Dispatches | September 16, 2004
Czeslaw Milosz and his Age
It is still hard for me to believe that Milosz is dead. I know he was 93, but his age, so far from being an indication that he would die soon, seemed rather proof of his invincibility. No poets, I thought, lived into their nineties—and if they did, they certainly weren’t productive. One could be worried about a poet when he was in his seventies or eighties, but once he’d crossed the truly awesome threshold into his nineties…well, then he was untouchable. It seemed to me that Milosz, after having lived through nearly the entire twentieth-century, had received a special exemption from death: if you can live through that, said Death, well, I guess I can let you write until you’re ready to go.
And write Milosz did. The poems he was writing at the end of his life are as strong as any in his immense body of work. I remember seeing a fresh batch of his poems in a 2001 issue of American Poetry Review (later published in his New and Collected Poems 1931-2001) and being astonished at their incredible directness; the thought seemed to be entirely unmediated by the language. It was as if Milosz were thinking his poems directly onto the page:
I came back from Texas.
I had been reading my poems there.
Nowhere else than in America do they pay so well for reading poems.
Next to my signature I put the date 2000.
Old age clings to my feet like dense pitch.
The mind resists, but that signifies consciousness.
And what can I do with it, unveil it to whom?
The best strategy is to say nothing.
I have experienced the shame of the recollected illusion
of loving, hating, aspiring, striving.
And now I can hardly believe
that I managed to live through my life.
The fact that these were poems in translation made their “directness” even more astonishing. I felt I was witnessing a genuine literary event: a new level of mastery achieved by an already acknowledged master entering his nineties.
Milosz redefined what one can do with a poetic career. Even the greatest examples of longevity and evolution in the canon—Yeats, Neruda, Auden—seem somehow less mighty when placed next to Milosz. He won the Nobel Prize in 1980, when he was just under 70 years old; the awarding of this prize usually marks the culmination of a poet’s career, and the turn into the seventies (I tremble as I write this) usually marks a decline in poetic output, if not in quality. Think of Seamus Heaney: how much work has he produced since winning the Nobel Prize? Yes, he gave us a new translation of Beowulf (and for this, all students of English literature are eternally grateful), but Electric Light (2001) seems slight for a poet of Heaney’s standards, and when placed next to the mammoth collections Milosz was producing in the decade after winning the Nobel Prize—Unattainable Earth (1986), Provinces (1991), and even The Collected Poems (1987) which contained a substantial body of new work—it seems even smaller. Heaney’s publications have been primarily retrospective since his Nobel: Opened Ground, a volume of selected poems in 1998, and Finders Keepers, a volume of selected prose in 2002. I don’t mean to come down so hard on Heaney, whose work I greatly admire, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that he is lazy, or resting on his laurels; I simply want to point out, through a contrast with Heaney’s post-laureate work, the truly staggering nature of Milosz’s late achievement.
Heaney himself has particular reverence for Milosz, and my sense is that for him, Milosz represents a kind of personal taskmaster. What other models does a relatively young Nobel laureate have (Heaney won the prize in his mid-fifties) for continuing poetic achievement into old age?
Much of Milosz’s stature has to do with age—both his physical age at the time of death and “the age” he lived in and came more fully than any other poet to represent. Heaney points out in a glowing essay on Milosz that he “is our secular poet not only because he is almost coeval with the saeculum itself but because the term ‘the century’ keeps recurring all through his work. Decade by decade, the story of his life and the story of his times keep in step.” Milosz’s bio is the stuff of legend; indeed, the term “bio” seems grossly inadequate when it comes to this poet. His is the bio of the twentieth-century. In Heaney’s summation:
“In the twenties, he was a student in Vilnius and Paris. In the thirties, a member of the literary avant-garde in Poland. In the forties, involved with the Polish Resistance, a witness to the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi defeat of the uprising, then attached to the embassy of the People’s Republic in Washington. In the fifties, a defector from that regime, an intellectual in exile in France—his equivalent of forty days in the desert. In the sixties, a professor of Slavic languages at the University of California at Berkeley, in the full summer of his poetic powers, a Solomon among the flower-children. In the seventies, still in full creative spate, his status changing from émigré writer to world visionary. In the eighties, the Nobel Prize winner, a moral and political force in the Poland of Solidarity. In the nineties, a marvel of continuing imaginative vitality, a voice somewhere between the Orphic and the Tiresian.”
In virtually every line of Milosz there is a sense of the vastness of this life behind it. Only Milosz could have written the lines “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?” and been taken seriously. But Milosz’s power as a poet does not derive simply from the power of witness; it starts further back in the man, behind the experience. There is a life-force, a great drive to the consciousness, which gives this poetry its power. “I desire everything,” Milosz says in a recent poem. “Changed into pure seeing, I will absorb, as before, the proportions of human bodies, the color of irises, a Paris street in June at dawn, all of it incomprehensible, incomprehensible the multitude of visible things.” From the start Milosz has been on a quest “to capture as much as possible of tangible reality,” as he says in the introduction to his New and Collected Poems; this, for him, “is the health of poetry.”
One wants to speak only in very broad terms about Milosz; talking about specific lines or images in his poetry seems silly. It may well be that he will come to be regarded as the poet of the twentieth-century. What the world lost in Milosz was an absolute eminence, a figure who provided us with a moral and aesthetic center. Whom will we turn to now in the face of atrocity?
* * *
Thankfully Milosz was able to live out his final years in Krakow, no longer an exile, at home among a people he helped save. I saw him there last summer, as part of a group from the University of Houston participating in the second annual Krakow Poetry Seminar. He was constantly beaming, though hard of hearing and barely able to hold a pen to sign autographs; he seemed to be enjoying his much-deserved attention as master poet of the city. There were two main readings organized for the distinguished faculty of the seminar (which included Seamus Heaney, Adam Zagajewski, Edward Hirsch, W.S. Merwin, Linda Gregerson and Eavan Boland): the first at Bernardynow Church, the second at the Tempel Synagogue in the Kazimierz. Milosz closed the first reading, at the end of which he received a standing ovation. I was struck by the sight of Polish teenagers coming to the front of the audience to snap pictures and catch him on video—I can’t imagine that ever happening in America. During the second reading, Milosz arrived late, walking on stage during the Polish translation of a Linda Gregerson poem. For half a minute everyone (except perhaps for Linda Gregerson) forgot about the poem and turned their attention to Milosz. I watched as Heaney and Zagajewski broke into unrestrained smiles of joy.
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