In the winter of 1948-49, a Polish functionary squatted in a canoe in a Pennsylvania river before dawn, waiting for the appearance of beavers, a creature that had been hunted to extinction in Europe. He contemplated the disappearance of the world of esse, the world of essences and eternal truths, and he considered defecting from the Stalinist government, in which he had been a cultural attaché.
But he decided to stick it out in Communist Poland. He wrote later that “staying in America for good would mean choosing life on its biological level.” However, the man was also a poet, and Czesław Miłosz wrote about his experience in the “Natura” section of Treatise on Poetry.
You will not hear one word spoken of the court
of Sigismund Augustus on the banks of the Delaware River.
The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys is not needed.
Herodotus will repose on the shelf, uncut.
In the notes to the English translation, which are almost as long as the poem, he wrote about himself in third person: “He was not the first European to feel in America the absence of historical memory, which is present at every step in Europe thanks to its architectural heritage. Though he admires American landscapes, he regards life in Nature as an impoverishment. What replaces history is sex, which becomes for people the main interest, the subject of their explorations.”
Miłosz did, finally, defect to America—more than a decade after that morning waiting for the beavers. What changed? The following summer, a brief visit to Poland was eye-opening; he had what he described as a “revolt of the stomach” against Communist Poland, a process he compared to swallowing frogs. Then he had spent harrowing, lonely, near-suicidal years in Paris after his 1951 defection.
In 1960, a visiting appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, led to four decades on the West Coast. It would be pat to say he gave us the past, and we gave him the future. It implies that the scales were equal, when there are 314 million of us and only one of him. Nevertheless, it’s partly true. In his American exile, he could publish freely, in a number of translations as well as in Polish, and he could become a Nobel poet with an international profile.
Did he have an affect on us? Recall the famous injunction of Harvard literary doyenne Helen Vendler in her 1984 New Yorker interview: “There are no direct lessons that American poets can learn from Miłosz. Those who have never seen modern war on their own soil cannot adopt the tone.” Of course, “influence” extends beyond imitation, so one can quarrel with her comment. It can assume many forms—even the form of outright contradiction (that is, we’re clearly influenced by the thing that we oppose). Other than clear-cut imitation, how can you trace or measure “influence”?
Yes, I think he influenced us. His Norton lectures coined the term “poet of witness,” which has been important for many poets—think of Carolyn Forché. Mark Rudman wrote a book-length poem called “Writer,” a blend of verse and prose apparently suggested by Miłosz’s Separate Notebooks. Linda Gregg, who knew Miłosz, was inspired to write a poem called “The Gnostics on Trial.” But that’s not it. That’s not it exactly. These are small bits and pieces in a larger quilt.
In the years before his 1980 Nobel, Miłosz selflessly devoted his best energies to promoting Polish literature, tirelessly presenting the works of Anna Swir, Wisława Szymborska, and others in Postwar Polish Poetry, The History of Polish Literature, and his essays—leading to an explosion of Western interest. In 1968, he launched Zbigniew Herbert’s literary presence in the West with the Selected he translated with Peter Dale Scott —years before Miłosz’s own poetic voice would be recognized.
Consider also how he extended these efforts through the remarkable cache of translators created by his tutelage and guidance: Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Peter Dale Scott, Bogdana Carpenter, Madeline Levine, Lillian Vallee, Richard Lourie, Leonard Nathan, and others. He championed and financed writers and their work, and, in the case of Aleksander Wat, he hosted the troubled writer for a prolonged sojourn at Berkeley, which resulted in the seminal book-length Q&A, My Century.
He also translated American poets into Polish, from T.S. Eliot to Whitman to his colleague Denise Levertov. His translations made another California friend, Jane Hirshfield, one of the best-selling poets in Poland.
His cultural impact has greatly deepened and enriched the American conversation about literature, history, thought. Did we influence him? That’s an even larger topic, and a more interesting one.
Nowhere in America would have been home. The Polish landscape of its countryside, the architecture of its towns, the old feuds and old friends, the cafés, and familiar jokes in his native tongue were gone. In America, he would always be the devotée of “some unheard-of tongue.” The density and intensity of a language whose 40 million speakers are concentrated in 121,000 square miles cannot easily be likened to the world’s new Latin, the imperial language with nearly ten times as many native speakers.
His 1960 emigration was a game-changer. I speak as an émigré to the same land—the republic of California, a place with trees 30 feet across and waterfalls a thousand feet high, a land with 2,000 species of plants found nowhere else on earth. California is separated from the rest of the continent by a mountain range and uniquely borders Mexico and faces Asia.
For centuries, early mapmakers portrayed it as an island—that’s still the way California sees itself, and how others see it, ethereally and eerily floating off the mainland. It’s ground zero for hippies and for Hollywood, for cultural trends and technological gimcracks. It’s also a place of profound alienation. Californians are impersonal and friendly at once. Natural beauty and sunshine often mitigate the need for fellow humans.
Miłosz’s inevitable estrangement would necessarily reach its apogee in California. With its dramatic coastline and deserts, it anticipates a landscape that will endure beyond the last breath of the last man, the endpoint where American energy and aspirations are as negligible as a candle raised against the relentless California sun. As Irena Grudzinska Gross put it, “Here, in California, space is the greatest enemy: too much space imprisons as much as too little of it.” Miłosz responded this way:
I did not choose California. It was given to me.
What can the wet north say to this scorched emptiness?
Grayish clay, dried-up creek beds,
Hills the color of straw, and the rocks assembled
Like Jurassic reptiles: for me this is
The Spirit of the Place.
California gave him space, and a vantage-point from the end of the world. The passionate poet who longed for detachment, a more objective place from which to see himself, found it on the Pacific coast. Distance, emotional or geographic, is hard to come by in Poland, where he was an insider. No one is an insider in California.
He limned his culture shock with bitter comedy in several poems. He found an alter ego in Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who had been enslaved and worshiped by the American Indians, who viewed him as a savior with gifts of healing. Cabeza survived to tell his fellow Europeans sympathetic tales of the natives of the American West—rather like Miłosz, himself. “Throughout Our Lands” was written in 1961, the year after Miłosz wheeled into Berkeley. In its final segment, he imagines Cabeza’s return to the “civilization” and the confusion of worlds—mocking, in part, his own life among the American natives:
But afterward? Who am I, the lace of cuffs
Not mine, the table carved with lions not mine, Dona Clara’s
Fan, the slipper from under her gown—hell, no.
On all fours! On all fours!
Smear our thighs with war paint.
Lick the ground. Wha wha, hu hu.
By 1975, he had adjusted, but not surrendered. His ultimate California poem, “A Magic Mountain,” shows his philosophical stoicism and a grudging sense of enchantment:
So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?
Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
Endurance comes only from enduring.
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,
And climbed it and it held me.
Three American poets surface repeatedly in his writings. It’s no coincidence that two of them are Californians.
Pacific poet Robinson Jeffers fascinated and repelled Miłosz with his philosophy of “inhumanism.” His writing has only recently found academic endorsement, with Stanford University Press producing a lavish, multi-volume edition of his collected works. But for years his poems were kept in print only by enthusiastic fans. In recent years, Jeffers has been championed especially by the environmental movement for the philosophy in which, as Miłosz puts it, “the human species, that destructive plasm on the surface of the globe, will disappear, and then everything will once again be perfectly beautiful.”
In “Carmel Point,” which Miłosz anthologized in his Book of Luminous Things, Jeffers calls civilization “the spoiler,” and describes nature’s reaction to it:
. . . does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must inhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
Like Jeffers, Miłosz also decried our indifference to the “astonishing beauty of things” yet in his poem “To Robinson Jeffers,” he repudiated the Carmel poet: “What have I to do with you?”
Better to carve suns and moons on the joints of crosses
as was done in my district. To birches and firs
give feminine names. To implore protection
against the mute and treacherous might
than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.
Miłosz attended a reading by the second poet, Allen Ginsberg. The Beat poet approached Miłosz afterward and said, “Well, I guess you are not as much of a square as you present yourself.” Miłosz was pleased, and repeated the story, again and again.
Miłosz censured Ginsberg for sometimes deplorable writing and outrageous personal indiscretion—yet he described him as “extremely daring,” and described himself as “shocked and somewhat envious.” In California, where sobriety is not always held at a premium, Ginsberg challenged Miłosz’s seriousness with his own divine madness. Yet “Howl,” despite its extravagances, is a deadly serious poem. The neon Jeremiah who cried out “America, when will you be angelic?” was bound to arrest the dislocated Polish mystic hungering for “second space.”
His poetic letter to Ginsberg is not as famous as his address to Jeffers, and rightly so. It’s an odd poem, confessional and conversational. Miłosz later distanced himself from the persona who speaks in the poem, but never convincingly—he has, after all, expressed many of these thoughts elsewhere. Perhaps it was simply too close to the bone, for nowhere else does Miłosz so openly confide his self-doubts and self-reproach as in this equivocal tribute, in which he reproaches Ginsberg:
With unfulfilled desires, even with the unfulfilled desire to scream and beat one’s head against the wall, repeating to myself the command “It is forbidden.”
It is forbidden to indulge yourself, to allow yourself idleness, it is forbidden to think of your past, to look for help of a psychiatrist or a clinic.
Forbidden from a sense of duty but also because of the fear of unleashing forces that would reveal one to be a clown.
And I lived in the America of Moloch, short-haired, clean-shaven, tying neckties and drinking bourbon before the TV set every evening.
He salutes Ginsberg as “you good man, great poet of a murderous century” and in his book of ABCs, he considers him to be Whitman’s heir, because of “the courage with which he broke with convention, often against his own will.”
Walt Whitman, of course, is the third in Miłosz’s small pantheon—“all-embracing, all-devouring, blessing everything, turned to the future, a prophet,” he wrote. Miłosz dismissed the Polish tradition of the prophet-bard, exemplified by Mickiewicz and Norwid, yet for Whitman he made an exception, hailing “the astonishing linkage of the word and the historical victory of America.”
Miłosz told Robert Faggen in a Paris Review interview: “Whitman is a very peculiar case because he creates a persona. That persona speaks; yet a certain distance exists between Whitman and the complex persona that he impersonates throughout his poetry.” He singles out Whitman for creating a single persona who speaks—while Miłosz characterizes himself as a polyphonic poet, in whom many voices speak. Did he long for Whitman’s confident, if invented, unity?
All three poets—Jeffers, Ginsberg, and his beloved Whitman—have a largeness of spirit, a willingness to take huge risks. They characteristically use long rolling lines, which, in the case of ur-poet Whitman, were inspired by the 19th century preachers who roamed America.
That’s important for the poet who taught himself Hebrew to translate much of the Bible into Polish—a critical influence on his subsequent poetry and thinking. In Polish, the elevated language of Second Space reverberates with the Psalms, giving the book an insistent biblical echo.
Miłosz returned to Poland for good in 2000, coming back to California only as his wife was dying in a Berkeley hospital in 2002. At her funeral, he whispered to Hass, “I’m afraid this place will catch me.” The return to Poland allowed him to turn against the land that had alternately embraced and ignored him.
Hass told me in an interview shortly after Miłosz’s death: “I just think he had some years of bitter loneliness, and what came back to him, when he came here to California again, was that. The isolation. When he first came here, he didn’t much like California. Then you follow, in some of his writings, he’s become a Californian and is quite loyal to it. As soon as he got back to Poland, then he could hate and resent his time in California.” He couldn’t divide his loyalties—but the rest of us do it daily, teetering on the ambivalences that make up our relationship to our adopted home on the West Coast.
Miłosz speaks for so many who have wandered into this indifferent Lotus Land. He captures our wonder and desolation finally and best in “Magic Mountain,” as he describes the exiled and dispossessed Chinese poet Shih-Hsiang Chen and the Russian sinologist Peter Budberg—who both ended their days in seasonless Berkeley. In the poem, the two join Milosz in a stately processional, in the caps and hooded gowns of a Berkeley commencement:
. . . And here sunlight.
So that the flames of their tall candles fade.
And how many generations of hummingbirds keep them company
As they walk on. Across the magic mountain.
And the fog from the ocean is cool, for once again it is July.
A version of this essay was presented at “His Master’s Voice: Czesław Miłosz and his Dialogue with British, Irish and American Poetry,” at the British Academy, London, on December 6, 2012.
Cynthia L. Haven has written for The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, World Literature Today, The Kenyon Review, and others. Her An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz was published in 2011. She was a Milena Jesenská Fellow with Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen and is a visiting writer at Stanford University. Her blog is Book Haven.
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