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By Vince Chadwick

WARSAW, 23 MAY 2011 — An optimist thinks that this is the best of all possible worlds, a pessimist fears that this is so. This well-known bit of dark humour captures the paradoxical life and times of one of the twentieth century’s great poets, Czeslaw Milosz. Perhaps it is too easy nowadays to watch ubiquitous celebrities talk about how we should all seize the day, but Milosz was proof that when those who have known suffering speak so eloquently and intelligently about the singular beauty of existence, they transform the job of listening into one of sheer delight.

This year marks the centenary of the Nobel Laureate’s birth in the Lithuanian village of Szetejnie, though his youth was spent largely in Vilnius – then a part of Poland. He fled to Warsaw in 1939, escaping Beria’s NKVD by "lying on my back in the hay at the bottom of the cart, gazing up at the sky overhead, where clouds, rosy from the setting sun, floated lazily…". Prior to his escape, Milosz had no understanding of the wider world beyond the limited images of it provided by revolutionary Russia. Everything else was "the future and a pledge that would never be redeemed."

This last phrase is typical Milosz, strikingly honest and yet illusive. Across scores of essays and poems his words meld present ready-formed aphorisms: "The science of life depends on the gradual discovery of fundamental truths;" "Culture is reminiscent of a tightly locked iron chest for which no one has remembered to supply the key;" "For those who live passively, values melt away;" and "He who does not constantly overcome himself … disintegrates within." It is mystery and revelation, a kind of informed-yet-uncontrived joie de vivre.

Yet for all his gifts, Milosz was a man the world almost didn’t get to meet.

On the first of August 1944, Milosz and his wife Janina were walking through occupied Warsaw on their way to the home of a friend with whom Milosz wanted to discuss something terribly important, "namely, my new translation of an English poem." He carried under his arm The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot. The young couple spent "Ten carefree minutes under a cloudless sky. Then unexpectedly, everything burst…" The Warsaw Uprising erupted around them. .

Taking shelter in their friend’s basement they listened for days while one of Europe’s great capitals was destroyed overhead. Eventually Milosz made a run for it, setting out "as grasshoppers were singing by the empty highway in the warmth of a sunny afternoon." Soon captured and detained, he was awaiting transportation to a concentration camp when a nun arrived and negotiated his release. "I had never met her before and I never met her again," reports Milosz. "Nor did I ever know her name."

During this time, Milosz wrote one of his most well-known poems, Song on the End of the World. It begins by depicting a brilliant tranquillity.

On the day the world ends
A bee circles the clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold skinned as it should always be…

Though as in Rimbaud’s The Sleeper in the Valley, it is only at the end that we are steered back to face the Eliotian truth, when

…a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world

Milosz once described himself as an "ecstatic pessimist," capable of exuding at best only "despairing cheerfulness." After surviving the century-defining war which thinned the ranks of his contemporaries, Milosz chose to help build the "new" Poland as a diplomat in Washington and Paris, even as the Soviets disrupted any lingering illusions of autonomy.

When he broke with the regime — he preferred not to call it a defection —  in 1951, he was initially denied a visa to join his family in McCarthy-era  America due to his links with his country’s socialist government. His time in Paris nonetheless yielded The Captive Mind — a classic denunciation of intellectual capitulation under Stalinism. The author recalls how its reception "displeased practically everybody." Eventually fame and infamy steered him to the University of California at Berkeley in 1960, where he spent the next twenty years as Emeritus Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, writing, translating, and teaching. He fielded the fabled phone call from Stockholm in 1980.

John Updike once labeled Milosz "a giant illusive in our midst" — one-time diplomat who penned a classic anti-totalitarian tract, a witness to humanity’s darkest hour who still insisted "I have too much hope to be an atheist," and a patriot who spent the majority of his 93 years abroad. Even his original nationality was fated to become extinct during his life-time. As Milosz joked with one interviewer in 2003, "I see myself as one of the last Lithuanian Poles, the 'last Mohican'..."

A small minority in bi-polar Poland today can still never forgive the poet his dalliance with officialdom in the post-war years. Yet when he died, a free man in a free country, in Krakow in 2004, he was reconciled with himself. "The fullness of being human," he wrote in the 1959 collection of autobiographical essays, Native Realm, "is difficult to achieve."

Alongside other giants of post-war Polish poetry (like Szymborska, Rozewicz and Herbert), Milosz set out to challenge Adorno’s claim that it was impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz. Seamus Heaney claims his friend "developed a fierce conviction about the holy force of his art, how poetry was called upon to combat death and nothingness." Heaney cites the poem Meaning and its lines depicting poetry as

A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams

Too often the antonym for optimism is not pessimism, but realism — as if any hope must be projected onto a brute truth we scarcely acknowledge. Yet for Milosz, nothing is more real than being alive to the miracle of a blade of grass or a ray of light, and poetry is the apparatus which allows us to gaze in wonder.

Such an approach may appear naïve, were it not for the fact that Milosz could just as easily turn his magnificent ire on evil. His poem You Who Wronged ("Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. / You can kill one, but another is born. / The words are written down, the deed, the date") is excerpted on a monument in Gdansk to the murdered shipyard workers of 1970. And he decried baby-boomers’ hypocrisy when genocide repeated itself in Sarajevo during the 1990s and the "Europe which it had trusted" instead chose to "yawn."

The rebellion of the young who called for a new earth was a
sham, and that generation has written the verdict on itself…

Nonetheless, he begins the Incantation from 1968,

Human reason is beautiful and invincible…
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope

And Milosz posits language as reason’s greatest ally, guiding our hand

… so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small

For Milosz the "despairing cheerfulness" derived from a place so deep that only the act of writing itself could expel it. "Man rises above himself only in art," he wrote, and elsewhere, "poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, / under unbearable duress and only with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument".

His life to some extent represented the pushing together of incompatible tectonic plates, where his own work would overflow in the universal. If he could not heal the divisions he had witnessed, he would trump them.

Tomorrow at the latest I’ll start working on a great book
In which my century will appear as it really was.
The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.

And he knew enough to include himself in this —

It’s not up to me to judge the calling of men.
And my merits, if any, I won’t know anyway

So on the 100th anniversary of his birth, it is worth celebrating the one who understood intuitively his own smallness and yet responded with one great, life-long salvo of energy, sentiment and ideas. His insights were explosive, his questions residual. His prolific mind took him to the extremes of despair, though he always made sure to preserve enough room for hope. That which he termed his companion, "the spirit of desolation," was inevitable after the century to which he bore witness, but he wove the many contradictions of his life into words of such clarity and serenity, that his gift to future generations will be a more thoughtful appreciation, a more resilient belief.

Vince Chadwick is an Australian freelance journalist and editor of His work has appeared in over a dozen publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Age, Crikey, and National Times. His fiction entry was highly commended in the ‘2010 John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers’.

Headline image: Czeslaw Milosz
Photo: Dennis Wile

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