He is a wolf, hunting history, haunted by the past. A poet in exile, a singer of songs, a stranger. Perhaps poets are always strangers in their way, wild in their sorrows, wary of the world. It is not his fault. Czeslaw Milosz smiles, curling his thin straight lips. "My desire was to be as normal a human being as possible," he says, and his accent caresses the words. "But everything fell apart and I became an abnormal human being. It was my destiny. How can you analyze a destiny?"
He is 71, still handsome. His dark hair comes down to a point on a vast plain of forehead, his cavernous eyes are shielded by thick eyebrows that move in contrapuntal rhythm to his other features; they leap straight up like alarmed dancers, against the grain of ironic amusement that dominates the rest of his expression.
Two years ago, Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel prize, but still he shakes his head at how difficult it is to communicate, to make his meaning clear. There is, of course, the problem of language: "I write my poetry only in Polish," he says. "It is a matter of principle; I think poetry should be written in the language of one's childhood." But more important, there is the problem of time and of place: The gulf between the past and the present is so wide.
He comes from a country where history has been vicious, annihilating, unremorseful. He lives in a country that is still obstinately young, its scars the metaphysical ones acquired from wars fought on foreign soil. "For somebody who has certain experiences, as we had in Poland, the divisions are infinitely more tragic. There is a certain line dividing us from you, there are certain things that escape comprehension, they have to be touched to be understood."
And so his poetry is dark and difficult, although he says that this too is not what he intended. "My poetry," he says, "is dictated by peculiar historical tragedies in Europe, and many times it was forced upon me. Maybe I didn't want to write about very sad things. But there was no choice."
His life has straddled the chaos and the cataclysms of the 20th century. He fought in the Resistance in World War II and entered the diplomatic corps of the fledgling Polish republic after the war, serving for a time as cultural attache' in Washington. But Stalinism sickened him--"I saw things which turned my stomach upside down"--and he left Poland in 1951, emigrating to Paris. In 1960, he returned to the United States as a professor of Slavic literature at the University of California at Berkeley.
He lives there still, writing, under the benevolent light of the California sun, in a country of easy consummation and temporary passion, poems about the past, about horror, about life in the abyss of the 20th century.
He grew up in Vilnius, in what was then a rare and lovely city, in what is now the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was, he says, a city of severe winters and steep hills, scarred by fires and the erosion of each successive era. He talks of the old castle standing guard over the years, the mosaic of languages and cultures, the medieval Jewish quarter--he cherishes the city, the complexity of meaning it holds for him, the way in which history was visible there. "I have," he says, "a kind of intimate relationship with the past."
Which makes it difficult to think of Milosz living in California, where the relationship with the past is about as intimate as drinks at the Polo Lounge. Yes, he says, there is a certain dissonance, and tells the story of a colleague at Berkeley who is writing a history of Marin County. "We are talking about a few decades, beginning with the end of the 18th century, the missions, the destruction of the missions, the rise of a new capitalist economy, the Indians, and the reasons why they died out--all of this incredibly human history, but nobody knows about it, there is no visible trace, no record. Each historical phase, one erases another, nobody notices the interrelationship."
What is missing, what is missed, he is asked, when the past is treated so cavalierly? "It depends," he says, "on the historical and political context. People in Poland are very attached to the past, but the meaning of the past changes according to circumstance. I think in the case of a foreign occupation, the past in America would acquire more meaning."
Even after 30 years, he maintains an exile's distance; perhaps it is the way he protects himself. In the beginning, "I was convinced my career as a poet was finished, that I would lose my touch with people, with the language. So I was desperate." But the writing returned, the exile's isolation forcing out the words.
When Milosz lived in Washington as a cultural attache' he asked the French poet and diplomat St.-John Perse about his experience as an exile. "The more abstract the better," said Perse.
If you have the ruins of a castle in a city, Milosz explains, if you are surrounded by the legends of the past, your imagination has an anchor. If the points of reference are lacking, you have to create everything in yourself. "California is a general abstraction. It is nowhere. I feel that California is a symbolic character for the whole planet. In a way, California forced me to explore my own past. It was a kind of Proustian operation; constantly men and women from the past visit my dreams."
Milosz returned to Poland last summer, after an absence of 30 years. His work, proscribed for so long, was being published once again, and the minister of culture gave him a reception in the summer palace. The irony of the honor is observed for one moment and then he talks of Lech Walesa. "He's a wonderful man," he says. "I admire him profoundly. We paid compliments to each other, but they were genuine. I told him that I considered him my leader. He said that he had gone to jail because of my poetry. It was very emotional."
Even then, he said, the fear was palpable in Poland. "It was an intrepid 16 months of constant struggle of people against their own fear," he said. "Some couldn't take it; I knew of cases of suicides from the constant fear." And yet they continue, as they always have continued. "For some complex reasons, there is a whole basic belief in the goodness of this world, that the good must prevail, that justice must persist, that a miracle might happen."
It is very moving, he says. It is not the way he looks at things. "There is a very dark vision of the world in my work. I have always had to combat in myself a tendency to pessimism. But I am a great partisan of human hope. Man cannot live without a dimension of hope; we cannot live in society just as it is. A Russian writer who admired Byzantium said, 'Show me another state that would last 1,000 years.' " And Czeslaw Milosz laughs a deep and luxurious laugh.
It is so difficult, this question of communication, but even so he stands at the podium and reads his poems to the audience which has overflowed the auditorium at the Library of Congress. It is a hushed and attentive crowd, straining to hear every word, the complicated images, the dense vision, triumphant over the shriek of headlines, the tug of dailiness. "The life of a poet is a permanent defeat," he tells them. "Trying to grasp something that eludes his grasp."
He reads his poems in English and in Polish, invoking the universe, trying to touch the souls of men, a brave and lonely effort that leaves him oddly vulnerable, standing there at the podium, despite the laurels, the long life, the lessons learned: He reads from one of his poems, "Ars Poetica?" "The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will. What I'm saying here is not, I agree, poetry, as 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."