In Gratitude for All the Gifts

(Czeslaw Milosz, 1911-2004)

Though he confronted the brutality of the modern age, Czeslaw Milosz believed in the joy-bringing potential of art and intellect. Seamus Heaney pays tribute to the Polish poet upon his death.

For quite a while now, those who knew Czeslaw Milosz couldn’t help wondering what it was going to be like when he was gone. In the meantime, he more than held his own, writing away for all he was worth in Kraków, in his early 90s, in a flat where I’d had the privilege of visiting him twice. On the first occasion he was confined to his bed, too unwell to attend a conference arranged in his honour, and on the second he was ensconced in his living room, face to face with a life-size bronze head and torso of his second wife, Carol. His junior by some 30 years, she had died from a quick and cruel cancer in 2002, and as he sat on one side of the room facing the bronze on the other, the old poet seemed to be viewing it and everything else from another shore. On that occasion he was being ministered to by his daughter-in-law and perhaps it was her hovering attentions as much as his translated appearance that brought to mind the aged Oedipus being minded by daughters in the grove at Colonus, the old king who had arrived where he knew he would die. Colonus was not his birthplace but it was where he had come home to himself, to the world, and to the otherworld; and the same could be said of Milosz in Kraków.

“The child who dwells inside us trusts that there are wise men somewhere who know the truth”: so Milosz had written, and for his many friends he himself was one of those wise men. His sayings were quoted, even when they were wisecracks rather than wisdom. A few days before he died I’d had a letter from Robert Pinsky, telling of a visit last month to the hospital where Czeslaw was a patient. “How are you?” Pinsky asked. “Conscious,” was the reply. “My head is full of absurd bric-a-brac.” It was the first time I’d ever detected a daunted note in any of his utterances. A couple of years earlier, for example, a similar inquiry from Pinsky’s fellow translator, Robert Hass, had elicited the reply, “I survive by incantation” – which was more like him. His life and works were founded upon faith in “A word wakened by lips that perish”. This first artistic principle was clearly related to the last gospel of the Mass, the In principio of St John: “In the beginning was the Word”. Inexorably then, through his pursuit of poetic vocation, his study of what such pursuit entailed and the unremitting, abounding yield of his habit of composition, he developed a fierce conviction about the holy force of his art, how poetry was called upon to combat death and nothingness, to be “A tireless messenger who runs and runs / Through interstellar fields, through revolving galaxies, / And calls out, protests, screams” (“Meaning”). With Milosz gone, the world has lost a credible witness to this immemorial belief in the saving power of poetry.

His credibility was and remains the thing. There was nothing disingenuous about his professions of faith in poetry, which he once called philosophy’s “ally in the service of the good”, news that “was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo”. Such trust in the delicious joy-bringing potential of art and intellect was protected by strong bulwarks built from the knowledge and experience that he had gained at first hand and at great cost. His mind, to put it another way, was at once a garden – now a monastery garden, now a garden of earthly delights -and a citadel. The fortifications surrounding the garden were situated on a high mountain whence he could view the kingdoms of the world, recognise their temptations and their tragedies, and communicate to his readers both the airiness and the insights that his situation afforded. Somewhere, for example, he compares a poem to a bridge built out of air over air, and one of the great delights of his work is a corresponding sensation of invigilating reality from a head-clearing perspective, being liberated into the authentic solitude of one’s own being and at the same time being given gratifying spiritual companionship, so that one is ready to say something like “It is good for us to be here”.

Milosz was well aware of this aspect of his work and explicit about his wish that poetry in general should be capable of providing such an elevated plane of regard. Yet as if to prove the truth of WB Yeats’s contention that without contrarieties there could be no progression, he was equally emphatic about poetry’s need to descend from its high vantage point and creep about among the nomads on the plain. It was not enough that the poet should be like Venus in WH Auden’s poem “The Shield of Achilles”, looking over the shoulder of his artefact at a far-off panorama that included everything from kitchen comedy to genocide. The poet had to be down there with the ordinary crowd, at eye level with the refugee family on the floor of the railway station, sharing the smell of the stale crusts the mother is doling out to her youngsters even as the boots of the military patrol bear down on them, the city is bombarded, and maps and memories go up in flames. Awareness of the triteness and tribulations of other people’s lives was needed to humanise the song. It wasn’t enough to be in the salons of the avant-garde. Certain things, as he says in “1945”, could not be learned “from Apollinaire, / Or Cubist manifestoes, or the festivals of Paris streets”. Milosz would have deeply understood and utterly agreed with John Keats’s contention that the use of a world of pain and troubles was to school the intelligence and make it a soul. The discharged soldier of “1945” has received just such a schooling:

“On the steppe, as he was binding his bleeding feet with a rag

He grasped the futile pride of those lofty generations.

As far as he could see, a flat, unredeemed earth.

And what, in these drastic conditions, has the poet to offer? Only what has accrued to him

through custom and ceremony, through civilisation:

I blinked, ridiculous and rebellious,

Along with my Jesus Mary against irrefutable power,

A descendant of ardent prayers, of gilded sculptures and miracles.”

Tender towards innocence, tough-minded when faced with brutality and injustice, Milosz could be at one moment susceptible, at another remorseless. Now he is evoking the dewy eroticism of some adolescent girl haunting the grounds of a Lithuanian manor house, now he is anatomising the traits of character and misdirected creative gifts that led some contemporary into the Marxist web. From start to finish, merciless analytic power coexisted with helpless sensuous relish. He recollects the fresh bread smells on the streets of Paris when he was a student at the same moment as he summons up the faces of fellow students from Indo-china, young revolutionaries preparing to seize power and “kill in the name of the universal beautiful ideas”.

No doubt the intensity of his early religious training contributed to his capacity to let perpetual light shine upon the quotidian, yet this religious poet was inhabited by another who was, in a very precise sense, a secular Milosz, one afflicted by the atrociousness of the saeculum he was fated to live through. The word “century” usually preceded by the definite article or the possessive pronoun, first person singular, repeats and echoes all through his writing. It was as if he couldn’t go anywhere without encountering, as he does in his poem, “A Treaty on Poetry”, “The Spirit of History… out walking”, wearing “About his neck a chain of severed heads”. And it was his face-to-face encounters and contentions with this “inferior god” that darkened his understanding and endowed everything he wrote with grievous force.

His intellectual life could be viewed as a long single combat with shapeshifting untruth. “The New Faith” upon which the communist regimes were founded was like the old man of the sea, a villainous fallacious Proteus who had to be watched, wrestled with, held down and made to submit. Just how much stamina and precision this entailed can be seen in the almost inquisitorial prosecution of argument and accusation which characterises The Captive Mind, the book he introduced like a bell and candle between himself and his Polish contemporaries who had succumbed to the Marxist tempters. The sense of personal majesty that developed around him in old age derived in no small measure from his having survived this ordeal, which had sprung him into solitude and left him a wanderer, as capable in the end of self-accusation as he had ever been of accusation.

Once, after a poetry reading in Harvard where he had seemed, as I later wrote, to combine the roles of Orpheus and Tiresias, he said to me: “I feel just like a little boy, playing on the bank of a river.” And the poems convinced you that here too he was telling the truth. In fact, Milosz gave the lie to TS Eliot’s line that human kind cannot bear very much reality. The young poet who started out with his peers in the cafés and controversies of 1930s Warsaw was present when those same young poets were dying in gunfire during the Warsaw Rising, their memorials little more than graffiti in the rubble of the devastated city. The old man, the sage of Grizzly Peak Road in Berkeley, veteran of the cold war, hero of Solidarity, friend of the pope, was at once the child “who receives First Communion in Wilno and afterwards drinks cocoa served by zealous Catholic ladies” and the poet who constantly heard “the immense call of the Particular, despite the earthly law that sentences memory to extinction” (“Capri”).

I know Milosz’s poems only in translation, but they come through so convincingly in the “target language” you forget that their first life is in Polish. Reading him in English, you are in thrall to a unique voice, a poetry cargoed with a density of experience that has been lived through and radiated by an understanding that has rendered it symbolic. It’s not just that one trusts the ear and the accuracy of those poets who have done the translating, although their contributions in this regard have been indispensable. It’s more that one can hardly not intuit the sheer weight of human presence, prose content and musical transmission that must subsist in the original away beyond our linguistic reach. The poetry as a whole is eminently comprehensible, equally well supplied with occasions of surprise and recognition. It can move from sumptuous evocation to solo articulation. Its easy-as-breathing cadences, its often unexpected simplicity (as in a bewitching early poem such as “Encounter”) and its equally unexpected but persuasive obliquity (“Far West”, for instance), convince you of the truth, of Milosz’s frequent claim that his poems were dictated by a daimon, that he was merely a “secretary”. Which was another way of saying that he had learned to write fast, to allow the associative jumps to be taken at a hurdler’s pace. When he tells us that his poem “Ars Poetica?” was written in 20 minutes, I believe him and rejoice.

Part of the secret and much of the power came from his immense learning. His head was like one of those renaissance theatres of memory. Schoolboy Latin, Thomist theology, Russian philosophy, world poetry, 20th-century history, the dramatis personae of the age, many of whom were his close companions – you have only to read a few pages of his copious prose to realise how present all of this was to him, and how flimsy and inadequate the old cliché, “a well-stocked mind”, turns out to be in his case. The poetry is the fine flower of an oeuvre that extends to autobiography, political argu ment, literary criticism, personal essays, fictions, maxims, memoirs, and much else that is original, frolicsome, ominous, more or less unclassifiable. 0ther poets have written voluminous prose. Among his near contemporaries in English one can think of Hugh Macdiarmid and WH Auden, both gifted with vigorous intelligence and a rage for order. By comparison, however, Macdiarmid, for all his compendiousness, seems to protest too much. Auden is closer, in that he too is compelled to examine the middle state of human life and can never forget the border states of beast and angel. Yet compared with Milosz, Auden tends towards don-speak, doesn’t appear to suffer as much from the complicating drag of the contingent: you get serious speculation but it tends to lack the interesting impairment of specific personal gravity. I love Milosz because there is such a guarantee in his tone, a guarantee that the performative prose-writing persona is being kept under constant scrutiny by a more penitent, more punitive side of himself. What we get in the prose, as in the poetry, is the speech of the whole man.

And yet Milosz was always impatient with “the insufficiency of lyric”, as the poet Donald Davie expressed it, and indeed the insufficiency of all art, deeply conscious of the unattainability of the reality that surrounds us. His yearning for a more encompassing form of expression than is humanly available was a theme to which he returned again and again. “Arranging colours on a canvas is a paltry thing compared with what calls out to be explored.” Yet he also exulted in the certainty that he was called as a poet “to glorify things just because they are”, and maintained that “the ideal life for a poet is to contemplate the word is “. In pursuit of this ideal, he brought poetry beyond the chalk circle of significant form and opened it to big vistas and small domesticities: his poems sometimes have the head-on exclamatory innocence of child art (“O happiness! To see an iris”), sometimes the panoramic sweep of synoptic historical meditation, as in “Oeconomia Divina”: “I did not expect to live in such an unusual moment… / Roads on concrete pillars, cities of glass and cast iron, / airfields larger than tribal dominions / suddenly ran short of their essence and disintegrated… / Out of trees, field stones, even lemons on the table, / materiality escaped”. Yet by diagnosing the onset of this lightness of being Milosz effectively halted it for his readers, and much of his staying power as a poet will continue to reside in his exemplary obstinacy, his refusal to underprize the thickness of the actual and the sovereign value that can inhere in what we choose to remember. “What is pronounced strengthens itself. / What is not pronounced tends to nonexistence” (“Reading the Japanese Poet Issa”).

Thinking of Czeslaw during these past months, seeing him in my mind’s eye marooned on his bed, visited by friends yet always with his eye fixed steadily on the life-obliterating wall ahead, I couldn’t help but see him also in the light of two works of art that have about them a typically Miloszian combination of solidity and spiritual force. The first is Jacques Louis David’s painting, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of the death of Socrates. The sturdily built philosopher is on his high bed, bare to the waist, finger in the air, sitting upright and expounding to his crowd of friends the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The picture could well carry as an alternative title or caption the words: “I permitted myself everything except complaints” – a remark made by Joseph Brodsky, one which Milosz quoted with high approval and which could apply with equal justice to Milosz himself. And the other work, probably brought to mind by that tableau of Milosz face-to-face with the bronze likeness of his wife Carol, is an Etruscan sarcophagus in the Louvre, a mighty terracotta sculpture of a married couple, reclining on their elbows. The woman is positioned on the man’s left side, couched close and parallel, both of them at their ease and gazing intently ahead at something which by all the rules of perspective should be visible in the man’s outstretched right hand. But there is nothing to be seen there. Was it a bird that has flown? A flower that has been snapped away? A bird that is approaching? Nothing is shown, yet their gaze is full of realisation, as if they are in the process of settling for the bittersweet answer Milosz provided to his own question to life (in “No More”):

“Out of reluctant matter

What can be gathered? Nothing, beauty at best.

And so, cherry blossoms must suffice for us

And chrysanthemums and the full moon.”

I was in our back garden, in sunlight, among flowers, when the call came. There was a fullness about the morning that was Californian. An unshadowedness that recalled his poem “Gift”, written in Berkeley when he was 60: “A day so happy. / Fog lifted early; I worked in the garden. / Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers…” Thanksgiving and admiration were in the air, and I could easily have repeated to myself the remark he once made to an interviewer, commenting upon his epigram, “He was thankful, so he couldn’t not believe in God”. Ultimately, Milosz declared, “one can believe in God out of gratitude for all the gifts”. So when the cordless phone was carried out and I heard the voice of Jerzy Jarniewicz, I knew what the news would be, but because I had been long prepared, I wasn’t knocked askew. Instead, there was an expanding of grief into the everlasting reach of poetry. In the Dublin sunlight, the figure of the poet in his hillside garden above San Francisco Bay merged with the figure of Oedipus toiling up the wooded slope at Colonus, only to disappear in the blink of an eye: when I looked he was there in all his human bulk and devotion, when I looked again he was not to be seen – and yet he was not entirely absent. There and then I could have repeated the words of Sophocles’s Messenger as he reports the incident which for all its mysteriousness has the ring of a common truth:

He was gone from sight:

That much I could see…

No god had galloped

His thunder chariot, no hurricane

Had swept the hill. Call me mad, if you like,

Or gullible, but that man surely went

In step with a guide he trusted down to where

Light has gone out but the door stands open.”

Seamus Heaney, dubbed the “poet of happiness” is widely recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th century. A native of Northern Ireland, Heaney was raised in County Derry, and later lived for many years in Dublin. He was the author of over 20 volumes of poetry and criticism, and edited several widely used anthologies. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” Heaney taught at Harvard University (1985-2006) and served as the Oxford Professor of Poetry (1989-1994).