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The Poet at Ninety

July 01, 2001|STEVE WASSERMAN | Steve Wasserman is the Book Editor of The Times

Czeslaw Milosz is a man suffering from vertigo. He is a survivor of the terrible tempests of war and revolution that scarred 20th-century Europe. His writings--especially the poetry for which he was awarded the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature--reflect both his desire to escape history and his need to embrace it. They tell the story of a man who has experienced tragedy and who believes in fate and in destiny. It is work that reflects the stubborn optimism of his heart even as it reveals the pessimism of his intellect.

From birth in Lithuania on June 30, 1911, to education in Catholic schools in Wilno, to participation in the anti-Nazi resistance in occupied Warsaw, to the break with the Communist government in Poland in 1951, to a 10-year exile in Paris, to arrival in the United States, where he taught Slavic literature at UC Berkeley for several decades and, finally, to the unexpected triumph of Solidarity in Poland and the collapse of the Soviet imperium, Milosz has worked against the odds, writing the poems that still too few have read.

The vertigo that afflicts Milosz is compounded by a self-acknowledged disturbance in his perception of time. All his life, Milosz has written, he has seen time "as an hourglass through which states, systems and civilization trickle like sand." Nothing lasts; only movement is real. "Men are foredoomed because the order in which they have established themselves and which shapes their every thought and feeling is, like every order, ripe for destruction."

This melancholic turn of mind has been with Milosz since early childhood. His favorite playgrounds as a boy were cemeteries, with their "stone crosses above carefully kept flowers, or wooden ones half-hidden in thickets of blackberries and raspberries; they bore the names Schultz, Mueller, Hildebrand." "The permanence of things and the impermanence of people is always surprising," he has observed. He remembers watching in horror as a handsome Cossack helped his comrades slaughter a white lamb one hot summer day in 1914. Milosz cried out to stop them. He recalls the incident as his first "protest against necessity."

His earliest memories are of "soldiers running to attack and shells bursting." When his father was drafted to build roads and bridges for the czar's army, the Milosz family went along, following the troops' movements. They lived most often in a covered wagon, occasionally in an army railroad car. Milosz dates his constant feeling--that everything is temporary, that stability is as elusive as peace--from the moment the family's samovar toppled over when the train started up suddenly.

Milosz has said he prefers his poetry to his prose. Yet there are aphoristic gems scattered throughout his writings: "In our prayers we should not only ask for a good life but also for an easy death."

"Men who understand their place in the world differently cannot be measured by a common standard."

"The model citizen was one who appeared out of nowhere, with neither memory nor traditions."

By this measure, Milosz has never been a model citizen. His lifelong quest to protect the past from the present's attempt to consign it to oblivion motivates much of his work. He recognizes that the modern withering of historical memory forms a vacuum between men and their fate, in which their real fate lies. He resists, despite understanding, as did Heraclitus, that "everything flows; nothing remains. Everything moves; nothing is still. Everything passes away; nothing lasts." To make of this bitter truth a thing of beauty is an act of faith before which we who are the poet's readers stand in debt and gratitude.

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