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Milosz and the Gleam on the Black River   

2009-08-15 16:12:32|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Milosz and the Gleam on the Black River
- THE ETERNAL MOMENT
The Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz
by Aleksander Fiut
translated by Theodosia S. Robertson
(University of California Press)

By Robert Faggen

Faggen teaches literature at Claremont McKenna College and has recently completed a book on Robert Frost.
 

Poets in America often suffer an exile of indifference, and it is hard to imagine why a poet would find widespread recognition unwelcome. Since winning the Nobel Prize in 1980, Czeslaw Milosz has become one of the best-known and most admired poets in the world but sometimes, he has found, for the wrong reasons. His celebrity grew at a time when Lech Walesa and Solidarity were changing Poland. The tendency has been to view him as a political poet, the poet of Poland and Polish independence, the poet of the Holocaust and, an epithet he particularly dislikes, the poet of the Polish diaspora. Milosz's relationship to Poland is to the culture and traditions embedded in its language, not to its contemporary politics: "I was not born in Poland, I was not raised in Poland, I do not live in Poland, but I write in Polish."
 

Milosz's cultural allegiance is further complicated by the fact that he was born in Lithuania ("almost in the nineteenth century"), a country whose landscape and traditions are an important part of his imagination, and by the fact that much of his best poetry has been written over the last 30 years while living in Berkeley, where confrontation with American culture has left its mark. His complex criticism and admiration of Robinson Jeffers resulted in one of his most important poems and one of his recent collections, 'Unattainable Earth,' is a multiform work including numerous translations of Whitman. He is California's preeminent poet.  

Though Milosz has often described himself as a hermetic poet writing for a small audience, there is something embracing and large about his poetry. We get glimpses of his deepest concerns in his better-known prose works, particularly "The Captive Mind," and the novel "The Seizure of Power." While these are about the tyranny and degradation of both communist and fascist regimes, they are less about political situations and historical moment than about the human spirit as it creates and engages evil. Milosz asserts the necessity of a human-centered Christian imagination against the demoralizing forces of history.
 
This does not mean that his poetry is the versification of theological ideas or philosophical arguments. But it does mean that he does not find aesthetics an adequate substitute for religion. Unlike many in the late 20th Century, he remains uninterested in Bloomian anxiety, Vendlerian aestheticism, Rortarian blithe pragmatism, and Foucaultvian rhetorics of oppression. Unlike Yeats and other modernists who sought new mythologies to substitute for the failure of religion, Milosz relies heavily on the mythology of the Fall and the possibility of grace and redemption. His genius resides in his ability to confront the demons of natural science, erotic obsession, and utopian political reform--all that has made this the century of nihilism--and posit against them a powerful symbolism of faith.  

Fiut's, "The Eternal Moment: The Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz" is the first full-length study of the poet and goes far to describe the intricacies of his poetic vision. Written by a Polish scholar, the work gains much from the author's knowledge of the poetry in the original. Fiut is able to point to the variety of voices and tones, the tension between stylized and spontaneous speech crucial to understanding the drama and irony in Milosz's work.

Fiut's discussion of the web of thought and feeling in Milosz's poetry gains in breadth and complexity what it loses in inspiration. The study suffers occasionally from too much discussion of theoretical problems without more careful attention to how they are made manifest in the individual poems. Fiut does outline the major coordinates of Milosz's imagination. Milosz's great preoccupation is the entanglement of the divine and the eternal with the worldly and the ephemeral. Fiut focuses on this tension as revealed in Milosz's attitudes toward nature and eternal forms, erotic and divine love, and history and providence. The title of the book, a phrase taken from an uncollected poem, "A Notebook: Bon by Lake Leman," appears on several occasions in Milosz's oeuvre. Fiut's elaboration of its meaning in the full context of the poet's work confirms Milosz's definition of poetry as "the passionate pursuit of the real."

Pulled by the sensuous beauty of the earth, Milosz nonetheless finds nature annihilating to soul of man. The "eternal moment" must account for the world but transcend it: "Whoever finds order,/ Peace, and an eternal moment in what is/ Passes without a trace. Do you agree then/ To abolish what is, and take from movement/ The eternal moment as a gleam/ On the current of a black river? Yes." More than 30 years later, Milosz would conclude a farewell poem to his wife with an even more intense, apocalyptic affirmation of resurrection and eternal forms that moves beyond accepted icons of faith: ". . . Beyond the fire-curtain,/ A lamb stands in the meadow of indestructible forms./ The souls in Purgatory burn. Heraclitus, crazy,/ Sees the flame consuming the foundations of the world./ Do I believe in the Resurrection of the flesh? Not of this ash./ I call, I beseech: elements dissolve yourselves!/ Rise into other, let it come, kingdom!/ Beyond the earthly compose yourselves anew!"

While Fiut describes Milosz's creation of an eschatological vision rooted in the Christian tradition, he gives too little attention to the crisis that fueled it. Milosz hated both fascism and communism for masquerading force and persecution under the guise of reform and purification. Following Simone Weil, Milosz found dialectical materialism a bankrupt conception of history that hides degradation, cruelty, and unrelenting struggle. The appeal of utopian history, such as superficial concepts of progressive evolution, rests in its secularization of divine providence. For Milosz, history without God is meaningless. On this issue, politics (though not political commentary) and religion intersect in Milosz's thought. The conclusion to his elaborate meditation 'Under the Wormwood Star" combines a vision of a world poisoned by supercession of tyrants and empires, possibly moving toward apocalypse: 'The planetary empire was at hand/ They said what was speech and what was listening./ The ash had hardly cooled after the great fire/ When Diocletian's Rome again stood glistening." Milosz often struggles to recover a vision of redemption for the multitudes of individuals lost and displaced by the chaos of history.

The hope Fiut finds in Milosz is in his inexhaustable desire to piece together from a range of styles, voices, perspectives, reticulated symbols and thoughts a vision of the real. He pursues a totality, a whole but refuses to arrogate to himself a consuming monolithic voice. Milosz becomes, as he calls himself, a "medium" through which a multivocal history speaks in ceaseless dialogue.

Milosz often invokes the rounded world of the child's imagination as the model of the eternal moment. One of his best lyric sequences, "The World," portrays the child's--the individual's--trust in the reality and permanence of the observable as a great testament of love and faith. They are songs of innocence written during the experience of Nazi occupation of Europe. Yet Milosz subtitles the sequence "A Naive Poem." What we feel in reading him is the ongoing conflict of an exile who has long desired but always deferred the building of a permanent home.

This does not mean that his poetry is the versification of theological ideas or philosophical arguments. But it does mean that he does not find aesthetics an adequate substitute for religion. Unlike many in the late 20th Century, he remains uninterested in Bloomian anxiety, Vendlerian aestheticism, Rortarian blithe pragmatism, and Foucaultvian rhetorics of oppression. Unlike Yeats and other modernists who sought new mythologies to substitute for the failure of religion, Milosz relies heavily on the mythology of the Fall and the possibility of grace and redemption. His genius resides in his ability to confront the demons of natural science, erotic obsession, and utopian political reform--all that has made this the century of nihilism--and posit against them a powerful symbolism of faith.  

Aleksander Fiut's, "The Eternal Moment: The Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz" is the first full-length study of the poet and goes far to describe the intricacies of his poetic vision. Written by a Polish scholar, the work gains much from the author's knowledge of the poetry in the original. Fiut is able to point to the variety of voices and tones, the tension between stylized and spontaneous speech crucial to understanding the drama and irony in Milosz's work.

Fiut's discussion of the web of thought and feeling in Milosz's poetry gains in breadth and complexity what it loses in inspiration. The study suffers occasionally from too much discussion of theoretical problems without more careful attention to how they are made manifest in the individual poems. Fiut does outline the major coordinates of Milosz's imagination. Milosz's great preoccupation is the entanglement of the divine and the eternal with the worldly and the ephemeral. Fiut focuses on this tension as revealed in Milosz's attitudes toward nature and eternal forms, erotic and divine love, and history and providence. The title of the book, a phrase taken from an uncollected poem, "A Notebook: Bon by Lake Leman," appears on several occasions in Milosz's oeuvre. Fiut's elaboration of its meaning in the full context of the poet's work confirms Milosz's definition of poetry as "the passionate pursuit of the real."

Pulled by the sensuous beauty of the earth, Milosz nonetheless finds nature annihilating to soul of man. The "eternal moment" must account for the world but transcend it: "Whoever finds order,/ Peace, and an eternal moment in what is/ Passes without a trace. Do you agree then/ To abolish what is, and take from movement/ The eternal moment as a gleam/ On the current of a black river? Yes." More than 30 years later, Milosz would conclude a farewell poem to his wife with an even more intense, apocalyptic affirmation of resurrection and eternal forms that moves beyond accepted icons of faith: ". . . Beyond the fire-curtain,/ A lamb stands in the meadow of indestructible forms./ The souls in Purgatory burn. Heraclitus, crazy,/ Sees the flame consuming the foundations of the world./ Do I believe in the Resurrection of the flesh? Not of this ash./ I call, I beseech: elements dissolve yourselves!/ Rise into other, let it come, kingdom!/ Beyond the earthly compose yourselves anew!"

While Fiut describes Milosz's creation of an eschatological vision rooted in the Christian tradition, he gives too little attention to the crisis that fueled it. Milosz hated both fascism and communism for masquerading force and persecution under the guise of reform and purification. Following Simone Weil, Milosz found dialectical materialism a bankrupt conception of history that hides degradation, cruelty, and unrelenting struggle. The appeal of utopian history, such as superficial concepts of progressive evolution, rests in its secularization of divine providence. For Milosz, history without God is meaningless. On this issue, politics (though not political commentary) and religion intersect in Milosz's thought. The conclusion to his elaborate meditation 'Under the Wormwood Star" combines a vision of a world poisoned by supercession of tyrants and empires, possibly moving toward apocalypse: 'The planetary empire was at hand/ They said what was speech and what was listening./ The ash had hardly cooled after the great fire/ When Diocletian's Rome again stood glistening." Milosz often struggles to recover a vision of redemption for the multitudes of individuals lost and displaced by the chaos of history.

The hope Fiut finds in Milosz is in his inexhaustable desire to piece together from a range of styles, voices, perspectives, reticulated symbols and thoughts a vision of the real. He pursues a totality, a whole but refuses to arrogate to himself a consuming monolithic voice. Milosz becomes, as he calls himself, a "medium" through which a multivocal history speaks in ceaseless dialogue.

Milosz often invokes the rounded world of the child's imagination as the model of the eternal moment. One of his best lyric sequences, "The World," portrays the child's--the individual's--trust in the reality and permanence of the observable as a great testament of love and faith. They are songs of innocence written during the experience of Nazi occupation of Europe. Yet Milosz subtitles the sequence "A Naive Poem." What we feel in reading him is the ongoing conflict of an exile who has long desired but always deferred the building of a permanent home.
 

 

Tribute to a 'Poet of Witness'

By DAVID L. ULIN

 

Czeslaw Milosz is a figure of contradiction, a poet whose best-known effort, "The Captive Mind," is a nonfiction study of the lure of totalitarian thinking, a hero of Polish democracy who has lived in exile since 1951. Although he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, he remains familiar to most American readers by reputation, if at all. That may change this week, when Claremont McKenna College hosts Czeslaw Milosz: An International Festival, a four-day festschrift of the 86-year-old author's life and work.
 

"There was a sense that it was about time someone did this," says festival organizer Robert Faggen, an associate professor of literature at the school. "He's a vital figure in modern letters, a poet of witness whose work addresses mass murder, political extremism, matters of faith and knowledge--many of the contradictions and turmoils of our times."
 

For Faggen, the festival is the culmination of a long-standing interest in the poet. In 1997, he edited "Striving Towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz" (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Still, the festival began to take shape only last year during a campus visit by Polish Solidarity leader Adam Michnik, who also edits the country's largest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcyza.
 

"We started talking about Milosz," Faggen remembers, "and the important moral and intellectual influence he'd had on Solidarity. Michnik said it might be a good idea to do a celebration."  

If at first there seems to be something incongruous about honoring a Polish literary icon in Southern California, it's actually not that big a stretch. Milosz, after all, has lived in Berkeley since the late 1950s--he was a professor at Cal from 1960 to 1980--and is now, Faggen notes, "one of California's most distinguished poets."
  

"Milosz," Faggen says, "is a world unto himself, and the idea is to highlight the influence of his work." Still, he emphasizes, this is not an academic conference, but a celebratory gathering, intended for both Milosz scholars and newcomers alike.

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