21 April 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/17

For National Poetry Month, poets writing on poets: Czeslaw Milosz to Allen Ginsberg

To Allen Ginsberg

Allen, you good man, great poet of the murderous century, who persisting in folly attained wisdom.

I confess to you, my life was not as I would have liked it to be.

And now, when it has passed, is lying like a discarded tire by the road.

It was no different from the life of millions against which you rebelled in the name of poetry and of an omnipresent God.

It was submitted to customs in full awareness that they are absurd, to the necessity of getting up in the morning and going to work.

With unfulfilled desires, even with the unfulfilled desire to scream and beat one's head against the wall, repeating to myself the command "It is forbidden."

It is forbidden to indulge yourself, to allow yourself idleness, it is forbidden to think of your past, to look for the help of a psychiatrist or a clinic.

Forbidden from a sense of duty but also because of the fear of unleashing forces that would reveal one to be a clown.

And I lived in the America of Moloch, short-haired, clean-shaven, tying neckties and drinking bourbon before the TV set every evening.

Diabolic dwarfs of temptations somersaulted in me, I was aware of their presence and I shrugged: It will pass together with life.

Dread was lurking close, I had to pretend it was never there and that I was united with others in a blessed normalcy.

Such schooling in vision is also, after all, possible, without drugs, without the cut-off ear of Van Gogh, without the brotherhood of the best minds behind the bars of psychiatric wards.

I was an instrument, I listened, snatching voices out of a babbling chorus, translating them into sentences with commas and periods.

As if the poverty of my fate were necessary so that the flora of my memory could luxuriate, a home for the breath and for the presence of bygone people.

I envy your courage of absolute defiance, words inflamed, the fierce maledictions of a prophet.

The demure smiles of ironists are preserved in the museums, not as everlasting art, just as a memento of unbelief.

While your blasphemous howl still resounds in a neon desert where the human tribe wanders, sentenced to unreality.

Walt Whitman listens and says, "Yes, that's the way to talk, in order to conduct men and women to where everything is fulfillment. Where they would live in a transubstantiated moment."

And your journalistic clichés, your beard and beads and your dress of a rebel of another epoch are forgiven.

And we do not look for what is perfect, we look for what remains of incessant striving.

Keeping in mind how much is owed to luck, to a coincidence of words and things, to a morning with white clouds, which later seems inevitable.

I do not ask from you a monumental oeuvre that would rise like a medieval cathedral over a French flatland.

I myself had such a hope, yet half-knowing already that the unusual changes into the common.

That in the planetary mixture of languages and religions we are no more remembered than the inventors of the spinning wheel or of the transistor.

Accept this tribute from me, who was so different, yet in the same unnamed service.

For lack of a better term letting it pass as the practice of composing verses.

Czeslaw Milosz, translated from the Polish by the author and Robert Hass

Towards the end of a long life, Milosz, a philosophical, professorial refugee long resident in the United States, praises, with characteristic generosity and thoughtfulness, Allen Ginsberg, a very different type of man and poet.

As has been the case with some of the other tribute poems this month, the poem references the characteristic style of the poet being praised. It is written in the long loping lines Ginsberg used, and reference is made to one of the major sources for this style, Walt Whitman, an outsider poet of inclusiveness important to both Ginsberg and Milosz. (This style in the English-language tradition probably dates back to the King James Bible translations of the Psalms in 1611, and its origin in and echoes of religious, particularly prophetic, verse, is important to both poets here.) There are other explicit references to Ginsberg, particularly to Howl – not just the direct reference to his "blasphemous howl" that "still resounds in a neon desert where the human tribe wanders, sentenced to unreality" but also to the "best minds" (of his generation, which Ginsberg saw "destroyed by madness") and to psychiatric clinics and to Moloch, the false god who demands the sacrifice of children, come down to us from the Old Testament and frequently used by Ginsberg as a symbol of the destructive, war-mongering corporate/social machinery of America.

Milosz opens by praising Ginsberg, placing him in the tradition of seers as a sort of Holy Fool "who persisting in folly attained wisdom." Milosz, who lived through Hitler's invasion of Poland, the Warsaw uprising, and the Soviet takeover of Poland, might seem to us to be himself a "great poet of the murderous century," but he claims no particular moral monopoly based on these coincidences of biography; instead he reminds us of Ginsberg's long poetic opposition to many of the forces that made this such a murderous century. Milosz confesses to him, as one would to a priest (the use of "confess" is part of a pattern of religious language here, as is "transubstantiated" later on).

Milosz compares his life to a "discarded tire by the road": a simile that evokes the world Ginsberg opposed, the wasteful industrial excess of capitalism, which despoils environments and lives. The tire also reminds us of our omnipresent automobiles, so frequently traveling places we don't really need or even want to go. Milosz describes his life as one of Thoreauvian quiet despair similar to that led by many American men: the submission to "customs in the full awareness that they are absurd, to the necessity of getting up in the morning and going to work"; short-haired, clean-shaven, necktied, ending his exhausted evenings drinking before the TV set. This description of how one dresses for the workplace is very much of the period when both Milosz and Ginsberg were active, from say roughly the 1950s into the early 1980s (as is the use of the TV set as shorthand for disappointing, probably mindless entertainment; this was before the explosion of possibilities brought about by cable channels, DVDs, and downloading). It is less true of the workplace now, but although many people like to pretend that longer hair, beards, and casual clothing have changed things, they have not, and the underlying reality is the same. (Personally I have always liked neckties, the one potentially original and useless article of clothing a man can get away with wearing at work, and I am sorry that it would now be considered somewhat eccentric to wear them regularly.) The life Milosz describes here is obviously not quite the life he lived – few of these salarymen went home and wrote great poetry, despite the example of Wallace Stevens,; and Milosz was a professor, not an office worker, though academic life as much as any other involves empty routine and conformity to absurdity. But it's close enough to accurate to show an approach to life "no different from the life of millions," a life lived in internal exile, partly from fear of looking silly, the life that Ginsberg, the radical gay beatnik poet, pointedly and rebelliously did not live.

Yet Milosz also points out what this life gave him. His awareness of the "diabolical dwarfs of temptation," of "dread lurking close," gave him a form of spiritual awareness, an opening to the "babbling chorus" of humanity around him: voices of witness and memory and occasional beauty: he was given access to the poetic vision without needing the drugs Rimbaud used to induce a deliberate derangement of the senses, or without the mental illness of Van Gogh or Carl Solomon (to whom Howl is dedicated). He praises Ginsberg's "courage of defiance," his "fierce maledictions of a prophet," contrasting these with his own more measured reactions, the "demure smiles of ironists" (but it is because he is an ironist that each line of this poem rewards thoughtful attention). But he is aware that Ginsberg's is a lone and very individual voice, whereas his voice allows others to speak as well, providing "a home for the breath and for the presence of bygone people" – a voice ultimately of considered memory and history.

He mentions some of Ginsberg's flaws – the occasional lapse into journalistic ready-made reactions and language, his sometimes trendy appearance (beads, flowers, stripes, the dated look of hippiedom) which can look absurdly restricted to a particular period once that period has passed – only to dismiss them as ultimately irrelevant. He is not looking for perfection, or even a mighty body of work; he is looking for "what remains of incessant striving" – for the seeking of spiritual growth, for what can move humanity ever so slightly towards some sort of enlightenment. His feeling that Whitman, the visionary demigod of American poetry, would approve is based on the strong belief shared by Whitman and Ginsberg that America needs the prophetic voice to lead it to fulfillment (and we should remember that the skeptical, ironic intellectual Milosz, in the poem Dedication written in Warsaw in 1945, asked, "What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people? / A connivance with official lies, / A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment, / Readings for sophomore girls.").

Milosz then moves to reminding us how much of life is chance and happenstance, lucky coincidences that enable us to do what afterwards might look inevitable to us, but was really due only to the fortunate circumstances of a few mornings when everything happened to come together in the right way for us. In the long run, the prophets as well as the ironists are forgotten, even if they did manage some small success in moving humanity forward (forgotten as much as the inventor or inventors of the spinning wheel, which was one of the crucial inventions of civilization, or of the transistor, which stands in for the explosion of technology in the past few decades). In the end, both types of poets have sought to transcend this workaday world – to transubstantiate their moments. This is the "unnamed service" both of them worked for, for which poetry is the shell: Milosz claims no great priestly role for poetry itself, and in naming what both he and Ginsberg have in common says, almost with a shrug, "for lack of a better term let it pass as the practice of composing verses."

I took this from Facing the River by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by the author and Robert Hass.


Michael Strickland said...

Lovely explication, one of your best.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank you! I'm very glad you liked it. Thanks for letting me know.