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Found in translation

That Czeslaw Milosz is a commanding figure in contemporary letters goes without saying. When he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, at the age of 69, the tribute was immediately recognized as entirely appropriate. Even those who rarely read poetry applauded the Swedish Academy’s decision.

Milosz had been known for 30 years as a trusted witness of the allure and horror of totalitarianism, and The Captive Mind in particular was widely held to be a central work in the political imagination of the 20th century. Born in Szetejnie in rural Lithuania, Milosz has remained faithful to his origins in central Europe, even though extreme politics have forced him to live most of his life in exile: first in France and then, for many years in the United States. When language is controlled by the state, no poet can serve; and Stalinism was uncompromising in its hold on language in Poland. A poet above all, Milosz had to choose between the country for which he wrote and his freedom to write. It was a cruel choice. Prized for the humanity of his moral vision, as evidenced in many essays and lectures, he is more highly regarded for his verse. And had he not elected a life in exile, a life largely spent unable to speak the language in which he writes poetry, we would not have this vast body of work before us.

‘I belong to the estate of Polish literature and to no other,’ Milosz declares in the opening essay of To Begin Where I Am, and towards the end of the collection he adds, ‘Polish is my fatherland, my home, and my glass coffin. Whatever I have accomplished in it—only that will save me.’ These are forceful and honest words; and yet Milosz is revered in America as well as Poland, and the bulk of his admirers, including me, approach him solely in translation. Without a doubt, Milosz’s moral authority has lit the way to an appreciation of his poetry, especially in the United States. And once the poetry is read one must be impressed by the range and intensity of the work. Here is a massive body of writing with deep roots not only in European history but also in western philosophy, a work that responds to political horror while affirming the beautiful, a ceaseless and passionate meditation on life that is religious yet never at ease
with ossified doctrine.

Fascinated by the aesthetic and moral dignity of Milosz’s work, the reader without Polish cannot go much further and experience the poetry as poetry. On the basis of these words from ‘A Magic Mountain’, Milosz would surely agree: ‘And Chen, I have heard, was an exquisite poet, / Which I must take on faith, for he wrote in Chinese.’ We can discern something of the grandeur of poems such as ‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’, ‘The Master’, ‘To Robinson Jeffers’ and ‘Elegy for N. N.’, but always with a sense of their distance from us. When we hear ‘plain speech in the mother tongue’, Milosz says, we should ‘be able to see, / As if in a flash of summer lightning, / Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road’. And so we do; but when we hear poetry in translation we see those things as if through a fog. With poems like ‘Dedication’ and ‘Ode to a Bird’, which are moving lyrics even in English, I find myself pressing fingers on the page, as though the poem were covered with layers of tissue paper that I must smooth over in order to see the words more distinctly.

‘The health of poetry’, Milosz remarks, lies in capturing ‘as much as possible of tangible reality’. To read and reread his poems is to gain some sense of what Milosz has experienced, and the ways in which experience has occurred for him. He has moved through a world that presents itself in terms of fierce contrasts: brutal politics and the fragility of love; the beauty of art and its dealings with evil; the quest for meaning and the loss of sense. At no time, though, has Milosz succumbed to despair. For him, meaning occurs in and through the tensions of life; poetry always breathes in hope even though it cannot always speak of it. Hence Milosz’s impatience with Philip Larkin’s ‘hectoring about nothingness’. I remember an essay, not included in To Begin Where I Am, in which Milosz said of Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ that it was a poem eminently endowed with all the qualities of literary excellence except one—hope. ‘Aubade’ is a direct confrontation with death, ‘the anaesthetic from which none come round’, as Larkin puts it, and is as piercing a witness to a life stripped of all religious consolation as one could look for. But is the poem without hope? To be sure, it denies any hope of personal immortality for reader or writer, yet the very fact that Larkin has written the poem and published it means that he had hope of communication, hope that others, at least, might be honest in their acceptance of finitude and, implicitly, that ‘the uncaring / Intricate rented world’ might become a little more caring.

To read Larkin, for all his fear of the void, is to enter a world in which each and every word has been delicately weighed and placed precisely where it should be. Regardless of what we think of the ‘little England’ his poems project—its sorrowful diminishments, its meanness, its will to mediocrity—we value the experience of his language. After reading Larkin for an hour we might long for the larger gestures of Milosz’s ‘ecstatic praise of being’, although when we leave the Englishman for the Pole we have to live with lines that no decent poet writing in English would dream of publishing. ‘Shout, blow the trumpets, make thousands-strong marches, leap, rend your clothing, repeating only: is!’ The vigorous thought is to be honoured, but the line would be crossed out in any undergraduate exercise in creative writing.

In the end, it is not the fact that Milosz writes in Polish that impoverishes our experience of his verse. After all, people read his fellow Pole Zbigniew Herbert without being all that bothered by translation. Rather, what impedes our reception of Milosz is that he belongs to a class of poets whose high rhetoric and generosity of gesture sit awkwardly in English. When we read Herbert’s poems in translation, their concepts appear sharply behind the English. Consider the prose poem ‘Violins’:

Violins are naked. They have thin arms. Clumsily they try to protect themselves with them. They cry from shame and cold. That’s why. And not, as the music critics maintain, so it will be more beautiful. This is not true.

And when we read Tomas Tranströmer’s lyrics we find them so visually exact that the passage from Swedish to English seems hardly to matter. When he writes ‘All I want to say / gleams out of reach / like the silver / in a pawnshop’ we feel that the lines survive translation, even if local effects have been lost.

ilosz is different. Drawn neither to the brilliant idea nor to the arresting visual simile, he forever reminds us that he is distant from us in his very practice as a poet.

How does one capture ‘tangible reality’? By performing a double task, Milosz admits. On the one hand, the artist must be passive, receiving ‘every poem as a gift’; while, on the other hand, the artist must keep his or her mind and will forever alert. The poet is therefore in the world and withdrawn from it at one and the same time. Political poetry is rarely successful, he suggests, because it tends to prize the political over the poetic. Only indirection works, as in ‘Campo dei Fiori’, a lyric from 1943 that evokes the suffering of Polish Jews by picturing the execution of Giordano Bruno in 1600. People came out into the piazza to see the burning of the man who had defied the Church, but only for the first moments of his torment:

Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.

Yet Milosz cannot help but elevate the poetic over the political at the end of the lyric—‘on a new Campo dei Fiori / rage will kindle at a poet’s word’, he says—and the introduction of the author himself, and talk of the power of art, can only seem intrusive. That said, ‘Campo dei Fiori’ is one of the most successful poems in English in the entire collection. One can only wish that Louis Iribarne and David Brooks had translated more of the master’s work.

The expression ‘tangible reality’ also bespeaks something of central importance to Milosz’s poetics: a faith in the earth as our true home and in the narrow limits of human moral improvement. He does not affirm the incarnation of God: ‘What can we, ordinary people, know of the Mystery?’, he asks. Nor, though, does he insinuate that everything proclaimed by Christianity is a fiction: there is a mystery that runs throughout life, and it is not to be reduced by apostles of the enlightenment. His religion is a very modest affair:

May we not care about what awaits us    after death
But here on earth look for salvation,
Trying to do good within our limits,
Forgiving the mortals their imperfection.   Amen.

Straightaway we recall his words about his mother tongue: ‘Whatever I have accomplished in it—only that will save me.’ Even Philip Larkin could subscribe to such a shrunken creed, although his attitude to its consequences differs markedly from Milosz’s.

Larkin, though, was sufficiently hard-headed that he would not have agreed with Milosz’s special pleading for poets before the court of ethics. ‘A good person will not learn the wiles of art’, the Pole declares, while in ‘Biography of an Artist’, he opines of a painter, ‘he promised his soul to Hell, / Provided that his work remained clear and pure’. We’ve heard that sort of thing before, from W. B. Yeats for one, although Milosz presents the view in a stronger and more disturbing fashion in one of his most compelling poems, ‘The Master’, a dramatic monologue spoken by a composer. ‘They say that my music is angelic’, he begins, and we are left in no doubt that he is a very great artist. But from where does high art arise?

No one knows how I was paying.

Ridiculous, they believe It may be got for nothing. We are pierced   by a ray.

They want a ray because this helps them   to admire.

There is no such ray, we are assured; rather, the master has gained insight into the human condition by unnamed acts of evil that haunt him still. He cannot repent because the beauty of his music rests on the acts he has committed. The poem concludes:

And yet I loved my destiny.
Could I move back time, I am unable to      guess
Whether I would have chosen virtue. My    line of fate does not tell.
Does God really want us to lose our soul
For only then He may receive a gift with       out blemish?
A language of angels! Before you mention      Grace
Mind that you do not deceive yourself and                   others.
What comes from my evil—that only is        true.

The Milosz who chides utopian visions in his essays and poems, and who reminds us we live in a world torn by evil and misery, is also the poet who readily concedes that art is complicit in making that world.

He bears witness to the tragedies around us and to art’s equivocal relations with those tragedies. 

Kevin Hart is Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is Flame Tree: Selected Poems (Paperbark, 2002).



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