Sunday, June 10, 2012


More than once, Kott [a literary critic] describes a drunken party taking place after the curfew in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Kott enters a room, where he sees two people, Jerzy Andrzejewski (author of Ashes and Diamonds) and Czeslaw Milosz, on their knees making faces at each other.

They were making the most horrible faces at one another. They banged their heads on the floor and then, one, two, three, they raised their heads and made faces. Private and public faces, innocent and obscene faces, military and civilian faces, the faces of virgins and pederasts, and great historical faces—Beck [a German general], Hitler, Stalin. They made the faces of the archetypal father and king. Perhaps Czeslaw’s last face was Almighty God, after which Jerzy collapsed on the floor. Who or what were they bowing to? To the prewar years or to what lay ahead?
Kott was impressed that Milosz found the face Kott had been looking for in the Thomists and the surrealists, in secular humanism and Marxism—a face with which to confront a world of nihilism and cruelty, a world of round-ups and summary executions. 

~ Adam Michnik, “Gogol’s Venom: A Study in Lost Illusions,” Partisan Review 3, 2000

Reading Milosz, one needs to remember that he had the experience of walking out of a burning city. He had witnessed the Apocalypse, but what followed was not New Jerusalem and the Peaceful Kingdom, but the Cold War, and the Moloch of the Soviet Union swallowing up Milosz’s beloved Lithuania.

What saved Milosz from being locked in a kind of literary post-traumatic stress syndrome?  I think it was his ability to think in universal categories, beyond nationalism, beyond contemporary history. In one his essays, “Tiger,” I was struck by this passage:

I was convinced that as long as we live, we must lift ourselves over new thresholds of consciousness, that to aim at higher and higher thresholds is our only happiness. While living [in Nazi-occupied Poland], I crossed one of those thresholds – when we finally begin to become the person we must be, and we are at once inebriated and a little frightened at the enormous distance yet to be traveled. (Selected Essays, p. 150, emphasis mine)

It so happens that my mother, who was extraordinary, also said that she began to become herself “during the worst of times,” when she joined the Polish Resistance and said “Yes” when asked if she was willing to die. “That’s when I developed the most,” she said.

I can’t compare my own travails on my “long and winding road” to becoming a writer with my mother’s heroism. But the invocation of the worst of times reminded me that I took my first stumbling steps during the most miserable years of my life. First steps? No, that’s not quite accurate. What Milosz describes makes total sense to me:

Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible, and only late we discover
how obedient we were.

The river rolls its waters, as it did long ago, past the church of St. Jacob, I am there along with my foolishness, which is shameful, but had I been wiser it would not have helped.

Now I know foolishness is necessary in all our designs, so that they are realized, awkwardly and incompletely.

And this river, together with heaps of garbage on its banks, with the beginning of pollution, flows through my youth, a warning against the long for ideal places on the earth.

Yet, there, on that river, I experienced full happiness, a ravishment beyond any thought or concern, still lasting in my body.

Just like the happiness by the small river of my childhood, in a park whose oaks nad lindens were to be cut down by the will of barbarous conquerors.

. . . Who will dare to say: I was called and that’s the reason the Supreme Power protected me from bullets ripping up the sand close by me, or drawing patterns on the wall above my head.

From a casual arrest just for elucidating the case, which would end with a journey in a freight car to a place from which the living do not return? 

From obeying the order to register, when only the disobedient would survive? 

Yes, but what about them, has not every one of them prayed to his God, begging: Save me!

And the sun was rising over camps of torture and even now with their eyes I see it rising.

. . . All of us are called, and each of us meditates on the extravagance of having a separate fate.

. . . If I accomplished anything, if was only when I, a pious boy, chased after the disguises of the lost Reality. 

After the real presence of divinity in our flesh and blood which are at the same time bread and wine,

Hearing the immense call of the Particular, despite the earthly law that sentences memory to extinction.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, from “Capri,” Facing the River, 1995


I caught a couple of glimpse of my future calling early on, but they didn’t make much sense. In “Caterpillar of Smoke,” a poem that records my first encounter with unrhymed modern poetry and the wild excitement I felt reading it, I say

I was fourteen. The future flashed

as though a careless angel
opened the wrong door in time.

I didn’t start writing until English gave me a distance from words. Polish was too emotionally charged. In English I could say anything. In fact by the time I turned eighteen, I knew all the bad words in English, quickly learned during my immersion in working-class Milwaukee. A “girl from a good home,” I didn’t know the Polish equivalent for more than half of them, and still don’t.

In college I started writing short stories and what might be called “verse.” I don’t want to apply the word “poems” to those beginner’s attempts at poetry. It was the latter that brought the verdict, “Maybe the talent isn’t there.” Ignorant of the fact that even the greatest poets started by writing the most embarrassing drivel, I translated this to mean that I had absolutely no literary talent, so there was no point pursuing that path. I went through a severe depression, the worst one in my life, descending into stupor. But I knew better than to trust psychiatry. The thought of being at the mercy of an insensitive MD who’d want to treat me with electric shock kept me on this side of sanity. I settled into chronic rather than acute depression and began to study psychology.

After no end of storms and dead ends, I began to become a writer (mainly a poet) in earnest around the age of 36. This time no one and nothing could stop me (or so I thought), even though I wasn’t done with anti-mentors, and there were more setbacks ahead. Still, looking back, my mid-thirties were indeed the time when I crossed the threshold and began to become the person I had to be.

So much delay, so many blind alleys . . .  Did it have to be so miserable and chaotic? I know better than to start brooding on that question. And I find solace in another poem by Milosz:


Did I fulfill what I had to, here, on earth?
I was a guest in a house under white clouds
Where rivers flow and grasses renew themselves.
So what if I were called, if I was hardly aware.
The next time early I would search for wisdom,
I would not pretend I could be just like others:
Only evil and suffering come from that.
Renouncing, I would choose the fate of obedience.
I would suppress the wolf’s eye and greedy throat.
A resident of some cloister floating in the air
With a view on the cities glowing below,
Or onto a stream, a bridge and old cedars,
I would give myself to one task only
Which then, however, could not be accomplished.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Facing the River, 1995

Yes, youth is wasted on the young, and, worse yet, life is wasted on people (as the protagonist of the movie “Greenberg” observes).  But if not for all that foolishness and lostness, this embarrassing wasting away with passion for the wrong men, living in ghost-empty suburbs instead of the soaring metropolis we dreamed of, or some other Eden – if not for the history of our stupidity, to quote Milosz again, what would there be to write about?


Another sentence in Milosz’s essay made me stop reading and start thinking: “Through poetry I wanted to save my childhood” (p. 156). For Milosz, that meant remaining in opposition to the dull grown-ups around him, entangled in romance, career, and provincial politics. For me saving my childhood meant preserving a trace of something as immense as the twilight over the river, in Carpathia, in late June when the mysterious time between sunset and night seemed to last and last, the river slowly turning gold, then silver dusking to gray sheen.

I was letting the music of that lost world transform me, transcribed into another language. I would have never intentionally chosen this strange path, this serving I didn’t quite know what, or for what purpose. But this is how Milosz defines maturity: not only as continually becoming the person you must be, but also as loving service. In “Love,” part of the extraordinary sequence written during the war, he speaks about those who arrive at the right detachment from the purely personal:

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn't matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn't always understand.

I certainly didn’t understand, and when it comes to poetry, I still don’t; I have to restrain myself from asking the hopeless question, Why me? I wasn’t exactly trying to preserve my childhood. It was not volitional. It happened. We don’t choose what we write about. At seventeen, having flown from the Old World to the New, I was eager to assimilate as quickly as possible, without getting mired in nostalgia; but nostalgia had other plans. When I resumed reading the essay, I saw that in the very next sentence Milosz asks, “But what fiery sword protects the artist?” Protects? The fiery sword expels the artist from that “perfection of the life” that Yeats regrets losing in the choice of “perfection of the work.” 

But it doesn't matter; the point is to show things "in the glow of ripeness." But also, of necessity, by how that glow is refracted through the lens of one unique consciousness, that once-per-universe configuration of history, geography, and personality. Making the best of the undeniable determinism of life. We don't choose our mistakes. It's just as arrogant to blame ourselves as it is to take pride in our fleeting accomplishments. 

Milosz answers his question by invoking loyalty to values – the very thing that he was accused by some of not possessing. “No matter where I turned, there was nowhere where I felt at home. A taste for ‘ultimate things’ gave direction to my whole life, although due to various geographical-psychological peculiarities, the Polish Catholic tonality has not been dominant in this religion of mine” (p. 298). Thank goodness for that. 

globalization everywhere

Not everyone admired Milosz’s preference for dealing with ultimate concerns and universal values, far from nationalism or orthodox religion. “Here and everywhere is my homeland,” he said, claiming all human heritage. Milosz’s contemporary, Zbigniew Herbert, always an uncompromising anti-communist, a patriot for whom Poland was a holy ideal, called Milosz “a man without a face, without an identity.” Herbert was given to extreme statements, possibly a part of his bipolar disorder.


But again I am getting away from the subject of Milosz’s essay I mentioned first: a Marxist philosopher, nicknamed “Tiger,” who believed that after the Communist revolution, a humanist revolution would follow; the task of the men of letters was to preserve humanist values during the period of necessary evil.

Milosz tries to defend his Stalinist friend as best he can, saying that Tiger was neither cynical nor shallow; he just believed in historical necessity. He quotes Tiger’s admiration for Hypatia, the first noted woman mathematician and head of the Platonist academy in Alexandria: “Of course Tiger adored Hypatia, the last pagan philosopher of Alexandria, not the dirty, terrifying mob of Christians who tore her apart. And yet, he said, the future did not belong to Hypatia but to the Christians” (p. 155).

But a “humanist revolution” is an oxymoron. Humanism can only evolve, slowly, through centuries of the widening spread of education and debate over ideas. No, we can’t forgive Tiger for having chortled at the notion that Soviet rifle butts will teach Poles to “think rationally, without alienation.” We can’t forgive him for shrugging off the gulags: “although he was splendidly informed about the millions of people behind barbed wire, he did not want to ‘weaken’; that is, to imagine the extent of their suffering” (161).

But then, who’d even remember Tiger (Tadeusz Kroński) if not for this essay? He was indeed on his way to the “dustbin of history.” He was a Hegelian and saw history as the tool of World Spirit (Weltgeist), cruel but always correct (I can’t help but see here the toxic god of “old-time religion” – and Kroński was on the side of the Christian mob who killed Hypatia precisely because Christianity was necessary to produce Hegel). And yet he could say the most amazing things, for instance: “Anyone who crosses himself in public crucifies Christ. I also cross myself, but only when no one can see me.”

During the war, Kroński, the mocker of romanticism and patriotic hyperbole, became a catalyst of that beginning to become the person that Milosz had to be. It is only in the eyes of some Polish readers that Milosz’s friendship with Kroński is a stain on the poet’s reputation. What matters is that Milosz still speaks to us with living words. He is now an acknowledged literary giant of international stature, above those old quarrels. Above politics. The world forgives those who write well enough to win the Nobel Prize and, despite a Leftist past and a degree of cooperation with a Communist dictatorship, become friends with a Pope as popular as John Paul II. Above all, the world forgives those who do penance for the rest of their life, striving never to praise death and nothingness, and to be always on the side of the human.


Should poetry be above politics? But what is politics worth if it’s not about freedom, justice, equal rights – about allowing people to fulfill their potential, to become what they can be? (I have softened “must” to “can” because “must” applies to cases of exceptionally strong vocation.) And what is poetry if not one of the means we have to keep reminding ourselves of the sacred trust in the fulfillment of a person’s potential, of being able to cross one threshold after another? Poetry, with its insistence on the particular that speaks to our essence, with its ability to pierce through to the emotional level (“an axe for the frozen sea inside us”) can be of great value in helping us become the person we can/must be.

Still, typically poetry and politics don’t mix because political rhetoric ruins poetry (note, for instance, its disastrous impact on Adrienne Rich). I am forced to say: yes, poetry must be above politics. But it’s a qualified yes, since I’ve come across some poems that have greatness in spite of (and in a way because of) being political. The most recent example is this poem by Margaret Szumowski (who is also the author of the delightful “into the forest” poem):

the women appear as aurora borealis

One night in the Arctic, the villages saw the “flashing elements
of female souls.” The women kept indoors, women whose windows
had been painted black, who dressed in head-to-toe black.

They floated out f their houses through the cracks to the Arctic
where they could be seen without the burka.

Luminous beauty. Their long black hair, slender bodies from so
much weeping, shadows under their eyes like the dark of the moon.
Look, Mother, with your shadowed eyes.

Soon the aurora of mirth will appear. First their bodies in the sky.
Brilliant ice maidens! Then the laughing of the heavens.
Then the laughing of the women themselves who prefer the cold,
the seals, the walrus, the ice floes, the dangerous polar bear, to
the death of the heart. My mother prefers death to leaving him.

They are laughing in the cold, and we villagers are making ice candles.
See us come out on our dogsleds. Hundreds of ice candles lead the
way to the Yypnik village. These women, a gift from the gods.
My father saw her as no gift but his.

Look how beautiful they are. Northern dancers, we call them.
They are not aurora flowers that open and die in a single hour.
They become aurora snakes to protect themselves from those men.
Poison him.

The women are gorgeous feather boas across the night sky.
Everything is called aurora in honor of the gods.
The aurora of mirth. Hear these women laughing?
You have never heard them laugh before.

They fled the harsh husband who caged them without light.
Mother, you could be all light. It’s not too late to seep from the
crack he forgot in the east wall.

~ Margaret Szumowski, The Night of the Lunar Eclipse, 2005

Originally the poet may have been inspired by the Norse myth of the Valkyries. The opposite of oppressed wives, these are the warrior maidens (“brilliant ice maidens”) who take the souls of slain heroes to Valhalla. The flashing of their shields as they ride the skies is supposed to produce the Northern Lights. What Margaret Szumowski takes from the myth is the joyful dance of the lights (auroras of mirth), and the power of those feminine spirits that are seen as a “gift from the gods.”

This is a poem imagining the escape of all oppressed women, not just the Muslim women forced to dress in black head to toe, with only a slit for the eyes (one Islamic scholar suggested that it would be more pious to leave an opening for only one eye). The poem is strange, surreal, and extremely moving. I can’t read it without feeling my eyes moisten. The address to “Mother” moves me – it gives the poem its intimacy. But mainly I feel its power as poetry because it takes me to the Otherworld – that place in the imagination where we can find refuge, almost no matter how oppressive the reality.

And yet it’s more than just some vague “place in the imagination.” This poem makes us imagine sheer beauty: the undulating lights in the Arctic sky: “Look how beautiful they are. Northern dancers, we call them.” It’s a summons – mostly doomed, we know that – to all oppressed women to connect with their strength and beauty. A political poem, yes, but a poem that does not sacrifice the strangeness and indirectness of poetry.

And here is a more direct poem. If we end up crying, that’s fine: it means that unlike those Hegelians who believed that history was cruel but always right, we have stayed human.

beauty pageant in Sarajevo

The young girls believe
as they parade before my eyes.
They know I have the power
to recognize beauty.

Lana floating, soft as spring leaves
in Sarajevo Park, Biljana’s legs scarred
by shrapnel, but slim and curved.
We judges enjoy their willowy forms.

Low-cut silk over delicate breasts.
Where did she get the silk? I ask
and her mother smiles.

What clothing does a fashionable woman
require? Is virginity important?
What kind of man could you love?

They hold out their arms like children
selling flowers from the family garden.
They hold out their bodies,

step forward on the runway,
speechless chorus,
slowly raising a large, white banner.

~ Margaret Szumowski



PS. Please don't miss John Guzlowski's comment on Milosz's "negative capability" in the official comments section.



I’m surprised you didn’t mention Jung and individuation. Isn’t that about finding your true self, “becoming the person you must be”?


I wanted to mention Jung, but couldn’t find a way do it gracefully, without superficiality and yet without heavy theorizing, getting entangled with terms such as the collective unconscious or the Shadow. Like a good poem, a blog post probably shouldn't have more than two and a half ideas, and mine tend to have twenty-five or more, each opening into infinity. Besides, I have never been clear about what Jung means by the Self. I much prefer the familiar phrase, “finding your true self.”

Of course there is a price for that. The more you differentiate yourself, the more deeply you pursue your calling, the less at home you’ll feel at a family gathering, say. But the rewards are obviously great, even if you end up feeling like an outsider. For one thing you experience less envy, if any. You get your fulfillment from doing what you love doing. Recognition is always nice, but you are not pathetically dependent on it.

Possibly we are out on a metaphysical limb when we talk about “finding our true self” or “finding what we were meant to do.” These are approximations, figures of speech. I don’t think there is some cosmic decree that says something like, “Jim is meant to be a nature poet.” I know that New Age dogma says we choose a particular task for this lifetime just before we incarnate, but immediately after we choose, our memory is erased, so that we are born clueless and must seek and seek.

I don’t believe that there is one pre-destined task, the reason we were born, what we came here for. Contrary to Jung’s “There are no accidents,” I think there are plenty of accidents, for which we later may find destiny-type reasons. We stumble and bumble and walk in circles; then, if we are lucky, we discover the path that feels right, that makes us believe we’ve found our destiny. Then we look back and see even our catastrophes as necessary steps. Maybe. “There is no truth, only perspectives.” The important thing is to keep walking – self-actualizing, to bring in Abraham Maslow, another psychology giant. It’s by self-actualizing that we can be of greatest service to others.

On the other hand, a lot of people say, “I just want to enjoy life.” I used to think that was terribly shallow, but I’ve changed my mind. Where would I be without the palm trees and Pacific sunsets? Somewhere else, I suppose, but not quite as happy. Not thinking “paradise” as I drive down a typical California boulevard. I personally need the kind of work that is its own reward. Others say “I need to be of use.” Still others: “I need a sense of adventure.” Fortunately there are many ways to enjoy life; I’ve become quite tolerant toward those who just go to the park and feed the ducks.


I do love both poems, especially "The Women Appear as Aurora Borealis." The poems, especially "Beauty Pageant," remind me of Nafisi's descriptions in Reading Lolita in Tehran of the women she taught at her home in secret, who "disrobed" (down to their real, street clothes and real selves).


I really enjoyed the Aurora borealis poem in your last blog. The Arctic has always held an attraction to me as it's so connected to explorers, whalers and is the home of my favorite animal, the Narwhal. As you came to consider yourself a poet relatively late in life, I came to appreciate verse in my middle age. Though I have dabbled in it, I feel I will always be more a reader and one who enjoys poetry than an actual poet and that's ok, one must know one's limitations.


Pardon my limited typing capacity at the moment. Margaret Szumowski has written some wonderful, wonderful poems -- easily lost in the static, so I want to help publicize them. More will be coming in future posts. 


  1. Oriana, I'm slowly reading through your essay and as always there is so much to consider. Your talk above of Milosz and Kronski has me thinking. One of the things I like about Milosz is his sense of negative capability in terms of his friends and his ideas and his attitudes toward this and that. He was a writer who must have felt so strong (centered?) within himself that he could entertain people and ideas and actions that might frighten a person less sure of himself. And maybe that’s what his “self” finally was—this openness to people and ideas, the willingness to accept the “this is me” and the “this is not me.”

  2. Thank you for this brilliant insight: yes, definitely, Milosz had "negative capability." I think his outsider status, which also caused him much suffering, was one of the best things that happened to him in terms of intellectual and artistic development. Having seen so much impermanence, so much perishing, he managed to cultivate enough detachment to see the complexity of things, and thus both what was right and wrong with any particular ideology, and could choose the best aspects and toss the rest like an apple core. Kronski liberated him from what Milosz described as a tendency to "pained lyricism." But he never accepted the gulags as historically necessary, as Kronski did. He was not a moral relativist. His having seen so much evil sometimes pushed him in the direction of Gnosticism -- the Prince of this World seemed to be winning here on earth.

    But ultimately Milosz cannot be made to fit any existing category. What he admired in Dostoyevski was POLYPHONY -- something akin to negative capability. By creating compelling characters, Dostoyevski was able to present many voices, many views -- e.g. Ivan Karamazov, the intellectual and atheist, who "returns his ticket" to paradise if it's bought at the price of even one tear of an abused child -- much less a crucified innocent -- and Father Zosima with his gospel of universal kindness and responsibility of all for all. Milosz had the wisdom, the negative capability, that prevented him from being a dogmatic believer in ONE truth. As you suggest, it takes an exceptional self-confidence to be able to see many sides of an issue. In my eyes, Herbert's accusation that Milosz had no "identity" is actually high praise. He was a true thinker and not an ideologue. I read him because he nourishes me with wisdom and reminds of how complex everything is.

  3. Yes, Dostoevsky's Polyphony. I wonder if Milosz knew M.M. Bakhtin's book Rabelais and His World or Bakhtin's work on Dostoevsky and Polyphony. What I like about Bakhtin is his sense of the carnivalesque, the way some of the really great thinkers subvert/overturn prevailing ideas in order to arrive at a new sense of things. Here's a paragraph from an essay I wrote years ago about Bakntin's sense of the carnivalesque and one of Isaac Singer's earliest novel: Satan in Goray.

    As presented in his Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin's understanding of the grotesque is much less ominous than Kayser's. The source of Bakhtin's theory is the tradition of folk humour which stems from medieval carnival. He writes that carnival celebrates the "temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order". This liberation produces an overwhelming sense of the "gay relativity" of these truths and this order. During carnival, everything is seen as happily grotesque, susceptible to the "peculiar logic of the inside out, of the 'turnabout', of a continual shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings". The purpose of all this is neither negative nor ominous, as Kayser would have it. Rather, the end is a carnivalesque laughter which "revives and renews". Summing up his sense of this revival, Bakhtin says, "This carnival spirit offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things" (34).

  4. In the post, Darlene mentions Jung, and what I know of Jung suggest he would be comfortable with this discussion. His willingness to see our self in terms of the contradictions and oppositions it possesses doesn't seem that far off from what I see Milosz striving for.

  5. Thanks again. Yes, Milosz probably knew the work you mention -- teaching Dostoyevski was for him an education as well, quite influential.

    The carnivalesque -- that's Kronski's mockery as well. Liberating, as long as one doesn't freeze in perpetual irony. Milosz didn't. He dared be completely serious -- and then change his mind.

    Jung, definitely. I just didn't see a convenient "inlet." And I probably should have left out the poems -- that's another post. But I was so excited about those two by Margaret. My weakness, I know, trying to include too much. If I were choosing material from the blog for the book, I'd be a lot more selective.

    Satan in Goray -- what a fabulous title.