“Too big to be swallowed”: Robert Hass, Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh remember Czesław Miłosz

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Clare signs books after the event (Photo: David A. Goldfarb)

The apocalyptic scene enveloping Japan brings to mind Czesław Miłosz‘s poem, “A Song on the End of the World,” written in Warsaw, 1944, during another kind of apocalypse.  The poem ends with a white-haired old man binding his tomatoes, who would be a prophet but is “too busy to be a prophet,” repeating:

No other end of the world will there be.
No other end of the world will there be.

Sound wrong?  According to translator Clare Cavanagh, speaking at the 92nd Street Y on Monday night, it’s a new kind of right.  The line is usually translated “There will be no other end of the world.”  But the original Polish has an inversion that doesn’t always work well in English.  Antoni Miłosz has translated the poem, keeping the original inversion.  I kinda like it — the poem ends with a dactylic chant.

Clare was one of three heavy-hitters speaking about Miłosz that night and reading his poems – Robert Hass and Adam Zagajewski were the others.

Clare pointed out that, although Miłosz celebrates the rural Lithuania childhood, it is at least part an invented one.  In fact, his father was a civil engineer working in Russia, and the six-year-old experienced the Russian Revolution firsthand and traveled widely.  Movement was as much a characteristic of his upbringing as the stability he mythologized.

The venue: 92nd Street Y

She recalled the long theological discussions that I mentioned in my post several days ago.  She wouldn’t describe them in the essay she wrote for An Invisible Rope – and she wouldn’t describe them Monday night either.  I hope her silence on this subject is not permanent. “I’m not going to repeat what he said,” she finished, “but I keep wondering what he knows now.”

Bob Hass, wearing a heavy bandage on his nose, told the audience he hadn’t been in a fight, but advised his listeners to wear sunscreen.  He recalled a poet “tormented by how inexpressible experience was.”

"Please wear sunscreen"

Bob quoted Milosz, “War is only nature speeded up.”

The Berkeley prof recalled approaching Miłosz to discuss an anti-nuclear movement on campus, only to be told,  “I am against anti-nukes.”

“Blue hair?  Why does no one protest blue hair?” the elder poet responded. Beautiful young women become old ones with blue hair (note to young ‘uns: blue-tinted rinse was a common for elderly women in the 20th century).  “Who protests?”

“The true enemy of man is generalization,” Hass recalled Milosz saying.  His response to generalization was memory, said Clare. Miłosz’s memory was “beyond human – except that it’s most perfectly human, the way memory ought to be – how it should be in heaven.”

Hass recalled traveling in rural California, and on a whim going into an old secondhand shop – or rather, he said, it was as if he were drawn to it.  He found a thick book, in Polish, on the history of women’s underwear.  He plopped the $40 for the book and gave it to Milosz.

“I do not know that I have ever seen him so happy,” he said.  Suddenly, he could identify the underclothes he had seen on his aunt’s clothesline during his childhood.

"to glorify things as they are"

Adam Zagajewski spoke last – the perils of having a name that begins with “Z,” he said.

He noted Miłosz’s many contradictions.  He was drawn to the notion of “secret knowledge,” Adam said. “He craved initiation and looked for gurus” — for example, Miłosz’s influential kinsman Oskar Milosz and the man called “Tiger” in Native Realm. At the same time, he had “a longing for ignorance and innocence,” said Adam – which accounts for his attraction to William Blake, in part.

Ivan Turgenev said that poets are either rivers, absorbing everything in their current, or mountains, overlooking the world from an elevated plane of existence.  According to Adam, Miłosz decided he wanted to be “like a river and a mountain.”  The result?  A poet “too big to be swallowed,” he said.

Though Miłosz “loathed propaganda poetry,” Adam said he walked “the narrow road between pure poetry and poetry engagée, which he thought a mistake.”

In his restless questioning of existence, Miłosz took on God — “God being the strongest enemy that was,” said Adam, and objected to Blaise Pascal’s wager, which Adam said, “was like a shopkeeper saying it’s better to save some money because times can be hard.”

Adam concluded, “This is his religious vocation – to glorify things as they are.” And in this mission he was truly omnivorous. His poetic hubris – wanting to understand everything, wanting to experience everything – has caused his eclipse in current Poland.  Will his reputation wax again?

“I don’t worry.  I am totally convinced he will return.  He will have the last word.  Not I.” (Adam’s “Z” notwithstanding.)


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One Response to ““Too big to be swallowed”: Robert Hass, Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh remember Czesław Miłosz”

  1. Can poetry save the world? Zagajewski, Auden: the poets of 9/11 … | Poetry Says:

    [...] From the March event at NYC’s 92nd Street Y, which I wrote about here: [...]

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