THE 1990 ROBERT KIRSCH AWARD : Czeslaw Milosz: The Virile Voice of History

<i> Quinones is the director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, Claremont McKenna College</i>

Although Czeslaw Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, the two volumes of verse he has published since--in his eighth decade--are superior to any of his prior achievements. As witnessed by “Unattainable Earth” (1986) and “New Poems” (1985-87), both of which are reprinted in “The Collected Poems, 1931-1987,” Milosz, one of the genuine heirs of the great 20th-Century Modernists, shares one of their more intriguing characteristics, and that is longevity, or more important, continued creative development over the length of his career, even extending into his elder years.

Here in California, where he has resided since 1960 and taught as professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley, Milosz has not only added to his poetic works, he has surpassed them.

Remarkably enough, Milosz has been a publishing poet for nearly 60 years, 30 of them in California--at Land’s End, where the poet who comes from the East can look no farther but must turn back and look on the West. It is quite fitting that Czeslaw Milosz be this year’s winner of The Los Angeles Times Robert Kirsch Award, granted to a Western author who has achieved lifelong distinction in letters.


Like that of the great Modernists, Milosz’s verse both confronts and exploits fragmentariness. His poetry is composed not so much of narrative wholes as it is of bursts of intense expression, bringing together history, the movements of the human heart and religious experience in condensed form and controlled by a lyrical meditative mood.

Born in Lithuania in 1911, Milosz takes as subject and substance of much of his poetry the lived experiences of Central Europe in the 20th Century. Not to have encompassed this dimension of human life would have meant being false to his own spiritual history. In his poetry, we hear the voice of history, the voice of memory that transforms event into poetic fact.

Clearly his work reflects The End of History, but it also reveals history restored as a poetic subject matter because personally appropriated. That which is mistakenly thought to be distant and impersonal is shared and real because it is mingled with human guilt and dreams. Thus he can reflect:

My country will remain what it is, the backyard of empires.

Nursing its humiliation with provincial daydreams.

He can address a poem to an old friend:

Certainly we have much in common,

We who grew up in baroque cities.

Milosz’s personal experience of history is such that it can include the generalized “we,” that communal presence of shared imagination.

Like the Modernists, Milosz is determined to bring to consciousness the background and meaning of his activity. It should come as no surprise that like them he is a superb essayist, composing a large “History of Polish Literature” and adding, among his many other volumes, “The Witness of Poetry” to that distinguished series of Charles Eliot Norton lectures. Milosz’s own sensibility requires that events be placed in those grand coordinates of time and place, of history and geography. He is as sensitive to the geographies of culture as he is to its temporalities, which are not so many lines on a map as they are trade winds, the tidal pulls, the continental drifts of force and direction.

Very early in the post-World War II years, in “The Captive Mind” (1953), Milosz expressed his dismay at tendencies of 20th-Century intellectual life, in particular the notable susceptibility to totalitarian doctrine. This book joined with others--such as Albert Camus’ “The Rebel” and Milovan Djilas’ “The New Class"--in placing the writing on the wall for all to see who were willing to read it. Unfortunately, it was not until much later, in the 1980s, that Milosz’s book played a liberating role in Poland.

In fact, this poet of history has enjoyed his rewards, however belated they may have been in coming. He has enjoyed some vindication in finding a stanza from the poem, “You Who Wronged,” written in 1950, placed on the Gdansk monument erected in 1980 to commemorate the workers killed by the police in 1970.

If the poet of history enjoys such superior citation, he also issues his warnings, and one in particular should be taken seriously, given the current condition of criticism. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Milosz warns: “There is, it seems, a hidden link between the theories of literature as ecriture, of speech feeding on itself, and the growth of the totalitarian state. In any case, there is no reason why the state should not tolerate an activity that consists of creating ‘experimental’ poems and prose, if these are conceived as autonomous systems of reference, enclosed within their own boundaries.”

And yet Milosz is preeminently a poet of substances, of things, of the material things that go into the making of a life. In fact he is passionate in his adherence to the things of this life, to the things of the Earth.

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam

And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body,

Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,

Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.

He is a manly poet, a voyager, and like most wanderers (their saint is Ulysses), he finds his greatest pleasures with women. In fact, some of his most powerful poems (“Initiation,” “Elegy for Y. Z.,” “Anka,” “Annalena”) are in effect elegies where women he has known return to his mind.

Yet even these poems--one is tempted to say especially these poems--are haunted by a fear of passingness, of unreality. Like the great Modernists, so too Milosz is invaded by a fear of great emptiness, of nothingness. Stretching above, yawning beneath is a vast void. The final poem in the series “The Garden of Earthly Delights” affirms the rapture of things but against a backdrop that emphasizes its momentariness:

So that for a short time there is no death

And time does not unravel like a skein of yarn

Thrown into an abyss.

The volume “Unattainable Earth” is itself something of a spiritual drama, with its resolutions, retractions and counter-revisions. He can mock mockers of mortal existence, particularly when in “Poet at Seventy” he addresses his alter ego, “brother theologian,” who is a “connoisseur of heavens and abysses”:

And all your wisdom came to nothing

Though many years you worked and strived

With only one rew a rd and trophy:

Your happiness to be alive

And sorrow that your life is closing.

Finally, what endures for Milosz is the kind of sensibility associated with such simple statement. This becomes even clearer in “New Poems,” where he shows himself to have achieved greatness in his elder years. In fact, one can refer to Milosz as Eliot referred to Yeats, as the Poet of Old Age (although Milosz’s physical vigor would dispute such a title).

Somehow, in these later poems, Milosz resists the temptation to offer up half-baked pronouncements, the kinds of statements made with only a portion of the mind for troops of adulators who do not spare great men from their own foolishness. Rather, a new kind of meditative lyricism comes back to his verse, the product of honest seeking. In “Cafe Greco,” dating from Rome in 1986, he engages in sustained meditation:

. . . Who I am, who I was

Is not so important. Because others,

Noble-minded, great, sustain me

Anytime I think of them. Of the hierarchy of beings

Those who gave testimony to their faith.

Whose names are erased or trampled to the ground

Continue to visit us. From them we take the measure

Aesthetic, I should say, of works, expectations, designs.

By what can literature redeem itself

If not by a melopoeia of praise, a hymn

Even unintended? And you have my admiration,

For you accomplished more than did my companions

Who once sat here, the proud geniuses.

Why they grieved over their lack of virtue,

Why they felt such pangs of conscience, I now understand.

With age and with the waning of this age

One learns to value wisdom, and simple goodness.

Maritain whom we used to read long ago

Would have reason to be glad. And for me: amazement

That the city of Rome stands, that we meet again,

That I still exist for a moment, myself and the swallows.

Perhaps the better frame for these late verses is not that of Yeats but that provided by Shakespeare’s last plays, where the only feeling possible is amazement that somehow one has survived, and intact, with the creative juices still flowing.

In this last volume appear two of Milosz’s greatest poems: “With Her,” a poem addressed to his mother, and “On Parting With My Wife Janina.” “How to resist nothingness?” is the great cry from the latter:

I call, I beseech: elements, dissolve yourselves!

Rise into the other, let it come, kingdom!

Beyond the earthly fire compose yourselves anew!

As a poet, Milosz has been a religious humanist, constantly comparing himself with simpler souls, deriding his own vices, wondering at his appetites, their attachments, their disorders, defending them and the things of this world, and yet uneasy about them. As his religious sensibility questions his humanism, so his humanism expands his religious sense.

A minor miracle in the midst of these large bonuses: The poems we are reading are translations from Milosz’s native Polish. Clearly congratulations are in order for the team of translators, with whom Milosz has himself collaborated in the “Englishing” of most of the poems.