Celebrating Milosz's Hundredth:
A Jerusalem Birthday Tribute
5, Nablus Road
December 14, 2011
Stephanie Saldana: I wanted to start by saying that for us, as some of you may know, this is a particularly difficult moment in a region that has many difficult moments, because Frederic and I are so close to people in Syria, and so in these days I find myself, in the morning, sort of walking outside and looking for something that can sort of save the day, you know, a bit of light or a particular color on a little boy's jacket, or chamomile flowers coming into bloom, or something like that.
I look to my friends, certainly, and I look again and again to Czeslaw Milosz, for more than any other poet of the modern period, Milosz had the ability to look at the horrors of his time square in the face, to force us to witness them, and at the same time never lose sight of grace, of the transformative power of beauty, of memory, and finally, of poetry. He believed, somehow, that poetry can save. And in that he brings hope that the world is not beyond repairing, and in some way, he has, at least, saved me.
And it's only fitting that we should have, to talk about him this evening, another man who's done so much to help us examine the horrors of our time, the esteemed writer and journalist Mark Danner, who has spent more than two decades writing about international conflict, from Central America, the Balkans, Haiti and Iraq, among other places, as a staff writer for The New Yorker and as a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. He is perhaps best known for his examination of American foreign policy during and after the cold war, and most recently for his writings about torture.
And he has been awarded a National Magazine Award, three Overseas Press awards and an Emmy. In 1999 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. He is Chancellor's Professor of Journalism, Politics and English at the University of California at Berkeley, and the James Clark Chase Professor of Foreign Affairs, Politics and Humanity at Bard College. It is through this that we have been lucky enough to have him here this semester joining us at Bard [Al-Quds].
The seeds of this particular evening came about quite accidentally. I sometimes keep this book of Czeslaw Milosz next to my bed and I read a little bit of him before I go to sleep at night and when I wake up in the morning, on days, especially, when I'm in need of Milosz. And earlier this semester I had woken up on a particular morning and been reading Milosz, and I went to school, and somehow or another Mark was walking past my little carrel and we began speaking about Polish poetry.
And he mentioned, as though it was the most normal thing in the world, that he had known Milosz, and that, in fact, he lived in his house. Now, this was shocking to me first of all because it forced me to admit that Milosz was a mortal such as us, who walked on the earth and who—
Mark Danner: Well, don't make that assumption.
Stephanie: —and who lived in a house as we did. And then, of course, I wanted to corner Mark and ask him questions basically for the rest of the semester, but it occurred to me that others might actually want to listen to those stories as well, so I asked if he could come and share them with all of us. This year Czeslaw Milosz would have been 100 years old, so [achten haddim], happy birthday. And I'm so happy to honor this man and this house with all of you, so here is Mark Danner.
Mark Danner: Thank you. That's a beautiful introduction. Thank you, Stephanie. Thanks very much. And Frederick, thank you. Thank you both for welcoming us here and thanks to everyone for coming. It is, indeed, the hundredth, the centenary of Czeslaw Milosz, which means there are events all over the world honoring him, several of which I've taken part in.
This is meant to be very informal, and I thought I would talk about him a little bit, with particular reference to the house and how I knew him, and a little bit about his work. I love talking about Czeslaw, although I think of him very much as a mortal, a very, very mortal figure, and when I look at a particular bush next to my front door, I think of it as the bush into which Czeslaw fell after an evening of drinking with Joseph Brodsky. It was in this amazing good-bye, he simply disappeared into the bush, and Joseph had to run back and [aid] him. So mortal, mortal, mortal he is.
I thought I would begin by just talking a little bit about the house, and a particular weekend in 2004 in August, when I... I should say the house is in Berkeley, California. It's in a place called Grizzly Peak, which is high up above the bay, and it gives onto this beautiful view of San Francisco Bay. And it's referred to many times in his work, including the collection Visions of San Francisco Bay and a few other poems that I'll read. It's surrounded by these towering trees, this amazing stand of redwoods, and also a huge—some of the biggest Monterey Pines in the Bay area, these enormous trees.
And to reach it you park up on the top, on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, as it's called, and then you have to come down a long pathway through these trees. You're not sure quite where you're going, and then suddenly you come to this sort of hidden away, strangely incongruous Bavarian type chalet under these trees. If the sun is shining brightly at that moment, if it's late afternoon, the door will be surrounded by a red band of light as you open the door, and the sun is directly in front of you in the windows.
Anyway, this weekend in 2004, in August, it was a Saturday night and I had decided that I needed, for reasons that now escape me, have faded long ago into memory, I had to go down into town, as we say who live up on this place, and I started walking up this hill, which is a terrible sort of treacherous path with lights that at that time were completely broken. I was still renting the place from Czeslaw at that moment and the lights were not fixed, so it was dark. But I knew this path very well, treacherous as it was, and I just walked up in the darkness.
And I was trudging along up the hill and suddenly I heard—it was very dark, there was no moon—and I suddenly heard, "Rrrr!" out of the forest. And I stopped, and all the usual physical reactions happened that we have when something like that happens—the hair on the back of your neck goes up and everything else, and I froze. And I convinced myself I hadn't really heard it, and I started walking again, and I heard, "Rrrr!" like that, and I froze again. And I didn't quite know what to do. I was sort of frozen in place. I didn't know what it was. I wasn't sure what it could have been. Every once in a while someone is actually killed by a wildcat up there, and I though, mm, I should...
So I sort of backed away, went down to the house and armed myself with a broomstick. I actually did find a couple of flashlights, but of course neither worked, so I had no light. But I had a broomstick, and I started walking up the hill with my broomstick. And I got, you know, it's about ten minutes up there, and suddenly, "Rrr!" I heard again.
And I had the sudden, I guess one would call it, an epiphany which took the form of, "Mark, what the fuck are you doing?" And I had this vision of my body being found torn asunder on this little pathway in the middle of the Berkeley hills. So I decided that I didn't really have to go down to town that evening and I kind of backed away and ended up staying in the house. And I worked late, and in the morning I got up, and I came down.
The back of the house, as I said, gives onto San Francisco Bay, and it's this very beautiful bay window. And under this window deer are accustomed to lie down. Czeslaw used to chase them away. He had this unending fight with the deer. But I had given up soon after I started living in the house, so usually one or two were sitting there. And I used to think of me as their tennis game, because I would walk across by the windows and their heads would just go, err-err, and they would just watch me.
This particular morning, I came down and was about to go get coffee and was struck by this extraordinary sight, which was that this little garden in the back, which is quite small, it's not much bigger than this room, was full of deer. I counted and convinced myself, or maybe this is true or maybe it's not, I'm not sure, that there were 13 of them. But I had never seen anything like this. And I thought, my god, there's a confab, a Papal conclave or something, what is this?
And I was standing there, and in the back the phone began to ring, and then I heard the voice of Bob Hass saying, "Mark, Mark, pick up, pick up." Bob has never learned my phone, I can't pick it up that way and get the message, so I didn't. "Pick up. I don't want to leave this on the machine. I just had a call from KrakÃ³w, and Czeslaw just died." And I heard this and looked at the deer and thought, before the kind of wave of sadness came—it wasn't unexpected. He'd been ill for the last month or so—thought, how can I ever get anyone to believe this story that they have gathered here in some way?
I then went, I had the book, which I didn't bring with me to the Middle East, but one of the books he inscribed to me is the collected, the volume you had, New and Collected Poems, which he inscribed, "To Mark, for all the generations of deer on Grizzly Peak, Czeslaw." And I went and just sort of looked at it and paged through it. And indeed, the deer stayed there for most of the morning and then gradually went away. And as I say, what does that story mean? I don't know. When I tell it, I think it means there is a power to the place and that he influenced, for about 40 years, in living there. And he was by far the greatest artist I've ever known, without a doubt.
I'm going to talk a little bit more about the house, but let me just say a little—are there people here who don't know his work at all? Yes. Okay, Czeslaw Milosz was born in 1911 in what was then the Russian empire. His father was an engineer. He was born near Vilnius, so he's claimed both by Lithuanians and Poles. In fact, they could get very dirty sometimes in their claiming of him. And he remembered, throughout his life, traveling around prerevolutionary Russia in a wooden wagon with his father, who was building roads for the czar.
And he retained vivid memories of this, indeed, 'til the end, and he lived until he was 93. I thought of him, at the very end, as a man in heavily rusted armor because he walked very, very slowly with a cane, very, very slowly. You had to go up close to his ear and shout into it for him to hear you. He couldn't see well. He would read and write on a computer that had been adapted so it was vastly magnified, and he worked until about a month before he died, and people are still finding poems. In fact, he's come out with three books since he died. He's been much more productive dead than I have been alive.
But he was born in 1911, and he is, in a sense, an artistic figure, not to... I was going to say he's the Zelig of the century, in a funny way. He had a way of being everywhere, not only prerevolutionary Russia, but Warsaw during World War II, the anus mundi, asshole of the world, which he wrote about considerably. He went then to...he eventually represented the postwar Polish government, the communist government, briefly in Washington. He broke with them, went to Paris, where he was shunned by the Stalinist left, of course, which most of the Parisian intellectuals then supported the Soviet Union, and he was doubly in exile.
He eventually went to the United States. He was at Berkeley in '68, Stockholm when he won the Nobel Prize in 1980, and then, of course, became the symbol of the Polish Solidarity uprising, the revolution that, in fact, ended the Cold War. He was famed, really, until the end of the Cold War, and his reputation really was made in the United States, by a book he had written in great frustration and anxiety in his first exile called The Captive Mind, which is an astonishing, powerful epic of the conscience and lack of conscience of intellectuals and power.
Most people assume it's about the Cold War. It really isn't. It's about intellectual conscience. It's an extraordinary epic book, although it troubled him, I think, throughout his life that he was known so pervasively for that work, which he didn't consider his life work. And then he became, in fact, as I say, the sort of leading poet symbol of the Solidarity revolution.
When I first met him, it was in New York in 1981. And it's hard now to do justice to the glamour of him at that time, because he really symbolized what was happening in the Cold War, the end of the Cold War. The only person I can compare to him—and this was a few years later—is Havel, who later came to New York and had the same kind of reception among intellectuals and writers. But Czeslaw I met, I was whatever, 23 or 24, and I was working at the New York Review, and I met him when he was given an award, a very high honor, the name of which I completely forget, at New York University.
And I remember this very well because I was working for Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review, and Bob had been picked to sort of do the speech and present the award. And I remember vividly how incredibly nervous he was. And this was this guy I really looked up to, and he was just shivering and shaking. And it was my job to type this little speech, and I typed it, and then he rewrote it. I typed it again and at a certain point I realized, my god, he's completely quivering here.
And I went to the ceremony, and Milosz was this kind of looming, sort of [granitic] figure. He seemed like this vast, you know, these great eyebrows, very charismatic. Whatever that word actually means, you couldn't take your eyes off him, and he seemed to symbolize a change that was about to happen, that in fact did happen, the end of the Cold War.
I later began teaching at Berkeley, and one day Bob actually came out and I did an interview with him, a dialogue on stage at Berkeley, and we had dinner afterwards in the apartment I was then renting. And at the dinner, among other people, I invited Czeslaw and Carol. And I did something I've always wanted to do, which is arrive late to my own dinner party. I'll never forget it.
Bob and I walked in and everyone was already there. We walked in and just inside the door was Czeslaw Milosz, who, as I say, was thought of as this sort of looming writer who not only was a great poet, but stood for something that I respected greatly. And he was standing there and what did he have in his hands but the New York Review of Books, and what was he reading but a piece of mine about Kosovo, so it was '99.
And I'll never forget it. He's not all that tall, but my vivid memory of this is walking in the door and seeing this enormous man, seven, eight feet tall standing there reading this. And I walked in and he reached his hand down, this enormous hand—it was about this big—and took my hand in his and he said, from this great height, "I really admire your writing." [Laughter.] And I recall this vividly because my reaction was, "Hah!" Like that. [Laughter.] And Bob, who was standing next to me and waiting to also shake his hand, I remember him casting this sort of strange glance at me, like, "What is the matter with you?" In fact, I did say, "Hah."
About a year after that Susan Sontag came to Berkeley, and Berkeley is a small place, and I did a small reception for her. She was coming, actually, to hawk a book of hers, a novel called To America, the main character of which is a Polish singer. And I knew she knew Czeslaw, and I decided that I would surprise her with his presence at this party. So I called him up during the party and said, "Can you come over?" And he said, "Carol's not here. Come get me." This was his second wife, who watched over him very carefully. He was then in his late 80s.
And I went over to this house, which I had not seen before, and found myself walking down this magical, very treacherous path, the sun shining through these trees, to this place that seemed out of time. It seemed completely strange and yet perfect. And indeed, he came out and he had his cane, and he walked up. It probably took us 20 or 25 minutes to get up the stairs, incredibly slowly. And I remember this as this completely intoxicating walk up these stairs through what seemed to be another, completely separate world.
In any event, not long after this Carol called and said, "We go to KrakÃ³w half the year, you come to Berkeley half the year. Do you want to rent the house?" I had, by that time, been at the house a couple of times for dinner, and I started renting the house when he was not there. And this meant living in this place which he had lived in since 1962, and it was full of his books.
It was full of poems—scrawled poems, bits of poems, ends of paper with poems, notes, stuff stuck literally everywhere—in cushions, under couches. He's now been dead nearly seven years, and I got a call yesterday from my assistant, who's painting some of the rooms in the house finally, and he told me he discovered a huge box of photographs seven years after. So we're still kind of finding things that were hidden away.
Anyway, I started living there and visited him in KrakÃ³w, which perhaps I'll talk about, which is a visit I'll never forget. He was 91 and we walked around the central square of KrakÃ³w, among other things, and it was like...it's hard to describe the figure he cuts not just in Poland, but France, Germany. But in Poland, and in KrakÃ³w itself, it was like walking around with a cross between Jean-Paul Sartre and Madonna. I mean, he was this kind of cultural hero.
Let me talk a little bit about his poetry. The house, as I said, was full of his poems, and...well, let me introduce it with just another rather quicker story. A few years ago in San Francisco we did a memorial for Czeslaw at the San Francisco Public Library. A lot of people who knew him talked about him. And one of the pleasures, of course, of doing things like this is you have an excuse to go back—as if you needed one—but you have an excuse to go back and reread a lot of his work. And I was doing that, sitting in the house during one of these enormous Pacific storms that happens in late January or early February, where you get these fantastic 70, 80 mile winds.
And these trees that I spoke about were sort of flapping around and howling, and it really sounded like they were going to fall on the house and destroy it. These, "Rah—roar—rooh-rooh," just kind of whipping wind back and forth. And I was sitting there rereading Year of the Hunter, which is a wonderful book of Czeslaw's that is kind of a diary of a year in his life in the mid '80s.
So I was sitting there reading it and the trees were starting to worry me, and the storm was starting to worry me. And these trees, every arborist who comes by, and I've had a number of them, they always say cut down the trees. And these trees are 120, 130 feet, and they're wonderful. You don't want to cut them down. But of course if you're an arborist, what's the down side of that advice? You always say cut the trees down.
One of them has fallen in the time since, and consumed my neighbor's BMW. [Laughter.] In fact, I remember this distinctly, coming back to the house, and all these people were up on the road pointing. The one thing you don't want to do is return to your house to a crowd pointing.
And in fact a tree had fallen, this cedar. It wasn't that big a tree, but a substantial tree. It had tipped in the storm the night before, and I looked and thought, my god, it didn't hurt anything, how incredible, you know, hand of God. I mean, isn't that amazing? Look at it. And then I saw a glint in the tree, and I looked and looked, and tried to look through, and I finally realized that what I was seeing was a license plate, and it had consumed this BMW. My neighbor took it rather well, all things considered.
Anyway, so I'm sitting there reading Year of the Hunter. Woo-hoo, ooh-hoo, the trees are going back and forth. And I turn the page, and I come upon this entry. This is done in the form of a diary.
"A visit from the gardener, who advises me to transplant the feijoa"—I don't even know what that is, and it's probably dead by now—"because there's no way to control their growth under the windows. Then, about the trees, there's been some talk this winter of their posing a danger to the house because of their gigantic height and the storms blowing in from the ocean."
And I was sort of like this. I thought my god, no. And then the next line.
"The gardener confirms that the pines are healthy and can stand there for another twenty years."
At which point, of course, I looked at the date and it was within two weeks of 20 years. [Laughter.] And I felt this kind of after-echoing through the house, because I thought Czeslaw would particularly love that conjunction.
Talking about his poetry and his work is like talking about Blake. He has an enormous body of work that includes a couple of very good novels that he always made fun of, the great nonfiction work The Captive Mind, a number of memoir collections, and then an enormous body of poetry, perhaps two-thirds of which is in that book that Stephanie is holding up, so much of it has not been translated, much of it may still be under a bed somewhere, for all I know, and it is still [hanging] out, so even starting to talk about his work presents problems simply of emphasis and scope. But I want to say a little bit, maybe taking as a point of departure that story.
Czeslaw was, among other things, enormously fond of what I call—this is not any critical term—time jokes. That is, he loved that kind of strange conjunction in time. And it wasn't just, I think, a delectation. That is, he didn't just love that kind of coincidence. And it seems to me there's a path there that leads into what could be called his metaphysics.
Czeslaw is an enormously ambitious artist. He wanted, in a sense, to find what being was, and much of his poetry could be called, pretentious as it sounds, a kind of quest for being, a quest to be a creator on the level of the creator. He always claimed that people didn't understand him if they didn't realize that he was, at bottom, a religious poet.
Anyway, let me read one poem called "A Portrait with a Cat." And this is on the wall in the front hall of this house. There were a couple of his poems that someone had reproduced on these beautiful posters that were hanging there, so these poems I kind of lived with. "A Portrait with a Cat."
A little girl looks at a book with a picture of a cat
Who wears a fluffy collar and has a green velvet frock.
Her lips, very red, are half opened in a sweet reverie.
This takes place in 1910 or 1912, the painting bears no date.
It was painted by Marjorie C. Murphy, an American
Born in 1888, like my mother, more or less.
I contemplate the painting in Grinnell, Iowa,
At the end of the century. The cat with his collar
Where is he? And the girl? Am I going to meet her,
One of those mummies with rouge, tapping with their canes?
But this face: a tiny pug nose, round cheeks,
Moves me so, quite like a face that I, suddenly awake
In the middle of the night, saw by my side on a pillow.
The cat is not here, he is in the book, the book in the painting.
No girl, and yet she is here, before me
And has never been lost. Our true encounter
Is in the zones of childhood. Amazement called love,
A thought of touching, a cat in velvet.
Now, this question of, well, what exactly is it to be? How do I find something? How can someone, in particular, continue to exist, is something that rather preoccupied him. This was written in 1985, this poem, and it's one I particularly—I wouldn't claim it as his greatest poem, by any means, but it's a lovely little poem. And yet if you turn back to 1936, you'll find "Encounter," a short poem which I also love.
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
That's 1936. I said he was in search of being, and I want to follow this little perception when it comes to various portraits he has of women. But a word, first of all, from Year of the Hunter. In many of these little entries we get notes of how he thinks about poetry and his writing. He says,
"Proud that my poems have their own life. Objects that used not to be and that suddenly emerge through my mediation so that, like Chardin's painting, they will always exist, and whatever may be said about them will exist only in relation to them. How exactly do poems exist? And can poems exist like things do? And if they can't, how frustrating is that? How frustrating."
Another brief passage from this book before we get back to one of his poems. Or actually, let me go back to poems about girls, women. Okay, "Girl on a Train." This is, first of all, him in 1987 looking at a girl on a train.
"I boarded the train to Fontainebleau in the summer of 1931. I was twenty years old. We'd come to Paris as a trio—Robespierre, Elephant and I, dressed in shirts and shorts." These are his childhood friends. They had been hiking and canoeing. The canoe tipped over and they lost all their clothes, so they were on this kind of adventure. "Because our knapsacks had sunk in the rapids of the upper Rhine, Oscar had sent me money." This is his cousin Oscar Milosz, who's this great mystical poet living in Paris. "And advised me to buy a suit in Samaritaine. I was dressed not too elegantly, but respectably. A young woman sat opposite me. Provincial that I was, I was fascinated by her, a Parisian woman. It isn't true that I'm not thinking about her now"—again, he's talking about this 56 years later—"in this train, because I am counting: she must have been around thirty, let's say; add fifty-six years; she would be eighty-six now, so most likely she's been dead for a very long time."
Now, I want to read one other of his poems on this same theme. It's called "Esse." It's a prose poem.
I looked at that face, dumbfounded. The lights of métro stations flew by; I didn't notice them. What can be done if our sight lacks absolute power to devour objects ecstatically, in an instant, leaving nothing more than the void of an ideal form, a sign like a hieroglyph simplified from the drawing of an animal or bird? A slightly snub nose, a high brow with sleekly brushed-back hair, the line of the chin — but why isn't the power of sight absolute? And in a whiteness tinged with pink two sculpted holes containing a dark, lustrous lava. To absorb that face but to have it simultaneously against the background of all spring boughs, walls, waves, in its weeping, its laughter, moving it back fifteen years, or ahead thirty. To have. It is not even a desire, like a butterfly, a fish, the stem of a plant, only more mysterious. And so it befell me that after so many attempts at naming the world, I am able only to repeat, harping on one string, the highest, the unique avowal beyond which no power can attain: I am, she is. Shout, blow the trumpets, make thousands-strong marches, leap, rend your clothing, repeating only: is!
She got out at Raspail. I was left behind with the immensity of existing things. A sponge, suffering because it cannot saturate itself; a river, suffering because reflections of clouds and trees are not clouds and trees.
Now, that woman, I have a notion, he claims to have seen her in, that was, 1953 in Paris, but it strikes me, it's always struck me that that woman was the same woman he saw in 1931. And finally, the same theme, although the woman is gone, in a poem, a very famous poem of his called "Meaning."
When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.
And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?
Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.
So she has disappeared and he is just talking about the poem creating meaning. That was just a little bit about what might be called Czeslaw's metaphysics. I want to talk a little bit about his politics. I mentioned his lifetime, which basically covered our most—what did Isaiah Berlin call it, the most miserable of miserable centuries, or the most terrible of terrible centuries, I can't remember. But the bloodiness of our century, he found himself, for various reasons, right in the middle of.
And it was, in a sense, his fate to be thought of as a political writer and a political poet, and it was something that he at least made a fashion of rejecting, and claiming again and again that in fact he was a confessional poet, he was a religious poet. As I mentioned, his most famous book, certainly in the United States, for about 30 years, was The Captive Mind. He was known by it. And he hated this, basically.
In fact, this is now changing, in part because, I think, of the end of the Cold War, and in a remembrance we did of him in Berkeley in March, we had three hours of reading of his work, talking about him. I had planned to say a word about The Captive Mind and I forgot when I was talking about him. And I realized at the end, as we were having drinks, that no one had mentioned that book, that The Captive Mind, those words had not been uttered, and I thought, smiling to myself, that he would have been very happy about that, that it kind of had moved.
But in fact, indeed, he was known very much as a political poet. And I want to read another poem that was on the wall. This was on the wall in the breakfast room, so I basically was looking at it every morning. I should say that one of the strange things, you know I'm reading these poems in translation, and Czeslaw was enormously lucky—well, he wasn't lucky. This was not an accident. But he had great translators. He had a number of them. His body of work is enormous.
And Robert Hass, who's a good friend of mine in Berkeley, who I teach with, was his last and longest translator, which makes me think of what that must be like when you're a poet you have ambition and frustration about your own work and you suddenly become tied to this phenomenon, who is producing vast amounts of work which you are, in a sense, obligated to translate.
In fact, I should say Bob and I take walks a lot of time in the Berkeley hills and he's an extremely mild and genial and wonderful, sweet man, sweet as can be, and doesn't like to criticize or do anything. And I remember taking a walk with him. We were in the middle of the woods, we were walking along. And I said, "I talked to Czeslaw today on the phone," and he was in KrakÃ³w, so I don't know when this was, 2001 or 2002. And he said, "Yes, how is he?" And I said, "Well, he sounds very well. He's finished a long poem."
And there was this sudden reaction. It reminds me of a science fiction movie where suddenly there will be a bolt of lightning and the person will be revealed to be a lizard, and then the lightning will go away and they're just this alien. And Bob kind of did this, "Owup!" just like that. A sudden, inadvertent spasm of terror crossed his face. And it was there for a millisecond and then it was gone. I don't think he was even aware of it. But I remember thinking, my god, what must it be like to be the translator of this man who's incredibly productive, and you feel it's a sacred trust, but it is engulfing your life?
Anyway, all of that was a little byway on the way to talking about the fact that obviously I'm reading these poems in translation. And among Poles, one of the things he's most famous for is the music of his poetry, the subtlety of the music of his poetry, which you can't ask to survive in translations. But this particular poem, which was actually translated by Robert Pinsky and the poet Milosz, was up on the wall in the breakfast room, and I wanted to read it. It's called "Song on Porcelain."
Rose-colored cup and saucer,
They lie beside the river
Where an armored column passes.
Winds from across the meadow
Sprinkle the banks with down;
A torn apple tree's shadow
Falls on the muddy path;
The ground everywhere is strewn
With bits of brittle froth-
Of all things broken and lost
The porcelain troubles me most.
Before the first red tones
Begin to warm the sky
The earth wakes up, and moans.
It is the small sad cry
Of cups and saucers cracking,
The masters' precious dream
Of roses, of mowers raking,
And shepherds on the lawn.
The black underground stream
Swallows the frozen swan.
This morning, as I walked past,
The porcelain troubled me most.
The blackened plain spreads out
To where the horizon blurs
In a litter of handle and spout,
A lively pulp that stirs
And crunches under my feet.
Pretty, useless foam:
Your stained colors are sweet
Spattered in dirty waves
Flecking the fresh black loam
In the mounds of these new graves.
In sorrow and pain and cost,
Sir, porcelain troubles me most.
It's datelined Washington, D.C., 1947, so this is when he was still serving the communist government in their embassy before he broke with them. I've always absolutely loved this poem. I think it's just one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. But it always struck me, looking at it, that there's something very personal about him in it. One doesn't have to sort of say he's the porcelain or anything that vulgar to say that there's a tone of regret about what war, massacre and all of the things that had accompanied his life, to his great surprise, had done to him as a poet.
This tone you find in some of what are thought of as some of his more famous political poems, and I'll just read a couple more of these, and then I hope we can talk about it more or whatever. I don't want to go on forever. And I could go on forever, in particular reading his poems.
I think probably his most famous poem is called "Campo dei Fiori." If you know Rome, you know Campo dei Fiori. It's this famous square. A flower market is there, among other things, in the middle of Rome. If you go to Yad Vashem, you'll find Czeslaw is one of the righteous Gentiles. I don't really know how this came about. I actually looked it up today, and it happened in 1987. I don't know how exactly that happens. Well, anyway, maybe we can talk about that. Let me just read this.
In Rome, on Campo dei Fiori,
baskets of olives and lemons
cobbles spattered with wine
and the wreckage of flowers.
Vendors cover the trestles
with rose-pink fish;
armfuls of dark grapes
heaped on peach-down.
On this same square
they burned Giordano Bruno.
Henchmen kindled the pyre
close-pressed by the mob.
Before the flames had died
the taverns were full again,
baskets of olives and lemons
again on the vendors' shoulders.
I thought of Campo dei Fiori
in Warsaw by the sky-carousel
one clear spring evening
to the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
the salvos from the ghetto wall,
and couples were flying
high in the blue sky.
At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on the beautiful Warsaw Sunday.
Someone will read a moral
that the people of Rome and Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by martyrs' pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died.
But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying,
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.
Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.
Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
our tongue becomes for them
the language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
and many years have passed,
on a new Campo dei Fiori
rage will kindle at a poet's word.
This was written in 1943 in Warsaw. It's strangely appropriate that there is wailing and crying as it's being read. Anyway. Let me say a few more words about his politics and then... I guess, as I said, he, as it were, fought a fight throughout his life about being defined as a man who wrote about politics.
"Define my home in one sentence, he wrote, concise as if hammered in metal, not to enchant anybody, not to earn a lasting name in posterity in a natural need for order, for rhythm, for form which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness."
Which is a fairly basic call for not aestheticism, certainly, because he disdained aestheticism, but not to be trapped in political categories.
Another quote from him from The Year of the Hunter.
"I think that my resistance to communism had other sources, including my metaphysical temperament, and also my understanding of the gravity of the movement"—he thought Americans were political dolts, basically, that we didn't understand basic things about politics—"which was truly preoccupied with one thing only: the dethronement of God. This is his view of politics. He gave a year-long course on Dostoevsky at Berkeley. "So my lecturing on Dostoevsky later on at Berkeley was totally consistent, and since I did not have a cult of Poland as a superior value, it would have been better not to digress in my poetry into public questions. Unfortunately, given the accidents of history, it was difficult to achieve such a degree of self-restraint."
Needless to say, that's a rather wry statement.
Let me read one more quote of his that I particularly love and then a last poem. This is Year of the Hunter, by the way. I have little things here. Pines, discipline, painting. Okay. I kind of love this because... Oh, okay. This is based on a perception which is something I've often felt. You walk into a gallery, let's say you walk into the National Gallery or something and you see far, far across, way over somewhere a painting, three rooms down. You can't see the subject, can't see who's in it, can't see anything, but you know it's a Tintoretto or a Titian or whatever. And he writes,
"If we think about it seriously, it is unbelievable that from a considerable distance, when we still don't even know the painter's name, we are able to make distinctions and to say who it is. For example, that is a landscape by Corot. Which means that there exists (I'm not sure how to define it) a tone, a nuance, a melody, which is peculiar to one many only and to no one else, the mark of an individual, and art supplies only a particular occasion for becoming conscious of this, for the painter has managed to express what is his own, but that does not mean that other people lack their own particular note. That may be the sole proof of the immortality of the soul, with due consideration for additional premises, to be sure: that this strictly individual, unique something cannot be destroyed forever, because that would be senseless and unjust."
I like that last, because that would be senseless and unjust. But his view of art is that, when it's done right, it is, as it were, that particularity. And the expression of it, what the artist does is able, in some way, to embody it in something, whether it's music, a painting, a poem, or whatever. But there's nothing distinctive, necessarily, about the artist as artist beyond the fact that he can, in some way, make that, or she can.
One more political poem and then a final little story about him. This is a poem that meant a lot to me in the last decade or so. I thought it was kind of one of the great pictures of...well, "A Song on the End of the World," it's called. And I read it [during] Berkeley commencement when the news of torture first came out. There is this way in which we're always waiting for the catastrophe, and maybe this is very pertinent to where we're sitting, that we're always waiting for the catastrophe.
I remember the first sort of political story I did, foreign story I did, extensive story, was in Haiti, and I wrote about Haiti for a long time, the kind of various disasters, coup d'états, revolutions, assassinations that happened in Haiti. It was like a training ground for a foreign correspondent. And I remember once, after Father Aristide had been overthrown in '91, I think it was, sitting with...
The United States putt sanctions on Haiti, which is like seriously gilding the lily. I mean, sanctions on Haiti? Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere, one of the poorest in the world, and suddenly there would be sanctions on Haiti, so that Haiti, which had been immensely poor, was now just absolutely despairing and disastrous. People were starving. People were literally selling dirt so they can eat it. I did a story about it. There were no jobs, people were starving. And especially, because gas was very short, there were no cars on these formerly teeming streets. In fact, if you saw a car, it was a journalist, because he could afford to spend $20 a gallon on gas, which is what it then cost.
But anyway, I was sitting in a garden at that time, having tea with a so-called Western diplomat, which means American ambassador, for all of you who don't know that. So we're sitting there, and he had his seersucker suit on, I kid you not, and we're having tea. And I remember this distinctly.
We had this exchange, and at a certain point, I forget apropos of what, he said, "You know, if this continues, there could be a collapse here." And I looked and saw it take shape in the air, this kind of dot, dot, dot. Sort of like "there could be a collapse..." And there was this pause and I kind of looked and said, "Ambassador, what would that look like?" In other words, this isn't the collapse? So we always think of a catastrophe as looking different from the present. Anyway, "A Song on the End of the World."
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.
Okay, one last story. I visited Czeslaw in 2002 in KrakÃ³w, and this is when we walked around the square and spent a good deal of time together. And the last morning—I was with my then girlfriend Liz, who Czeslaw had a particular crush on—I could tell an off-color story about that, but I don't think I will. Anyway, we were getting ready to... I mean, it involved Liz saying, "He always does that."
Anyway, we were getting ready to leave. It was a very overcast day and we had a train to catch, and we had gone to pay a call and say good-bye. And he was then, I think, 91. And so he was in a very jovial mood and he started reading us some poems that he was working on, and they were projected on this big screen, huge letters, and he was kind of sight translating them for us.
And in fact he read one, called "The Apprentice," that came out in his next book, about Oscar Milosz, his distant cousin, the mystic French symbolist poet, as he's usually considered. He read this amazing poem, and I remember looking at Liz and just sort of saying, "God, this just...I don't want to move." And cook and nurse. They were all very beautiful and they, to me, sort of swam around the housing doing what they did. Anyway, so Carol came in, and he said, "Carol, Carol, I have to work. I haven't worked." I got up and we took our leave and said good-bye.
And we reached the door and it suddenly dawned on me he's 91 and I wonder if I'll see him again. And I had this kind of moment, and Liz perceived it, and just said go. And I didn't say anything, but she understood and she said, "Why don't you go see him again? Just go back and wave to him or something, say good-bye." So I made my way through the apartment and came into this—I hadn't realized where he was and sort of came into this room where he was sitting with his back to me.
There was a kind of overhead dim light on the top of his head, and it was rather dark. As I said, the day was overcast. And he was sitting next to his secretary, the beautiful [Anyeska], who was...her fingers were moving and he was in profile, and his lips were sort of up against her ear, and they were just kind of moving, and her hands were moving. And this was them working, and it was absolutely quiet, and just like that. And I kind of froze, and they did not see me, and I thought, if this is my last glimpse of him, it's a good one, and I kind of backed out.
And as it happened, it wasn't my last glimpse of him. Carol, his second wife, who was about 30 years younger than him, and who had married him knowing that she would be the executor and the presider over his work and so on, was taken ill with leukemia and came back to the U.S. and died. And he came and arrived just on the last day of her life, actually.
And he told me during the memorial afterwards—I sat down next to him, and among other things he said, "I live one year more." I'll never forget that. And I said, "Maybe you're not completely in control of that. Maybe that's not something that you are..." And it made me extremely happy that he lived, I think, 19 months after that, and I thought, yeah, he wasn't quite in control of that particular part.
Anyway, that's what I have to say about Czeslaw. And I'd be happy to—I mean, maybe people want to read other of his poems or whatever you want to do, but thank you for listening.
Stephanie: Thank you.
Male: Can you maybe share a word or two about his relationship with Brodsky and how their attitudes toward communism differed?
Mark: It's a good quesiton. They were fairly close friends and they helped one another. I know that Czeslaw went out of his way to help Brodsky when he came to the U.S. In fact, there's a wonderful exhibition. I don't know how long it's up, but for anybody who finds themselves in New Haven in the near future, there's a great exhibition there called "Milosz in America" which has some of their correspondence, including letters in which Czeslaw is recommending Brodsky to various people to try to get him a job and try to get him into the country. And then Brodsky is recommending Czeslaw to various people and saying, among other things, that he thinks he's the greatest living poet and so on.
I'm not sure I'm qualified to talk about the differences in their attitudes to communism. Joseph, of course, grew up most of his life—or what am I saying, all of his life—under communist regime, and he fought against it. I mean, he suffered for it, suffered for fighting against it, was put in prison. He had many scars for his fight against communism directly. Czeslaw grew up in a different world, and by the time Poland became a communist state he was already 34, so he was a young man who already had a very grand reputation by that time as one of Poland's and one of Europe's great poets, so they had very different backgrounds.
And Brodsky, as I say—I hate to try to characterize his views, especially since he's written about this question himself in a number of essays about his evolving views toward communism, but he grew up in a tiny apartment with several other people. His descriptions of what life in the Soviet Union was like are brilliant.
Czeslaw didn't grow up that way. In fact, he broke with communism after, I guess, about two years, two and a half years, something like that, and he was called traitor by many of... And there's a famous poem about him called "Testament to a Traitor," so he was a very controversial figure among the Polish intelligentsia because he had broken with... You know, there was a dividing line between those who had broken with communism and those who had not, obviously. And The Captive Mind is, in a sense, a kind of reverie on the kind of characters that that kind of a regime nourishes, and what it means to be intellectually independent.
It's funny, you think of Czeslaw's life—I think I mentioned earlier that when he broke with communist Poland, he then went to France. And one of the interesting things about this exhibition is you see a lot of evidence of how tenuous his life was, these letters trying to get people to intercede for him, letters of other people supporting him, trying to get him into the United States. There was a point at which his family got into the U.S., but he could not, so there were these forced separations. There was a lot of hardship.
And then, of course, his arrival in the U.S., and particularly in Berkeley in the early '60s, when no one knew who he was. His poetry had not really been translated. The Captive Mind was known, but he was not, so this was this excruciating kind of notoriety that I think was quite horrible for him.
And he resolutely—and this is another difference between them. It's not directly responding to your question, but Joseph, early on, began translating his own work into English, and also began writing in English. And of course the quality of that work is very controversial. A lot of people think that was a terrible mistake he made and that his work in English isn't close to the level of his Russian work. But Czeslaw never did that, even though he could write beautiful English, perfect English.
I guess what I'm trying to say is it's remarkable to me to think of what that decision represents, that he's living in Berkeley, he spoke English from the time he was a kid, like Nabokov or whatever, and he never made that choice to actually become an English language poet. And the kind of discipline and stubbornness that represents strikes me as rather remarkable.
And his poems never stopped circulating, to some degree, in Poland, in [Sumazat] [01:04:28] and various other versions. So anyway, they were quite different on that level as well, on the level of, as it were, assimilation, if you want to call it that. But as I say, I'm not sure I'm qualified, really, to compare their views on communism, really, so sorry about that.
Female: Can you speak a little bit about him as a Catholic? Did he go to church? Did he go and pray?
Mark: He did go to church, but I think his — [laughs] — oh, man. He sinned. [Laughs.] He seriously sinned.
Female: And also what it was like for him once Pope John Paul II became pope and you had this pope who was reading his poetry?
Mark: Oh, yeah, and he knew him quite well. He went and visited him. And there was actually, over the desk in Berkeley, there was a photograph of him shaking hands with the pope. And he's kind of, to some extent his head is lower than the Holy Father's, but they have this exchange of looks that I always thought was kind of like two guys from the neighborhood who made good. It's a very funny...and I may be reading into it, but I always loved—and that photograph was taking by his son when I actually purchased the house, unfortunately.
The house used to be filled with things like that. In fact, I remember during a party I had there someone had a glass of wine on this sort of leather coaster, and I think I was cleaning up after the party, and I picked it up. And I saw this and I thought, where did this coaster come from? And I picked it up and it turned out to be the Nobel Prize which was sitting there, the medal, you know. The prize, as you might better think, is the million dollars, but this was the medal. And it was just kind of sitting there, and it had this big red wine circle on it. So there were all these things lying around, in particular lots of photographs.
Again, I don't know whether I'm... Bob, who's Catholic, would be much better to talk about this than I am, his Catholicism, because it was... There's also a piece, actually, that Claire Cavanagh did in TLS this past week, I think—it was quite recent—that goes into, a little bit, his Catholicism.
But he resolutely considered himself a religious poet. And his politics, throughout the '60s, turned more and more conservative as Berkeley became more and more radical. He was known on campus as, without a doubt, a conservative figure.
But he also had rather well-known dalliances with various people, and he wrote about...a theme running through his work—I didn't read any of these—but is his own sinning. In fact, he has a wonderful poem that he wrote when he was like 89 or 90 about him standing in the airport watching young women walk by and looking—I wish I could quote it—but it has to do with looking at the neck of this woman passing by, and this kind of absolutely carnivorous lens. He pictures himself as this kind of ogre. T
here's a lot about his sins of excess, whether they have to do with strawberry jam—there's a famous poem that talks about strawberry jam—but his own sinning, which he greatly enjoyed. But sorry, you deserve a better answer to a question about his Catholicism, but it's one of these extremely large subjects.
Male: How did he come to be a representative of the Polish communist government if he stayed in Warsaw, because the Polish communist government came from Russia. It was an exile government. How did he get involved in communism in the first place?
Mark: He was one of the leading poets, and recognized as one of the leading poets, young poets in Poland, so he didn't come to work for the government as a member of the Communist Party. In fact, I don't think he ever actually became one. So when I say he broke with the government, I mean he broke with the government, not the party. But he was named a cultural attaché. It wasn't a party position, but it was, indeed, a diplomatic—well, I don't mean to be, as it were, what is the word, parsing.
Male: Splitting hairs.
Mark: Splitting hairs, thank you. What I'm saying is it didn't come from a position within the Communist Party during the war because he didn't have one. He was a truck driver during the war, and he passed messages. But he wasn't part of the Warsaw uprising. He's a very controversial figure when it comes to what he did during the war. And you can see that in "Campo dei Fiori," among other things.
What was the other poem? "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto" is another poem that's about the ambiguity in which you can feel...it isn't really guilt, but he's very often rather wrongly described as like a leader of the resistance or whatever, which he was not. He had a very strong sense of himself as needing to survive the war, of his own...again, I don't want to overstate this. It makes him sound sort of worse than he was.
But I think he had a very strong sense of the fact that he was a poet and he was going to live through this. And of course not all, needless to say, not all Polish poets did. A lot of them did not. Which is another reason why, indeed, he remains a controversial figure within Poland, not only for what he did and didn't do during the war, but the fact that he served the government after the war, then broke with the government.
Stephanie: I'd like to read one poem before we...
Mark: No, no, do. There are a lot of great poems to read. I only read a... He is, as I say, he's kind of a... Bob Hass said this in Berkeley in March when we did this memorial. He compared him with Blake. He said he is somebody who, the body of his work is just enormous.
And one of the things, the house that I lived in before most of his books were taken out, there were a couple of bookcases that were just full of his books only. And I used to think, my god, he wrote, when he lived in this house, he wrote 50 books, if you count all the volumes of poetry.
One of his novels won the Neustadt Prize, which is basically, in the ranking of prizes, would be just below...it's sort of the greatest novel published in Europe, basically, in a given year. And both of his novels, Seizure of Power and The Issa Valley, are fantastic, but he treated them with complete disdain. When I once tried to talk to him about one of them, he just wouldn't even entertain the discussion. They were just things that he threw off because he needed some money. So he just has a huge body of work. And it is still being translated.
I will remember forever I was woken up early one morning by a knock on my door at Berkeley, and I came to the door and there was Bob Hass, who had just finished translating A Treatise on Poetry, which is a book length poem of his full of amazing stuff that he had just translated. He brought me the manuscript and I remember just sitting down thinking, shit, it's 7:15 in the morning and I have this new manuscript of Milosz that's been delivered by the translator; life is good. So his work is kind of huge. It's kind of a universe.
Stephanie: I was remembering when I was so excited when we started talking about Milosz, and then you immediately started mentioning all these poems and saying, "Oh, you know, this poem," and I said, "No." [Laughter.]
Mark: It's true. And there are more coming out. It's like more will arrive.
Stephanie: I will read this one because this is the poem that I sort of constantly come back to. It's called "On Angels."
All was taken away from you: white dresses,
wings, even existence.
Yet I believe in you,
There, where the world is turned inside out,
a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and beasts,
you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seams.
Short is your stay here:
now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,
in a melody repeated by a bird,
or in the smell of apples at close of day
when the light makes the orchards magic.
They say somebody has invented you
but to me this does not sound convincing
for the humans invented themselves as well.
The voice — no doubt it is a valid proof,
as it can belong only to radiant creatures,
weightless and winged (after all, why not?),
girdled with the lightening.
I have heard that voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:
day draw near
do what you can.
Mark: I have to say a couple things. One is that [Sam] and I actually were talking about it, and [Amira] were talking about this before, or I guess I was saying it at the beginning here that there's something about the clarity of his language, the absolute purity and clarity of his language which has the effect of making me want to write. And I was comparing him a little bit to Tolstoy, who, when you read his work, you think, well, I could do that. [Laughter.] He's just being honest.
There's a power of honesty and simplicity in what he writes that is...there's something cleansing and so perfect and easy about it that you slip into it and you think, in a sense, of the power of honesty, that the thing to be achieved is to be honest about what you see and what you feel, and that that is the enormous obstacle, and the key slips into it like slipping into this suit of clothes, that it's just...or not a suit of clothes, that's the wrong comparison.
Stephanie: A nightgown.
Mark: Yes, maybe. Or maybe just skin. But I... Well, I have something else to say, but it makes me think—I'm chagrined that I can't answer your question. I should say that I'm not...there are scores and hundreds of Milosz scholars around, and I am not one of them. I am just somebody who got to know him and loves his work.
And when I first started living in the house, a fellow came and started living in the little, what's called the in-law, which is the house up the hill that belongs to the main house. But he would have assistants live there, and a translator live there, Alicia live there. And maybe you want to talk about that a little bit at a certain point. But this fellow who came to live there was there researching his biography, and he published a thousand page book in Poland last year. It was a bestseller, this huge bestseller, this biography of Milosz.
And I actually saw this fellow at this conference in Yale last month, and I remember him principally because he came and he started living in this house. He was a young man. His English was very tenuous, and he was living up in this house sort of burying himself in Milosz papers, and he did not have a car. He could not drive. So we were up on this peak and I had to kind of drive him down when he needed to be driven down.
And one day there was a knock on the door and I opened it and this fellow [Andrej]—his name was Andrej—sort of was speechless and he just pointed. And in the stairway heading up into the trees a deer was lying on its side, this doe, with her back to us on the stair. And I just thought, my god, she's hurt or something, and I started walking toward her. And she lifted her head up and turned toward me and wiggled her ears, which somehow conveyed to me that I shouldn't approach. I don't know why, but that's...
At which point, with perfect comic timing, one head and then another head, making a sound like, "Wack-plack!" popped up, these little duck heads, all wet and tufts of fur sticking up that looked like little ducks. "Plack-plack" popped up from the side of her. And one of these tiny, scrawny heads turned, looked at me and went, "Chchchchch!" Which I interpreted as, "Daddy." So these two deer were kind of born and I watched them sort of grow up there on the property. Anyway, and this is what I remembered of this guy, the one strongest memory, and he was standing there speechless, and I'm sort of trying to figure out how to integrate this into his book, this event.
Anyway, this is an extremely long way of saying there's this thousand page biography, which supposedly is being translated now, and in English I bet it will be 500. I bet they'll cut half of it out. But I'm sure the quesiton of his Catholicism is probably 100 or more pages strewn across this book. So I'm a little chagrined that I can't do better in giving you a real answer on that question. It's a very contested subject, I guess I could say. But you just read that poem. What do you think of his religion? You've read him for years.
Stephanie: It was what you said earlier. I was talking to Frederick about this. The same sort of [Hopkins] notion of [in scape], that everything is supposed to sort of...when a thing is most fully itself, it somehow...you can see within it. I don't know. And that language was that. Language was trying to become that for him. So language was not just words, it was the word. And for him—
Stephanie: Which is why—we were talking about this the other day about how profoundly angry he was with aestheticism.
Mark: Oh, yeah.
Stephanie: How he saw this as something akin to paganism. Well, not even that, as worse, as something which is taking that which is holy and trivializing it, which then, of course, communism did the same thing. So anything that took language away from its source, which I feel for him was something divine.
And there was just that meditative, and that truth which was, when you were talking about him speaking the truth, for me it's also because one must or one must not write. He has this [great] against the poetry of Philip Larkin which is so [telling]. For him I think there's nothing worse than somebody using a poem to do something which is not that.
Mark: He had the same trouble with Robert Lowell, and had several nasty things to say about Robert Lowell, including "every time I hear about Robert Lowell going into the asylum again I think a few whacks across his bare behind would do," you know, this incredible quotation which he then, in another poem, apologized to him for saying this.
And there was this room in the house which had all his poetry books, and I would invariably pull something down. I remember pulling down The Cocktail Party, this old edition, first edition of The Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot, opening it, and there on the flyleaf was written, "To Mr. Milosz, who will not like this book. T.S. Eliot." [Laughter.] I don't know what became of that.
That book disappeared before Tony actually moved—I should say his son, in I think a cosmic joke that Czeslaw gave to the world leaving it, was named his literary executor by his father. And he's sort of an impossible, difficult, horrible man in all kinds of ways, in many different ways. [Laughs.] And he, among other things, moved—I had to insist—Czeslaw had wanted me to have the house and told me a number of times, when he was alive, that I should just buy the house. And then he would confer the details to Tony, who would never quite—we'd have these endless negotiations and he would never quite close. So meanwhile the price went up and up and up, and I was still renting the house.
Anyway, by the time I finally bought it, I had to include as a kind of codicil to the agreement that he move everything out, even though I didn't want these things to be moved out. I loved the books and so on. But I knew if I didn't insist on it, they would never be moved out. So I insisted he do it. And typically, the eve of the agreement that it went into effect, he showed up in the house with five Brazilians he had hired downtown and a truck, and they just trucked everything out, took everything, including many of my things, which I had to negotiate with a lawyer for several years to get back—and I didn't get them all back, including several books that Czeslaw had inscribed to me. They were never returned. I never got them back.
But he took everything out of the house and it's now heaped up in his house in Oakland, even though it's supposed to be at Yale. So there's a whole other God knows what kind of story going on there about that. And meanwhile, these poems are continuing to be published, etc., and Tony has now become his main translator, the son, so he's taken over translation duties, which another whole story. But anybody who wants to republish any of his work, Czeslaw's work, has to get permission from Tony, and Tony tends not to answer his mail, and it's this unending difficulty. There's a whole book to be written on executors. It could be quite entertaining. Any other...? Do you want to read some more of his...?
Stephanie: I do wonder if anyone needs to sneak out. I can give you the... It's way too early [for me].
Female: Thank you so much. This was so rich and so enjoyable.
Mark: Oh, my pleasure. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Female: And thank you, our host. Thank you a bunch.
Stephanie: I'll open the trick door for them.
Mark: [Alisa], do you want to say anything about—because I'm curious to hear.
Male: I did walk with him to church a number of times. He said he wrote The Captive Mind in a state of prayer. He said he wrote poems in a state of prayer. Even The Captive Mind is a book of literary [portraits]. It's a very literary book, almost a [metaphysical] book. And he talked a lot about religion. The book The Land of Ulro, which is the book he wrote right before he wrote [unintelligible], [01:28:07] which is even more of a [play]. It's a [unintelligible]. I think it tells us much about his relationship [unintelligible]. And he had a [unintelligible]. I mean, he's very similar to the pope, John Paul, who wrote a book of poetry and was an actor in his youth, and studied philosophy, studied [unintelligible]. And he was writing about it until, I think, [unintelligible] book before he passed away. So he was in conversation with his tradition [unintelligible] irony [unintelligible].
Mark: And struggle.
Male: And struggle, yeah. A remarkable [unintelligible].
Mark: When he died there was some degree of controversy about burying him in this church where the great Polish heroes are buried. There were disagreements on the Polish right, among other things, that he shouldn't be buried there and so on, and the pope finally intervened to sort of quash that controversy. Following it, I thought he would have loved it. There was something he would have loved about it, I thought. But you're right, The Land of Ulro. I mean, yet another book I didn't even mention. It's a wonderful, complicated book about his religious beliefs, about mysticism, among other things, Swedenborg, Blake.
Male: Thank you very much.
Mark: Well, thank you. It's nice to meet you. I hope we get a chance to talk again. I would like that.
Female: Thank you.
Stephanie: I will be back shortly. And in the meantime, others [unintelligible].
Mark: There is a lot more. Needless to say, if anybody wants to read anything more of his work or have any more questions or...
Female: The poem that I wanted to read is [the one] that Stephanie read. But it was great, actually.
Mark: Yeah, that's a great poem. I must say, I love the thought that there will be more books. There's something about it that makes me laugh. When I think about it, I connect it to the house, because as I say, there were just all these papers lying around. And this includes in the bedroom, in the bathroom, everywhere. And I would find myself sort of picking up, sort of resting my hand on something and realizing it was a manuscript of something from eight years ago, or 12 years ago, or God knows how long. And this stuff was all over the place.
The house itself is...the first winter I lived there, it was really cold, and I would turn the heat on, turn the thermostat on, and the furnace would run, but the house remained cold. And only upstairs, the upstairs bathroom was warm. It was very bizarre. I couldn't understand this. And I didn't want to complain. I had just started renting the house. I didn't want to complain to them about it so I basically didn't say anything.
But then it really got cold, and I thought something's wrong here. So I finally spoke to Carol in KrakÃ³w and said, you know, I don't want to complain, but the house is really, really cold. "Oh, I'm sorry about that. I should have told you the house is just really cold. You just can't heat the house. It just doesn't work. And so during the winter, Czeslaw basically lives upstairs in the bedroom, because there's a little heat upstairs." I thought of this because of all the manuscripts, and indeed he would basically write in the bedroom during the wintertime. I was like, okay, well, I guess what am I going to do? I'll wear sweaters or whatever.
And then at a certain point I just thought why is the furnace running so ardently and the house is cold? It doesn't make any sense. So I finally thought, uh, you know, I called a furnace person. I did it with something of guilt. I thought it's not my house, I just moved in. So this furnace guy came, and I told him the situation. So he goes downstairs into the basement, and I suddenly hear him, this, like, laughter. He's just laughing.
And he comes up and he says, "Well, it's cold because the blower has burned out in the furnace, so it's just producing heat, but it's not being expelled, and the reason that the upstairs bathroom is warm is because that's the straight shot from the furnace. It's straight up, and that duct goes straight." And I said, "Why were you laughing?" And he said, "I was laughing because the blower is completely covered with dust. It's probably been a decade since it's been broken."
So they had been living in this house with no heat for ten years without ever calling anyone to fix it. And I don't know, there's something about it that was perfect, do you know what I mean? There was some kind of perfection there that, you know, it's this place out of time, or I don't know why it strikes me as perfect, but it did. So I did—but it didn't strike me as so perfect that I didn't fix the blower, which I did. And the house, within about eight minutes the house was this toasty—it hadn't been heated in a decade.
But gradually, now, one by one, after he died—I didn't really want to change much in the house, but now one by one, the various appliances and things are dying by themselves and I've had to gradually replace things, and paint it, and do all these things that, actually, I put in—after we did a celebratory day for him in July I put in a new garden in the back. Anyway.
Male: Thank you very much.
Mark: My pleasure.
Male: Which year did he go back to Poland?
Mark: I'm not sure. He made a visit back in 1986, because I published, in a weird other—this was between first meeting him in New York and Berkeley—I actually published a memoir of his trip back to Poland. It was called "A Poet's Poland." I was the editor of it in the New York Times Magazine.
And it was strange because it was accompanied by a poem that I don't even—I think it's not in the collected poems, this poem. It was about a blacksmith's shop, I believe, and I found myself actually editing it over the phone. He was asking me a couple questions about words in the poem. And I said, when we were done with the editing, I said, "Mr. Milosz, I can't believe I'm sitting here editing one of your poems." And he laughed and said, "It's because it's in translation. If it was in Polish I would not care what you thought." [Laughter.]
But that was '86 or '87. He went to Lithuania, I think, the next year. And then of course you have '89. The revolution's in '89. But when he started first going to KrakÃ³w I'm not sure. They got the apartment, I think, in the mid '90s, and he started spending half his time there about the time I came to Berkeley. That was '98, '99. And then he basically, for the last two years, he was there all the time.
He came back when Carol became ill, although the family—there was a big thing where essentially the family wasn't telling him, I thought, how ill she was. They didn't want him to get on a plane, and there was a whole first wife, second wife kind of thing with the children, and it attained a kind of Shakespearian drama at a certain point about whether he would return or not. And he eventually did return. I think he was 91. And as I said, he arrived the day she died. He had a last conversation with her and she died. And she'd been sick for three months, I think. And then he went back and he was basically there until he died.
I think the apartment is still there with a secretary. The estate is this vast thing, and he's just an enormous seller in Poland. When I went and visited him in 2002, Liz and I went to a church. It was Palm Sunday. And it was a church in KrakÃ³w where people were...in a chapel they were kind of coming forward with their palms, their decorated palms. And we couldn't understand what was actually being said, but a man with a microphone was clearly giving awards for the best palms or whatever, so it was kind of this ceremonial thing. And the winners would go up front, and there was a pile of things that they were given as prizes.
And I was looking at this thinking what—and they were sort of different colored stacks of—I couldn't even tell what they were—of objects that were being handed out. And I managed to sort of insinuate myself behind so I could see. They turned out to be volumes of Czeslaw's collected works. They were being handed out like currency, just like, oh, here, you get one of these, you get one of those. So it is a strange...
And it's like if you're a writer going to France on a book tour and suddenly you're treated like you're not treated in the U.S., for example. In Poland, of course, it's the same—not the same way, but certainly he had a kind of fame that I don't think could be compared to any American writer that I can...I don't think anybody that I can think of ever. I mean, who? Robert Frost maybe. I mean who attained the kind of public fame like that—the connection with Kennedy. But it just doesn't happen like that in the U.S. There isn't a place for a national poet in that way.
Male: Walt Whitman.
Mark: Yeah, but he wasn't really, while he was alive. Not really. I can't think of anyone. And Czeslaw was a kind of political symbol as well. I mean, it is funny to think of. I remember arriving in New York—graduating college and arriving in New York in the fall of '81. And I met a poet who was deeply interested in poetry who was learning Polish so she could read Milosz.
And it's strange to think of this now. He had this kind of prestige because of the political events as well, obviously. And this is a long time ago now. End of the Cold War. Different politics. But I think a lot of his work, particularly "The Song on the End of the World," I mean, there's several that just seem to me, and that poem in particular, during the war on terror and torture and all of these things, I kept thinking of that poem.
I just thought there's something about it, about the way that we never see the catastrophe in front of us, it's not there. It's the thing that will happen, the catastrophe that will happen. Or like here, you know, the two state solution. There's sort of these hanging clouds of rhetoric that... I always think of the man with the tomatoes, you know. [Who's] the man with the tomatoes who's much too busy...
Female: Who's much too busy.
Mark: He's too busy to be a prophet.
Female: Did he ever talk or write about writing in Polish or losing the language?
Mark: I'm sure he did, but he was very emphatic about continuing to write, as I say, in Polish. He was very active in helping his translators. Bob, for example, does not speak Polish. He was very much a translator of his own work, a co-translator of his own work. But it was clear that the decision to continue writing—I mean, he could have written his prose works in English if he'd wanted to, without a doubt, but he never...it was clearly not something he even considered.
Female: The difficulty of going on writing when you're not living in the language.
Mark: But remember, not only not living there, but having your work forbidden in your country. I was going to read something else called "Bypassing Rue Descartes." Do you know this poem? This is a great, The Witness of Poetry, which is his Norton lectures, which is a great book also.
I descended toward the Seine, shy, a traveler,
A young barbarian just come to the capital of the world.
We were many, from Jassy and Koloshvar, Wilno and Bucharest, Saigon and Marrakesh,
Ashamed to remember the customs of our homes,
About which nobody here should ever be told:
The clapping for servants, barefooted girls hurry in,
Dividing food with incantations,
Choral prayers recited by master and household together.
I had left the cloudy provinces behind,
I entered the universal, dazzled and desiring.
Soon enough, many from Jassy and Koloshvar, or Saigon or Marrakesh
Would be killed because they wanted to abolish the customs of their homes.
Soon enough, their peers were seizing power
In order to kill in the name of the universal, beautiful ideas.
Meanwhile the city behaved in accordance with its nature,
Rustling with throaty laughter in the dark,
Baking long breads and pouring wine into clay pitchers,
Buying fish, lemons, and garlic at street markets,
Indifferent as it was to honor and shame and greatness and glory,
Because that had been done already and had transformed itself
Into monuments representing nobody knows whom,
Into arias hardly audible and into turns of speech.
Again I lean on the rough granite of the embankment,
As if I had returned from travels through the underworlds
And suddenly saw in the light the reeling wheel of the seasons
Where empires have fallen and those once living are now dead.
There is no capital of the world, neither here nor anywhere else,
And the abolished customs are restored to their small fame
And now I know that the time of human generations is not like the time of the earth.
As to my heavy sins, I remember one most vividly:
How, one day, walking on a forest path along a stream,
I pushed a rock down onto a water snake coiled in the grass.
And what I have met with in life was the just punishment
Which reaches, sooner of later, everyone who breaks a taboo.
There are a few things in this poem that I really love. One is you get this time, this look back to a time that was clearly very important to him, when he first came to Paris and thought he was entering the world of civilization and the world of letters. And his cousin, who's a fascinating figure—the first time Czeslaw gave me a book, it was not one of his, it was this translation that he had done of Oscar Milosz's mystical novel. And this is a book that Tony took and I never got back, unfortunately. But it was the first book he inscribed to me.
And he always thought of Oscar as this—and people know him who know poetry, but he is not thought of anywhere near the kind of poet that Czeslaw was. But he always thought of him as the great man. And he described to me how when he first met him he was in these glorious clothes, and of course "he owned forests and estates," and he was vastly wealthy. And Czeslaw was this kind of kid coming to the big city, coming to Paris for the first time, so this conviction that he had reached the capital of civilization and what he had left behind was, in a sense, embarrassment, and this was Paris, city of light.
And then the feeling that the political course of the century—and Dostoevsky works into this as well because Dostoevsky, as it were, heard the hoof beats in the 19th century of the coming revolutions and the massacres and the genocides—that this whole idea of civilization was just wrong, and that you had these kids—in fact I think he says it here somewhere. This is him in the lecture.
"The young cannibals who, in the name of inflexible principles, butchered the population of Cambodia, had graduated from the Sorbonne, and were simply trying to implement the philosophic ideas that they had learned. As for ourselves, once we had seen firsthand what one achieves by violating, in the name of doctrine, local mores...we could only think with horror about the absurdities haunting the human mind, indifferent as it is to the repetitive character of blunders."
He's talking about the shedding of these customs in the service of a universal idea. Said universal idea ends up not only extinguishing taboos, but extinguishing millions of people. Which was another reason why Dostoevsky—he gave this famous course on Dostoevsky, and it's very much connected to me because one day I found some notes for it in the house, and Bob and I were taking a walk, and I said I just feel this kind of ache that I wasn't here to see this course, to see these lectures. And he had always planned to do a book on Dostoevsky and he never did. He did some essays. And Bob said, in his inimitable way, "Why don't we give it?" And so we ended up giving a seminar. It wasn't Czeslaw's, but it followed his lesson plan on Dostoevsky.
But this is what he took from Dostoevsky, that the belief in rationality and universal ideas and the ending of nationalist taboos, all of these things led to the catastrophes of the last century, and at the heart of that, back to your question, was the destruction and the dethroning, as he puts it, of God.
And that Americans kind of read Dostoevsky as this kind of entertaining detective novel writer, and they kind of don't get that. I mean, obviously what I've just said is something people get. It's not that deep. But he felt that Americans in particular didn't get the gravity of what Dostoevsky was trying to do. But he was always saying he would write that book, but that was one book that he never actually wrote, unfortunately.
Stephanie: While I was listening to you I was just thinking about when we were talking about him briefly with our little reading group and John Sebastian was mentioning how shocked he was to find that he was a modern poet because there was something about—what was it that you said that he was—
Male: It was the references and also these [technical] images he refers to [that seem] very 19th century, very Romantic. And also the reference to classical mythology and a lot of [other things] of that sort made me think of that.
Stephanie: But also he wrote in a century in which so much of poetry's reaction to the horrors of our century was to write in a sort of world after God. And that he somehow didn't. He somehow had the opposite reaction to somehow look at the horrors and yet still look into God. But that puts him so at odds with so much of...
Mark: Oh, yeah. Well, I think he—
Stephanie: I can't imagine what that was like for him to be in that poetic milieu in America of...
Mark: Well, he disliked a lot of that work, obviously. Some of the poets he loved—and Robinson Jeffers is a good example, who he loved. And knew Jeffers, and he was a huge fan of his work. But a lot of the work you're talking about he was very disdainful of.
He wrote about, needless to say, he did, indeed... I mean, that poem is an example of how he felt we were led to where we were led. And he thought it was just an obvious, banal fact that we were led to where we were led by that dethronement. But as I say, I don't think he thought of that as some kind of profound insight. He just couldn't believe that others didn't see it as clearly as I did.
But I think he's a very modern...I mean, as contemporary as you can get. I don't know, maybe because the diction is so clear and so many of his poems have a kind of beautiful air of simplicity about them. That maybe has something to do with that perception, I don't know. I'm just speculating.
But of course he isn't easy at all. He's kind of deceptively easy, I guess, a lot of his work. I mean, it's funny. There are just a lot of—I think of some of the things we read and there are just a lot of the most famous poems we haven't touched on.
Stephanie: I know. We didn't read "Campo dei Fiori" and there are so many from... Yeah, that was amazing. We talked about this, too. You mentioned it's something he wrote in the '30s, and then something he wrote in the—
Stephanie: But he never lost his urgency, and it's quite incredible. Every now and then he would have this line in the middle of his life where he would sort of hint at the fact that he was getting towards the end of his life, and you'd be like — [laughs] — you're not even close.
Mark: Yeah, well, that is a funny...it is funny how basic facts like that are so determinative. I mean, there's a basic fact about him which is he had an enormous life and he was incredibly productive throughout it. And he was a subject. He was his subject for so much of that life. So you find him working—that's one of the reasons I quoted that what I called somewhat vulgarly as metaphysics, just because you can see these people, the sort of subjects floating through that he treats in different ways across a period of 60 years.
And it makes his work a kind of treasure house because you find these little things. I mean, I, like you, have not read all his work, not by a long shot. And there's a lot more of it sitting there. And I brought The Issa Valley, which I wanted to reread. I brought a bunch of Milosz books here just because I wanted to either reread or read them. And The Land of Ulro is another great book which we haven't even mentioned.
Stephanie: Frederick is reading that now in the French.
Mark: Which, The Land of Ulro?
Stephanie: The Land of Ulro, yeah.
Mark: That's a hard book.
Stephanie: But yeah, and [Theo] was mentioning just this notion of...where you talk about this collapsing of time so that somehow the past is much more present than the present is, and so there's this very small period of life which takes up this massive amount of his consciousness, and so it's very hard sometimes to place him because it's the same world 40 years on.
Mark: There is a sense that, like "An Encounter," which is one of my favorite poems, the man who made the gesture. There are a couple lines in it that I think are so...there's something so beautiful about it. And yet the perception is very...it's powerful and slight at the same time. It's sort of like if you summarized it to someone you'd say, well, he's talking about being a wagon, and a hare runs across the road, and some guy points to it, and now they're all dead, and what happened to them?
It's like, well, what kind of brilliant perception is that? On the other hand, it is. You read it and you're like, mm-hmm. And a lot of his poems do sort of take the form of what happened to that? How is that here and not here? How could that be, actually? And as I say, as a summary it's like, well, yeah, but...
Stephanie: The poem called "Farewell," can I read that one?
Stephanie: It's just [filled up] with memory and the idea of being a person without [memories]. And I think he's talking, like, after the war and talking about the cities that have been [unintelligible].
I speak to you, my son,
after years of silence. Verona is no more.
I crumbled its brickdust in my fingers. That is what remains
Of the great love of native cities.
I hear your laughter in the garden. And the mad spring's
scent comes toward me across the wet leaves.
Toward me, who, not believing in any saving power,
outlived the others and myself as well.
Do you know how it is when one wakes
at night suddenly and asks,
listening to the pounding heart: what more do you want,
insatiable? Spring, a nightingale is singing.
Children's laughter in the garden. A first clear star
above a foam of buds on the hills
and a light song returns to my lips
and I am young again, as before, in Verona.
To reject. To reject everything. That is not it.
It will neither resurrect the past nor return me to it.
Sleep, Romeo, Juliet, on your headrest of stone feathers.
I won't raise your bound hands from the ashes.
Let the cat visit the deserted cathedrals,
its pupil flashing on the altars. Let an owl
nest on the dead ogive.
In the white noon among the rubble, let the snake
warm itself on leaves of coltsfoot and in the silence
let him coil in lustrous circles around useless gold.
I won't return. I want to know what's left
after rejecting youth and spring,
after rejecting those red lips
from which heat seemed to flow
on sultry nights.
After songs and the scent of wine,
oaths and laments, diamond nights,
and the cry of gulls with the black sun
glaring behind them.
From life, from the apple cut by the flaming knife,
what grain will be saved.
My son, believe me, nothing remains.
Only adult toil,
the furrow of fate in the palm.
Stephanie: So I was really confused in that one, like, between sort of pessimism and optimism because there's some points where he seems to see God in the details, like when he talks about the snakes and the cats and the owls and the nature that's coming to live in the rubble of the city. But then at the end when he's talking about toil being the only thing that remains, or when he calls it adult toil, which maybe means it's more mature to move on from the past, I don't know.
Mark: This poem follows, in its plot line, as many of his poems do, "Meaning," among others, right? It's a question about what lasts and this perception that maybe he's wrong, that you don't know what lasts until after you know anything, right? You could be completely mistaken.
And toil, though it seems to me you can think of that as work or you can think of that as poetic work as well, which is how "Meaning," of course, ends up. He talks about a voice screaming and so on as the only thing left. And a lot of these poems that follow this plot line end up somehow falling onto art at the end, or poetry, or the word, or whatever. That's kind of, in a sense—
Stephanie: Is he saying toil is art? Like toil has such a negative connotation to it.
Mark: Yeah. "Believe me, nothing remains. Only adult toil, the furrow of fate in the palm. Only toil, nothing more." Yeah. This was written right after the war. KrakÃ³w, 1945.
Female: Thank you very much.
Mark: You're welcome very much. It's good to see you.
[End of recording.]