«Miłosz Like the World»
Poet in the Eyes of Polish Literary Critics
Table Of Contents
- About the Author
- About the Book
- This eBook can be cited
- Table of Contents
- Editorial note
- Introduction: Zdzisław Łapiński
- Miłosz as a Figure of Problematic Identity: Teresa Walas
- The Dilemmas of Self-Presentation: Michał Paweł Markowski
- Żagary and Skamander – Czesław Miłosz’s Correspondence with Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz: Aleksander Fiut
- Kroński-Miłosz: An Episode from the History of Ideas and Poetry: Maria Janion
- The secret sect of philosophers
- Existentialism is not humanism
- Nationalism, folklore and… classicism
- Violence in the service of reason
- “Socratic rays”
- The Time of the Bible and the Time of Mr. Cogito, or the Essence of the Dispute between Herbert and Miłosz: Stefan Chwin
- Ninety Years in Search of a Homeland: Leszek Kołakowski
- “The First Movement Is a Singing”: A Preliminary Study of Miłosz’s Verse: Stanisław Balbus
- “Ecstasy at Sunrise”: Among Miłosz’s Major Themes: Marian Stala
- I River and garden; the tree, the bird and the cloud
- II In the face of time and God
- “Conversation at Easter 1620” – An Intertextual Interpretation: Stanisław Balbus
- “Thrown in the Geographically Shaky Position”: Czesław Miłosz’s Experience of Space and Place: Ryszard Nycz
- Homo Geographicus: The Topographies and Auto-Bio-Geographies of Czesław Miłosz (A Reconnaissance): Elżbieta Rybicka
- Mobile places
- Excursus no. 1: Towards a cultural geography of the “Berkeley school”
- Miłosz’s topographies
- Excursus no. 2: Towards cultural geography – homo geographicus
- Towards an auto-bio-geography
- Destined Affinities and Elective Love: Elżbieta Kiślak
- Poet on Poets: Jacek Łukasiewicz
- Songs of Innocence and Experience: Marek Zaleski
- Towards Fullness: Łukasz Tischner
- Dawns: Stanisław Barańczak
- “Outskirts” by Czesław Miłosz: An Attempt at Interpretation: Michał Głowiński
- “Outskirts” as another “Song on the End of the World”: A Contribution to the Definition of Czesław Miłosz’s Poetic Art: Aleksandra Okopień-Sławińska
- Miłosz at the Brink of the Occupation: “The River”: Jerzy Kwiatkowski
- The Intellect’s Return: A Treatise on Poetry (1957): Jan Błoński
- Poetry as Interpretation of Art: Czesław Miłosz’s Poems about Pictures: Adam Dziadek
- Paintings in Miłosz’s late works
- A Pastiche Against Dying: “In Honour of Reverend Baka” by Czesław Miłosz: Danuta Opacka-Walasek
- A Sinking Life: Piotr Śliwiński
- Miłosz and the Book of Psalms: Ewa Bieńkowska
- Index of works by Miłosz
- Acknowledgements and Information about original editions
The following abbreviations are used throughout his book:
NC – Czesław Miłosz, New and Collected Poems 1931–2001 (New York: HarperCollins, 2003)
NR – Czesław Miłosz, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, trans. Catherine S. Leach (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981)
Unless stated otherwise, all translations from Polish, including literary and critical works as well as their titles, have been rendered by the translator of this book. Titles of untranslated works are provided both in Polish and English on their first occurrence in a given essay, whereas poems and works which appear only with the English title are available in an English translation. ← 7 | 8 → ← 8 | 9 →
The work of Czesław Miłosz has already become ingrained in Anglophone culture. The course of his career in America has been playfully summed up by his friend and translator Robert Pinsky, who is also an outstanding poet and essayist:
A colleague at Berkeley told me that soon after Bells in Winter  was published he had arranged a reading on the University campus by two poets: Czeslaw Miłosz and Daniel Halpern, the poet who was also, as the director of Ecco Press, Miłosz’s publisher. This poetry reading was attended by fewer than ten people – most of them apparently there, that colleague told me, to hear Halpern.
A couple of years later, after Solidarity and his poem quoted on the Gdańsk monument, after the Nobel Prize, Miłosz gave a reading on that same campus, where he taught in the Department for Slavic Languages for many years, to a crowd overflowing from the equivalent of a circus big top.1
Therefore, Miłosz became public property in the US, and also in popular culture. As Clare Cavanagh remarked in 2009:
… a recent search on Amazon.com turned up close to a thousand references to Miłosz in American books in print. There were the expected mentions in anthologies and handbooks on unleashing your inner artist, as well as numerous scholarly references in works on poetry, politics, Eastern Europe, and so on. Miłosz also makes guest appearances, though, in books on yoga, childrearing, self-help, basketball, civil liberties, world mythology, Silicon Valley, Kissinger, modern Christianity, and ancient Zen. His name even figures in a guide to celebrities and their signs: he apparently shares a birthday with Mike Tyson. Tony Kushner quotes him in his plays; Bill Movers cites him on Public Broadcasting; he turns up in Lewis Hyde’s classic The Gift (1983), John Grisham’s recent thriller The Broker (2005), and Frances Mayes’s bestselling Under the Tuscan Sun (1997).2
However, it is the position achieved by Miłosz among poets and critics that proved to be decisive. In his study on the essence of the lyric, Robert von Hallberg asks the following question: “Which poets manage, through translation, to cross national boundaries and establish audiences in foreign cultures?” His immediate answer ← 9 | 10 → is: “One knows which ones have been successfully imported into U.S. literary culture: Czesław Miłosz, Paul Celan preeminently.”3
There are numerous valuable critical studies of Miłosz written by Anglophone authors.4 However, they usually do not speak the Polish language (with the commendable exception of the aforementioned Clare Cavanagh) and have not experienced the historical turmoil that affected their colleagues from Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, when deprived of their rhythmical structure, nuances of phraseology, intertextual allusions and historical concreteness, Miłosz’s poems lose too many of their bodily features.
If those works nevertheless were able to engage faithful readers, it would not have been possible without the persistency of the poet himself, who tried to find – aided in this by devoted friends, American poets – the right English shape for his poems, which would make them possibly close to the Polish originals. It seems that he has been successful, since the notable American critic and poet, Charles Simic, remarked that: “I can’t judge what they sound like in Polish, or what they lose in translation, but for the most part they read well in English and in a number of instances they end up being magnificent American poems in their own right.”5
Miłosz did not hesitate to complement his long poems with unprecedentedly extensive notes (as in A Treatise on Poetry, trans. by the author and Robert Hass, 2001). Moreover, a better understanding of his poetry was facilitated by numerous essays and especially a cycle of lectures delivered at Harvard (The Witness of Poetry, 1983). Finally, Miłosz’s translations of contemporary Polish poets and his vivid The History of Polish Literature (1969, 2nd ed. 1983) provided the background to his own poetry.
The selection of essays contained in this book is aimed to help the Anglophone reader with exploring Miłosz’s poetry further, assuming an “internal” perspective, i.e. by looking through the eyes of those literary critics who shared his language, literary tradition and – to a certain extent – historical experience. After the Second World War the poet became for many of them the exponent of what they witnessed. ← 10 | 11 → Andrzej Kijowski (1928–1985), an eminent critic, recalled the time of his studies as follows: “He was our poet … because he not only set the tone, rhythm and mood … but also shaped our intelligence, expressing it in his poems. He was the poet of our synthesis.”6
After Miłosz fled Poland in 1951, his presence in Polish cultural life was strictly controlled for several decades of communist regime in Poland. In the Stalin years (up until 1956) that control was total. The press could publish only ruthless assaults on him, whether in prose or verse. As one recently published book based on archival materials shows, while some men of letters attempted breaking the barrier of censorship, such endeavours usually failed.7
Later on, although works by Miłosz could not be published, studies of his literary output were allowed, from time to time, to appear in academic journals. However, such discussions could only regard the period from before the Second World War, when the poet was a member of the leftist literary group “Żagary,” whose members included several later dignitaries of the Warsaw regime.
Nevertheless, Miłosz continued to influence various Polish circles thanks to – among other things – publications smuggled in from the West and, in the second half of the 1970s, the underground press. This influence fluctuated, encompassing for longer periods of time only a narrow group of those initiated. It was only after Solidarity became mass opposition and Miłosz received the Nobel Prize in 1980 that his influence became universal, though probably superficial.8
Beginning with the 1989 revolution, the number of publications about Miłosz as well as of his own works grew rapidly. First of all, over thirty volumes of Miłosz’s collected works were published, some of which contain revisions made by the author and short “introductions written years later.”9 Academic studies of Miłosz’s works gained an even greater momentum. After the Polish parliament decided that the year 2011 would be the Miłosz Year, comprehensive volumes of papers were published succeeding conferences held by academic centres in ← 11 | 12 → Warsaw,10 Kraków,11 Gdańsk12 and Białystok.13 These books became part of the already quite large body of writings devoted to his works, describing its various aspects as well as different stages in the development of his views on religion, society and politics.14
Thanks to Miłosz, certain subjects from the area of the history of ideas, which previously did not raise too much interest – e.g. Manichaeism or Swedenborg’s thought – became fashionable topics among academic scholars and even columnists. Likewise, writers who previously were not widely recognised turned – by virtue of their relationship with Miłosz – into figures whose biography deserves to be thoroughly studied, e.g. Jerzy Putrament (1910–1986), a second-rate writer and communist party activist.
An even greater curiosity was provoked by Miłosz’s contacts with outstanding writers. Theses exchanges occurred at the intersection of poetic (i.e. intertextual) and personal relations, which sometimes had a very intimate character. This collection features an essay by Aleksander Fiut, the most distinguished scholar and editor of Miłosz’s works, titled “Żagary and Skamander – Czesław Miłosz’s correspondence with Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz.” It is devoted to the complex relationship between the rising poet and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894–1980), a writer who looked after him and was a member of the renowned pre-war poetry group “Skamander.” Stefan Chwin, on the other hand, uses a broad background – as well as the perspective of not only a literary critic but also a historian of ideas ← 12 | 13 → – to depict the long-standing relationship between Miłosz and his younger poet friend Zbigniew Herbert, who was Miłosz’s protégé for many years and entered the Anglophone culture through Miłosz’s translations (“The time of the Bible and the time of Mr. Cogito, or the essence of the dispute between Herbert and Miłosz”). Jacek Łukasiewicz, on the other hand, discusses how personal relationships are translated into poetic structures in his study titled “Poet on Poets.”
After fleeing Poland, Miłosz found his new place in the influential emigration centre created by Jerzy Giedroyć (1906–2000) around the Paris monthly Kultura. Their correspondence sheds a lot of light on the dilemmas that intellectuals – not only Polish or emigrant ones – grappled with during the Cold War. These quandaries emerge as even sharper in the volume of correspondence from the years after the Second World War, edited by Miłosz himself (Zaraz po wojnie. Korespondencja z pisarzami 1945–1950, 1998). In the present collection, these letters are discussed by Maria Janion in the essay “Kroński-Miłosz: An Episode from the History of Ideas and Poetry.”
Moreover, Miłosz’s spiritual quest and anguish – especially with regard to the religious dimension – are expressed in his letters to the American monk Thomas Merton.15 Many people who came into contact with Miłosz eagerly reminisced about this. Some recorded these memories in writing, which gave rise to an interesting anthology.16
The very first meeting with Miłosz’s poetry directs our thoughts to the historical experience it describes. This collection of essays is titled Miłosz Like the World – a phrase coined by Jan Błoński (1931–2009), who once published his articles on Miłosz in a volume under this title [Miłosz jak świat]. Those studies are among the best works devoted to Miłosz, while the phrase itself has become a well-known quotation that is often repeated as if its author were anonymous. It perfectly captures the devout attitude assumed by Polish literary critics in relation to the scope of material assimilated and poetically transformed by the poet in question. ← 13 | 14 →
Miłosz himself emphasised this when he advocated in the US his concept of the “Polish school of poetry,” making his own work a part of it.17 The long process of consolidating his position on the American literary agora unfolded under exactly this sign.
Miłosz’s coming to terms with the Stalinist regime, as well as with the intellectuals who deluded themselves in yielding to it, has become well known since the presentation in The Captive Mind (trans. by Jane Zielonko, 1953; repeatedly re-released and translated into 26 other languages). This subject was also tackled in numerous poems. However, Miłosz began his squaring up with politically understood history much earlier. Already in his debut poetry collection A Poem on Frozen Time (Vilnius, 1933) he passionately spoke out against various social injustices in interwar Poland.
However, it was during the Second World War that Miłosz faced the most arduous task he had to cope with. Among the many inexpressible subjects that poets confronted at that time, it was naturally the Holocaust that stood in the foreground. Miłosz’s place in Polish poetry devoted to the Holocaust and its consequences was succinctly summarised by Piotr Matywiecki. His judgment is authoritative in three ways, since its author is both poet and critic; moreover, he is the son of a Jewish National Committee activist, who was killed in 1944:
During the occupation Miłosz became a great poet. He was able to indicate – more pointedly than other poets – the fact that the entire humanity has changed. (Years before Hannah Arendt poetically defined the “banality of evil.”) In order to diagnose this turn, he was capable of utilising poetically transformed categories from theology, eschatology and historiosophy. Moreover, he seasoned this with sobering irony. Without losing anything of the period’s tragic character, he was capable of attaining historical distance. If we can apply the category of “maturity” to these matters, it was no one else but Miłosz who led the experiences of that time towards poetic and artistic “maturity,” equipping them with the right depth. He was able to achieve realistic faithfulness of a nearly documentary character, but at the same time could employ a piercing symbol.
As Matywiecki later concludes:
It seems to me that Miłosz underlined the question of Polish collective guilt for indifference to the Holocaust (as well as frequent complicity) more strongly than any other poet at that time. It is especially meaningful that it was his poem – “Campo dei Fiori” – that initiated several decades later (in writings by Jan Błoński) the great work of Polish consciences.18 ← 14 | 15 →
Although the role of “history’s witness” was consciously taken up by the poet and even propagated as a literary programme, the excessive emphasis of Anglophone critics on this particular aspect of his work made Miłosz angry at some point. After a very favourable review of The Collected Poems, 1931–1987,19 written by the critic Al Alvarez, Miłosz wrote an irritated letter to the editor: “You may guess my uneasiness when I saw the long evolution of my poetic craft encapsuled by Mr. Alvarez in the word “witness,” which for him is perhaps a praise, but for me is not. … Could not a question be asked as to what is the place of my poetry in the framework of contemporary poetry in general?”20
Miłosz was right to a certain extent. After all, being “the witness of poetry” is something else than bearing witness in front of the court (or history). In order to make it credible, the testimony has to have an indispensable poetic energy which would use linguistic expression to make a particular historical experience universal in the eyes of both the reader and the poet himself. Besides, Miłosz has long since been turning towards other matters in his writing. Hence the impatience with the fact that in the eyes of the American auditorium he remains invisible as, strictly speaking, a poet.
In the introduction to the poetry book Voices of Poor People, published by an underground press during the Second World War, Miłosz confessed: “I have served two terrors: social and metaphysical, expressing one in the language of the other.” Writing those words at that time, however, he turned away from “metaphysical terror, for it breeds only death and silence.”21 Many years later, it was the metaphysical terror – interlaced with metaphysical elation – that emerged as the dominant theme in his poetry. Finally, his public declarations became even less ambiguous: “For me, the religious dimension is extremely important. I feel that everything depends on whether people are pious or not pious. Reverence toward being, which can be formulated in strictly religious terms or more general terms, that is the basic value. Piety protects us against nihilism.”22
In the US, this side of Miłosz’s poetry was addressed quite early by periodicals of a religious profile, such as Logos, Commonweal, First Things or Christianity and Literature. Mainstream literary critics discerned the significance of this question to Miłosz’s work much later. Today, however, this opinion is the most commonly held one. ← 15 | 16 →
The debate regarding Miłosz’s religiousness has been ongoing for many years. It has engaged the highest authorities: Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński and Pope John Paul II. This theme also recurs throughout the book. Łukasz Tischner, author of two books on Miłosz,23 addresses it with great competence – both in terms of theology and literary criticism – in the essay “Towards Fullness.”
One of the best-known poems by Miłosz – Ars Poetica? (trans. by the author and Lillian Vallee) – begins with the words: “I have always aspired to a more spacious form” (NC 240). Miłosz needed this “more spacious form” in order to process the immense range of his experiences and translate them into the language of poetry. By seeking this form’s many variants, he tried to utilise a multitude of poetic schools and directions. After all, the 20th century – sometimes called the century of modernism – abounded in them. However, if one of modernism’s main currents involved distilling “life’s content” to an ever greater extent and directing poetry towards itself, Miłosz actually opposed that tendency, primarily in his own works, but also in his programmatic writings. As regards the two great patrons of modernism – Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé – Miłosz rather sympathised with the former, remaining decidedly hostile towards the author of Un coup de dés. When Miłosz’s mature poetics began to take shape, it was T.S. Eliot’s work that became dear to him. Later on, Miłosz was inspired by other poets, including some who previously seemed completely alien to him. It is possible to say that Miłosz copied certain technical innovations (which the previous century was teeming with) in order to put them to a new use.24
The best example of this would be his use of “confessional poetry” (represented by Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton). This kind of poetry “was arguably the most visible development in American poetry during the 1960s”25 – the decade when Miłosz began to settle in the ecological and cultural milieu of the US. ← 16 | 17 →
His early works bore a strong mark of subjectivism, but it was not specific to a certain subject – one that has a particular biography and social status. In the “classicistic phase” (beginning from 1943) this subject acquired particular features, but at the same time it became – thanks to the author’s controlling consciousness – “one thing among many” (“Love” from The World, trans. by the author; NC 50). It was only the author’s later poetic evolution that allowed Miłosz to melt the incredibly broad range of content with a very particular figure of the expressing persona, through whose eyes we look at the world. As a matter of fact, this subject undergoes various metamorphoses and often detaches from the authorial model. However, Miłosz forces us to remember about him by throwing in, time and again, fragments of his own biography into the poems. This is the way in which Miłosz exploited confessional poetry, which he otherwise bitingly criticised, claiming it to be “fresh from psychiatric clinics” (Ars Poetica?, trans. by the author and Lillian Vallee; NC 240).
Among the many matters related to the dynamics of literary life, which Miłosz had anticipated, it is also possible to list the question of translation and translation studies, whose role is recently increasing. From the beginning of his career, Miłosz was interested in translation as a fully-fledged creative task. He translated poems for years, usually from English, but also rendered into Polish parts of the Bible. In the US, he began to collaborate with his English-speaking poet friends on translations of contemporary Polish poets and later also on his own poems. He did not attempt – like his friend Joseph Brodsky – to write in English. However, he put a lot of effort (both his own and the American poets he worked with) into translations, caring primarily for their faithfulness to the originals.
Reporting the latest changes in approaches to translation and the emergence of comparative translation studies, as well as analysing Miłosz’s translation strategies are the subject of a book by Magdalena Heydel titled Translator’s Zeal. The English-language summary of that book contains the following passage, which is worth quoting here:
My analyses have revealed a “translatorial lining” to his oeuvre, a stratum of intertextual, interlingual and intercultural meanings, inspirations, allusions, dialogues and polemics that assimilate various levels and areas of his work. Looking at them through the prism of his translation work, one can see how closely his writing is linked to world literature. Miłosz studies his native literary canon from the outside – from the perspective of foreign poetry – and it is in relation to foreign poetry that he designs a new shape for it. The unequivocal character of his complex identity as a Polish poet, closely linked to his biography: Lithuania as his birthplace, the multilingual world of ← 17 | 18 → his childhood and youth, and the role of an exiled poet writing in Polish, a servant to “his faithful speech” at the same time though, creating the image of the “Polish school of poetry” by his translations and critical writings, shows in his work as a translator in yet another aspect. Translation is a vital necessity for him as a writer and as a reader, and is the element in which his writing and its reception is immersed.26
This collection contains only one essay about Miłosz the translator: Ewa Bieńkowska’s “Miłosz and the Book of Psalms.” Translations from the Bible occupy a special place in Miłosz’s oeuvre due to both matters of worldview (he was, after all, a religious poet) and literature (he sought the “high style”). These translations have been commented upon by many authors, literary historians and theologians. It seems worth mentioning here though that there also exists one very competent essay published in a British theological periodical.27
While Miłosz’s associations with the Euro-American tradition may be perceptible to readers who do not speak Polish, two other faces of his oeuvre will surely remain undecipherable to them: the dense network of literary allusions to various periods of Polish poetry and the extremely diversified rhythmical patterns found in his poems. These matters are discussed – with great methodological sophistication – by Stanisław Balbus (“Aspects of Miłosz’s Literary Stylisation” and “The First Movement is Singing”). As a complement to observations made by Balbus, who focuses primarily (in the former essay) on the question of stylisation, pastiche and parody, we offer a thorough commentary by Jerzy Kwiatkowski (1927–1986) to one poem by Miłosz, which notably abounds in ironic allusions to Polish Romantic poetry, especially second-rate (“Miłosz at the Brink of the Occupation: ‘The River’”).
Polish literary tradition has been defined for almost two centuries by the poetry of the great Romantics, especially Mickiewicz, Słowacki and Norwid (whose attitude towards the first two bards could be compared to what Victorian poets thought of their Romantic predecessors). This entire tradition drew a strong and emotional response in Miłosz – a tangle of love and hate. He attempted to assimilate this literary heritage and “overcome” it, taking his cue from Polish and foreign writers. As far as the former were concerned, at first he used the ← 18 | 19 → experience of contemporary poets. Later, during the period of fascination with classicist poetry, Miłosz was drawn to poets of the Enlightenment. Finally, during his professorship in Berkeley, after having thoroughly acquainted himself with the history of Polish literature, he began utilising baroque poetry.
Miłosz’s struggle with the Romantic tradition – the favourite subject of Polish literary criticism – was most fully analysed by Elżbieta Kiślak in the book Walka Jakuba z aniołem [The Fight between Jacob and Angel],28 from which we have chosen an excerpt about Miłosz’s attitude towards Mickiewicz: “Destined affinities and elective love.”
Other contexts of Miłosz’s poetry and its linguistic subtleties are addressed in essays interpreting Miłosz’s particular poems, written by: Stanisław Barańczak (who discusses the early poem “Dawns”), Aleksandra Okopień-Sławińska and Michał Głowiński, the co-founders of Polish structuralism (about the wartime “Outskirts”), Jan Błoński (A Treatise on Poetry), Danuta Opacka-Walasek (late baroque poem “In Honor of Reverend Baka”) and Piotr Śliwiński (Last Poems).
The ability to evoke reality with great vividness is one of the characteristic traits of Miłosz’s poetics. Ekphrastic works – i.e. poems about paintings – are a test of those skills. They are analysed by Adam Dziadek. Marek Zaleski, on the other hand, traces the idyllic and anti-idyllic themes, which are so typical of Miłosz, while Marian Stala is tempted to adopt an even broader perspective on some of the poet’s “major themes.” An equally vast territory was outlined by the leading Polish theorist of literature, Ryszard Nycz, who comments on the “experience of space and place” contained in Miłosz’s poetry.
In his private life Miłosz was a colourful and enchanting figure, not only intellectually but also physically. Ruled by changeable and contradictory moods, he could both seduce and repulse. His long life was full of stormy affairs and events of a literally historical weight. He personally met many people who left a distinctive impression on the spiritual life of the last century, among them Albert Einstein, Albert Camus and John Paul II. In short, he was the dream candidate for the protagonist of an attractive biography. In fact, such a biography, which has been pretty successful, was recently written by Andrzej Franaszek.29 ← 19 | 20 →
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Hardcover)
- Publication date
- 2014 (December)
- Milosz Czeslaw polnische Literatur Bibel Modernismus Totalitarismus
- Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 402 pp.