I’ve been to New York City four or five times in my life – but I’ve never been to Queens. Somehow I didn’t expect the constant river of people to continue beyond the borders of Manhattan, but it did. Getting on a Queens bus, I saw the line behind me grow steadily longer and longer, increasing rather than diminishing as people climbed onboard. Finally, until the weary bus driver closed the doors on protesting people, still trying to get on. That’s usual, he told me. The line doesn’t end.
So that’s one reason why I was 45 minutes late to the discussion about Czesław Miłosz at Queens College on Tuesday night. Two days ago, I posted about same cast of characters – Robert Hass , Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh — let me do so again, with the addition of poet Ed Hirsch, MacArthur “genius” fellow, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Here are a few notes from the discussion (and apologies for not having time to polish these nuggets):
Adam Zagajewski discussed the Miłosz’s polyphony and his “incredible ambition to grasp the world.” The enormous range of points of view and voices within his work is disconcerting to many readers, who expect “one voice that’s recognizable in every poem,” the unity you find in such poets as Georg Trakl, for example.
Robert Hass recalled Miłosz writing at night, and thinking he had at last captured reality with his words – only to wake up the next morning, reread what he had written, and see he had been “beaten back into the pen of literature.” “He was tormented by the way our experience is lost to us,” said Bob. “He found time itself unbearable.”
Ed Hirsch commented on the “tremendous internal argument in his work” – in which he would often “criticize the poet who wrote the last poem.” Miłosz’s polyphony is one reason “so many readers and critics latched onto the idea of witness” in his poems. His reputation as “poet of witness” to two totalitarian regimes has obscured his reputation as a metaphysical poet and a poet of … well, a poet of wonder, really.
The discussion turned to Miłosz’s unfortunate early reputation in the U.S. as a political theorist, thanks to Captive Mind. It’s a book not as well thumbed today as it was a few decades earlier, but Clare Cavanagh pointed out its unusual legacy – for example, in giving us the term ketman, which Miłosz claimed to have rescued from Persia. Clare, however, searched assiduously on the internet for its supposed Islamic origins and could only find references to Miłosz’s work. (I have a different memory of finding a few of the references she was seeking – but I’ll have to check again. The references may be lost in the cyperspace flotsam and jetsam – as endless as the bus lines of Queens.)
Ed called Captive Mind “a remarkable work of historical consciousness.”
“For us, it’s crucial because he anatomizes how people fell into it,” he said. However, its relevance for younger readers may not be evident — “one of the problems is that you have to understand what communism is.” One of history’s terrible lessons that may be lost on a younger generation.
Bob hailed Captive Mind as “an enormously vivid and readable book … powerful and still relevant.” Young people today caught instead in the “foment of small imperialisms” – but so were the Persians who originated the term ketman, I would argue, and a small tyranny can be as oppressive and barbarous as a large one.
The four writers recalled the arc of his career.
The decades in America prior to the 1980 Nobel were years of excruciating loneliness. Adam recalled that when he turned sixty, Miłosz didn’t receive a single card or greeting. Bob was told by two people that he used to write letters to himself, so that he would get mail.
Yet, said Bob, when he joined the Berkeley faculty, Miłosz immediately used his funds to hire a secretary and dictated The History of Polish Literature — a work that began to put Polish poetry on the map of American consciousness.
Adam recalled, in his youth, being one of a group of young poets who wrote to the maestro for a blessing. Instead, they got a rebuke. He told them they were behaving like “flies in a battle” and urged them towards distance and restraint. “He became a metaphysical poet, but I think he was a little jealous of those lesser poets who touched their own city.” In other words, he envied those poets whose daily reality included the places where they grew up, who did not partially live in demolished worlds.
During the question period from the large crowd, Ed was asked what poem of Miłosz’s did he wish he himself had written. “That’s a puzzle,” Ed hedged, then came up with two: “Bypassing Rue Descartes” and “Guilt.”
Bob Hass was asked what it was like spending so many years translating Miłosz. He responded in an instant: “Like being alive twice.”
Next installment from NYC: Ed Hirsch, Alyssa Valles, and Adam Zagajewski honor Zbigniew Herbert at Poets House.