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The Poet at Ninety

July 01, 2001|SEAMUS HEANEY | Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995. His most recent book is "Electric Light."

There was a time when only wise books were read, helping us to bear our pain and misery. This, after all, is not quite the same as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.

-- from "Ars Poetica?"

As ever in Milosz, the yearning is shot through with irony; he does believe in the rightness of expecting wisdom from books, but he is too self-inculpating to allow himself a jeremiad. What is convincing--and the translations of his poems, so many of them by Robert Hass, always bring this across--is the tone, a feeling that this voice is trustworthy, that it knows what it is talking about. Skeptical as it is, his poetry still seems to endorse the Johnsonian aspiration to repose in the stability of the truth. In fact, Milosz is revered because he combines the archetypal roles of Orpheus and Tiresias, being capable of both the rhapsodic and the minatory. You would want him as your critic, your confessor, your boon companion, and when you read him you have him as such. His ongoingness is audible in every poem. His work satisfies the appetite for seriousness and joy that the word "poetry" awakens in every language. He restores the child's eternity at the water's edge, facing the river, but equally he registers the adult's dismay that his name is "writ on water," his mortal knowledge that "[w]hat was once great now appears small.... What could once smite, now smites no more." He helps the rest of us to keep faith with those moments when we are suddenly alive to the sweetness of living in the body, yet he won't absolve us from the responsibilities and penalties of being part of the life of our times. Gaudeamus igitur.

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