[Note: The following review of An Invisible Rope, Portraits of Czesław Milosz edited by Cynthia L. Haven was originally published in Summer 2012, VOL. 4 ISSUE 10 on Cerise Press.]
When a great poet such as Czeslaw Milosz stands high on the literary scene, a first impression may merely show a cardboard cutout of a celebrity recognized by bushy eyebrows above clear, blue eyes and the booming sound effects of hearty laughter. To reveal the full depth of the poet, however, this collection of essays provides perspectives from those who knew a multi-dimensional man and his multi-faceted contribution to poetry in general and to Polish literature in particular.
In the “Introduction,” Editor Cynthia L. Haven lists a virtual Who’s Who of poets who thrived as translators under Milosz’s tutelage: Robert Haas, Robert Pinsky, and Richard Lourie, for example, each of whom has contributed significantly to the literary community and the insightful essays in this book.
The story begins “Way Back in Wilno” where Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier met Milosz prior to WWII. During the time, she was a child and he a student of her father, Manfred Kridl, a professor of Polish literature in Wilno (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) the site of a major Polish university.
Although Milosz graduated from Wilno University with a law degree, he did not practice law. In a letter written years later to his former instructor, he explained that his leftist opinions on Polish politics “did not mean that I am in the least attracted to some internationalism or cosmopolitanism. I am steeped in Polish literature and want to remain faithful to it.” Nevertheless, Valkenier reminded readers that Milosz’s “first success with a wide English-speaking audience” came through “his political book, The Captive Mind, an analysis of what attracted Polish intellectuals to communism.”
For readers interested in poetry rather than politics, the first few chapters may seem filled with political turmoil, propelling the poet out of his native land in search of himself and asylum.
While in Paris, Milosz translated various books of the Bible into Polish at a time, according to essayist Marek Skwarnicki, “when publishing the Bible in Poland had been forbidden by the official atheistic Communist government.” Skwarnicki, a reporter who often accompanied Pope John Paul II on his journeys, also reported in his “Half a Century with Milosz” the gist of a question Milosz asked in his last letter to the Pope. As Skwarnicki recalled, Milosz wanted to know “did the pope, who read everything that Milosz had written, feel that in any of his poems, Milosz had overstepped the boundaries of the Roman Catholic orthodoxy?” Skwarnicki went on to say, “This question moved me enormously, for it is well known that the chronicles of Milosz’s soul are very tumultuous.”
Troubled by religion and politics, Milosz found an easier calling in mentoring poets in and out of the classroom. In the essay, “My Apprenticeship with Milosz,” Reuel Wilson, son of writers Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy, wrote, “Milosz’s lack of prejudice and his omnivorous intellectual curiosity made him an ideal teacher. Having chosen to defect from his job as a diplomat representing his country’s Communist regime, he made a total break from Europe when he moved from France to California. Isolated from old friends and his reading public at home, he successfully reinvented himself as an American university professor” with full tenure at Berkeley where his initial “move to California entailed a substantial culture shock.”
As Wilson further recalled, “In the classroom, Milosz dressed rather informally. He often wore a plaid work shirt under a well-worn brown sport coat. His looks were striking: of medium height, he exuded physical energy and wiry resilience. I think he worked regularly in the garden beside his Tudor-style house on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, where he lived with his first wife, Janka, and their two sons.” With Milosz at home overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, Wilson noted, “He could have stepped out of the primeval Lithuanian forest that his ancestors might have inhabited. Like them, he had a belief in the spirit world and a sense of intersecting time.”
In the essay, “A Difficult, Inspirational Giant,” Peter Dale Scott similarly commented, “I remember my admiring impression of Milosz as a figure of religious enlightenment, nudging the world toward a third and more spiritual way between the godless communism of the Iron Curtain countries and the godless capitalism of the United States.”
Poetry at the time had its political and religious zeal too. In “Remembering Czeslaw Milosz,” double Pulitzer prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin talked about Milosz’s prose work, The Captive Mind, saying, “That book appeared at the height of the timely but noisy controversy over the differences, real and concocted, between ‘academic’ and ‘Beat’ poets. For me the New Criticism had once seemed a liberation from late Victorian literary and cultural assumptions, but I was trying to get past all that, and I had been drawn to the poetry of other languages and traditions. Milosz’s book had been a talisman and had made most of the literary bickering among the various ideological encampments, then most audible among the poetic doctrines in English, seem frivolous and silly.”
In “Nine Flashbacks,” Berkeley student Bogdana Carpenter, who later went on to write about the works of contemporary Polish poets, had this to say about her mentor’s method of teaching: “Milosz’s open and unconventional approach put Polish literature in a new and unexpected light, far from the stereotype image of my Polish professors. They were also a dialogue, in fact, a double dialogue: Milosz conversed not only with us sitting around the table but also with the authors whom we were reading, regardless whether they were our contemporaries or had lived five centuries earlier.”
Conversely, Henryk Grynberg reported in “Milosz the Refugee” an interview when the poet “thought that American poetry is mostly incomprehensible because its ‘interiorization and subjectivization has caused a break in contact between the poet and reader.’ He said that ‘Americans reading Polish poetry in translation are amazed by the amount of the objective, eternal world [depicted], outside of the human being as the subject, not just a psychological state of mind and purely subjective perceptions’.”
Poet Morton Marcus opened his essay “Uneasy Exile” with Milosz’s two-line poem “On the Death of a Poet,” published before his own death: “The gates of grammar closed behind him./ Search for him now in the groves and wild forests of the dictionary.”
In the essay “I Can’t Write a Memoir of Czeslaw Milosz,” Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski wrote about the differences in their eras, growing up in Poland: “He belonged to a chapter of the history of Polish literature that seemed to be, seen from the landscape of my youth, as remote as the Middle Ages…. He grew up in a small manor house in the Lithuanian countryside where woods, streams, and water snakes were as evident as streetcars and apartment houses in the modest, industrial city of my childhood. His Poland was totally different from mine: it had its wings spread to the East. When he was born in 1911, he was a subject of the Russian tsar.” And yet, “Beginning in 1951, the year of his defection, Milosz had become an outcast, a nonperson. If his name did appear somewhere in print, it was frequently accompanied by an official Byzantine formula: ‘an enemy of the People’s Republic of Poland’.”
In her essay, “He Also Knew How to Be Gracious,” poet and educator Anna Frajlich provided this insight: “In Poland, his erstwhile friends attacked him cruelly after he defected to the West; in the West, most Poles attacked him equally cruelly for his former associations.” Nevertheless, “With the passing of time, he forgave most if not all of them.” And Milosz continued to “show what is significant about the Polish contribution to universal values and culture. He did this by teaching, by translating his fellow writers – even when his former friends back in Poland denounced him – and by publishing Polish literature in the original and in translation and writing about it.”
Ironically, Milosz’ own poetry was banned in his homeland even later than 1980 when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. After that, he complained to Madeline Levine that “he was writing into a vacuum.” As the poet-professor-translator recalled in her essay, “I Promised to Speak My Mind,” Milosz told her, “Since he’d won the Nobel…almost no one would tell him that something he wrote wasn’t good enough,” so he made her promise she would always speak her mind.
Milosz certainly spoke his! Upon his first meeting with Harvard Professor and well-known poetry critic Helen Vendler, Milosz reportedly exclaimed “with acerbic disapproval, ‘Ah, the pope of poetry’.” In her essay, “Pretending to Be a Real Person,” Vendler admitted being “pained” when “merely doing my best to spread the word about contemporary poets whose writing, to my mind, deserved recognition.” And, “So I attended the rest of Milosz’s intensely felt lectures, regretting our distance from each other but exhilarated by the immersion in his mind.”
Somehow writer Judith Tannenbaum convinced Milosz to immerse himself in teaching poetry to maximum security inmates in San Quentin! In “Milosz at San Quentin,” Tannenbaum explained, “I introduced his work to my students soon after I began teaching at the prison. I told them that Milosz had been born to the Polish-speaking class in Lithuania in 1911 and that he had lived through much of the horror that the twentieth century had to offer. He lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Warsaw; he first served, then broke with, Communist Poland; he spent most of his life in exile.” Using this dispossession of home to establish a connection with inmates, Tannenbaum “talked of how Milosz’s poems conveyed both the cruelty he had witnessed and the joy of being a creature with consciousness, alive on this planet, able to witness. I let my students know I loved the poems’ ability to express the limitations of being human, while always remaining on the side of the human.”
When both of his wives preceded him in death, the human side poured into the poem “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which began, “Only her love had warmed him, humanized him./ When he was with her, he thought differently about himself./ He could not fail her now, when she was dead.” After quoting those lines in the essay “On the Border of This World and the Beyond…,” author Joanna Zach commented that Milosz “made me feel that what people say to each other is always important, irrespective of the subject matter, because, by merely using words, they contribute either to clarity and order or to chaos.”
Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney added his insights to Milosz’s pursuit of clarity in the essay “In Gratitude for All the Gifts,” saying “His (Milosz’s) yearning for a more encompassing form of expression than is humanly available was a theme to which he returned again and again…. Yet he also exulted in the certainty that he was called as a poet ‘to glorify things just because they are,’ and he maintained that ‘the ideal life for a poet is to contemplate the word “is”.’”
Reflecting a similar thought in the essay “Missing Milosz,” Professor Natalie Gerber quoted a line from Milosz’s poem “Ars Poetica” in which he wrote, “how difficult it is to remain just one person.” To that thought of the changing form of is-ness, Gerber wrote, “and that challenges us not to take refuge in private fancies, as romantic poetry does, but to participate in and be answerable to history in one’s own voice.”
Finding a voice and one’s is-ness often begins the life of poetry-writing. In “Interviews with Robert Hass,” the Pulitzer prize-winning poet described a place where poets and angels tread. “You know, to write a book of poems is to wrestle with an angel, and the first part of the task is to figure out what angel you are wrestling.” Hass then added, “You know, you scratch in the sand for a while, writing out of your obsessions. And after a while, you figure out what it is you are doing or need to do.”
In this collection of well-chosen essays that can only be touched on here, Editor Cynthia L. Haven gives a rounded view of the work Czeslaw Milosz did and the ongoing need he felt for connections. Caught in political battles, spiritual struggles, cultural conflicts, language changes, the traumatic loss of two wives, and the physical estrangement of exile from his homeland until he could finally move back to Poland in 2000, Milosz experienced various degrees of isolation throughout his long life.
An Invisible Rope comes to us from Ohio University Press in 2011, the 100th anniversary of Czeslaw Milosz’s birth. Somewhat akin to an umbilical cord for poets and poetry, that rope invisibly connects poets of the past to poets today and onward toward a literary future. Milosz keenly felt this connection among peoples of all kinds, and during the years his work was banned in his own country, he held onto the hope of connecting with readers.
The rope uncoils, too, from “A Magic Mountain,” a poem by Milosz which Robert Hass quoted in the final chapter: “I fashioned an invisible rope/ And I climbed it and it held me.” As Hass explained, Milosz “had to invent the idea that there was still somebody to read his poems.”
For years, he had no way of knowing if anyone in Poland read his poetry or not. After reading this book, however, poets and poetry lovers will most likely want to read not only the Nobel-winning poetry of this noble poet but the works of Polish poets whose poems Milosz translated into English for the love of poetry and the belief in its ability to connect peoples everywhere.
©2014 – 2010, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer
An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz by Cynthia L. Haven (Editor), paperback
Czeslaw Milosz: Selected and Last Poems, 1931-2004, paperback