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The Poet at Ninety

July 01, 2001|EDWARD HIRSCH | Edward Hirsch is the author of five books of poetry, most recently "On Love." He has also written the prose book "How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry."

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder (from "Encounter");

The first movement is joy,/But it is taken away (from "The Poor Poet");

What is poetry which does not save/Nations or people? (from "Dedications");

Human reason is beautiful and invincible (from "Incantation");

The purpose of poetry is to remind us/how difficult it is to remain just one person (from "Ars Poetica?");

And the heart does not die when one thinks it should (from "Elegy for N. N.");

What was accepted in bitterness and misery turned into praise (from "From the Rising of the Sun");

There are nothing but gifts on this poor, poor earth (from "The Separate Notebooks");

The moment only, eternal (from "Rivers").

Sometimes at night or in the early morning the phrases--the lines--come back to me like talismans, like hard-won messages, metaphysical truths, prayers, offerings from the deep. One can only marvel at how far Czeslaw Milosz has come in 90 years, how much of the 20th century he has confronted and internalized, how much beauty he has wrung from its blood-soaked precincts, what gifts he has given us, how fully his poems circulate in the bloodstream of Polish, of European, of American poetry.

The poet at 90 has offered us at every stage of his development a model of poetic--of human--integrity and seriousness. So much of his work seems haunted by survivor's guilt, the poignancy of living after what was, for so many, the world's end. Poetry serves as an offering to the dead, a form of expiation, a hope for redemption. Its obsessive subject is human suffering, the hard truth of it. Yet his poems are also filled with survivor's wonder; with a sense of astonishment that the world still exists at all, that we are still here to partake of it; with a sense of profound gratitude, a marvelous reverence for life that keeps breaking through the surface.

Milosz's greatest poetry is written at the borders of what can be said. It makes a profound effort at the unsayable. There has always been in his work a fundamental element of catastrophism, a grave open-eyed lucidity about the 20th century. His work has been initiated by the apocalyptic fires of history. Milosz has usefully employed the guilt that is so deeply ingrained in him to summon old stones, to remember those who have come before us. He bears the burden of long memory. He teaches the American poet--and American poetry itself--to consider historical categories, not the idea of history vulgarized by Marxism but something deeper and more complex, more sustaining: the feeling that mankind is memory, historical memory, and that "our hope is in the historical." He has given us a series of Cassandra-like warnings--in poetry and prose--about America's painful indifference to European experience, about the consequences of what happens when "nature becomes theater." In Milosz's splendid poetic argument with Robinson Jeffers, he counters Jeffers' praise of inhuman nature with his native realm where nature exists on a human scale. Milosz models his own obsessive concern with our collective destiny, with what he calls "the riddle of Evil active in history." Like Aleksander Wat, whose memory he has devotedly kept alive, he is deeply aware of our tragic fragmentation, but he doesn't revel in that fragmentation so much as seeks to transcend it. In our age of the most profound relativism, he offers an ongoing search for eternal values, eternal truths. He has given us a historical poetry inscribed under the sign of eternity.

Milosz's poetry is bursting with plenitudes, with multilevel polyphonies. His work teaches us to love lyric poetry even as we distrust it. He insists that his own poems are dictated by a daimonion, and yet he also exemplifies what it means to be a philosophic poet. A poetry fuelled by suffering is also informed by radiant and unexpected moments of happiness. He understands the cruelty of nature and yet he also remembers that the Earth merits a bit, a tiny bit, of real affection. He has taught us through Simone Weil that "contradiction is the lever of transcendence." He has considered the rise and fall of civilizations, he has praised the simple marvels of the Earth, the sky, the sea. "There is so much death," he writes in "Counsels," "and that is why affection/for pig-tails, bright-colored skirts in the wind,/for paper boats no more durable than we are." He writes of the eternal moment and the holy word: is. He has deepened our tenderness toward the human, and thereby deepened our humanity. He has given us the gift of himself, so many radiant moments of wonder and being.

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