Poems from the Abyss

Miłosz: A Biography

by Andrzej Franaszek, edited and translated from the Polish by Aleksandra and Michael Parker

Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 526 pp., $35.00

Dominique Nabokov

Czesław Miłosz, New York City, 1986

One of the finest poems by Czesław Miłosz is the four-part sequence A Treatise on Poetry, a kind of elegy for pre-war Poland, which he wrote in France in the mid-1950s. Its first part, “Beautiful Times,” describes the glamorous society life in Kraków before World War I, and concludes with these lines: “The laughter in cafes/Echoes about a hero’s grave”; its second part, “The Capital,” ends with this little scene in Warsaw the night before the German invasion on September 1, 1939:

On Tamka Street a girl’s heels click.
She calls in a half whisper. They go together
To an empty lot overgrown with weeds.
A watchman on duty, hidden in the shadows,
Hears their soft voices in the bedding dark.
I do not know how to bear my pity….

Later I would ask myself more than once
What became of them in the coming years and ages.

Miłosz, the Polish poet, writer, diplomat, exile, and Nobel laureate, was a figure whose own life seemed to embody the turmoil of the twentieth century. He lived through both world wars and the Russian Revolution, experienced fascism, communism, and democracy, lived in Eastern and Western Europe and, later, the United States, and he returned again and again to these events in his writing. “To me Miłosz is one of those authors whose personal life dictates his work…. Except for his poems, all of his writing is tied to his…personal history or to the history of his times,” Witold Gombrowicz, the other great Polish writer in exile, said of him. I agree, but would not exclude Miłosz’s poems and don’t believe he would either, since he regarded his highest achievement as a poet to be his ability to fuse history and his personal experience.

When asked about his home, Miłosz said that he came from another planet, another time, another epoch. He was born in 1911 in Lithuania—then part of the Russian Empire—in one of those regions of Eastern Europe of which even Western Europeans have only a vague idea, where millions of people were killed and displaced by both world wars and where the ones who survived almost without exception had an astonishing life story to tell.

Miłosz’s father was a Pole of Lithuanian origin and his mother a descendant of the old Polish-speaking gentry on whose parents’ country estate Miłosz was born. Their son was christened in a local Catholic church with his name entered in the registry as a subject of tsarist Russia. What he and his family were to experience in their lifetimes under the pressure of historical events was the fate of many other people, and it included the most important lesson—that good and evil are not some debatable religious or philosophical concepts, but things one learns to recognize daily like hunger and the taste of bread.

When he was two years old, Miłosz and his mother set off on a three-thousand-mile journey across Russia to join his father, who was working as an engineer on a government contract in Siberia, only to retrace their steps a year later when his father was conscripted into the imperial army at the beginning of World War I. As a combat engineer officer, he built bridges and fortifications in front-line areas, with his wife, his first-born son, and a younger brother tagging along with him all over Russia. “It is not possible to reconstruct exactly the chronology of the family’s subsequent wartime wanderings,” Andrzej Franaszek writes in his new biography of Miłosz. The outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 found them in the town of Rzhev on the Volga River; they did not return to Lithuania till the following year.

Miłosz’s earliest memories were of fear. He remembered sitting on a bench with a friendly Cossack who suddenly jumped to give a hand to his fellow soldiers, who had caught and were about to slaughter a white lamb that the young Miłosz was attached to. Back in Lithuania, he did not attend school, so his mother took charge of his early education. Unlike writers and intellectuals he knew later in life, most of whom were raised in cities, he spent his childhood in a small farming community, which he idealized later as an earthly paradise, playing with peasant children and roaming the countryside alone or in their company. As is often the case, the way he saw the world as an adult was closely related to the place where he was born and grew up. If Miłosz retained in his poetry the traces of a pantheistic strain in Lithuanian folk culture—which holds that the divine is dispersed throughout nature—that ought not to come as a surprise.

He spent his youth in Wilno (Vilnius), a beautiful old city with baroque architecture where at one time Catholics, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox believers lived alongside each other in relative calm, but which was to change hands thirteen times in the coming century as Russian, German, Polish, Nazi, and Soviet armies passed through or came to stay. Miłosz attended a Catholic high school and later Warsaw University, where he studied law and submitted his first poems to a student periodical while the deteriorating political and economic situation made life difficult. He had little money and distracted himself from hunger by devouring books in heated libraries. With some fellow poets, he cofounded a left-wing literary group called Zagary in 1931, whose bleak, apocalyptic outlook earned them the nickname “catastrophists” and who argued that literature cannot run away from the political and economic realities of the day.

His first volume of poetry, A Poem on Frozen Time, came out in 1933, and the following year he received a master of law degree. He spent a year in Paris on a government grant, not practicing law, and published his second volume of poetry, Three Winters, upon his return in 1936. It’s a much better book, with several powerful poems and some astonishingly prophetic visions of the future:

—“Ah, dark rabble at their vernal feasts
and crematoria rising like white cliffs
and smoke seeping from the dead wasps’ nests.
In a stammer of mandolins, a dust-cloud of scythes,
on heaps of food and mosses stomped ash-gray,
the new sun rises on another day.”

Miłosz held a job as a literary programmer and commentator for Radio Wilno until he was dismissed because of his leftist views and his willingness to allow Jews to broadcast. Like others in Europe and the United States, he was appalled by the suffering inflicted on workers under capitalism and open to the idea of a radical change. Though he wanted to see the old order destroyed, he grew uncomfortable as his friends moved further to the left since he had no idea what new system could replace the old and was repulsed by the supporters of both Soviet communism and Polish nationalism. “I was governed,” he said, “less by reason than by a sense of smell…and this, in turn, put me on guard against any ‘ism.’”

All his life he reviled doctrinaire poses, including the mask of “revolutionary” poet that he had briefly worn in his youth. If he did not cut himself off completely from his leftist friends, it was because he was frightened of becoming isolated and defenseless in the ensuing chaos. He felt the approach of some momentous event. “It’s like the joke,” he told an interviewer, “about the man in the hotel room who throws one boot on the floor. After a while someone knocks on his door and yells, ‘Goddamnit, take the other one off.’”

In what Miłosz was to later call his first immigration, he left Wilno in 1937 to take a job as a programmer for Polish National Radio in Warsaw. When the Nazis occupied Warsaw in 1939, he was separated from his parents in Lithuania. He finally managed to join them in 1940, but found himself trapped when the Soviets annexed Lithuania and thousands upon thousands of his compatriots were arrested and deported to forced labor camps in Siberia and collective farms in Asia. Franaszek’s account of how Miłosz got back to Warsaw to join the woman he would later marry is one of the most hair-raising in a book full of close escapes; he had to cross four borders guarded either by Soviet or German soldiers. It also encapsulated the kind of life that awaited him and others in that part of Europe.

In 1939 Miłosz had found work as a janitor at the Warsaw University library, which was closed to the public, in order to get a daily bowl of soup and have access to books. To a great extent, he said, he owed his intellectual education to the huge amount of reading he did as a result of that job. He also started to learn English, borrowing from the library books by T.S. Eliot, Robert Browning, Edgar Lee Masters, William Blake, and John Milton and, in 1942, translating Shakespeare’s As You Like It, while mass slaughter went on all around him.

The Nazis had divided the population into two categories, Jews and Poles, with the former meant to be completely exterminated and the latter to be partially exterminated and partially used as slave labor. Daily life, Miłosz remembered, was passed on a melting floe from which people disappeared one by one—arrested, sent to a concentration camp, or killed. Many years later an interviewer asked him about the guilt of the survivor that recurs through his work and he replied that there was no question of anyone being able to survive those years in Poland with a clear conscience.

During the occupation he wrote some of his most famous poems—“Campo dei Fiori,” “The World,” “Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” “Song of a Citizen,” and “Dedication”—in a style that was more spare than in his previous poetry and far removed from his preoccupation with himself and his dark visions of the future. He now spoke plainly and sought clarity to make his poems accessible. Compassion for the people suffering around him gave his poetry its candor; a desire to exorcise evil gave it its faith in the future. In an article shortly after the war ended, Miłosz recalled:

In the spring of 1943, on a beautiful quiet night, a country night in the outskirts of Warsaw, standing on the balcony, we could hear screaming from the ghetto…. This screaming gave us goose pimples. They were the screams of thousands of people being murdered. It travelled through the silent spaces of the city from among a red glow of fires, under indifferent stars, into the benevolent silence of gardens in which plants laboriously emitted oxygen, the air was fragrant, and a man felt that it was good to be alive. There was something particularly cruel in this peace of the night, whose beauty and human crime struck the heart simultaneously. We did not look each other in the eye.

Here is a poem from a cycle called “Voices of Poor People,” written in 1944, which I first read in an anthology of world poetry published in Yugoslavia in 1956. I bought it in a Chicago bookstore that specialized in Slavic literature at a time when Miłosz had no poems translated into English. It made a huge impression on me, since I too had spent the war in an occupied and bombed city in Europe and could understand how such conflicting emotions could coexist.

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
Are disappointed.
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.

These “naive” poems by Miłosz were his first demonstration of what was to become his primary conviction as a poet and the basis of his quarrel with modernism. The measure of a poem, he now thought, ought to depend on the amount of reality it conveys. “Reality puts literature to the test sooner or later,” he said. Miłosz experienced things with extraordinary intensity, recalling the minutest details of his childhood decades later. He remembered the tents of the Red Cross on the shore of some lake, water scooped out of a boat, a bulb-like Orthodox church, his beautiful cousin Ela in the uniform of an army nurse, and her riding with the handsome Russian officer she had just married. In old age, Miłosz described himself as a realist. “Our house is open,” he said, “there are no keys in the doors, and the invisible guests come in and out at will.” As Walt Whitman had done, he wanted to seize the world as it came in through his senses.

Dominique Nabokov

John Brademas, Joseph Brodsky, Czesław Miłosz, and New York Review editor
Robert Silvers at New York University, 1980

I remember being invited with my wife to dinner by a cultivated elderly Polish couple in New Hampshire some forty years ago, and our enjoying one another’s company immensely until at some point during the meal I blurted out how much I loved Czesław Miłosz, and their faces dropped. “He was scum,” the nice old gentleman muttered, visibly shaken. By then I had heard enough about Miłosz’s refusal to join the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis in 1944—and his becoming a diplomat in the Communist government after the war and serving as its cultural attaché in New York, Washington, and Paris—to understand the reaction.

For most Poles, the uprising, which had been ordered by the Polish government in exile in London, was a heroic stand that validated a cult of patriotic bravery. But the uprising led to the death of two hundred thousand people in street fighting and reduced Warsaw to rubble; for Miłosz, it was a senseless act that caused innocent people to get killed. What’s more, he believed that he had been given a different fate. He told his wife, according to a friend, that it “was essential for him to survive the war: his duty was to write, not to fight.” Since my own family, like many others in Eastern Europe, was similarly split between survivalists and fighters, I can today sympathize with the Poles’ impossible situation and can see that they were both tragically right and wrong.

As for Miłosz’s “pact with the devil,” representing the Communist government after the war, it came about through his friendships, going back to his youth in Wilno, with some of the people who now wielded power in Poland. The Captive Mind (1953), his study of how writers and intellectuals were seduced by Stalinism, was not only about the corruption of people he knew, but also the story of what must have been going through his own mind as he deliberated whether to accept the position of cultural attaché and go abroad. In his defense, I suppose working in an embassy didn’t seem as vile right after the war as it did later. In an unpublished text from 1957, he wrote: “Representing a country that was turned into the province of a totalitarian foreign state was wrong and degrading, which I feel ashamed of today.” One can understand why Poles in exile saw him as an opportunist.

As the years passed, it became harder and harder for Miłosz to conceal his true feelings about the Communist regime he was representing, and in 1951, after a great deal of inner torment (he even consulted Albert Einstein in Princeton, who advised him to return to Poland), he defected in Paris. In Franaszek’s book, this episode reads like a cold war thriller.

Once he became a free man, Miłosz was ostracized by the Parisian literary world; Stalinism was in vogue with many of the writers he’d gotten to know at parties at the Polish and Russian embassies, and they took every opportunity to tell their hosts how fortunate it must be to live in such enlightened societies back home. Now these same intellectuals turned their backs on Miłosz and called him an American agent. Polish expatriates were even nastier. “If Miłosz has an ounce of honesty, he ought to hang himself,” a fellow poet wrote to an émigré paper.

Nevertheless, it was the Polish émigré literary magazine and publishing house Kultura in Paris that rescued him from being completely silenced, publishing his articles and books and making his name gradually known in the West. In this way he was first recognized as a political writer, while the Polish government at home strove to have him forgotten by censoring his work and removing all mention of him from reference books.

It took Miłosz almost ten years to reach the United States, although his wife had been living there with their two children when he defected and was reluctant to return to Europe because she felt safer in America. Again, Polish émigrés tried to sabotage his attempts to immigrate by telling influential people in Washington about his past. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Finding himself stateless and needing to earn money and to understand what had happened to him, he turned back to writing. In addition to The Captive Mind, he wrote one novel and numerous essays and slowly began to write poetry again.

In July 1959 Miłosz received a letter offering him a visiting lectureship in the Slavic Department at the University of California, Berkeley. He refused it, but accepted a repeat offer the following year and taught there as a professor until he retired in 1978. As he himself admitted, he was never able to integrate into French literary life during his years in Paris. In the United States, it also took a bit of time. Readers of poetry first encountered his name as the editor and translator of the anthology Post-War Polish Poetry in 1965 and Selected Poems by Zbigniew Herbert in 1968, two hugely admired and influential books among my generation of poets. Here’s an example, by Herbert, of the kind of startlingly original poems one encountered in these books:

FROM MYTHOLOGY

First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leaped, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.

Of course, while we were admiring these poets not one of us had an inkling that their translator was one of the greatest poets of the century. That began to change with the publication of Miłosz’s Selected Poems in 1973 and other translations that followed, displaying a poet capable of a wide range of styles, subject matter, depth of ideas, and imagination combined with an eloquence rarely encountered in other poetry of the day.

COUNSELS

If I were in the place of young poets
(quite a place, whatever the generation might think)
I would prefer not to say that the earth is a madman’s dream,
a stupid tale full of sound and fury.
It’s true, I did not happen to see the triumph of justice.
The lips of the innocent make no claims.
And who knows whether a fool in a crown,
a wine cup in his hand, roaring that God favors him
because he poisoned, slew and blinded so many,
would not move the onlookers to tears: he was so gentle.

God does not multiply sheep and camels for the virtuous
and takes nothing away for murder and perjury.
He has been hiding so long that it has been forgotten
how he revealed himself in the burning bush
and in the breast of a young Jew
ready to suffer for all who were and who will be.

It is not certain if Ananke awaits her hour
to pay back what is due for the lack of measure and pride.

Man has been given to understand
that he lives only by the grace of those in power.
Let him therefore busy himself sipping coffee, catching butterflies.
Who cares for the Republic will have his right hand cut off.

And yet, the earth merits a bit, a tiny bit, of affection.
Not that I take too seriously consolations of nature,
and baroque ornaments, the moon, chubby clouds
(although it’s beautiful when bird-cherries blossom on the banks of the Wilia).
No, I would even advise to keep farther from nature,
from persistent images of infinite space,
of infinite time, from snails poisoned
on a path in a garden, just like our armies.

There is so very much death, and that is why affection
for pigtails, bright-colored skirts in the wind,
for paper boats no more durable than we are…

Interest in Miłosz peaked when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980; his name became as familiar in this country as his leading American counterparts. He often said that Whitman, our bard of democracy, was the poet with whom he felt the greatest affinity, which may explain how an immigrant writing in Polish found a large audience for his poetry in the United States. In a poem called “Ars Poetica,” he wrote:

I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.

One problem for a biographer of such an eventful life is what to discuss at length and what to only touch on. In addition to being an immensely learned man with insatiable intellectual curiosity and profound views on a great range of subjects, both in his poems and in his prose, Miłosz lived through the experiences of what could have been half a dozen people. Since Franaszek’s ample biography has been greatly shortened from 960 pages in the original Polish to 526 pages in the English translation, I have no way of judging how much of what is discussed only briefly here—like his quarrel and final break with Herbert—is given more detailed treatment in the original text. I would have been much happier had the entire book been translated. However, even in this shortened version, Franaszek’s biography recommends itself and confirms the stature of Miłosz as an extraordinary figure.

In a world that continues to be full of uprooted people whose curse is to find themselves at the mercy of some brute force unleashed by history, Miłosz still has much to say to us today. All his life he felt like a stateless person, refusing to identify himself as solely a Lithuanian or a Pole. The war years taught him that a poet should not take up the pen merely to communicate his own despair and defeat. “A real ‘wasteland’ is much more trouble than an imaginary one,” he wrote. “The mark of my poetry,” he lamented, “is the constant regret that human experience eludes description.” Miłosz died in 2004 at the age of ninety-three in Kraków. “One of the honorable traits of men,” he said, meditating on history, “is their will to leave their reports as witnesses.”

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