Czeslaw Milosz (1911 - 2004) is as usual both direct and subtle in examining our relations with the world and our time in it. But it’s a reality mediated through art: not just the realistic Dutch Golden-Age painting the narrator admires, but the choral song of the imagined, painted figures, and the poem itself. This is from the collection Facing the River:
We are not so badly off, if we can
Admire Dutch painting. For that means
We shrug off what we have been told
For a hundred, two hundred years. Though we lost
Much of our previous confidence. Now we agree
That those trees outside the window, which probably exist,
Only pretend to greenness and treeness
And that the language loses when it tries to cope
With clusters of molecules. And yet, this here:
A jar, a tin plate, a half-peeled lemon,
Walnuts, a loaf of bread, last – and so strongly
It is hard not to believe in their lastingness.
And thus abstract art is brought to shame,
Even if we do not deserve any other.
Therefore I enter those landscapes
Under a cloudy sky from which a ray
Shoots out, and in the middle of dark plains
A spot of brightness glows. Or the shore
With huts, boats, and on yellowish ice
Tiny figures skating. All this
Is here eternally, just because once it was.
Splendor (certainly incomprehensible)
Touches a cracked wall, a refuse heap,
The floor of an inn, jerkins of the rustics,
A broom, and two fish bleeding on a board.
Rejoice! Give thanks! I raised my voice
To join them in their choral singing,
Amid their ruffles, collets, and silk skirts,
One of them already, who vanished long ago,
And our song soared up like smoke from a censer.
– Czeslaw Milosz (translated by Milosz and Robert Hass)
Milosz taught at Berkeley for many years. I heard about him because I happened to work in the Dining Commons of my dorm with a girl of Ukrainian descent who was majoring in Slavic studies, the department in which he taught. At the time the poetry I read was mostly dramatic or epic, and I had never heard of him, but I signed up for his course on Dostoevsky, which she had recommended. Later I also took his courses on Polish Literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My friend had mentioned that he was much better known in Europe than in the United States, but that all changed after he won the Nobel Prize in 1980. I happened to be in his Dostoevsky discussion section that day. I almost skipped class since I had a bad headache and it was an optional discussion section rather than a lecture, but I decided to go anyway because I enjoyed the class. I saw some TV cameras outside the classroom, but though it wasn’t common it also wasn’t that unusual for professors to be filmed during class, so I didn’t think much of it. Inside the classroom someone had a copy of the afternoon paper (that sure dates this story) with a banner headline saying Cal Prof Wins Nobel Prize, with a photo of Professor Milosz below. "Oh my God!" I said. "I know!" someone else said. Professor Milosz arrived on time, looking only slightly flustered, very firmly shut the door on the three or four TV reporters outside, and spoke briefly to the dozen or so of us in the room about winning the Nobel Prize. One of the girls happened to have a flower with her, which he picked up and absent-mindedly played with while he spoke. He basically said, In life you go on doing what you think you should be doing, and sometimes you end up winning the Nobel Prize. Now we will talk about Dostoevsky.
And so we did.