Fighting with Czesław Miłosz


Arts & Culture

Czesław Miłosz.

It is a blessing for a poet to have a Great Poet to fight with, forever.

I don’t mean a Great Poet one merely despises. That’s nothing. It has to be someone you partly love, partly revere, but who lets you down over and over and over and makes you want to scream.

The Great Poet has to be one from whom you are continuously learning, even if most of the time what you’re getting is a kind of cautionary tale. He or she has to be someone you can never get rid of. You keep going back.

Does everybody remember Ezra Pound’s little epigram about his deal with Walt Whitman? Here, I can do it from memory:

A Pact

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman.
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you like a grown child
Who has had a pigheaded father.
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood;
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root:
Let there be commerce between us.

Get it? Pound couldn’t shake Whitman. Whitman got on his nerves, and that was never gonna change. But yer daddy is yer daddy. Maybe he and you can team up, after all, as long as everybody understands the new terms … 

Pound made up a spoof line somewhere, making fun of Whitman’s style. It was something like “Behold, I eat watermelons.” That cracks me up. Those four words tell you quite a lot about what Pound was resistant to. And if you just think about it for a second, you can see why unintentional buffoonery would be a “live issue” for Ezra Pound.

With me, it’s Czesław Miłosz. When I thumb through the seven-hundred-plus pages of his Collected, I am appalled, time and again, at the man’s influence over me, especially the me from my twenties. I keep thinking, Oh, so that’s where I got that.

It’s what always happens. The young poet covets the admiration the Great Poet receives from professors, and so the young poet sets out to imitate. Unfortunately (and this drove Alexander Pope absolutely insane), conceited fools always imitate without judgment. They helplessly, brainlessly mimic the faults of their models just exactly as much as if not more than they imitate the good stuff. And this is exactly what happened with me.

I have a line like Pound’s spoof on Whitman, about Miłosz. Mine’s not funny, though. In fact, I’ve often wondered whether it’s not a spoof at all but is simply present in some unsearched corner of that Collected. The line goes: “The women are come from the river, with their baskets.”

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, I guess. To me, it’s affected. It’s that European “biblical” tone, in which women are always The Women. Likewise with the baskets, likewise with the river. All rivers in Miłosz are The River, even if he gives a particular name. All cities are The City. You’re supposed to picture a walled Babylonian town from 4000 B.C. The men are merchants, warriors, or philosophers. The women go to the river with their baskets. Everyone is in a robe.

“Well, what’s wrong with that? What are you gonna do, chuck Rilke, Montale, Amichai, and almost all Spanish poets?” I’m not chucking anybody. All those guys are Greats; they deserve their reputations. But when you write (or, worse, cause my twenty-seven-year-old self to write) in a deeply ancient pastoral register in order to secure a tone of high moral seriousness, it’s not gonna be all gains for you. You lose something, too. Me and La Rochefoucauld will be out back, having a cigarette.

Put down that gun. Miłosz wrote at least five of my all-time favorite poems. I know you like ’em, too. “Elegy for N.N.,” “Greek Portrait.” I even like that boring, messed-up, eleven-legged jungle of zibzib that doesn’t make any sense, called “With Trumpets and Zithers.” But how are you going to defend things like this:


Cathedral of my enchantments, autumn wind, I grew old giving thanks.

That’s a whole poem. As is this:

On the Death of a Poet

The gates of grammar closed behind him.
Search for him now in the groves and wild forests of the dictionary.

And now, lastly, this:

If There Is No God
If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying there is no God.

That last one puts me in mind of a certain bit out of Mencken. He defines a judge as a “law student who marks his own examination papers.” Now, to me, that nails the very thing that should not be imitated in Miłosz. One finds him again and again grading his own papers and giving himself, with certain tactful qualifications, a well-deserved A.

And like all depressed Christians, he regards the fact that he beholds the world in “wonder” as very meritorious indeed …

You can tell I hate him, right? But I hate him like his student or his offspring. I learn stuff every time I approach him, no exceptions. And it’s partly he who taught me not to envy him in the first place …

Do you remember this bit, on the last page of Unattainable Earth (1986)? It’s like it’s the colophon for that book:

To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.

That’s it, no title, no nuthin’. Underneath, it says, weirdly: “Berkeley—Paris—Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1981–1983.” As if it took him three years and three cities to write that little note. But then, if you page backward through the poems, you’ll see that the citation surely refers to the whole book, not just that one page. Still, the humorous misunderstanding is not altogether unwelcome.

Miłosz is bigger than I’ll ever be, but, partly taught by him, I don’t care about that anymore. The main thing, now, is to figure out what I’m going to do about those four words, “not to enchant anybody.” (Is that where I should be headed, as a poet? Is that why he is big and I am little? Or is it why I find him so boring and prosaic 95 percent of the time?)

Meanwhile, I wish to register a very simple gift that Miłosz offers anyone who even riffles through his Collected without reading it. It’s this form:


Pages 2 and 3 (out of 4) of the poem “Capri,” as it appears in “New and Collected Poems, 1931–2001,” first Ecco paperback edition, 2003


From the very beginning, when Jane Miller told me to read Miłosz when I was in M.F.A.-land, I have thought that strophic prose has a future in American poetry. It’s a very manageable rhythm, and you get an attractive page out of it, and, best of all, you don’t have to fuss with hundreds of unconvincing line breaks where no line breaks are necessary.

I wish I could say the form brings out the best in Miłosz, but that’s not exactly the case. He seems to have taken it up in the late sixties, right around the time he stopped being able to come up with good titles for books. (From the Rising of the Sun; Provinces; Facing the River, and so on.) There are roughly thirty specimens of strophic prose in the Collected, along with perhaps a dozen more items that might as well be strophic prose. Of all these, not one is what I would call a Major Miłosz Hit, unless you think “In Szetejnie” is a hit. One of these pieces even begins, alarmingly, with the note, “Perhaps this is not a poem but at least I say what I feel.” The stonyhearted part of me replies: Yeah, you could have written that sentence on a lot of these, babe.

But see, this goes back to my larger point. Miłosz leaves one scheming and brooding. Not a bad place to be. It’s a little like what Auden says about Hardy’s poetry. I forget where this is, but it’s something about how lucky Auden and his generation were, having Hardy as a model, ’cuz Hardy was great but there was patently room for improvement. That is a sunny way of looking at it, and one that I hope to adopt someday, when I am better able to pretend I don’t hate stuck-up poets who fascinate me.

Listen, this is not about fathers and sons, or masculine lala. It’s about greatness and wanting to be a moral authority. I know very well there is an army of emerging poets for whom Jorie Graham serves the exact same function I’m talking about here. And I really mean it when I say it’s a blessing to have somebody like that to fight with. Keeps you hungry. Keeps you questioning yourself.
Let Miłosz himself have the last word. This is one of his best poems, to my mind, but I’m going to ask him to switch roles in it. In the original, Miłosz plays the part of the man with the boot. This afternoon, I want him to play the part of the marble stairs at the end:

Should, Should Not

A man should not love the moon.
An axe should not lose weight in his hand.
His garden should smell of rotting apples
And grow a fair amount of nettles.
A man when he talks should not use words that are dear to him,
Or split open a seed to find out what is inside it.
He should not drop a crumb of bread, or spit in the fire
(So at least I was taught in Lithuania).
When he steps on marble stairs,
He may, that boor, try to chip them with his boot
As a reminder that the stairs will not last forever.


Read our Art of Poetry interview with Czesław Miłosz in our Winter 1994 issue.

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.