Czeslaw Milosz: A Tribute
Hello. I'm Mark Danner. It's wonderful to stand here, all of us together, with our ears full of the words of Milosz. And not the least thing I have to thank the organizers of this event for is sending me back, over a week and a half, to many of his books that I hadn't looked at in many years, and I hope that will be the result for many, also, in the audience. I was curled up on the couch about a week and a half ago during an enormous storm, creaking of trees overhead, reading A Year of the Hunter, a title stolen, as Lillian said, from one of the great favorite books of Czeslaw's youth.
And I should say that I live, because of some strange contradictions and overlaps of time, and strange intersections, I find myself living in Czeslaw Milosz's house high up on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. During large storms, these enormous trees — the house is quite small. It's surrounded by huge Sequoia Pines and Redwoods. And if a storm is big enough, as several have been this year, you can hear this enormous creaking, wailing sound as the trees flop overhead over the house. And every once in a while a tree will come down. A few years ago, quite a mid-size tree came down and swallowed my neighbor's BMW, which he dealt with fairly benignly, all things considered.
But the other night as I was reading in A Year of the Hunter, the trees starting creaking and wailing, the wind was blowing in, and I started to be a little bit frightened as I heard this sound. And I came across a little note in this book. It's the diary of a year in Czeslaw's life. There's a lot in it about the drama of fighting the deer, keeping them away from the flowers he'd planted, fighting them off. I have now given up this battle entirely, and their descendants have taken over the garden completely. Anyway, there's creaking, there's wailing, there's wind, rain. And I read this little notation.
My ears pricked up. I looked at the next sentence.
And then, feeling a bit of reassurance, I look at the date, which is almost precisely 20 years — [laughter] — 20 years before. And I laughed out loud in my terror, the trees creaked, and I thought I heard Czeslaw's very large laugh somewhere in the distance, or somewhere in the background.
It's kind of a time joke, which is, as you've heard in some of the poems today, was something he loved because as a chaser after being, after what exactly existence is, he loved concatenation of time, of a photograph, a memory with the present and thought, in a way, if he could pull those things together — image, memory, presence — somewhere being lay between those different parts of existence. In so many of his poems an encounter is won, all the way back to 1936, when he was 25. Another is — and I'm going to give you another cat here — "A Portrait with a Cat." This was hanging on the wall in the house for many years with, actually, a reproduction of this portrait that it's talking about from a child's book.
I want to go from that to another painting, and another trope that you see in Czeslaw's work quite a bit. This is one version of it, again from A Year of the Hunter. And the question is, what is the soul of somebody? What is the being of someone? What distinguishes us, one person from another? And this little paragraph is the poet in a museum. And you often, I'm sure all of you have felt this, you look across a room, you can't see the subject of a picture, you can't see much about it, but you know it's a Tintoretto, or you know it's a Veronese. You know who the artist is.
I think when we talk about Czeslaw's life as a poet, across 93 years, across our century, there is a tension between the lyricism of his art and the political, the political that forced itself upon him. He remembered World War I. He traveled across Czarist Russia in the back of a wagon with his father, who was building bridges and roads for the Czar. He remembered the First World War. He lived through the Second World War in annus mundi, the asshole of the world, occupied Warsaw, and survived it.
He lived to work for the Stalinist government, and then break with it, and then live in exile in France among intellectuals who were predominantly Stalinist, so doubly exiled, with anti-Communists who, of course, did not trust him. And then he came here and lived the Cold War on the other side of the Iron Curtain, as it were, and lived long enough to return to Poland, to return to Solidarity's Poland and then a democratic Poland at the end of his life.
And it seems to me, in re-reading his work, it's not the life he, needless to say, would have hoped for or would have predicted for himself, that the lyricism — well, let me read just a quick paragraph from Unattainable Earth that closes it.
It wasn't his choice, I think, to write books, the most obvious one, and the name that you will still, people will still — the title that people will still hold out to you when you mention his name is The Captive Mind, a very beautiful book and a deeply political book. He was, after all, a chaser after meaning. I want to read this poem "Meaning," which is very well known.
He finally became identified as, to some degree, a political writer, a writer about the politics of our century, I think not only because of his vast life, but because he found the ability, as few others do, to stand to, as it were, dollied back, far back, stand up on a mountainside or mountaintop and see the century as one thing. And I think he partly began to do this under the influence of his cousin, Oscar Milosz, who was a poet who wrote poetry not very — put it this way, honored in its time, but not very widely read, and who was convinced that the state of modern poetry, with the isolated poet, the poet joining the world of the isolated intellectual, was a catastrophe, and that intellectuals themselves would bring on a catastrophe to the modern world, as, indeed, Dostoyevsky predicted also, in the 1860s and 1870s, which is one of the reasons I think Dostoyevsky is so important for Czeslaw.
And he looked at the reception of Dostoyevsky by contemporary intellectuals with an ironic eye because they could love Dostoyevsky only by throwing away the particular view he had of them, which was they might cause something like, indeed, the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist camps that followed it, they might cause the hecatombs of this century. He says, again, in A Year of the Hunter,
[Laughs.] We have to be very grateful that he was not able to attain that degree of self-restraint. I want to read one other of his poems that strikes me as one of the most beautiful political — if we can call a poem of his political — poems he ever wrote, which is called "A Song on the End of the World." It was written in Warsaw in 1944, but I think it's, I don't know, it's very vivid to me now, what he is saying here, which is we wait, always, for the visible catastrophe, but very often the catastrophe is going on all around us. Will there be civil war in Iraq, do you think? We don't know. You know, we wait for this moment that's always put into the future.
A Song on the End of the World
That was written in Warsaw in 1944. I just have to say one thing about leaving. When I visited Czeslaw in Krakow and spent a number of days there with a friend, five or six days, and finally we stopped by the apartment — we were going to catch a train to Warsaw, we were leaving. And Czeslaw took the latest book, which hadn't been translated, and put it in his reader, which projected it on a screen in large letters so he could read it, and sight translated a poem, "The Apprentice," about Oscar Milosz, his cousin. And we looked at one another thinking, my god, this is — how much closer could we be to heaven than this? And he finished it, and at a certain moment said, "Carol, Carol, I haven't worked, I haven't worked. I have to work now."
And we got up to take our leave and got to the door, and it occurred to me — this was 2003 — that I probably wouldn't see him again, or I might well not see him again. And I sort of sneaked back, tiptoed back to his room. And he had this sort of mythological threesome of lovely women floating around the apartment — a cook, a nurse and his lovely secretary, all presided over by Carol, his wife.
And I poked my head in the room, and it was an overcast day, and there was an overhead light shining down on his head. He was facing away from me at the desk. Next to him was his secretary, and his head was turned in profile, and his lips were quite close to her lovely ear. And he was murmuring, murmuring. And she was gently tapping at the keyboard. And I just paused there and thought, if that's the last glimpse, that's a good glimpse, because he was adding to the splendor that he left us. Thank you. [Applause.]
[End of recording.]