Archive for March 6th, 2013

“The spirit of the place”: Miłosz as California poet

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

At the British Academy in London (Photo: C. Haven)

There have been many discussions of Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz as an American poet – but no one, to my knowledge, has considered Miłosz as a California poet.  No one, that is, till Humble Moi.  The Polish maestro is one of California’s many happenstance denizens – someone who could say, “I did not choose California. It was given to me.”

My address at the British Academy in December discusses precisely that topic – I wrote a little about my visit here.  My colleagues at Quarterly Conversation wanted to run my talk in their cyberspace pages, and so it’s in the current issue.  Here’s the beginning:

In the winter of 1948-49, a Polish functionary squatted in a canoe in a Pennsylvania river before dawn, waiting for the appearance of beavers, a creature that had been hunted to extinction in Europe. He contemplated the disappearance of the world of esse, the world of essences and eternal truths, and he considered defecting from the Stalinist government, in which he had been a cultural attaché.

But he decided to stick it out in Communist Poland. He wrote later that ‘staying in America for good would mean choosing life on its biological level.’ However, the man was also a poet, and Czesław Miłosz wrote about his experience in the “Natura” section of Treatise on Poetry.

He waited for them. (Photo: Laszlo Ilyes)

In America,

You will not hear one word spoken of the court
of Sigismund Augustus on the banks of the Delaware River.
The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys is not needed.
Herodotus will repose on the shelf, uncut.

In the notes to the English translation, which are as long as the poem, he wrote about himself in third person: “He was not the first European to feel in America the absence of historical memory, which is present at every step in Europe thanks to its architectural heritage. Though he admires American landscapes, he regards life in Nature as an impoverishment. What replaces history is sex, which becomes for people the main interest, the subject of their explorations.”

You can read the rest here.

Another snippet:

A happenstance Californian.

Accidental Californian.

In 1960, a visiting appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, led to four decades on the West Coast. It would be pat to say he gave us the past, and we gave him the future. It implies that the scales were equal, when there are 314 million of us and only one of him. Nevertheless, it’s partly true. In his American exile, he could publish freely, in a number of translations as well as in Polish, and he could become a Nobel poet with an international profile.

Did he have an affect on us? Recall the famous injunction of Harvard literary doyenne Helen Vendler in her 1984 New Yorker interview: “There are no direct lessons that American poets can learn from Miłosz. Those who have never seen modern war on their own soil cannot adopt the tone.” Of course, “influence” extends beyond imitation, so one can quarrel with her comment. It can assume many forms—even the form of outright contradiction (that is, we’re clearly influenced by the thing that we oppose). Other than clear-cut imitation, how can you trace or measure “influence”?

 Go ahead.  Read the rest here.  I understand it’s getting a lot of hits.

George Szirtes is entertaining (l to r) Stephen Regan, Michael Parker, and a slightly rumpled Humble Moi.