“What surrounds us, here and now, is not guaranteed. It could just as well not exist—and so man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins.”—Czeslaw Milosz, The Witness of Poetry
Coming to the end of a six-week course at the Community of Writers in the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz—passionately led by Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Robert Hass—it’s striking just how often my preconceived notions of time and space have been shaken and stirred. Because with Hass at the helm, the class has been not only a master class in Milosz, but a master class in marvelous intellectual intimacy. Together with Robert Pinsky, Hass is one of Milosz’s primary English translators; colleagues for over twenty-five years at UC Berkeley, they were also close friends. In this case, their intimacy confirmed a notion of my own, namely that, in some cases, Intimacy = Into Me You See. As Milosz himself put it: “I have titled this book The Witness of Poetry not because we witness it, but because it witnesses us.”
Drawing in light from another poet, Muriel Rukeyser: “breathe in experience, breathe out poetry,” it was clear simply in setting out to study Milosz—born in Lithuania in 1911, smuggled across borders and shot at in a horse-drawn wagon as a toddler during World War I, witnessing the Warsaw Ghetto’s destruction in 1943, and exiled to Paris in 1951 and then Berkeley in 1960—one would be entering the heavily weighted hands of a weathered sage.
“I have defined poetry as a ‘passionate pursuit of the Real,’” Milosz declared, and, as closely read by Hass, the ‘Real’ of the poems chronically gushed off the page, drenching furtive corners of consciousness with pools of reflective illumination. For instance, in a striking meditation on the eerie ephemerality/immortality axis of childhood memories, the early poem “Encounter”—through the example of the Hass-rendered poem’s final line: “I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder”—proved an object lesson in the alchemy of mistranslation.
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Because, as Hass patiently explained, it was on a trip to Poland that another Polish poet pointed out that the poem’s final word (in Polish: zamyślenia) meant, not ‘wonder’, but, rather, ‘pensive contemplation’. In class, Hass’s sharp scowl well-described his shock and dismay at his ‘poor’ translation . . . till, upon returning to Berkeley and rechecking his notes, he confirmed, breaking into a relieved chuckle, that Milosz himself had suggested ‘wonder’ as the appropriate English rendering of the term. In one of my course’s break-out rooms, we discussed the possibility that Milosz’s perspective had shifted enough to revise his initial poetic impulse (circa 1936, when “Encounter” was first published in Polish) to the extent that by the time he found himself exiled to California (circa 1960s-70s-80s), his own ‘pensive contemplation’ had transmuted to ‘wonder’.
That was not the only wonder eclipse. Hass recalled a moment when a fellow scholar at a conference, referencing Milosz’s myriad experiences of war and displacement, diagnosed ‘survivor’s guilt’ and Hass proffered up the correction: “No, not guilt—wonder.” Having delved into only a sliver of the approximately 750 page Collected Poems, ‘survivor’s wonder’ does seem a more appropriate term to (un)cover the essential premises (and promises) of the Polish master’s oeuvre.
“Joseph Brodsky thinks one basic mark of my poetry,” Milosz remarked, in an interview with Renata Gorczyńska, “is the constant regret that human experience eludes description.” A ‘basic mark’ that Milosz reasserted in a passage from his poem “Notes”:
CONSOLATION: Calm down. Both your sins and your good deeds will be lost in oblivion.
Like most major poets, Milosz was no stranger to misdeeds, or, at least, accusations of them. In a telling anecdote, Hass described flying in to attend Milosz’s funeral in Krakow. Taxiing in from the airport, Hass glimpsed headlines of major newspapers blaring the news that Pope John Paul II, a close personal friend of the Polish Nobel laureate, had issued a public statement that Milosz had been “a good man.” Upon entering the crowded basilica of St. Mary for the funeral Mass, accompanied by the renowned poet Adam Zagajewski, Hass noticed two old ladies making sour faces and muttering as he and Adam swept past. “What were they saying?” whispered Hass. Adam whispered back: “One of them said ‘Milosz was a bad Pole!’ And the other replied: ‘Yes. But the Pope said he was a good man.’”
While I wouldn’t customarily welcome an intermediary between myself and a poet’s work, in the case of Milosz—a veritable intellectual Himalayas—the presence of a guide/sherpa felt essential. Reading Milosz, even accompanied by such a masterly literary sherpa as Hass, I often found myself perched at the edge of all-too-slippery precipices. Especially in his longer poems, of which there are many—as Hass described them: “experiments in collage” evoking “ontological vertigo”—sprawling theological and historical debates seethe and hiss between the shadow-laced rooms of stanzas.
Fortunately, I was not attempting to scale this poetic Everest without the support of a solid team. (Several Zen teachers I’ve studied with have argued for the power to be derived from meditating in groups. They insist that similar to an ocean gaining force from a multiplicity of waves, greater awareness can be harnessed simply by conducting one’s individual practice in the presence of others.) The sustained attention of the over 200 attendees of Hass’s class (several of them Pulitzer Prize winners themselves) granted me the rich experience of that notion’s validity.
“It’s too early to predict the future of poetry, which by its nature is a rebellious force,” Milosz wrote in Postwar Polish Poetry. While it’s also too early to assess the impact of Hass’s course in Milosz, I can confidently assert that—simply by showing how many precarious existential cliffs there are—it has strengthened my grip on the Real.
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