'Milosz's ABC's' - observing a various past

January 14, 2001|By Craig Eisendrath | By Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

"Milosz's ABC's," by Czeslaw Milosz, translated from the Polish by Madeline Levine. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 312 pages. $24.

Any work by Poland's most famous living poet excites anticipation. The 1980 Nobel laureate has not only produced stunningly beautiful verse but a perceptive study of the spiritual life of human beings under communism in "The Captive Mind" (1953). He has also been a generous promoter of other people's works, particularly by younger Eastern European poets

Unlike earlier, organic works, "Milosz's ABC's" is a synthetic rearrangement of the poet's philosophic and literary notebooks according to a strict alphabetical order. The work includes observations on locations and people in Milosz's past, and his literary, philosophical and historical observations. The translation is highly readable.

Traditionally, this genre follows the order in which the author himself has put down his own thoughts. In so doing, it establishes subtle bounds of temporal, geographic, and experiential associations which knit the work together, and provide context for each single item. In "Milosz's ABC's," unfortunately, the alphabetical arrangement destroys all that, and readers must scramble to orient themselves to each of the work's hundred-plus entries.

Nor is there any selection process that weeds out trivia. Too many entries are a paragraph or two about people or places many readers cannot know, and are provided too little information with which to achieve meaning or familiarity. Like names heard once at a party, they quickly disappear from memory. Notes on the Polish literary scene are particularly difficult for English readers with little context.

Other sections fall prey to Milosz's embarrassing self-promotion or egocentricity. Thus the entry on Camus tells us virtually nothing about Camus the writer, focusing rather on Sartre's and de Beauvoir's political attack on Camus which "coincided with my break with Warsaw in 1951," and on Milosz's relations with Camus' publishing house, Gallimard. The author of "The Stranger," "The Plague" and "The Fall" becomes simply an excuse for Milosz to discuss his own preoccupations.

Despite such difficulties, the book provides insight into the author's early background (he was born in 1911), the careers of his fellow Polish intellectuals, his emigre life in Europe, his break with communist Poland in 1951 and from 1960, his life in the United States where he has been a professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Berkeley.

Milosz often proves remarkably astute in assessing the work of others, such as in his sections on the West Coast poet Robinson Jeffers or Arthur Koestler, the author of "Darkness at Noon." Here Milosz reminds us of how Koestler broke with the convention of honoring our Soviet "ally" in World War II, and let the world gain insight into the communist purge trials. Milosz's notes on Robert Frost insightfully remind us that Frost's pose as a rural bumpkin was just that, but one can hardly say, as does Milosz, that he is "recognized as the greatest American poet of the twentieth century."

If the reader can provide his or her own frameworks for Milosz's jottings, the book can prove valuable. One can only wish that Milosz's publisher had suggested a more organic form so that the poet could more easily emerge from his notes.

Craig Eisendrath, the former director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, has just completed an intellectual history, "Beyond Permanence: Toward a New Paradigm for the West." His "National Insecurity: U.S. Intelligence After the Cold War" (Temple University Press) appeared this spring.

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