Interviews

Czeslaw Milosz, The Art of Poetry No. 70

Interviewed by Robert Faggen

A loss of harmony with the surrounding space, the inability to feel at home in the world, so oppressive to an expatriate, a refugee, an immigrant, paradoxically integrates him in contemporary society and makes him, if he is an artist, understood by all. Even more, to express the existential situation of modern man, one must live in exile of some sort.

—Czeslaw Milosz, “On Exile”

 

Though Nobelist Czeslaw Milosz considers himself a Polish poet because he writes in that “native mother tongue,” he was not born in Poland, nor has he lived there for over half a century. Nonetheless, the poems of this sensuous mystic are inscribed on monuments in Gdansk as well as printed on posters in the New York City transit system.

He was born in 1911 in Szetejnie, Lithuania, the impoverished estate of his grandfather, a gentleman farmer. Milosz remembers the rural Lithuania of that time as a “country of myth and poetry.” His childhood world was broken by World War I when his father, Alexander, a road engineer, was recruited by the Czar’s army. Milosz and his mother accompanied his father on dangerous bridge-building expeditions near Russian battle zones.

The family returned to Lithuania in 1918. For several years Milosz enjoyed youthful solitude before beginning a rigorous formal education in Vilnius, the capital of Polish Lithuania. In his early twenties he published his first volume of poems, A Poem on Frozen Time. Three Winters, his second volume, appeared in 1936. Milosz received a law degree from the university in Vilnius and spent a year in Paris on a scholarship, where he met his distant cousin Oscar Milosz, the French poet who became his mentor.

The Soviet regime in Vilnius eventually forced Milosz to flee the city of his youth to Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where he joined the socialist resistance. Milosz’s anthology of anti-Nazi poetry, The Invincible Song, was published by underground presses in Warsaw, where he also wrote “The World (A Naive Poem)” and the cycle Voices of Poor People. After the destruction of Warsaw he lived for a while outside of Krakow. The state publishing house brought out his collected poems in a volume entitled Rescue.

The end of the war brought more dislocation. Milosz worked as a cultural attaché of the Polish Communist government, serving in both New York and Washington over a period of years. He broke with the Polish government in 1951 and sought political asylum in France, even though it meant virtual disconnection from Polish readers. His ten years in France found him at odds with the strongly prosocialist and communist intellectual community. He wrote two novels during this period, Seizure of Power and The Issa Valley, as well as his most famous book, The Captive Mind, a study of the dangerous appeal of totalitarian thought, along with portraits of friends who had been seduced by it. An exponent of Simone Weil, he translated her essays into Polish. He also wrote two volumes of poetry and an intellectual autobiography, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition. Banned in Poland, Milosz’s poetry was published in Paris by the Instytut Literacki.

Milosz moved yet further west when in 1961, at age fifty, he began a new career as a professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Though an unknown member of a small department, he eventually became popular for his courses on Dostoyevsky, and to those outside the university, as a translator of the poems of Zbigniew Herbert. Milosz’s Selected Poems were not published in English until 1973. In 1978 his collection Bells in Winter appeared, and Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1981 he visited Poland for the first time in thirty years and in 1992 saw his native Lithuania again after a fifty-two year absence.

Since winning the Nobel Prize, Milosz has published many volumes of prose and poetry. His prose collections include Visions from San Francisco Bay, Beginning with My Streets, The Land of Ulro, and his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, The Witness of Poetry. His Collected Poems appeared in 1988 and included portions of Unattainable Earth. It was followed most recently by another collection, Provinces. A diary of the year 1988, A Year of the Hunter, was published in 1994 and another volume of poetry, Facing the River, is due out in 1995. Milosz resides in Berkeley most of the year but spends portions of his summers in Cracow.

This interview was conducted primarily at Milosz’s home in the Berkeley hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, where he lives with his wife, Carol, and a cat named Tiny. Other portions were recorded before a live audience at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YMHA in New York. The first part of the conversation in Berkeley lasted four hours without interruption, until the poet looked at his watch and then, somewhat sympathetically, at his exhausted interlocutor to ask, “It is six o’clock, time for a little vodka?”

 

INTERVIEWER

You returned to Lithuania recently for the first time in fifty-two years. How was it?

CZESLAW MILOSZ

It was a moving experience. I was received very cordially as a native son. I was given an honorary degree at the University of Kaunas. Then I visited my county, where I was greeted by a border delegation in peasant costumes—quite a big event in the region. I was made an honorary citizen and attended a mass in the wooden church where I was baptized. But many villages have disappeared. I have to presume enormous numbers of their inhabitants were deported to Siberia. Instead there are neat little red-brick towns. I visited the place where I was born, but there was no house, only the bare remnants of a park, and the river is polluted.

INTERVIEWER

What literature shaped your imagination as you grew up in Lithuania?

MILOSZ

Imagine a world without radio, without television, and without film. That was my childhood in a provincial part of Europe. At that time, the impact of books was much greater than it is now, and I profited from the library of my grandfather, which was largely composed of books from the nineteenth century. The only atlas was so outdated that it had a big white spot in the middle of Africa. The mystery of time was revealed to me not by Marcel Proust but by James Fenimore Cooper. Authors like Fenimore Cooper were very popular at the time in abridged and somewhat garbled versions for children. For instance, all the volumes of the epic The Deerslayer were condensed into one. Still, it made a tremendous impression upon me, because it was really the story of a young hunter gradually changing into maturity and then into an old man as he slowly moved from the East to West. His tragedy was that he was an exile, but could not escape civilization. I also read authors who have never been heard of in the United States, like Thomas Mayne Reid. He was an Irishman, who spent some time in America as a hunter, teacher, and who then made a career as an author of children’s books while living in London. His books were filled with all kinds of plants, animals, and birds—each identified with a Latin name. That was crucial for me, for at the time I wanted to become an ornithologist. I knew all the names for birds and their Latin equivalents. I also read Karl May, who was beloved by little boys all over Europe and translated into all European languages but unknown in America. He was a German who wrote novels of adventure sitting in a debtor’s prison.

Later, when I lived in Vilnius, I saw films. My education in this respect was like that of contemporary American children. Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and later Greta Garbo, all made an impression on me. It’s very difficult to draw a line between childhood reading and the beginning of reading more mature books. But because of my rural and provincial childhood and because of those books from the library of the nineteenth century, I was always entranced by books on nature, especially those with illustrations and colored woodcuts—Audubon, Alexander Wilson, and so on. These books defined my attitude toward nature.

INTERVIEWER

What fascinated you about nature?

MILOSZ

Well, my great hero was Linnaeus; I loved the idea that he had invented a system for naming creatures, that he had captured nature that way. My wonder at nature was in large part a fascination with names and naming. But I was also a hunter. So was my father. Today I am deeply ashamed of having killed birds and animals. I would never do that now, but at the time I enjoyed it. I was even a taxidermist. In high school, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I discovered Darwin and his theories about natural selection. I was entranced and gave lectures about Darwin in our naturalists’ club. But at the same time, even though it was a state school, the priests were very important. So on the one hand, I was learning about religion, the history of the Church, dogmatics, and apologetics; on the other hand, I learned about science, which basically undermines religion. Eventually I turned away from Darwinism because of its cruelty, though at first I embraced it. Nature is much more beautiful in painting, in my opinion.

INTERVIEWER

Can a connection be made between the naturalist’s and the poet’s appreciation of nature?

MILOSZ

David Wagoner has written a poem called “The Author of American Ornithology Sketches a Bird, Now Extinct.” It’s a poem about Alexander Wilson, one of the leading ornithologists in America, shooting and wounding an Ivory-billed woodpecker, which he kept to draw because it was a specimen that was new to him. The bird was slowly dying in his house. Wilson explains that he has to kill birds so that they can live on the pages of his books. It’s a very dramatic poem. So the relation of science to nature, and I suspect also of art to nature, is a sort of a meeting of the minds of both scientist and artist in that they both have a passion to grasp the world. I am more concerned with the erosion of the religious imagination because of the impact of science. It goes to the root of one of the essential problems of our time—the incapacity of contemporary man to think in religious terms. I have also been influenced by Thomas Merton, with whom I corresponded for many years. We mostly discussed religion and nature. I reproached him for his optimistic and largely American attitude toward nature.

INTERVIEWER

So the Catholic faith in which you were raised overrides the impact of science?

MILOSZ

Oh, yes. But the trouble is that writing religious poetry in the twentieth century is very difficult. We are in a largely postreligious world. I had a conversation with the present Pope, who commented upon some of my work, in particular my “Six Lectures in Verse.” Well, he said, you make one step forward, one step back. I answered, Holy Father, how in the twentieth century can one write religious poetry differently?

INTERVIEWER

And how did the Pope respond?

MILOSZ

He smiled.

INTERVIEWER

In your book The Land of Ulro, you address these problems and the importance to you of your older cousin, Oscar Milosz. To what extent did he influence your work?

MILOSZ

As far as style was concerned, I was aware that his influence was dangerous. His style was late symbolist, something I felt should not be imitated at that time. But the essence of his mystical writings, “The Epistle to Storge” and “The Ars Magna”—namely that the world was created through a transmutation of nonphysical light into physical light—that was very important to me. He intuitively conceived, indeed before Einstein, a cosmology of relativity—a moment when there is no space, no matter, no time; all three are united in his imagination with movement.

INTERVIEWER

You once wrote a poem dedicated to Einstein.

MILOSZ

I knew Einstein. In fact, I worshipped him. My cousin Oscar Milosz believed that his theory of relativity had opened a new era of mankind—an era of harmony, reconciliation between science, religion, and art. The positive consequence of Einstein’s discoveries was the elimination of Newtonian time and space as infinite and the introduction of the relativity of time and space that underlies our cosmology and its concept of the big bang. I approached Einstein with enormous reverence. So I wrote a poem about him. At the time he was convinced that the world was moving toward destruction because of atomic weapons, and that the only solution was to create a world government to control the weapons. In 1948, he wrote a paper in that spirit and sent it to the World Congress for Intellectuals in Wroclaw, Poland. The congress was just a front for Stalin’s armaments policy, and the Russians opposed reading that memo. Around that time I asked Einstein whether I should go back to Poland or stay abroad. He thought I should return and was very frank about it.

INTERVIEWER

What were the circumstances of your meeting him?

MILOSZ

I was working as an attaché at the Polish embassy in Washington. That was a difficult period for me, deciding whether or not to break with the Communist regime in Poland. Einstein was, of course, in exile in America, and I sought him out as an authority. One day instead of driving directly from New York to Washington, I turned off and went to Princeton. Of course, I knew Einstein lived there. Despite my sense of irony, my nature sought someone to revere, to praise. Einstein’s white hair, his gray sweatshirt with the fountain pen clipped to it, his soft hands and voice all appealed to my need for a father figure, a leader. He was an absolutely charming, warmhearted person. He was opposed to my becoming an émigré. He responded to me on an emotional level, saying, You can’t break with your country; a poet should stick to his native country. I know it is difficult, but things have to change. They won’t go on like that. He was optimistic that the regime would pass. As a humanitarian, he assumed that man was a reasonable creature, though my generation saw man more as the plaything of demonic powers. So, I left his house on Mercer Street and drove away somewhat numbly. All of us yearn for the highest wisdom, but we have to rely on ourselves in the end.

INTERVIEWER

When did you first think of becoming a writer?

MILOSZ

I started to write when I was in high school, though it was not an effort to express myself—exercises of form, very cool, and I guess influenced by the French poets of the sixteenth-century school La Pléiade that I read in my French textbooks—Joachim du Bellay, Remy Belleau, Pierre de Ronsard, and others. It would be inaccurate to say that I wanted to be a poet. I wanted to be in conflict with my surroundings, to take on a negative attitude, what Flaubert referred to as a hatred of the bourgeois. I wanted to have a different style, live a different way of life.

INTERVIEWER

Vilnius was the city of your youth and it recurs in your writing.

MILOSZ

It had a very durable effect. I see enormous advantages of growing up in a provincial town. It gives a different—perhaps, a better—perspective. When I found myself abroad, I tried to introduce Vilnius and Lithuania to Western readers, which was difficult to do because the city has changed hands thirteen times in this century. With its various nationalities, denominations, languages, it was like Sarajevo. I have been deeply moved by what is happening in Bosnia because I understand all those ethnic conflicts.

INTERVIEWER

But in your poetry in recent years, there is much less interest in history.

MILOSZ

Yes, definitely. At the time of Solidarity in Poland, when martial law was proclaimed, I published an article called “Noble mindedness, Alas,” in which I warned that unified resistance to martial law created a certain highfalutin,noble-minded ethos in literature and art that was dangerous because it pushed aside any other human concerns and concentrated on the struggle of the moment. At the time, a kind of pact existed between the intellectuals and the church, which had been giving refuge to many literary and artistic enterprises. My article has become somewhat prophetic because that national unity has unraveled in the last several years. The young generation cannot stand any appearance of appealing to lofty moral ideals. I am in sympathy with idealists, and I define my religious position as a Catholic. But I am not very much in love with the church as a political institution.

INTERVIEWER

Early on, you were part of a literary group known as Zagary, whose worldview and poetic practice became known as “catastrophism.”

MILOSZ

I was a cofounder of that group. We didn’t know that we were catastrophists. That was a name applied later by literary critics. Those years—1931–1933—were years of despair. I now wonder whether a dark vision of history is a result of a personal inclination to pessimism or if one’s pessimism reflects the aura of an historical period. Whatever, that was a horrible period in Europe. The literature from Weimar Germany was nihilistic, sarcastic, full of hatred. The literature from the Soviet Union of the 1920s, before the introduction of Socialist Realism was also extremely cruel and negative. There were writers like Seifulina and Ilya Ehrenburg, who lived at that time in Paris. Ehrenburg’s nihilistic novels were immediately translated into Polish. So the mood of literature was very pessimistic, very negative; at the same time the political news was awful—Stalinism in Russia and Hitler coming to power in Germany. Understanding all that, of course, influenced our group. So did the rector of our university, an old professor, Marian Zdziechowski, who was an utter pessimist. He wrote a book entitled Facing the End in which he predicted that Europe would soon be destroyed by two forces, nationalism and communism. Fortunately for him, he died in 1939 just before the war started. There were also extremely pessimistic Polish authors, especially Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, a catastrophist in outlook. So our poetry expressed foreboding—a kind of surrealistic prophecy of horrors to come. It was like the voice of Cassandra. We conceived a cosmic catastrophe rather than a clearly defined political catastrophe. Later, under the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, there was a group of very young poets for whom, of course, the culmination, the apocalypse, was the Nazi occupation. For us it was not; it was simply part of a larger picture.

INTERVIEWER

You were part of the resistance in Warsaw. You published—or contributed to—a clandestine anthology of poetry against the Nazis. What effect did the war years have on your poetry?

MILOSZ

I was uneasy as a poet, because I had come to understand that poetry could not depict the world as it was—the formal conventions were wrong. So I searched for something different. But at the same time, I wrote a long work consisting of short poems, entitled “The World (A Naive Poem),” a sequence—though I was not aware of it at the time—like Blake’s “Songs of Innocence.” I considered the world so horrible that these childish poems were answers—the world as it should be, not as it was. Written in view of what was happening, “The World” was a profoundly ironic poem.

INTERVIEWER

That’s the significance of the subtitle “A Naive Poem.”

MILOSZ

This poem is as much pure fiction as a book for children about teddy bears. It makes me uneasy when critics and readers take those so-called positive poems about love, faith, hope and prescribe them for schoolchildren in Poland. I receive letters from children who read these poems in school and learn them by heart—poems that were actually written tongue in cheek.

INTERVIEWER

In one of the poems from “The World” you wrote, “We and the Flowers throw shadows on the earth. / What has no shadow has no strength to live.”

MILOSZ

There is some Thomas Aquinas behind those lines. He asserts belief in the objective existence of things. It’s a sort of naive poem—a belief in the reality of a flower, of a river and a garden. My poems of that era contain a double search: one, a search for the grace of innocence—the “naive” poems—the other, the cycle “Voices of Poor People,” a search for a means of how to deal directly with the Nazi occupation. There is also the influence of the Chinese poetry that I was reading then for color, pure color.

INTERVIEWER

How did you happen upon Chinese poetry?

MILOSZ

In Warsaw, I bought an anthology, The Chinese Flute, which was a translation not from Chinese but from the French. The poetry provided clear images and, particularly, strong colors that I could inject into a dark, black and red world of the Nazi occupation. Since that time, the two-color combination of black and red has always been ominous for me.

INTERVIEWER

Which Asian poets interested you most?

MILOSZ

At that time, I didn’t know much about individual poets. That came later through my interest in American poetry. As you know, translations from old Chinese and Japanese poetry played an eminent role in its development. Ezra Pound was a pioneer in this respect: the Imagists were strongly influenced by Asian literature. So, it was a gradual influence and developed largely because of some of the philosophical premises of my work.

INTERVIEWER

Such as?

MILOSZ

Well, I don’t want to sound too theoretical, but I was reacting to certain tendencies in modern poetry towards complete subjectivization. In Asian poetry there is a certain equilibrium between subject and object rarely attained in the West. I come from a poetic tradition in which history plays a great role, my poetry involving to a large extent the transposition of certain major events, tragedies of history. The tradition in Central Europe is that the individual is weak, quite different from the West, which is very strong in its emphasis on the individual. After I stopped dealing with the big tragedies of the twentieth century, I wanted to find a balance. I didn’t want to write purely personal perceptions, which is typical of so much of the poetry today—seen through a very personal perspective, and thus very often difficult to decipher. I realized that the weakness of the individual is no good in poetry, and that an excess of individualism is a danger as well.

INTERVIEWER

Yet, in Unattainable Earth you express your admiration for Whitman, a strong egoist, by including translations of many of his poems. How do you feel about his presentation of self?

MILOSZ

Whitman is a very peculiar case because he creates a persona. That persona speaks; yet a certain distance exists between Whitman and the complex persona that he impersonates throughout his poetry, which is different from a poet who naively believes that everything he feels and perceives at a given moment interests the reader. Of course, Whitman is an extremely complex poet, mixing good and bad, which, as my cousin Oscar Milosz used to say, is a prescription for great poetry. When we read the large sweep of Whitman today we skip many naïvetés, particularly those enumerations, the long lists. For me, Whitman is a poet out of whom you can carve so many excellent short poems—an extremely rich poet.

INTERVIEWER

You also have an admiration for a modern inheritor of the Whitman tradition—Allen Ginsberg.

MILOSZ

My poem “To Allen Ginsberg” is tricky. He came up to me after a reading of his and said, Well, I guess you are not as much of a square as you present yourself. My attitude toward Ginsberg is contradictory. His “Kaddish” is, in a way, a horrible piece of writing but extremely daring. To speak of one’s mother’s insanity, describing its various phases . . . that’s incredible. I have always denounced that sort of personal indiscretion. So, I’m shocked and somewhat envious of Ginsberg’s daring, and that is what I have expressed in my poem about him.

INTERVIEWER

I noted you included Whitman’s poem “Sparkles from the Wheel” in Unattainable Earth. Whitman uses a wonderful word in that poem, “unminded,” suggesting both the state of being unnoticed but also of detaching one’s attention. This is something you do in your own poetry.

MILOSZ

Yes. A kind of irony. Let’s call it romantic irony. One participates and observes at the same time: while falling down the stairs one sees the situation as funny. I feel that when a poem becomes too general, and it moves toward some sort of sentimental confession, I want to introduce additional commentary—not a formal device but rather a search for honesty. That kind of irony is so integral to my writing that I can hardly even separate it from the process.

INTERVIEWER

In your poem “Ars Poetica?” you stated that the purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person.

MILOSZ

My poetry has been called polyphonic, which is to say that I have always been full of voices speaking; in a way I consider myself an instrument, a medium. My friend Jeanne Hersch, who introduced me to the existentialism of Karl Jaspers, used to say, “I have never seen a person so instrumental,” meaning that I was visited by voices. There is nothing extraterrestrial in this, but something within myself. Am I alone in this? I don’t think so. Dostoyevsky was one of the first writers, along with Friedrich Nietzsche, to identify a crisis of modern civilization: that every one of us is visited by contradictory voices, contradictory physical urges. I have written about the difficulty of remaining the same person when such guests enter and go and take us for their instrument. But we must hope to be inspired by good spirits, not evil ones.

INTERVIEWER

You have called yourself a medium, but a suspicious one. What do you mean by this? Of what are you a medium?

MILOSZ

I suppose, looking back, that everything was dictated to me, and I was just a tool. Of what I don’t know. I would like to believe that I am a tool of God, but that’s presumptuous. So I prefer to call whatever it is my “daimonion.” I have written a new poem that describes this relationship:

Please, my Daimonion, ease off just a bit,
I’m still closing accounts and have much to tell.
Your rhythmical whispers intimidate me.
Today for instance, reading about a certain old woman
I saw again—Let us call her Priscilla,
Though I am astonished that I can give her any name
And people will not care. So that Priscilla,
Her gums in poor shape, an old hag,
Is the one to whom I return, in order to throw charms
And grant her eternal youth. I introduce a river,
Green hills, irises wet with rain
And, of course, a conversation. “You know,” I say,
“I could never guess what was on your mind
And will never learn. I have a question
That won’t be answered.” And you, Daimonion,
Just at this moment interfere, interrupt us, averse to
Surnames and family names and all reality
Too prosaic and ridiculous, no doubt.

So, this voice involves my purification from the past by time and distance. It interferes and stops me from writing about my life too realistically, too prosaically. I am able to move to another dimension.

INTERVIEWER

To go back to your earlier years, you were a witness to the Warsaw uprising and the Holocaust, but have written relatively little about them.

MILOSZ

From time to time I am asked to read my poem “Campo dei Fiori,” which is about that suffering. Recently, I refused a request for permission to reprint my poems about those events. I do not want to be known as a professional mourner.

INTERVIEWER

You lived in Paris as an émigré. In your poem “Bypassing rue Descartes,” you describe Paris as a city where many espoused what you called “beautiful ideas”—ideals both naive and cruel.

MILOSZ

Paris was certainly not a place for somebody who came from Eastern Europe. I lived through two phases in Paris. In 1950, I was an attaché of the Polish embassy and attended parties with Paul Éluard and Pablo Neruda. The following year, after breaking with the Polish Communist regime, I came to live there as a refugee. At that time, French intellectuals were completely in love with Communism and Stalin. Anyone who was dissatisfied and who came from the East like myself was considered a madman or an agent of America. The French felt that their so-called ideés générales were valid for the whole planet—beautiful ideas, but hardly realistic. At that time the political climate of Europe was dismal; millions of people were in gulags; their suffering contaminated the aura, the air of Europe. I knew what was going on. The West had to wait for Solzhenitsyn to write The Gulag Archipelago to learn about it.

INTERVIEWER

Did your views get you into trouble?

MILOSZ

This isn’t a secret. When I returned to Warsaw the government took my passport. They didn’t want me to return to Paris for my diplomatic job. It was eventually restored to me, but then I broke with them and became an exile. A Russian woman, the wife of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, a very zealous communist, said, In my opinion, a poet should stay with his country, but since you have decided otherwise, remember that you have a duty to fight against him. Against whom? Stalin, she said; the executioner of Russia. To say such a thing then was very dangerous. But I too felt an obligation to speak out. I was on friendly terms with Albert Camus at the time Jean-Paul Sartre and his crowd were after him, trying to destroy him because in The Rebel, among other things, he had mentioned that there were concentration camps in the Soviet Union. Because of my views, people who could have translated me refused. They said that they would be ostracized if they did so. So I was in a difficult position then.

INTERVIEWER

Is poetry the proper realm for philosophy?

MILOSZ

It depends what kind of philosophy.

INTERVIEWER

What kind have you found appropriate for your poetry?

MILOSZ

There are some kinds of philosophy there remind me of the circumstance of driving at night and having a hare jump in front of the lights. The hare doesn’t know how to get out of the beam of light, he runs straight ahead. I am interested in the kind of philosophy that would be useful to the hare in that instance.

INTERVIEWER

Not much hope for the hare. When you were a student, you carried a history of the church in your knapsack, and you seem particularly interested in the Manichaean heresy.

MILOSZ

Well, Manichaeanism was not just a heresy. It was an established religion for a long time. Basically, it recognizes the considerable power of evil, and counteracts the classical, theological explanation that evil is the lack of good. In these times the power of evil is widely recognized as a collective creation of human society and an element of the individual human soul. The argument of contemporary atheists—that a benevolent god couldn’t have created the world such as it is—is essentially neo-Manichaean. Though not necessarily my view, I recognize it as a valid argument; I am very concerned in my poetry with the existence of evil. Simone Weil, who was a very strong determinist, recognized the power of evil as well, which is the source of my great interest in her thinking. She went on to say that there is only a “mustard seed of grace” in man.

MILOSZ

In your poem “The Song” the woman longs for “one seed without rust.” You and Weil both seem to be referring to the mustard seed in the Gospel of Saint Mark.

MILOSZ

Yes. The little grain of mustard seed is really the kingdom of God, grace, and goodness—small when compared with the evil in the world. That was Weil’s belief. Another writer who attracted me around that time was Lev Shestov, who saw the whole world as ruled by laws of necessity. He opposed stoicism. A stoic, whether ancient or modern, would say, Grin and bear it. But why should we? Shestov’s view was that, on the contrary, we ought to rebel, scream no! His powerful book Athens and Jerusalem depicts Job, in contrast to Greek stoicism, as screaming.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think God’s answer to Job from the whirlwind is adequate?

MILOSZ

It is not adequate. It is not adequate.

INTERVIEWER

Do you regard Job’s god and the god of the New Testament as two different gods?

MILOSZ

I don’t know. I guess we have entered the realm where there are no answers.

INTERVIEWER

Gnosticism dealt with the complexities of early Christianity by emphasizing salvation through knowledge rather than faith. How does your interest in gnosticism relate to your own poetry?

MILOSZ

In the first centuries of Christianity, the new religion proved insufficient for the educated people in many ways, and so gnosticism became widespread. Gnosticism did then what poetry does today for educated people. But poetry should not be reduced to mere aestheticism. In its most important instances, poetry is an exploration of man’s place in the cosmos. Good and evil have been attributes of man since the Fall. The big question is: What state did Adam and Eve live in before that moment? Original sin is an enormous and extremely difficult philosophical problem. Lev Shestov said, and I agree, that it is remarkable, indeed hardly conceivable, that primitive shepherds were able to come up with a myth so enigmatic that the generations who have sweated over it to this day still do not understand it.

INTERVIEWER

You have grappled in your poetry with the question of how a good god can permit evil in the world. Can we justify God through reason, through poetry?

MILOSZ

Shestov said that there are questions that shouldn’t be asked because we have no answers. Simone Weil defended contradiction by what she referred to as a “lever of transcendence.” I myself have been all contradiction; I am composed of contradictions, which is why poetry is a better form for me than philosophy.

INTERVIEWER

Weil was skeptical about the facile comfort that can be found in religion.

MILOSZ

She was a very severe person with little tolerance for human weakness, especially so with herself. In a way she was a pure ascetic. For instance, she dismissed as diabolical workings of the imagination the illusions of terminally ill people who think they are going to get better. Well, it’s very human to have a hope of miraculous healing. Why deny them that? In everything that is human we should allow for that solace.

INTERVIEWER

Your friend Witold Gombrowicz once wrote in his diary, “Milosz experiences strife, torment, and doubts that were completely unknown to writers formerly.” Do you agree with him?

MILOSZ

Yes, I agree. He refers especially to my book The Captive Mind and to my struggle with the demon of this century—the Hegelian belief in historical necessity, that history develops along preordained lines. I wrote The Captive Mind in order to liberate myself, to find arguments against that philosophy. That’s probably why he says my struggle was previously unknown to writers.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think helped that liberation?

MILOSZ

My novel The Issa Valley, which has nothing political in it. The action takes place in the Lithuanian countryside about 1922. It’s about a priest who has a mistress who commits suicide and starts to haunt the parish. I visited the parish recently in my first trip back to Lithuania in more than fifty years. The girl’s grave is in the local cemetery near the same church where I was baptized and where many of the things I describe in the novel happened. But the novel is not a mere reminiscence of childhood, but rather a philosophical novel about devils and my desire to liberate myself from historical necessity and the cruelty in nature.

INTERVIEWER

Since then you have been uninterested in writing novels. You seem to have a quarrel with the genre. Why?

MILOSZ

It’s an impure form. I taught Dostoyevsky at Berkeley for twenty years. A born novelist, he would sacrifice everything; he knows no obligations of honor. He would put anything in a novel. Dostoyevsky created a character in The Idiot, General Ivolgin, who is a liar and tells stories—how he lost his leg in a war, how he buried his leg, and then what he inscribed on the tombstone. The inscription is taken from the tomb of Dostoyevsky’s mother. There you have a true novelist. I couldn’t do that.

INTERVIEWER

Though the genre of the novel doesn’t suit you, you admire Thomas Mann and even wrote a poem called “A Magic Mountain.”

MILOSZ

When I was a student I was very much impressed by The Magic Mountain. There is a character in it, Naphta, who is a Jesuit priest, a totalitarian, an enemy of the Enlightenment. I was fascinated with him. I had strong leftist totalitarian tendencies myself and was drawn to Naphta’s skepticism of the Enlightenment. Today though, I would side with Naphta’s antagonist in the novel, Settembrini, who represents the spirit of the Enlightenment. But my vision of humanity is much darker than Settembrini’s.

 INTERVIEWER

During the occupation you translated Eliot from English into Polish. What attracted you to his work?

 MILOSZ

The Waste Land is filled with elements of catastrophe. At the time, in occupied Warsaw, it had a certain power, filled with images of collapsing cities. It made weird reading as the glow from the burning ghetto illuminated the skyline. It is a deeply satiric poem, however, even a sarcastic poem. That is alien to my vision. But in the Four Quartets we have the exceptional and rare case of someone who, after much struggle, has succeeded in reconciling his return to faith with his art. I met Eliot in London, and he gave me a warm reception. Later I saw him in America and translated more of his poems into Polish.

 INTERVIEWER

Do you feel, as Eliot did, that poetry is an escape from personality?

 MILOSZ

This has been a constant problem for me. Literature is born out of a desire to be truthful—not to hide anything and not to present oneself as somebody else. Yet when you write there are certain obligations, what I call laws of form. You cannot tell everything. Of course, it’s true that people talk too much and without restraint. But poetry imposes certain restraints. Nevertheless, there is always the feeling that you didn’t unveil yourself enough. A book is finished and appears and I feel, Well, next time I will unveil myself. And when the next book appears, I have the same feeling. And then your life ends, and that’s it.

 INTERVIEWER

There are confessions in a number of your poems. Do you feel that confession leads to anything?

 MILOSZ

I don’t know. I have never been psychoanalyzed. I am very skeptical as far as psychiatry is concerned. My dream is to be on a couch and to tell everything, but I wouldn’t be able to, probably, and besides it wouldn’t lead anywhere.

 INTERVIEWER

What is your writing process like?

 MILOSZ

            I write every morning, whether one line or more, but only in the morning. I write in notebooks and then type drafts into my computer. I never drink coffee and never use any stimulants when I write. I do drink moderately, but only after my work. I probably don’t fit the image of the neurotic modern writer for those reasons, but who knows?

 INTERVIEWER

Do you revise your poetry a great deal?

 MILOSZ

There is no rule. Sometimes a poem is written in five minutes, sometimes it takes months. There is no rule.

 INTERVIEWER

Do you write first in Polish and then translate it to English?

 MILOSZ

I write only in Polish. I have always written only in Polish, because I think my mastery of language is greatest when I use the language of my childhood.

 INTERVIEWER

Do you think your poetry can be translated well?

 MILOSZ

I translate myself, and then friends of mine, mostly Robert Hass these days or Leonard Nathan, correct it. But the basic rhythms are determined by me, because they don’t know the Polish language. I didn’t believe my poetry could be translated. I feel very privileged that I can communicate with American audiences. Half of them are usually aspiring poets. They appreciate me more as a poet. For Poles I am, more than anything, a famous personality.

 INTERVIEWER

You have called yourself a hermetic poet. Don’t you imagine an audience?

 MILOSZ

I write for an ideal person who is a kind of alter ego. I don’t care about being more accessible. I assess whether my poems have what is necessary, what is proper. I follow my need for rhythm and order, and my struggle against chaos and nothingness to translate as many aspects of reality as possible into a form.

 INTERVIEWER

In a recent poem, “Spider,” you refer to poetry metaphorically as “building diminutive boats / . . . for sailing beyond the borderline of time.” Is this how you view your own work?

 MILOSZ

I prefer to use the metaphor of shedding skins, which means abandoning old forms and assumptions. I feel this is what makes writing exciting. My poetry is always a search for a more spacious form. I have always been in conflict with those theories of poetry that concentrate on the aesthetic object. Yet I have been pleased, in a way, how well some of my old poems stand on their own, separated from me and the act of making them.

 INTERVIEWER

Then why do you so often express misgivings when a poet or artist is admired and held in high regard?

 MILOSZ

The problem is that the public usually wants a well-painted portrait of an artist, deprived of all contradictions and more monumental than life allows. The disparity between such a portrait and the subject can be depressing. If a poet has renown limited to a narrow circle, it’s more probable that his image will not be distorted. The larger the circle, the greater risk of distortion.

 INTERVIEWER

What distortion of yourself do you find most troubling?

 MILOSZ

The image of me as a moralist. When the ban on my poetry was lifted in Poland after I won the Nobel Prize, I became for many people a symbol of freedom from censorship, and thus a moral figure. I don’t know whether I have retained this image, it’s probably gotten a bit shoddy already. Let me show you something. [Milosz searches his pockets and retrieves a small medallion.] This is a replica of a monument in Poland. It has four symbols: the insignia of Pope John Paul II, the miter of the Polish archbishop, the tools of the electrician—that’s Walesa—and a book, which represents me.

 INTERVIEWER

You’re in good company.

 MILOSZ

Not bad for a poet of the twentieth century, especially in light of all the lamenting about the place of poetry in human society. But I am rather skeptical about this. I don’t want to be thought of as part of a great moral movement in Polish history. Art is not a sufficient substitute for the problem of leading a moral life. I am afraid of wearing a cloak that is too big for me.

 INTERVIEWER

Do you think it is better for a poet to work in obscurity?

 MILOSZ

I worked for many years in a state of nearly total obscurity. My years in Berkeley were a time when I had practically no audience here, and very few people in America on whose judgment I could rely. I had a couple of friends in Paris and Poland, so correspondence played an enormous role for me: letters received from a few friends were my only sustaining force. I was publishing my books of verse in Polish. They had to be smuggled into Poland, so I did not know the reactions of readers in Poland.

I knew who I was, and I knew my worth, but I was completely unknown to almost all my colleagues at Berkeley, except, of course, the Slavic languages professors. I was an obscure professor in an obscure department. I became well known to students only when I started to teach Dostoyevsky. There is a story that summarizes those years. I was at a literary dinner at Stanford with Jerzy Kosinski and, of course, he was quite famous. There was a woman, a fan of Kosinski’s, who was my neighbor at the table. She felt obliged to be polite and asked, What do you do? And I said, I write poetry. She snapped in reply: Everybody writes poetry. I didn’t mind that much but it still hurt. It represented my situation for years, the sufferings of ambition.

 INTERVIEWER

How do you account for your relatively large audience?

 MILOSZ

There was a period long ago when I tasted recognition due to my writing things that pleased people, but that period is long gone. When you write political poems, as I did during the war, you always have clientele. Today, I am surprised and uneasy about the recognition I receive because I would like to know that the response is genuine and not because I am a Nobel Laureate. On the other hand, I don’t think that the Nobel Prize has affected me or my work.

 INTERVIEWER

How do you regard Wallace Stevens’s notion that the modern poem is “the poem of the act of the mind in finding what will suffice”?

 MILOSZ

Literature and poetry today are under enormous pressure from the scientific mode of thinking, an empirical way of thinking. Wallace Stevens has a penetrating, dissecting mind, which I think applied to poetry is wrong. If we take Stevens’s poem “Study of Two Pears,” it seems an attempt to describe the pears as if to a Martian, to a creature from another planet. That’s dissection. I feel that things of this world should be contemplated rather than dissected—the kind of detached attitude towards objects one finds in Dutch still lifes. Schopenhauer considered these to be the highest form of art. That contemplation is also in Japanese haiku poems. As Basho said, to write about the pine, you must learn from the pine. This is a completely different attitude from dissecting the world. Schopenhauer, I feel, is really the artist’s, the poet’s, philosopher.

 INTERVIEWER

Why?

 MILOSZ

Because he stressed the need for distance. In the workings of the universe, we are in that infernal circle of passions—striving and struggling. Schopenhauer was influenced by the religious writings of India; for him liberation meant to stand outside of the wheel of eternal birth and death. Art should also stand outside that turning wheel, so that we can approach an object without passion, without desire, and with a certain detachment. Life’s passion can be eliminated through detached contemplation, which is a good definition of art: “detached contemplation.” That is why Schopenhauer’s epitome of art was the still life, the Dutch still life.

 INTERVIEWER

In two poems, “To Raja Rao,” which was a response to a conversation, and a recent poem entitled “Capri,” you make reference to waiting for “the real presence,” the mystery of divinity in the flesh. Does this suggest that poetry is a sacramental act through which we can invoke this presence?

 MILOSZ

Yes, I personally believe that the world we know is the skin of a deeper reality, and that reality is there. It cannot be reduced to mere words, and this is my basic disagreement with some writers of this century. There is a difference between a man who focuses on language, on his inner life, and the hunter—like me—who grieves because reality cannot be captured.

 INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about Larkin’s poem “Aubade,” in which he views religion as a kind of trick and calls it “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die”?

 MILOSZ

I know Larkin’s “Aubade,” and for me it’s a hateful poem. I don’t like Larkin. He was a wonderful craftsman, very good indeed. As a stylist I rank him very high, because he exemplifies precisely my ideal—to write clear poetry with a clear meaning, and not just an accounting of subjective impressions; but I don’t like his poetry, which I consider too symptomatic to be liked.

 INTERVIEWER

Symptomatic of?

 MILOSZ

Symptomatic of the present, desperate worldview, or weltanschauung. It seems to me that there is no revelation in his poetry. Even his letters dismay his friends because they are full of hatred, especially racist hatred for blacks, Indians, Pakistanis and so on. He was a very frustrated and very unhappy, desperate man. He proposes a sort of desire for nothingness as opposed to life—which didn’t bring him much. I’m afraid we have completely lost the habit of applying moral criteria to art. Because when somebody tells me that Larkin is a great poet, and that it’s enough to write great poetry by forsaking all human values, I’m skeptical. Probably that’s my education and instincts speaking. My motto could be that haiku of Issa—“We walk on the roof of Hell / gazing at flowers.” It’s a little cheap to fall into sarcasm, irony. That emptiness and cruelty, which is the basis of Larkin’s weltanschauung, should be accepted as a basis upon which you work towards something light.

 INTERVIEWER

Well, how closely is language able to capture the world?

 MILOSZ

Language does not capture everything, nor is it purely arbitrary. Certain words have a deeper meaning than in purely conventional usage. So, I reject calling language arbitrary, but I also would not reduce language to écriture, to writing in and of itself.

 INTERVIEWER

In a prose poem in Provinces entitled “A Philosopher’s Home” you attribute “the passionate zeal of a photo-reporter” to God. Does this describe your ideal of God as witness, and is it an ideal of what the poet can try to do?

 MILOSZ

Yes. Though I should also say that the poet is like a mouse in an enormous cheese excited by how much cheese there is to eat. As I mentioned, Whitman was a poet who exerted a very strong influence upon me. Whitman wanted to embrace everything, put everything into his poetry, and we can forgive him his infinite streams of words because he strove so hard to embrace as much reality as possible. I guess it is somehow connected with my image of life after death, which should be—as in Blake’s phrase—“infinite hunting.”

 INTERVIEWER

You have called poetry “the passionate pursuit of the real”? Have you ever in your work attained “the real”?

MILOSZ

The real, by which I mean God, continues to remain unfathomable.