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The Poet at Ninety

July 01, 2001|ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI | Adam Zagajewski is the author of "Mysticism for Beginners" and the memoir "Another Beauty." His new collection of poetry, "Without End: New and Selected Poems," will be published early next year. His essay was translated from the Polish by Jaroslav Anders

When an Olympic sprinter, cheered by the roaring stadium, begins his 100-meter dash, he leans forward, eyes fixed on the horizon, as if an invisible force pushed him toward the track. Halfway between the start and the finish he straightens up, becomes vertical like Mont Blanc. And in the last stage of his run he tilts backward, not only out of exhaustion but also in homage to a hidden cosmic symmetry. In the powerful race of Czeslaw Milosz's poetry, we discern a similar progression. In his youth he whispers about the mysteries of the world, fires and picturesque disasters; in his maturity he surveys, with criticism and praise, the real world of history and nature; and in the late decades of his life he follows more and more the dictates of memory--his own and also that which belongs to many.

Of course the poet, who is now 90 years old, is no sprinter but a magnificent marathon man betraying no signs of exhaustion: His new volume of poetry, "This," is one of his finest. And the stadium in which he performed his feats was often desperately empty or filled with hostile, jeering crowds; this long-distance runner has known his share of loneliness. But the comparison is justified at least because of those three postures, three angels of our inevitable intimacy with the Earth, which really reflect the inner evolution of the poet.

Stendhal has said that literature is an art of selection, of laisser de cote --leaving out everything that is not essential. Franz Wedekind, and certainly many other artists (especially modern ones), believed that too. But the world of Czeslaw Milosz is built apparently on the opposite rule: Leave out nothing! The rule does not refer to the technical aspect of his writing (it is obvious that a poem cannot come to pass without choices and shortcuts) but to the general "poetic policy" that Milosz seems to follow. It is enough to reach for his autobiographical "Native Realm," or "The Captive Mind," or practically any book of his poetry to see this inclusivity. "Native Realm" contains chapters not only on history but even on economy, as if Milosz was telling: I will show you that poetry is made of non-poetry, that what gives poetry strength is the ability to absorb as much of the world as possible, and not an eagerness to withdraw into a safe region of inwardness. Milosz's poetic program has nothing to do with the famed "escapism"--the favorite aspersion of his party critics--but is a form of vast osmosis. It is not, however, an osmosis of clinical purity or objectivity. Its character is personal, ethical and also, to a degree, therapeutic. The ultimate goal of Milosz's poetry is to know what is unknown--I would call it a "humanistic" project, if the term had not been corrupted through careless overuse in many seminar rooms.

What Milosz is particularly careful not to leave out is contradictions. Lesser talents often develop snail-like propensities: They hide in little shells, in small houses; they hide from hostile winds and converse ideas and they create miniatures. Milosz--as a poet and as a thinker--bravely steps into the ring to face his opponents. As if he told himself: I will survive this epoch only if I manage to take it in. In fact his opponents rarely needed a special invitation: if the student from Wilno only had known how many obstacles he would have to overcome, how many adversities he would have to reckon with and understand, how many times he would be but one step away from death, from silence, from despair.

He is a poet of great intelligence and high ecstasy: his poetry could not exist without either. Without intelligence it would fall in a duel with one of its enemies (20th-century monsters did not lack dialectical skills and even loved to flaunt them). Without ecstasy this poetry would not reach its proper altitude; it would be merely a brilliant polemic. Milosz calls himself an ecstatic pessimist, but his work contains numerous islands of joy, which Henri Bergson saw as a sign of experiencing internal truth.

In the age of Beckett, a great, witty and very sad writer, Milosz undertook a defense of the religious dimension of our experience, our right to infinity. The telegram in which Nietzsche notified Europeans about the passing of God has likely reached the poet, but he refused to sign the receipt and sent the messenger away.

I am not sure whether Milosz is a Manichean, as he himself often claims, but I see in his poetry unusual, inspiring juxtapositions of thought and image, polemic and rapture, California landscapes and 20th-century ideologies, observations and declarations of faith.

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