Czesław Miłosz, Nobel prize winning Polish poet, died on August 14th aged 93. Born into the intelligentsia, his was a formidable intellect, and there is something forbidding about his meditations on philosophy and literature – though he claimed to be neither philosopher nor literary critic. He said that if writing was to be a pleasure he must keep in mind a couple of Polish readers. And indeed, although he has been widely translated and lived in exile in France and America for many years, there is an uncompromising Polishness to his work.
His poetry is less accessible in translation than, for example, Zbigniew Herbert's, and with his long exile in the west and position as a lecturer in Berkeley University it is perhaps his prose and essays that are best known outside of Poland. Joseph Brodsky famously counted him among the greatest poets of our time, but western critics have been divided: Bells in Winter was described by one as “chatty, comic” and by another as “rarely frivolous” (Davie).
“Nineteenth century art put forth from its factories human material of little worth…” he wrote in 1931. “When it comes to harnessing them to work, to the rebuilding of relations in various areas of contemporary Poland, they are rubbish, good for nothing. Other people are required. The first task of literary people would be the neutralisation of the influence of nineteenth century art by creating a new art based on quite different principles.” Among those principles were “instead of emotionalism a dictatorship of the intellect” and “instead of biology, sociology” (though he warned against overdoing Freudianism).
Miłosz was then a member of the Żagary group of poets in Vilnius, who are often described as catastrophists (he describes himself as an “ecstatic pessimist”). He was born not in modern day Poland, but in Lithuania. There is in his biography an echo of the ambiguity contained in Poland's national poetic epic, Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz, which begins with an invocation to Lithuania. Lithuania's contribution to Polish literature has been even greater than Ireland's considerable contribution to English, Miłosz writes, (correctly identifying Wilde, Shaw and Joyce as Irish). He wrote of William Butler Yeats that he “was a poet of the powerfully poetry-creative Ireland, which in this respect is my Lithuania.” Where Yeats was an Irish poet writing in English, Miłosz was a Lithuanian poet writing in Polish, though “no Lithuanian writing in Polish would be regarded as Lithuanian.” Like the solidly Anglo-Irish ascendancy Yeats, Miłosz was something of an outsider. The aristocracy in Lithuania had long before adapted the Polish language while the peasantry continued to speak Lithuanian. Though Miłosz considered himself a “wild man” in comparison with the aristocratic Witold Gombrowicz he was from a wealthy background.
“I look, I listen, I walk along streets,
I look, I listen, down the streets roll tanks dressed in the national
maybe in a few years gas will stain the green fields,
maybe in a few years towns will burn from the Rhine to the Volga.”
[from “Discus” (1933)]
As a young man he was, he writes, eager for avant garde poetry, painting, film, and politics, which led him into various snobberies and “degenerations” but which, however, he regarded as essential in a “candidate for the poetic guild.” In later years Miłosz looked back at his pre-war writings with some alarm, surprised at the “violence of its tone.” Addressing the writers in an audience, he once said: “If you are already writing poems, try not to have them published. I say this because the printed word has a peculiar ability to set in a mould which soon becomes alien to the author and in which he cannot recognise himself. Nevertheless, he must bear responsibility, since he signed his name to it and thus everything that is for him his past becomes society's image of his work and his person.”