The Poet at Ninety

Adam Zagajewski is the author of "Mysticism for Beginners" and the memoir "Another Beauty." His new collection of poetry, "Without End: New and Selected Poems," will be published early next year. His essay was translated from the Polish by Jaroslav Anders

When an Olympic sprinter, cheered by the roaring stadium, begins his 100-meter dash, he leans forward, eyes fixed on the horizon, as if an invisible force pushed him toward the track. Halfway between the start and the finish he straightens up, becomes vertical like Mont Blanc. And in the last stage of his run he tilts backward, not only out of exhaustion but also in homage to a hidden cosmic symmetry. In the powerful race of Czeslaw Milosz's poetry, we discern a similar progression. In his youth he whispers about the mysteries of the world, fires and picturesque disasters; in his maturity he surveys, with criticism and praise, the real world of history and nature; and in the late decades of his life he follows more and more the dictates of memory--his own and also that which belongs to many.

Of course the poet, who is now 90 years old, is no sprinter but a magnificent marathon man betraying no signs of exhaustion: His new volume of poetry, "This," is one of his finest. And the stadium in which he performed his feats was often desperately empty or filled with hostile, jeering crowds; this long-distance runner has known his share of loneliness. But the comparison is justified at least because of those three postures, three angels of our inevitable intimacy with the Earth, which really reflect the inner evolution of the poet.

Stendhal has said that literature is an art of selection, of laisser de cote --leaving out everything that is not essential. Franz Wedekind, and certainly many other artists (especially modern ones), believed that too. But the world of Czeslaw Milosz is built apparently on the opposite rule: Leave out nothing! The rule does not refer to the technical aspect of his writing (it is obvious that a poem cannot come to pass without choices and shortcuts) but to the general "poetic policy" that Milosz seems to follow. It is enough to reach for his autobiographical "Native Realm," or "The Captive Mind," or practically any book of his poetry to see this inclusivity. "Native Realm" contains chapters not only on history but even on economy, as if Milosz was telling: I will show you that poetry is made of non-poetry, that what gives poetry strength is the ability to absorb as much of the world as possible, and not an eagerness to withdraw into a safe region of inwardness. Milosz's poetic program has nothing to do with the famed "escapism"--the favorite aspersion of his party critics--but is a form of vast osmosis. It is not, however, an osmosis of clinical purity or objectivity. Its character is personal, ethical and also, to a degree, therapeutic. The ultimate goal of Milosz's poetry is to know what is unknown--I would call it a "humanistic" project, if the term had not been corrupted through careless overuse in many seminar rooms.

What Milosz is particularly careful not to leave out is contradictions. Lesser talents often develop snail-like propensities: They hide in little shells, in small houses; they hide from hostile winds and converse ideas and they create miniatures. Milosz--as a poet and as a thinker--bravely steps into the ring to face his opponents. As if he told himself: I will survive this epoch only if I manage to take it in. In fact his opponents rarely needed a special invitation: if the student from Wilno only had known how many obstacles he would have to overcome, how many adversities he would have to reckon with and understand, how many times he would be but one step away from death, from silence, from despair.

He is a poet of great intelligence and high ecstasy: his poetry could not exist without either. Without intelligence it would fall in a duel with one of its enemies (20th-century monsters did not lack dialectical skills and even loved to flaunt them). Without ecstasy this poetry would not reach its proper altitude; it would be merely a brilliant polemic. Milosz calls himself an ecstatic pessimist, but his work contains numerous islands of joy, which Henri Bergson saw as a sign of experiencing internal truth.

In the age of Beckett, a great, witty and very sad writer, Milosz undertook a defense of the religious dimension of our experience, our right to infinity. The telegram in which Nietzsche notified Europeans about the passing of God has likely reached the poet, but he refused to sign the receipt and sent the messenger away.

I am not sure whether Milosz is a Manichean, as he himself often claims, but I see in his poetry unusual, inspiring juxtapositions of thought and image, polemic and rapture, California landscapes and 20th-century ideologies, observations and declarations of faith.

Milosz is also a great political poet: his words about the destruction of Jews will remain, and not only in school anthologies. Students have read his "Treatise on Morals" like a modern-day "The Consolation of Philosophy" in the worst years of Stalinism. He did not remain silent in 1968, a year of infamy for the Polish press and for a certain part of the Polish intelligentsia. The purity of his speech was and still is a blessing for Polish readers tormented by the triviality of Stalinism and exhausted by the long agony of communism and the awkwardness of the new democracy. But perhaps the deepest sense of Milosz's political program rests somewhere else: Following in the footsteps of the great Simone Weil, he proposed a certain mode of thinking that combines metaphysical passion with sensitivity to the injuries of the common man. He did it in a century that stubbornly demanded from metaphysical poets (for example, T.S. Eliot) to stay on the right and from social activists to adhere to a professed atheism. Milosz's proposal has an immense value, and it will prove useful also in the future.

When in the 1960s in Krakow, I studied the forbidden works of Czeslaw Milosz, an emigre poet mentioned in lexicons only as an "enemy of the people's Poland" (with a bit of cunning one could gain access to certain restricted and unmarked stacks), I discovered a quality that eluded all description--even structuralists, so popular in those days, were unable to find a proper label for it. It had to do with the intellectual scope of his work, its immense breadth. Milosz--like Cavafy or Auden--is one of the poets whose verses emit not the fragrance of roses but the aroma of reason.

The notion of reason, however, has for Milosz an almost medieval, even Thomist resonance: It is reason from before the great schism which has built a wall between the reason of rationalists and scientists and the imagination and intelligence of artists and which often forced poets to seek refuge in irrationalism. The healing of this rift--is it really possible?--is one of great utopian aspirations of Milosz's writing, which has been struggling against so many other utopias. Only occasionally Milosz speaks like a classical conservative lamenting the fall of culture and the separation of the two reasons. More often, he vigorously strives to bring the two halves together. In a mini-treatise from his new volume "This," titled "What I Learned From Jeanne Hersch?", we come across the intellectual message "that reason is a great gift from God and one should have trust in its capacity to know the world." Of course this kind of reason has little do with cautious mental operations performed by contemporary philosophers.

In the same poem Milosz says that "the proper attitude towards existence is reverence, and this is why one should avoid the company of those who debase existence through sarcasm, and who praise nothingness." One should never avoid the company of Milosz's books.

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