Friday, April 20, 2018

Les Murray / The Mitcells

Les Murray
Poster by T. A.
The Mitchells

by Murray
I am seeing this: two men are sitting on a pole
they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise 
I think for wires. Water boils in a prune tin.
Bees hum their shift in unthinning mists of white

bursaria blossom, under the noon of wattles.
The men eat big meat sandwiches out of a styrofoam
box with a handle. One is overheard saying:
drought that year. Yes. Like trying to farm the road.

The first man, if asked, would say I'm one of the Mitchells.
The other would gaze for a while, dried leaves in his palm,
and looking up, with pain and subtle amusement,
say I'm one of the Mitchells. Of the pair, one has been rich
but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat. Nearly everything
they say is ritual. Sometimes the scene is an avenue.

Ethnic Radio, 1977

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Robert Lowell / Dr. Williams

Dr. Williams

Dr. Williams and his work are part of me, yet I come on them as a critical intruder. I fear I shall spoil what I have to say, just as I somehow got off on the wrong note about Williams with Ford Madox Ford twenty-five years ago. Ford was wearing a stained robin's-egg-blue pajama top, reading Theocritus in Greek, and guying me about my butterfly existence," so removed from the labors of a professional writer. I was saying something awkward, green, and intense in praise of Williams, and, while agreeing, Ford managed to make me feel that I was far too provincial, genteel, and puritanical to understand what I was saying. 
And why not? Wasn't I, as Ford assumed, the grandson or something of James Russell Lowell and the cousin of Lawrence Lowell, a young man doomed to trifle with poetry and end up as president of Harvard or ambassador to England?
I have stepped over these pitfalls. I have conquered my hereditary disadvantages. Except for writing, nothing I've touched has shone. When I think about writing on Dr. Williams, I feel a chaos of thoughts and images, images cracking open to admit a thought, thoughts dragging their roots for the soil of an image. When I woke up this morning, something unusual for this summer was going on! - pinpricks of rain were falling in a reliable, comforting simmer. Our town was blanketed in the rain of rot and the rain of renewal. New life was muscling in, everything growing moved on its one-way trip to the ground. I could feel this, yet believe our universal misfortune was bearable and even welcome. An image held my mind during these moments and kept returning - an old-fashioned New England cottage freshly painted white. I saw a shaggy, triangular shade on the house, trees, a hedge, or their shadows, the blotch of decay.
The house might have been the house I was now living in, but it wasn't; it came from the time when I was a child, still unable to read, and living in the small town of Barnstable on Cape Cod. Inside the house was a bird book with an old stiff and steely engraving of a sharp-shinned hawk. The hawk's legs had a reddish-brown buffalo fuzz on them; behind was the blue sky, bare and abstracted from the world. In the present, pinpricks of rain were falling on everything I could see, and even on the white house in my mind, but the hawk's picture, being indoors I suppose, was more or less spared. Since I saw the picture of the hawk, the pinpricks of rain have gone on, half the people I once knew are dead, half the people I now know were then unborn, and I have learned to read.
An image of a white house with a blotch on it this is perhaps the start of a Williams poem. If I held this image closely and honestly enough, the stabbing detail might come and with it the universal that belonged to this detail and nowhere else. Much wrapping would have to be cut away and many elegiac cadences with their worn eloquence and loftiness. This is how I would like to write about Dr. Williams. I would collect impressions, stare them into Tightness, and let my mind-work and judgments come as they might naturally.
When I was a freshman at Harvard, nothing hit me so hard as the Norton Lectures given by Robert Frost. Frost's revolutionary power, however, was not in his followers, nor in the student literary magazine, the Advocate, whose editor had just written a piece on speech rhythms in the "Hired Man," a much less up-to-date thing to do then than now. Our only strong and avant-garde man was James Laughlin. He was much taller and older than we were. He knew Henry Miller, and exotic young American poetesses in Paris, spent summers at Rapallo with Ezra Pound, and was getting out the first number of his experimental annual, New Directions. He knew the greats, and he himself wrote deliberately flat descriptive and anecdotal poems.
We were sarcastic about them, but they made us feel secretly that we didn't know what was up in poetry. They used no punctuation or capitals, and their only rule was that each line should be eleven or fifteen typewriter spaces long. The author explained that this metric was "as rational as any other" and was based on the practice of W. C. Williams, a poet and pediatrician living in Rutherford, New Jersey. About this time, Laughlin published a review somewhere, perhaps even in the Advocate, of Williams's last small volume. In it, he pushed the metric of typewriter spaces, and quoted from a poem, "The Catholic Bells," to show us Williams's "mature style at fifty"! This was a memorable phrase, and one that made maturity seem possible, but a long way off. I more or less memorized "The Catholic Bells," and spent months trying to console myself by detecting immaturities in whatever Williams had written before he was fifty.
Tho' I'm no Catholic
I listen hard when the bells
in the yellow-brick tower
of their new church
ring down the leaves
ring in the frost upon them
and the death of the flowers
ring out the grackle
toward the south, the sky
darkened by them, ring in
the new baby of Mr. and Mrs.
Krantz which cannot
for the fat of its cheeks
open well its eyes . . .
What I liked about "The Catholic Bells" were the irrelevant associations I hung on the words frost and Catholic, and still more its misleading similarity to the "Ring out wild bells" section of In Memoriam. Other things upset and fascinated me and made me feel I was in a world I would never quite understand. Was the spelling "Tho'" strange in a realistic writer, and the iambic rhythm of the first seven words part of some inevitable sound pattern? I had dipped into Edith Sitwell's criticism and was full of inevitable sound patterns. I was sure that somewhere hidden was a key that would make this poem as regular as the regular meters of Tennyson.
There had to be something outside the poem I could hang on to because what was inside dizzied me: the shocking scramble of the august and the crass in making the Catholic church "new" and "yellow-brick," the cherubic ugliness of the baby, belonging rather horribly to "Mr. and Mrs. / Krantz," and seen by the experienced, mature pediatrician as unable to see "for the fat of its cheeks" - this last a cunning shift into anapests. I was surprised that Williams used commas, and that my three or four methods of adjusting his lines to uniform typewriter spaces failed. I supposed he had gone on to some bolder and still more mature system.
To explain the full punishment I felt on first reading Williams, I should say a little about what I was studying at the time. A year or so before, I had read some introductory books on the enjoyment of poetry, and was knocked over by the examples in the free-verse sections. When I arrived at college, independent, fearful of advice, and with all the world before me, I began to rummage through the Cambridge bookshops. I found books that must have been looking for a buyer since the student days of Trumbull Stickney: soiled metrical treatises written by obscure English professors in the eighteen-nineties. They were full of glorious things: rising rhythm, falling rhythm, feet with Greek names, stanzas from Longfellow's "Psalm of Life," John Drinkwater, and Swinburne. Nothing seemed simpler than meter.
I began experiments with an exotic foot, short, long, two shorts, then fell back on iambics. My material now took twice as many words, and I rolled out Spenserian stanzas on Job and Jonah surrounded by recently seen Nantucket scenery. Everything I did was grand, ungrammatical, and had a timeless, hackneyed quality. All this was ended by reading Williams. It was as though some homemade ship, part Spanish galleon, part paddle-wheels, kitchen pots, and elastic bands and worked by hand, had anchored to a filling station."
In "The Catholic Bells," the joining of religion and non-religion, of piety and a hard, nervous secular knowingness are typical of Williams. Further along in this poem, there is a piece of mere description that has always stuck in my mind.
grapes still hanging to
the vines along the nearby
Concordia Halle like broken
teeth in the head of an
old man)
Take out the Concordia Halle and the grapevines crackle in the wind with a sour, impoverished dryness; take out the vines and the Concordia Halle has lost its world. Williams has pages and pages of description that are as good as this. It is his equivalent of, say, the Miltonic sentence, the dazzling staple and excellence which he can always produce. Williams has said that he uses the forms he does for quick changes of tone, atmosphere, and speed. This makes him dangerous and difficult to imitate, because most poets have little change of tone, atmosphere, and speed in them.
I have emphasized Williams's simplicity and nakedness and have no doubt been misleading. His idiom comes from many sources, from speech and reading, both of various kinds; the blend, which is his own invention, is generous and even exotic. Few poets can come near to his wide clarity and dashing Tightness with words, his dignity and almost Alexandrian modulations of voice. His short lines often speed up and simplify hugely drawn out and ornate sentence structures. I once typed out his direct but densely observed poem, "The Semblables," in a single prose paragraph. Not a word or its placing had been changed, but the poem had changed into a piece of smothering, magnificent rhetoric, much more like Faulkner than the original Williams.
The difficulties I found in Williams twenty-five years ago are still difficulties for me. Williams enters me, but I cannot enter him. Of course, one cannot catch any good writer's voice or breathe his air. But there's something more. It's as if no poet except Williams had really seen America or heard its language. Or rather, he sees and hears what we all see and hear and what is the most obvious, but no one else has found this a help or an inspiration. This may come naturally to Dr. Williams from his character, surroundings, and occupation. I can see him rushing from his practice to his typewriter, happy that so much of the world has rubbed off on him, maddened by its hurry. Perhaps he had no choice. Anyway, what other poets have spent lifetimes in building up personal styles to gather what has been snatched up on the run by Dr. Williams?
When I say that I cannot enter him, I am almost saying that I cannot enter America. This troubles me. I am not satisfied to let it be. Like others, I have picked up things here and there from Williams, but this only makes me marvel all the more at his unique and searing journey. It is a Dantesque journey, for he loves America excessively, as if it were the truth and the subject; his exasperation is also excessive, as if there were no other hell. His flowers rustle by the superhighways and pick up all our voices.
A seemingly unending war has been going on for as long as I can remember between Williams and his disciples and the principals and disciples of another school of modern poetry. The Beats are on one side, the university poets are on the other. Lately [in the sixties] the gunfire has been hot. With such unlikely Williams recruits as Karl Shapiro blasting away, it has become unpleasant to stand in the middle in a position of impartiality.
The war is an old one for me. In the late thirties, I was at Kenyon College to study under John Crowe Ransom. The times hummed with catastrophe and ideological violence, both political and aesthetical. The English departments were clogged with worthy but outworn and backwardlooking scholars whose tastes in the moderns were most often superficial, random, and vulgar. Students who. wanted to write got little practical help from their professors. They studied the classics as monsters that were slowly losing their fur and feathers and leaking a little sawdust. What one did oneself was all chance and shallowness, and no profession seemed wispier and less needed than that of the poet.
My own group, that of Tate and Ransom, was all for the high discipline, for putting on the full armor of the past, for making poetry something that would take a man's full weight and that would bear his complete intelligence, passion, and subtlety. Almost anything, the Greek and Roman classics, Elizabethan dramatic poetry, seventeenth-century metaphysical verse, old and modern critics, aestheticians and philosophers, could be suppled up and again made necessary. The struggle perhaps centered on making the old metrical forms usable again to express the depths of one's experience.
For us, Williams was of course part of the revolution that had renewed poetry, but he was a byline. Opinions varied on his work. It was something fresh, secondary, and minor, or it was the best that free verse could do. He was the one writer with the substance, daring, and staying power to make the short free-verse poem something considerable. One was shaken when the radical conservative critic Yvor Winters spoke of Williams's "By the road to the contagious hospital" as a finer, more lasting piece of craftsmanship than "Gerontion."
Well, nothing will do for everyone. It's hard for me to see how I and the younger poets I was close to could at that time have learned much from Williams. It was all we could do to keep alive and follow our own heavy program. That time is gone, and now young poets are perhaps more conscious of the burden and the hardening of this old formalism. Too many poems have been written to rule. They show off their authors' efforts and mind, but little more. Often the culture seems to have passed them by. And, once more, Dr. Williams is a model and a liberator. What will come, I don't know.
Williams, unlike, say, Marianne Moore, seems to be one of those poets who can be imitated anonymously. His style is almost a common style and even what he claims for it the American style. Somehow, written without his speed and genius, the results are usually dull, a poem at best well-made but without breath.
Williams is part of the great breath of our literature. Paterson is our Leaves of Grass. The times have changed. A drastic experimental art is now expected and demanded. The scene is dense with the dirt and power of industrial society. Williams looks on it with exasperation, terror, and a kind of love. His short poems are singularly perfect thrusts, maybe the best that will ever be written of their kind, because neither the man nor the pressure will be found again. When I think of his last, longish autobiographical poems, I remember his last reading I heard. It was at Wellesley. I think about three thousand students attended. It couldn't have been more crowded in the widegalleried hall and I had to sit in the aisle. The poet appeared, one whole side partly paralyzed, his voice just audible, and here and there a word misread. No one stirred. In the silence he read his great poem "Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," a triumph of simple confession - somehow he delivered to us what was impossible, something that was both poetry and beyond poetry.
I think of going with Dr. Williams and his son to visit his mother, very old, almost a hundred, and unknowing, her black eyes boring through. And Williams saying to her, "Which would you rather see, us or three beautiful blonds?" As we left, he said, "The old bitch will live on but I may die tomorrow!" You could not feel shocked.
Few men had felt and respected anyone more than Williams had his old mother. And in seeing him out strolling on a Sunday after a heart attack: the town seemed to know him and love him and take him in its stride, as we will do with his great pouring of books, his part in the air we breathe and will breathe.
Robert Lowell died after suffering a heart attack in a New York City taxi in 1977.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Ray Bradbury poem about George Bernard Shaw's spade unearthed

George Bernard Shaw

Ray Bradbury poem about George Bernard Shaw's spade unearthed

Auction of Shaw’s much-loved spade will include SF legend’s unpublished tribute to the playwright and his garden implement

Alison Flood
Monday 22 September 2014

Ray Bradbury wrote of George Bernard Shaw’s spade: ‘The ghost of Shaw climbs up through me’

A spade once owned by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, which was hymned in verse by a subsequent owner, Ray Bradbury, will be auctioned in Los Angeles later this week.

Bradbury, a lifelong fan of Shaw’s, was given the spade as a Christmas present. Shaw had used the tool to plant a mulberry tree on his 80th birthday, in 1936. In the lengthy, unpublished poem, titled GBS and the Spade, Bradbury wrote of how, holding it, he could feel the Nobel laureate’s influence:
I hold the dear spade in my hands,

Its vibrant lightnings strike and move along my arms, 
The ghost of Shaw climbs up through me
I feel a fiery brambling of chin 
I feel my spine 
Stand straight as if a lightning bolt had struck 
His old voice whispers in my ear, dear boy 
Find Troy, go on, dig deep, find Troy, find Troy!

The Fahrenheit 451 author, who died in 2012 at the age of 91 and left some of the most acclaimed science fiction of the 20th century, had spoken many times of the influence Shaw had on his writing. In Steven Aggelis’s Conversations With Ray Bradbury, he said Shaw was the one person he would choose to interview, describing him as “the greatest playwright of our century”, and adding: “There was no one anywhere near him when it came to playwriting.”

Ray Bradbury’s unpublished poem, GBS and the Spade

Shaw won the Nobel prize in literature in 1925, “for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty”.
The spade bears a plaque reading: “With this spade Bernard Shaw planted a mulberry tree in the public garden in Great Malvern on his 80th birthday, the 26 July 1936. He then presented it to Harry Batchelor Higgs, his gardener and faithful friend for 34 years’’. It will be auctioned online by Nate D Sanders on 25 September, alongside other items from the Bradbury estate, including a large collection of art owned by the late author. Bids for the spade are to open at $5,000 (£3,000).

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

“America’s Sweetheart” / Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mary Pickford, and plummy vowels

Edna n St. Vincent Millay

“America’s Sweetheart”: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mary Pickford, and plummy vowels

Okay, okay, I admit it.  I was absolutely smitten with Edna St. Vincent Millay as a young teenage girl.  I would wander a quarter-mile down Lone Pine Road in the isolated outskirts our tony neighborhood, head into the woods and loudly recite Millay’s sonnets of disillusioned love to the cattails, red-winged blackbirds, and the frozen pond.  And it made me feel grand.
Well, perhaps I shouldn’t feel too embarrassed.  No less than an eminent authority than Richard Wilbur wrote, “She wrote some of the best sonnets of the century.”
Too bad I didn’t have a recording of her voice.  I didn’t know about “her resonant voice with its clipped consonants and plummy vowels” – that might have intimidated me into a little more sense and silence.
Kate Bolick writes about the pin-up poet of the 1920s in “Working Girl” over at  Bollick informs me that I was not the first.  As a young woman at Vassar, Millay “threw herself into campus cultural life, starring in plays, publishing poems, and cultivating her already magnetic personality into a persona that proved irresistible to a captive pool of young women ripe for seduction.”
Here’s one secret they didn’t know:  She was named after a hospital. Her mother, who raised three daughters alone, was a sort of itinerant nurse, and had some reason to be grateful to St. Vincent Hospital.  Voila!   So all you have to do to get a classy sounding name is head for the nearest emergency room.  (Wouldn’t work for me.  Nearest hospital is Stanford University Hospital.  Cynthia Stanford University Haven doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)
The Millay girls grew up poor, and the plucky girls were alone for days and had to look after each other.  One day in winter, I recall reading, the pipes broke, flooded the floors, and froze.  The girls ice-skated throughout the house.
Bolick writes:
There certainly wasn’t any money for college, so after Millay graduated from Camden High School in 1909, she stayed home writing poems and confiding her dissatisfactions to her journal. It was during this period that she drafted the epic, 214-line “Renascence,” which uses the topography of that little coastal burg—the mountains and bay islands and apple trees—to dramatize one woman’s spiritual oppression and mystical rebirth. Maine can get forbiddingly grim in winter, and it’s tempting to imagine the young poet sick with thinking she’ll never leave that godforsaken place, desperate to get out of the house at least, heroically pulling on her boots, trudging through the freezing slush, and eventually winding up at the local five and dime, idly flipping through a movie magazine. The year is 1912. There’s a big spread on the latest hit, The New York Hat, starring “America’s Sweetheart” (actually Canadian) Mary Pickford. It’s a silly film, about a girl and a hat. But what Millay sees is her more-or-less reflection. She and Pickford were born the same year. Like Millay, Pickford was barely over five feet tall and rarely exceeded 100 pounds, with a winsome face and masses of hair—“luminous tenderness in a steel band of gutter ferocity,” as one film critic put it. Millay pays for her hot cocoa and hurries back home, seed planted; soon enough, she’ll send that fetching portrait to the editor of the Lyric Year poetry contest.
That little scene is an invention, of course—I made it up. But there’s something potent in the idea of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Mary Pickford shining at opposite reaches of the same celestial firmament. In the 1910s, women were entering the public sphere in greater numbers just as the publishing and entertainment industries were gaining momentum, to mutually beneficial effect. Pickford, too, was raised in poverty by a single mother, and used her beauty and acting talents as her ticket out, inaugurating one of modern America’s most enduring fairy tales.
Millay is commonly thought to be the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (in 1923).  Not so, says Bolick. “In fact, she was the third. But who beyond poetry scholars remembers Sara Teasdale and Margaret Widdemer?”
I do sometimes.  Sara Teasdale, anyway …
It is not heaven: bitter seed
Leavens its entrails with despair
It is a star where dragons breed:
Devils have a footing there.

The sky has bent it out of shape;
The sun has strapped it to his wheel;
Its course is crooked to escape
Traps and gins of stone and steel.

It balances on air, and spins
Snared by strong transparent space;
I forgive it all its sins;
I kiss the scars upon its face.

Whoops. That’s Elinor Wylie, the third in the troika of American lyric poets of the period, with Millay and Teasdale.  Somehow Wylie and Teasdale have a tendency to blur in my mind, and sometimes Millay joins them.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Edna St Vincent Millay's poetry has been eclipsed by her personal life

Edna St Vincent Millay's poetry has been eclipsed by her personal life – let's change that

She was once deemed ‘the greatest woman poet since Sappho’ and won a Pulitzer – but Millay’s legacy has been overshadowed by her sexuality and addictions

Amandas Ong
Thu 22 Feb 2018

When pseudonymous Elena Ferrante’s identity was reportedly revealed in 2016, she reflected on the dangers of an author’s life dominating their work. “The book functions like a pop star’s sweaty T-shirt,” she wrote, “a garment that without the aura of the star is completely meaningless.”
Ferrante’s sentiment could easily be applied to Edna St Vincent Millay, another incandescent literary talent who lived decades before (born on 22 February, 1892). For far too long, Millay’s work has been overshadowed by her reputation. A party girl poet. A sexually adventurous bisexual. A morphine addict. But then Millay also won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1923; the following year, literary critic Harriet Monroe called Millay was “the greatest woman poet since Sappho”. In a review of a 2001 Millay anthology, the Atlantic proclaimed that “the first rule of modern literary biography is that the life renders the work incidental” – but what happens when the life begins to obscure the richness of the work? Focusing on Millay’s relationships with both men and women has been de rigueur for the last half century – so it is high time that her words were allowed the limelight again.

Where should one begin with Millay? She had a famed predilection for Petrarchan sonnets and rhyming couplets, at odds with prominent experimental modernists of the era, such as TS Eliot and Wallace Stevens. But Millay expanded the scope of these poetic forms, presenting a bold, sexually charged vision of the female experience. Her verses serve as a kind of elaborate architecture, housing the fickle, frenetic movements of the heart that falls in love and then out of it. Renascence and other poems (1917), which includes the 200-plus line poem that brought her acclaim, also boasts six sonnets, all of which are outstanding in this respect.
“If I should learn, in some quite casual way, / That you were gone, not to return again —,” she muses in Sonnet V, she would not cry in a public place, like a train; no, she’d “raise my eyes and read with greater care / Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.” This is classic Millay – how else can one grapple with the end of a love affair than to instinctively busy oneself with the mundane? But Millay never approached love and its vicissitudes with passive melancholy. In No Rose That in a Garden Ever Grew, she ponders cynically on the temporal nature of infatuation that drives the stories of women such as Lilith, Lucrece and Helen: “And thus as well my love must lose some part / Of what it is, had Helen been less fair, / Or perished young, or stayed at home in Greece.”

Her poems shimmer most when they reflect on the yearning to rebel against the constrained space granted to women’s voices in literature and life. Witch-Wife, written loosely in the style of a short folk ballad, is about a defiant woman who “learned her hands in a fairy-tale, / And her mouth on a valentine”, who will never belong to her beloved (“But she was not made for any man”). She weaves a haunting tale of sacrifice into Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree, about a woman caring for the dying husband she parted ways with years before. Millay embeds the crumbling marriage into the dullness of the chores this anonymous woman performs: cleaning the kitchen, building a fire that just won’t start. In The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, an impoverished mother freezes to death while weaving her son a luxuriant wardrobe filled with “the clothes of a king’s son”; long before Plath and Sexton, Millay was attacking the noose around the creative woman’s neck.
I Know I Am But Summer to Your Heart presumably describes unrequited feelings for another, although it takes on a different meaning when one thinks about Millay’s fall from grace towards the end of her life; she became ostracised by the literary community for her attempts at political poetry. Unlike other famed poets such as Siegfried Sassoon who were vociferous about the carnage and destruction of war, Millay collaborated directly with the Writers’ War Board for poetry that championed the allied forces. This, together with her spiral into drunkenness and drug addiction, spelt the end of her time in the limelight, although she never stopped writing. A revival of serious interest in her poetry is in order. And for those still obsessed with the details of her colourful life – well, they can find as much richness and more in her luminous work.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Rereading / Seamus Heaney on Czesław Miłosz's centenary

Czesław Miłosz

Seamus Heaney on Czesław Miłosz's centenary

Czesław Miłosz was a veteran of European turmoil. His fellow Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney pays tribute to a Polish poet poised between lyricism and witness

Seamus Heaney
Thu 7 Apr 2011

here is a story that Czesław Miłosz, on a return visit to his birthplace in Lithuania some 50 years after he had left, walked up to an oak tree and embraced it. An image of the return of the native, of course, but also an image of someone drawing strength – the psychic, moral and physical strength of a great poet – from his home ground.
The man with his arms around the trunk had needed all the strength he could muster to be able to stand alone for the previous half century, to be an exile, see his home country invaded, witness the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, the destruction of the ghetto, the doomed uprising of the Poles against the Germans and the eventual seizure of power by the communists. All of which formed a prelude to his 40-year stint as a professor in the Slavic languages department of the University of California at Berkeley.
Miłosz, whose centenary occurs this year, was born to a family of Polish-speaking landed gentry, a group that related to Poland rather as the Anglo-Irish gentry did to England. Over a lifetime, memories of the old manor grounds and surrounding woods provided him with his own vision of the land of youth. He attended university in Vilnius and as a young man moved to Warsaw, where he survived the war, working in the underground resistance, publishing anti-Nazi poems and, in 1943, writing "The World", one of the most bewitching sequences of the century.

What "The World" did, at a moment when brutality and atrocity were the daily reality, was to create a picture of the very opposite state of affairs. In this idyll, children are trusting and secure, parents kind and reliable, the landscape and seasons a storybook delight. And all this was presented while the country was in the cruel grip of the occupying army. But the childlike idiom – Miłosz called it "a naif poem" – was a deliberate artistic ploy that drew on William Blake's "Songs of Innocence" and scenes from an idealised childhood Lithuania. It was a case of beauty holding a plea with rage, a kind of answer to Shakespeare's question about how such a thing might be done.

One of the words that recur in Miłosz's prose and poetry is "incantation", meaning rhythmical language dictated, he would affirm, by a "daimonion". And from beginning to end the poems do seem to arrive with an unforced certitude, to be touching down into the here and now out of an elsewhere, as if he were "no more than a secretary of the invisible thing". And that brimming creativity gives credence to his traditional sense of himself as the inspired poet:
Whatever I hold in my hand, a stylus, reed, quill or a ballpoint,
Wherever I may be, on the tiles of an atrium, in a cloister cell, in a hall before the portrait of a king,
I attend to matters I have been charged with.
And yet the poem which opens on these long perspectives ("From the Rising of the Sun") is suddenly dramatising the displaced person's predicament in an immediate heartfelt idiom:
Never again will I kneel in my small country, by a river,
So that what is stone in me could be dissolved,
So that nothing would remain but my tears, tears.
"I attend to matters I have been charged with": having outlived many of his Polish contemporaries, having watched the Soviets clamp down in Poland, Lithuania and the other Baltic states, Miłosz saw it as his writerly responsibility to bear in mind the dead who had perished in the uprising and the concentration camps and those others who were still suffering in the gulags. Hence his poem "Dedication" and its much-cited lines, "What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?".
He was poised between lyricism and witness. In "The Poor Poet", written in Warsaw in 1944, the eponymous poet finds that his pen is putting forth twigs and leaves and blossoms and a scent that is "impudent", "like an insult to suffering humanity". This sense of guilt and the impulse to rebuke (himself as much as others) is a constant throughout the work, and never more powerfully deployed than in The Captive Mind, the prose book by which he was principally known in English until the poems began to be translated and published from the late 1970s (and then came the Nobel prize in 1980).
The Captive Mind attends sternly to matters Miłosz was charged with. Written in France in the mid-1950s, it is a j'accuse directed at members of the Polish intelligentsia who had succumbed to the lure of Marxism. It is, however, written with such insight into those particular minds as they become captivated that it is clear the poet must have thought and known, "There but for the grace of God go I". And in fact Miłosz had gone a little bit of the way, had worked as a secretary in the diplomatic service of the People's Republic of Poland, a post he relinquished when it became clear that the regime was being sovietised and Stalinised.
The Captive Mind is as much a meditation as it is a polemic, yet Miłosz had an equal or more than equal gift for praise and elegy: "It seems I was called for this," he would eventually declare, "To glorify things just because they are." And yet such praise was hard-earned since there was always an inner accuser or sceptic who could see his kind and his calling as "A tournament of hunchbacks, literature".
It was the strange destiny of this poet so entangled in dread historical experience to end up in 1960 in Berkeley. This was the dawn of the era of the loose garment and the waterbed, of flower power and the love-in, and Miłosz, veteran of the European turmoil, was to spend almost the whole of his life there. His eyrie was a small house on a hill above Berkeley, which afforded with hallucinatory clarity a view of San Francisco Bay. "I did not expect to live in such an unusual moment . . . / Roads on concrete pillars, cities of glass and cast iron, / airfields larger than tribal dominions." At the same time, as his poem "Gift" attests, California wasn't all anti-Vietnam protests and lightness of being: it did provide him Edenic moments.
Miłosz, however, had his own counter-cultural practices, attending Sunday Mass at the Catholic church near the university, and the visionary qualities that prevail in the poems have their origin in his strongly religious sensibility. There is something unabashed about his readiness to pull out all the stops, as at the end of "And yet the books", where the books, "In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up, / Tribes on the march . . ." "will be there on the shelves, well born, / Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights".
This impulse towards the transcendent contributed to his faith in poetry itself, up until the very end when he returned to the land of his "faithful mother tongue" and lived in Kraków. As he writes in his poem on reading the Japanese poet Issa: "To know and not to speak. / In that way one forgets. / What is pronounced strengthens itself. / What is not pronounced tends to non-existence."
What distinguishes Miłosz as a poet is the abundance and spontaneity of the work, his at-homeness in so many different genres and landscapes, his desire for belief and his equally acute scepticism. Chiefly, however, what irradiates the poetry and compels the reader is a quality of wisdom. Everything is carried and feels guaranteed by the voice. Even in translation, even when he writes in a didactic vein, there is a feeling of phonetic undertow, that the poem is a trawl, not just talk. And this was true of the work he did right up to his death in Kraków in 2004.
Miłosz once wrote: "The child who dwells inside us trusts that there are wise men somewhere who know the truth." At this centenary moment, he himself has become one of those wise men.
 This article was amended on 12 April 2011. The original referred to the poem "And the books". This has been corrected.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Wisława Szymborska / Consolation



Wisława Szymborska
They say he read novels to relax, 
But only certain kinds: 
nothing that ended unhappily. 
If anything like that turned up, 
enraged, he flung the book into the fire. 

True or not, 
I’m ready to believe it. 

Scanning in his mind so many times and places, 
he’d had enough of dying species, 
the triumphs of the strong over the weak, 
the endless struggles to survive, 
all doomed sooner or later. 
He’d earned the right to happy endings, 
at least in fiction 
with its diminutions. 

Hence the indispensable 
silver lining, 
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, 
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, 
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, 
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, 
good names restored, greed daunted, 
old maids married off to worthy parsons, 
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, 
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, 
seducers scurrying to the altar, 
orphans sheltered, widows comforted, 
pride humbled, wounds healed over, 
prodigal sons summoned home, 
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean, 
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, 
general merriment and celebration, 
and the dog Fido, 
gone astray in the first chapter, 
turns up barking gladly