A year in the life of Polish poet Milosz

September 06, 1994|By Dan Cryer | Dan Cryer,Newsday

Since winning the Nobel Prize in 1980, Czeslaw Milosz has worked his way into American literary consciousness more than any other Polish writer. Although his reputation rests primarily on his poetry -- fellow poet and Nobel winner Joseph Brodsky has judged him "one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest" -- Mr. Milosz is at least as celebrated for his nonfiction indictment of life under communism, "The Captive Mind."

An exile since 1951 and a U.S. resident since 1960, Mr. Milosz has been witness to a vast panorama of 20th-century life -- Poland under Hitlerism and Stalinism, the intellectual hothouse of '50s France, a democratic United States, a laid-back California. His work bridges East and West, poetry and prose, politics and literature. He is a believing Catholic in a world wary of religion.

"A Year of the Hunter," Mr. Milosz's autobiographical journals from August 1987 through August 1988, shows the poet musing on fame and family, poetry and politics.

As revealed in these jottings, Mr. Milosz's mind remains supple and subtle. (He turned 77 midway through the year.) He is consistently serious and sober-minded; one looks in vain for traces of humor or amusing anecdotes about the literati. Mr. Milosz is also a gentleman. In only one instance, commenting on "the privilege that American poets appropriate for themselves, the privilege of being certified madmen," does he descend to a sneer:

"Whenever Robert Lowell landed in a [psychiatric] clinic, I couldn't help thinking that if someone would only give him 15 lashes with a belt on his bare behind, he'd recover immediately. I admit, that was envy speaking through me. If I cannot indulge myself, why should he be free to indulge himself?"

In truth, Mr. Milosz is more the "polite little Boy Scout," as he calls himself, than a gossip. The names that recur here, usually evoked with respect, are those of mid-century Polish writers unfamiliar to most Americans. All the same, the book exercises a certain fascination for its glimpses of a rare sensibility -- part Old World Catholic, part hardened survivor of tyranny.

"A Year of the Hunter" exemplifies the truism that in Polish letters it is impossible to separate the spheres of politics, religion and literature. Yet if, as Mr. Milosz writes, "all my intellectual impulses are religious" and his poetry is intended "to serve the good," these qualities sometimes carry a dubious distinction in intellectual circles.

In contrast to the age's triumphant atheism, Mr. Milosz asserts his belief in God: "The more I am aware of my aging organism, the stronger is this need, this desire to be somehow a part of God's thoughts."

Yet his faith is hardly orthodox. Mr. Milosz finds his deepest literary kinship with a Jew, fellow Polish exile and Nobel winner I. B. Singer. Their commonality, he says, rises from their "indictment of God" for permitting so much evil, "the palpable awareness of the Devil's presence, belief in Providence."

Overall, a sincere humility presides over this book. Mr. Milosz wonders whether his poetry will outlive him and whether it will be overshadowed by his prose. In any case, his achievements pale beside his aspirations: "I have managed to express so little, no more than flashes here and there."

Politics, Mr. Milosz well knows, can wreak havoc with literary reputations. Though he rejected communism, he was equally uncomfortable with the materialism and McCarthyism of '50s America. So he settled in Paris, only to face the scorn of the dominant Stalinist Left.

After "The Captive Mind" was published, a Polish exile refused to speak to him because the all-powerful Sartre had declared Mr. Milosz persona non grata. Another Pole said he would not translate the book for fear of being blacklisted by French publishers. (Curiously, the tumultuous Poland of 1987-1988 -- with the Communist government in its death struggle with Solidarity -- receives none of the author's attention.)

Mr. Milosz reveals little of his personal life. His marriage, he does allow, was often marred by conflict, but he salutes Janka for not being the meek "writer's wife" who subordinated all her needs to his and for battling a painful disease during her last 10 years. His own battles have been with depression, but he has never resorted to psychoanalysis, that opiate of the intellectuals, for a cure. The reason for his melancholy? "A scrupulous conscience," he declares.

What makes Mr. Milosz such an intriguing figure, it's plain to see, is his refreshing defiance of the mainstream, his proclamation of a unique vision of the world.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Year of the Hunter"

Author: Czeslaw Milosz; translated by Madeline G. Levine

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Length, price: 294 pages, $27.50

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