THE AWARD of the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature to the Polish poet, novelist, essayist, scholar, and translator Czelaw Milosz does not suddenly thrust into the limelight a great writer mired in the obscurity of a "lesser" culture or cherished just by a small community of self-congratulatory illuminati. since two other Polish writers have been so honored in this centry (Henryk Sienkiewicz, in 1905, and Wladtslaw Reymont, in 1924) and a substantial body of Polish literature, especially of the 20th century, is available in English, Polish culture cannot continue to be parochially regarded as distinguished above all by parochialism, worth noticing perhaps when political events jog consciousness.
Yet the intertwining of politics and culture in East Europe remains an inescapable reality and it was for his dissection of that relationship in The Captive Mind that Milosz first attracted international attention in the Cold War climiate of the early 1950's. The Prix Litteraire Europeen awarded his political novel The Seizure of Power in 1955 confirmed the celebrity status of the Polish writer, who in 1951 changed the course of his life by spurning a recall to Warsaw from his post in Paris as cultural attache of the Embassy of the Polish People's Republic.
If the world came to know Milosz as the gifted defector whose prose works bared the dilemmas of conscience faced by intellectuals in a Communist society, the reader of Polish has been aware of a poet of the first magnitude considered by man, in fact, as the foremost Post poet of this century. Beginning with the characteristically apocalyptic volumes of the 1930's A Poem in Time Frozen (1933) and Three winters (1936), Milosz has never ceased being a poet and it is as a poet that we must come to know him better.
Of the early "catastrophist" poetry, the deeply humanistic poems of the German occupation, and the six postwar volumes published by the Polish emigre Instytut Literacki (Literary Institute) of Paris, far too little is available in English. Furthermore, as with Milosz's quasi-autobiographical Native Realm , were it not for the interst stimulated by the Nobel Prize, even that little would have been out of print long ago. Selected Poems is a case in point. Containing some 50 poems, it is the only representative collection of Milosz's verse in English. Originally published by The Seabury Press in 1973, it might be unavailable today had the Nobel award not prompted a new edition, with slight revisions, by The Ecco Press in 1980.
Unaccompanied by even the most modest biographical or critical apparatus (for which Kenneth Rexroth's flattering introductory remarks in the 1973 edition are no substitute) and offering no information as to which collections the poems were culled from or, in most cases, when they were written, Selected Poems at least affords a preliminary acquaintance. The subject range is broad, but certain concerns become recurrent: the hardship of reconciling appearance and reality, the banality of the narrowly denominational and national, the reverence for life that can only wonder in mute angish at the destructiveness of man and yet refuse to succumb to the self-destructiveness of despair, the experience and fear of loss expressed as reluctance to accept the bonds of the material and ephemeral, the sense of a nature infinite in its capacity to heal, the nostalgia for the landscape of a faraway home, the indivisibility of past and present, and the obligated specialness of the poet. Rooted in life and the mysteries of man, Milosz's intellectual suppleness rarely shapes images in heremetic exclusivity. Disarmingly casual in tone, the poems often engage by the reach of dialogue.
Enhancing the readability of Milosz in English is the excellence of translation, and for that we have to thank Milosz himself. Possessed of a great zest and talent for translation, which he had demonstrated in his own translations (into Polish) from English (Milton, Browning, Whitman, Sandburg, Robinson Jeffers, Vachel Lindsay), Spanish (Lorca, Jorge Carrera Andrada), French (especially his French relation, the poet Oscar Milosz, 1877-1939, to whom he acknowledges a profound intellectual and literary debt), and Hebrew (the Psalms), Milosz has also Englished many of his own poems, as well as those of favorite Polish poets. Moreover, he has worked closely with and nurtured other translators, the two most prominent of whom -- Catherine Leach and Louis Iribarne -- deserve special commendation for the splendid translations of Native Realm and The Issa Valley , respectively.
To emphasize Milosz the poet and lament the paucity of his poetry in translation is not to slight his achievements in prose, where the foreign reader has been better served. It was as a prose writer that Milosz was catapulted beyond the confines of the Polish emigre literary community in Paris and it is in a variety of prose forms, above all the essay, that he has demonstrated an astonishing range of literary, philosophical, and social interests.
Some of Milosz's essays on 19th- and 20th-century Polish and Russian writers appeared in English in 1977 in the volume Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision . But too many more -- on French, American, Polish, and Russian literatures, on 18th-century European mysticism (Blake, Swedenborg), and on society and culture in France, were he lived from 1951 to 1960, and America, which has been his home since 1960 as a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of California at Berkeley -- have yet to be translated. In view of Milosz's long residence in the United States and his keen interest in and knowledge of American culture, his Views Over the Bay of San Francisco , devoted wholly to American themes, would be a fitting point of departure of the five volumes still accessible only in Polish.
If Milosz the poet and essayist awaits further discovery, Milosz the writer of the self is amply displayed in Native Realm and The Issa Valley . Although conveniently characterized as autobiographical, neither truly is; nor are they new works. The earliest of the two, The Issa Valley was published in Polish the same year as The Seizure of Power , 1955, and despite its great charm was overshadowed by the political novel. It is making its appearance in English for the first time in 1981. Native Realm (Native Europe , in the original) made its debut in 1959. The English translation appeared only in 1968, with no great resonance. But Milosz's receipt of the Neustadt Prize for Literature in 1978, followed by the Nobel Prize, prompted a reissue.
The key to the understanding of Native Realm and The Issa Valley (and they are best read in that reverse chronological order) is the remark Milosz makes of himself in his as yet untranslated book of essays Private Obligations (1972): "I was not born in Poland, I was not raised in Poland, I do not live in Poland, but I write in Polish, which may not seem so unusual in view of the fact that the greatest Polish artist was never in Warsaw or Cracow and took Lithuania for his Muse."
In Native Realm and The Issa Valley, both exercises in different modes of self-definition, Milosz parses himself in terms of the social and cultural forces that shaped both the man and the artist. The locus of these forces was the multi-ethnic Lithuanian region of the old Polish Commonwealth.
The establishment of an independent Lithuania after World Ward I and the Soviet ingestion of that state, including Milosz's native city of Wilno (Vilnius now), after World War II, stripped Poland of the last remmants of a region that had played a vital role in its history and produced some of its leading writers and political figures.
Like the great Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), to whom he alludes in the above-quoted lines and with whom his own career in emigration has certain parallels, Milosz views himself primarily in regional rather than national terms. The product of culturally Polonized Lithuania, Milosz's language may be Polish but his writing in Polish and assimilation of a Polish literary heritage do not imply the concomitant uncritical acceptance of a system of traditional Polish values. That is why he resists typecasting both as "Pole" and, especially, as "Polish emigre" since the associational baggage does not carry his nametags. Participation in Polish literature is, to Milosz, a participation, above all, in European culture (as the original title of Native Realm is meant to suggest), but the realm of the soul remains that of the valley of the Issa River in Lithuania, an area of dense forests, small villages, and the supernatural beliefs endemic to a rural population among whom vestiges of pre-Christian paganism lingered late.
Native Realm is an illuminating account of Milosz's coming-of-age in the cosmopolitan Wilno of the 1920's and '30s, the expansion of his intellectual and cultural horizons, and his anything but ordinary experiences during and after the war. If we look here for any extensive discussion of the poet's accommodation with the new postwar Polish Communist government, his service in its diplomatic corps, his defection emigre life in Paris, and subsequent migration to America, we will be sorely disappointed. Politics is not the measure of the man and weighs little on the scale of self-assessment.
The expository design of Native Realm suits Milosz's purpose of isolating the various elements of history, education, and environment that entered into the formation of a mind. With The Issa Valley , however, the writer again becomes a poet reconstructing in lyrical prose the childhood past preceding the urbanized culturization described in Native Realm . The act of recall is much like that of Mickiewicz in Pan Tadeusz (Master Thaddeu , l834), the most revered work of poetry in the Polish language. Mickiewicz's evocation of a Polish Lithuanian childhood took the form of an outwardly traditional 12-book epic. Here, the epic structure gives way to a series of loosely related images of the early youth of a boy named Thomas narrated by an omniscient author for whom the fictive mode assures the perspective of distance and the primacy of artistic transformation.
Whatever their differences in composition, Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz and Milosz's The Issa Valley sprang from the same urgency to strengthen a spirit fretted by the uncertainties of a life in emigration, to find a small island of stability in a violent sea of change. With both authors, the need expressed itself as an uncannily brilliant, as if magical, recollection of a happy childhood summoned from far away in time and space, reconstituted as myth, and so rendered impervious to the erosion of fading memory. Native Realm defines the man within a culture; The Issa Valley exposes a soul set in a landscape of primal instincts greater than the artifacts of any culture.