I'm deep into writing By Heart: A Prison Conversation, and just re-read what I wrote in Disguised as a Poem about Milosz's visit to the prison.
I haven't been able to spend much time on Red Room these days, but I did catch a bit of the thread about Famous Writers I've Met. So here is a shorted-version of the pages I wrote about meeting Milosz.
One writer whose vision I cherished, was Czeslaw Milosz. Born in Lithuania in 1911, Milosz had lived through much of the horror the twentieth century had to offer: his own country was occupied now by Poland, now by the USSR; he lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Warsaw; he first served, then broke with, Communist Poland; he spent most of the 1950’s in exile. Milosz’s poems conveyed both the cruelty he had witnessed and the joy of being a creature with consciousness, alive on this planet, able to witness. I loved these poems’ ability to express the limitations of being human, while always remaining on the side of the human.
But, when I brought in a few of his poems to class, Elmo had arguments to pick with Milosz. Elmo read from “Bobo’s Metamorphosis”: “But metaphor seemed to him something indecent,” and asked, “Why is this man afraid of the power of language?”
Elmo referred to Carolyn Forché’s, “The Colonel,” pointing out, “When Forché had to describe that bag full of severed human ears the Salvadorian colonel shook in her face, she wrote: ‘They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this.’ Metaphor was the most accurate description she could find.”
“But, Elmo,” I argued. “Your own beloved Neruda once wrote: ‘The blood of the children ran in the street/like the blood of children.’ Even Neruda, metaphor-maker extraordinaire, saw a horror so profound, the only way he could convey it was to let the fact stand for itself. He knew comparing the spilled blood of children to anything else would cheapen the truth.”
Elmo acknowledged my point, but let me know that his preference was for a poetry of passionate language. Milosz’s poetry seemed distanced to Elmo.
“There is distance, but there’s passion, too. That’s what I love about Milosz. Look at what follows the line you quoted: ‘By looking he wanted to draw the name from the very thing.’ Does that sound like a dispassionate wish to you?”
Elmo certainly understood what I was saying, but he wasn’t drawn in by what seemed to him a mental passion. Instead he wanted to be overwhelmed and seduced by the energy of a poem’s language. I was attracted to, and distrustful of, both passion and distance, and so treasured Milosz’s paradoxical vision.
Astounded at the nerve required even to think the thought, I decided to ask the Nobel Prize winner... if he would come to our class as a guest... Milosz himself answered the phone and said yes, he’d visit our class…
... Milosz sat at a desk in Four Post going over the material he’d brought to share with the men. He read from an interview with a political prisoner in Uruguay. The man spoke of his effort, in prison, to recall lines from Homer. He ached to lose himself in literature, and spent most of his time reconstructing in his mind the work he loved, line by line.
I told Milosz that my students said they could not afford to lose themselves. I told him how, when I had declared one task of a poet to be that of attention, my students had laughed. “Judith,” Gabriel had said, “if attention is what it takes, then we’re all master poets. We have to pay minute attention in here. We all notice if the trash can on the Upper Yard has been moved six inches from one day to the next. Our lives may depend on such detail.”
... Officer Weichel walked into Four Post, told us that inmates were just now being released for chow and asked if, while we waited, Milosz would like to see a cell block...
… The overripe smells of dinner and sweat filled the space. A man on third tier yelled out his next move in checkers to his opponent two tiers below. A man on the second tier stood handcuffed, wearing only his shorts, while two guards searched his cell. Some men were singing, some were hooting at me, some were debating the news with others three cells over. Across from the tiers of cells, gunwalks jutted into the blocks. Officers sat there or walked, patrolling, looking across into the cells for possible trouble.
… Milosz’s stunned response was, “What does a man do here if he wants to study?” (He)described European prisons which had no bars, but solid doors. The primary rule in those prisons, he told us, was silence.
...In (class), Milosz talked about good and evil. Leo protested, “There’s no such thing; good and evil are subjective.”
“You say that because you’re an American,” Milosz nodded. “But to any twentieth century European, evil is not subjective.”
Leo stuck to his position and Milosz shrugged: he understood this view. Milosz told us about a philosopher friend. When she was little, she asked her father, “Is that tree real or am I only imagining it?” He told her it was real because he saw it and her mother saw it, too. But, the little girl said, maybe they were all imagining the same tree. Her father took her then to a hot stove and said, “If you put your finger in there, it will be real heat.” Milosz said, still, she was never completely convinced.
… Milosz declared that if there were no objectivity, everything would be a jumble. He said we need to perceive order and that art, therefore, requires removal and distance. To a room filled with protests, Milosz replied that art was not life; life, unlike art, Milosz agreed, requires “moral indignation.”