someone who knows “the other Europe”–how do you think that you and Solzhenitsyn differ?

Milosz: The whole perspective of Solzhenitsyn is that of a Russian and of an heir to a certain Russian tradition, which holds that the West has been in a state of decline since the time of the Renaissance. Moreover, Solzhenitsyn seems to separate the questions of Russia from the questions of Soviet Communism. He feels that a great misfortune befell Russia, that Communism is a kind of foreign body upon Holy Russia. I do not share this view. I feel that realities are much more complex and that the whole latent totalitarian traditions of Russia became fused with the new ideology after the revolution, and produced the Soviet Union of today.

DB: In The Captive Mind you said that the duty of the West was to offer something new, a new hope or new philosophy or so on. Do you think that this sense of duty on the part of the West has changed any with regards to Eastern writers?

Milosz: I think it’s hard to answer that question because the West is so pluralistic. At the same time that you see the most horrible things going on in the West, you see the most interesting innovations of the age in every field–medicine, technology, art, poetry, humanistic research. And really it seems to me that in the West decay is a function of progress and progress is a function of decay. I am very hopeful. Although there are certain aspects of Western culture, such as the art of cinema, of which I’m extremely critical, I still must concede the technical brilliance of Western films, the perfection of photography and color. This is a preparation of tools for tremendous achievement in the arts.

JP: It is often said that the most important philosophical questions of our day, such as “Why must we die?” are decided not by the artists and theologians, but rather by the scientists and politicians. Some writers, such as James Michener, have written lately about the need for a moral literature, again the notion that currently there is too much frivolity in Western literature and not enough content. What are your views on a literature that would treat issues of social justice?

Milosz: An interesting question, because the desire for social justice in America produced, in the beginning of this century, a realistic literature–Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser–a realistic novel portraying scenes from life in America. Even in the Roosevelt era, there was an American writer from Yugoslavia, Louis Adamic, forgotten today, who took up the cause of workers who had come mainly from Slavic countries. He wrote about their fate. But curiously enough, at the present time there are hardly any novels, any realistic prose, dealing with social subjects. There is a sort of inability to write realistically; I abstain from looking for causes, but I make the observation.

DB: I think a reason for that might be the feeling in American literature that the realistic novel has been done before, adn that modern writers don’t like to think they are being derivative, particularly of a school so chronologically close to us.

Milosz: That may be. If I may, I’d like to suggest that this reaction to realism seems to be connected with the growing subjectivization of literature or, more precisely, the inability to take an objective approach to the world. Look at what is most popular: subjective narratives in the first person, not the objective presentation of the world. This is all connected probably with what is called the crisis of the novel.

DB: I think that eventually subjectivity in writing will become “old hat,” too. Then it will also be discarded as writers begin casting about for a fresh approach.

Milosz: That is another subject, this desire to be completely original. I don’t think it’s completely justified. One shouldn’t be afraid of being derivative if one follows his or her own reasons.

DB: A question about your trip to Poland in 1980. What did you want most from your trip? What were you hoping to find?

Milosz: As you can imagine such a trip was full of contradictory emotions and reactions. I went there at a very critical period when there were constant threats and pressure from our Eastern neighbor. I met Lech Walesa, and was very much taken by him; I admire him profoundly. He invited me to the Solidarity complex in Gdansk, where I was most surprised to find the local Communist party and Solidarity working together harmoniously. At that time I began to think that perhaps a solution to the Polish situation was possible after all. This was one occasion for optimism during my stay there. Another was the quality of the current generation–alive, vibrating with curiosity for all things previously unknown, sensitive–in short, a good audience. That’s why I’m so sad today, because Solidarity was a movement of young people. It expressed their aspirations.

DB: The fact that you went back to Poland, that your work was being published again, symbolizes some greater measure of freedom, I think. Do you think you will continue to be published in Poland? Will you, can you go back after Martial Law?

Milosz: My journey to Poland became largely symbolic of the relaxation of control. Somehow it worked that way–a coincidence in time–the birth of Solidarity and the award of the Nobel Prize. Of course, the Swedish Academy made its decision in May of 1980, and had no way of foreseeing what would follow. But due to circumstances in Poland, the announcement of the prize came very soon after the strike in Gdansk. It came as a great shock. Suddenly the Nobel Prize was before me, and they started to publish my books. What is happening now is very hard to tell. it seems that of my books only poetry will be published. A new postage stamp was even issued of me as part of a series of Nobel Laureates.*

JP: Has there been any response in your poetry to Solidarity?

Milosz: I have written articles and speeches, but I haven’t published any poems on the subject. However, an earlier poem of mine has been engraved on the Solidarity memorial to the dead at the entrance to the Lenin Shipyard.

DB: In The Captive Mind you criticized writers for writing too soon.

Milosz: What worries me more is my own feeling of responsibility, since at the present moment I do not see much hope. I feel obliged not to encourage statements of despair.

JP: So an artist does have a responsibility to the body politic.

Milosz: In a way, yes.

DB: About your translation of the Bible, do you have a date for when it will be finished? What stage are you on now?
Milosz: It would be rather dangerous to name a date. As a matter of fact, my ambitions do not go so far as to translate the whole Bible. I translated the Book of Paslms; I translated the Book of Job. Now, five shorter books of the Bible have been published in Paris

DB: In the translations, are you guided by any principles?

Milosz: It’s obvious that any translation of the Bible means entering into a competition with all other translations. There are several translations into Polish, beginning with versions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Then, until the twentieth century, little was done. So the competition is with the other translations done recently and especially with the old translations, which are the most beautiful as far as language is concerned. The problem is whether to use a language different from that of previous translators. The problem occurs in translations of the Bible into English, as well. New Bibles are translated into a language that is current, but which lacks the dignity of the King James version, which, however, is antiquated. The problem is how to create a new hierarchical language which would not be antiquated but which is different from the language imposed upon us by the media and newspapers.

DB: One difference between your project and Biblical translation in English is that the latter was done by groups of people or organizations. You’re doing this yourself.

Milosz: There are others in Polish literature who have attempted such lonely ventures. Of course, in my attempts to translate the Bible, my desire is primarily to compete with the old Polish Bibles, one of which happens to be ath the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana–the “Leopolita,” a Catholic Bible with beautiful woodcuts, printed in Krak�w in 1577.

DB: Several people have remarked upon your notable style of declaiming your poetry in Polish. They were very much taken with the sound and resonance, even though they knew nothing of the language.** Do you have any thoughts on oral poetry and poetry as it is heard, rather than read on the printed page?

Milosz: No, I have no special ideas about that. Well, poets very rarely recite their poems well. If they do, that’s fine, but a poem has a tonal sonority whether recited aloud or just murmured to oneself. In general, I think we’ve moved away from oral poetry or Homeric poetry.

DB: You think that the basis for modern poetry resides more in the mind?

Milosz: Yes, of course.

*Actually, editions of Milosz’s translations of various books of the Bible were widely available in church-run kiosks during 1982-83, at a cost of several hundred zlotys apiece. The stamp with his likeness was available in many post offices, but was never widely publicized. This Nobel Laureate, Lech Walesa, was awarded the Peace Prize.
**Czeslaw Milosz read his poetry before a Bloomington audience in May 1982.