A Sacred Vision: An Interview with
Czeslaw Milosz

By Cynthia L. Haven


The late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky hailed Czesaw Miosz as the greatest living poet, praising ³a severe and relentless mind of such intensity that the only parallel one is able to think of is that of the biblical characters, most likely Job.² That intensity has drawn journalists, scholars, and fans to the hills above Berkeley, where the Nobel laureate poet lived for decades in his Grizzly Peak home, a secluded Tudor-style cottage buried amid ivy and trees. I too was drawn to his home in February and March 2000.
    The dates are significant: Miosz was to leave for Krakow a few months later, and these may possibly be his last American interviews. Arranging a meeting with the Polish poet, then eighty-nine years old, was as carefully planned as a satellite launch; the poetıs health had been precarious, and it took months of negotiation to schedule a suitable time for an interview. It was worth the wait.
    Mioszıs face is softer, paler, rounder than it appears in the photos that have made his face a literary icon, though the trademark bushy eyebrows still give him a slightly forbidding look. But if his replies seemed hesitant, whimsical, or elliptical, his edge was as sharp as ever as he continued to prepare poems, articles, and manuscripts for the tenth decade of his astonishing life.


In the past, you delivered some strong words about the state of poetry today. For example, ³behind the interplay of phenomena there is a meaningful world structure to which our hearts and minds are allied. Everything, however, conspires to destroy that supposition, as if it were a remnant of our faith in the miraculous.² Also: ³A glass wall of conventions rises between a poet and reality² and you warned against poetry becoming ³a heap of broken images, where the sun beats.² Have you changed your mind about what you said in the Norton lectures at Harvard, twenty years ago?

No, I donıt have any reason to change my mind.

Another passage from those lectures: ³Poets in the twentieth century are by nature isolated, deprived of a public, unrecognized, while the great soul of the people is asleep, unaware of itself and learns of itself only in the poetry of the past.²

This is true‹because the history of poetry of the twentieth century is the history of revolutions in techniques, in language, in forms. Itıs analogous to the history of painting. This is a question of estrangements from the large public. I maintain that. But I observe that the situation of poetry is stable.

And yet weıve experienced what many have termed a ³poetry renaissance.²

Joseph Brodsky used to say that if only one percent of the American people read poetry, we would have an audience of two-and-a-half million. He wanted to create an anthology of great American poetry at a very low cost. He wanted to leave the anthology in hotels‹like the Bible!

You have said, ³Perhaps in order to write poetry in our twentieth century you need to believe in God . . .²

As to belief in God, I believe in God out of gratitude‹because I am still alive, and through an extraordinary series of coincidences.

You and Joseph Brodsky shared ³a sacred vision of the world,² in your words. Can you elaborate a little?

I guess that our point of common ground was reading the philosophy of Lev Shestov. Shestov was very good, especially his Athens and Jerusalem. He was for the Jerusalem as opposed to the Greek tradition.

You seem to have a few more acres of common ground. You said in an interview that ³Brodsky and myself stand together and choose to differ from certain Modernist poets. . . . [G]iven the state of Western poetry at present, Brodsky and I may well be considered to be lingering in the rear guard, but really we may be the avant-garde. Thatıs something you just never know, because if we poets work hard at it then we can change the direction in which poetry is headed.² What direction do you think poetry is headed‹and how would you change that?

I donıt know. It seems to me a question of a certain resistance to changing fashions. Maintaining oneıs own vision, oneıs own taste, let us say, against the current fashion of the day. Brodsky was very much his own. I have lived a long time in the West and tried to remain faithful to a line of Polish poetry. The same applies to Brodsky and Russia. The history of poetry is the history of language. Thatıs why Joseph Brodsky wrote that we write to please our predecessors, not our contemporaries. I felt rooted in the whole tradition of Polish poetry. It explains my immunity to the fashions of the day‹which doesnıt mean I wasnıt influenced by many American poets. Itıs interesting that Joseph Brodsky was immune to the whole Whitman tradition of poetry. For him, Frost was the greatest American poet.

Do you see that this resistance to fashion, this love of tradition, has had any influence here in the West?

We never know whether we influence our readers. But there is something like a Polish school of poetry‹there is a line through [Zbigniew] Herbert, [Wisawa] Szymborska, [Tadeusz] Rozewicz, myself, to give an example of the influence of that school. Seamus Heaney, who wrote several essays about Polish literature, was trying to cope with the Irish problem of civil war. He found in the Polish poets a way of dealing with the historical situation in an oblique way‹a way to integrate the historical situation into a body of poetry. He found encouragement to deal with the historical Irish problems in a roundabout way. I have said about Szymborska that, through a peculiar distillation, she deals with the historical-political situation. Itıs behind what she writes.

The grafting of sensibilities, East and West: where has it succeeded and where has it failed?

I should say it goes to the credit of Americans that they are open to things coming from the outside‹that openness is not characteristic of all the countries of Western Europe.

Are they? You have often cited Simone Weilıs comment, ³An essential feature of the first half of the twentieth century consists in the weakening and near disappearance of the notion of value.² Sometimes I wonder if this openness is just a lack of rootedness in any values.

There was at a given moment a stable world where we could see, hold on to values that were a reflection of the eternal order of things. Now we are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life.

    And this is connected with tradition. With traditional forms, traditional values. With a respect for tradition. If we cannot return to the stable world of the past, at least we can have some respect for some stable points. Brodsky would write every Christmas a poem‹on that event, on the birth of Jesus. This is a sort of piety, I should say, for the past, for some crucial points in our history.

    There is no such thing as Eastern and Western sensibilities‹Joseph Brodsky and I belonged to different cultures. This may reflect the history of Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity.

    When everything is in flux, revision, it is healthy to have some poets who preserve the feeling of respect. In a way, Brodsky was a conservative voice in that sense‹he had a lot of sense.

And yet, both of you do have a common viewpoint. One example: a sense of the scale of man against the larger canvas of events. That puts you decidedly against a strong current in contemporary poetry.

Maybe what I said about the Polish school is true. Itıs true about Szymborska‹precisely because behind her writing you feel that historical scope.

    Have you read Anna Swir?


I translated a volume of hers‹Talking to My Body‹published by Copper Canyon Press. [Goes to bookshelves.] I cannot find it. Iıve done so many books‹it can be hard to find a particular one. [Finally finds it, brings it back to the living room.] What a guest we had!


Yes. What an extraordinary person she was! As a poet, she was underestimated‹because she was a feminist, because she wrote about the fate of woman in her poems. Her erotic poems shocked people. She loved men, and depicted it brutally. She wrote calligraphically about males and females‹with great detachment. She tried after the war to grasp her experiences. She worked as a nurse in the Warsaw of 1944. She couldnıt find a language for it. Finally, she wrote ³Building the Barricade.²

    We were contemporaries‹never lovers. Rather distant colleagues. This is my postmortem after her death. [He hands me a book of essays about her in Polish, along with another book.]

[Reads.] Denise Levertov in Polish?

Yes. In her old age. We knew each other before. Very revolutionary. We were friends.

You have also translated portions of the Bible into Polish. Why did you choose St. Mark out of the four Gospels?

Chronologically, that was the earliest. I intended to translate the Bible as a result of my friendship with Father [Jozef] Sadzik. He brought me to translate the Psalms first. I told him I cannot translate from the Latin. He would have to give me time to learn Hebrew. So I learned enough Hebrew to translate. That was a project of several years. Through a translation of the original text, sometimes we had a big discussion. The Book of Job, for example, has no definite text‹in the original, itıs very enigmatic. You can translate it various ways.

    But Sadzik died suddenly from a heart attack, taking my translation of Job to the printer. After his death, I found no one to take his place.

In Road-side Dog you have a section called ³Subject to Let²; near the end of it you wrote, ³Blessed be classicism and let us hope it did not pass away forever.²

Because the so-called ³objective-style² description of reality‹with a normal syntax, and in the third person‹is now no more practiced in novels. Prose has become extremely subjective, extremely subjective. A kind of internal monologue, which is not closer to reality than an objective description in third person.

    For instance, if you take Samuel Beckett, in his novel Molloy, he creates a figure of an old man deranged, who tells his story as a monologue. But it is not more probable than a dialogue in third person. By classicism, I mean the good prose of the nineteenth century.

And in poetry?

Poetry is something else. It has different rules. Well, if poets today write in the old style using rhyme and meter, itıs sort of camp. I have written the best of my poems about the war in Warsaw in 1943 in the language of childrenıs primer, childrenıs fairy stories.

But otherwise, you think itıs camp?

To a large extent, yes. Doesnıt mean youıre against it.

And yet Joseph Brodsky wrote that ³a regular meter and the exact rhymes shaping an uncomfortable thought are far more functional than any form of free verse. Because in the former case the reader gets a sense of chaos being organized, while in the latter a sense of dependence on and being determined by chaos.²

[Looking up sharply.] Yes. Yes. Exactly.

Is that a difference between your two outlooks, then?

Thatıs the problem of language. He was in the tradition of Russian verse. The language dictates the evolution of poetry. I was not in that tradition at all. The Russian language dictates this, with its moving accent, while the Polish and Italian languages have stable accents.

Moving accent?

Itıs moving in the sense that a word has an accent on the first or second or final syllable. In Polish, it is always the penultimate syllable that is accented.

And where would you rank English in that spectrum?

English? The laws of English are so different from the laws of such languages, I donıt know how to answer. French has a stable accent‹but itıs very different from Russian.

How would you describe Brodskyıs legacy to the West, as man and poet?

I wonder whether his legacy is more his English essays rather than his poems. I am not sure his poetry is translatable. Because itıs all the element of language, the elemental force of the language. I have heard the opinions of some people who read him in translation who do not think that much of him as a poet. In my opinion, Osip Mandelstam is untranslatable. You lose the intonations of the original.

    We should say something about enemies of Brodsky, because there has been a hostile undercurrent, those who consider that his fame has been blown up for political reasons. Yes? There was such an undercurrent, and I wonder. I donıt know how it looks at the present moment in Russia. I donıt know.

In Russia, heıs spoken about in the same breath with Pushkin, without laughter. A huge vacuum has been left by his death in Russian literature. Yet thereıs also been a typically Russian attempt to whitewash him‹make him saintly, smooth out his rather sharply etched character.

I know Russian poets‹but they are friends of Brodsky, and they wouldnıt say a word against him. They are admirers. So I donıt know his reception in Russia.

Which poets are those?

[Yevgeny] Rein, [Alexander] Kushner, and a third. I forgot the name, in any case. I know, but I cannot remember it now. It seems to me every poet after death goes through a purgatory, so to say. T. S. Eliot is still in purgatory.

Surely the literatiıs prayers should have brought Eliot out by now. But you think he is still in purgatory?

Yes. So he must go through that moment of revision after death.

It seems to me that Brodsky had a tremendous amount to say to Western poets, and somehow itıs been shrugged off. What he said was often idiosyncratic, cranky, but much of it was very true. A younger generation, particularly, has tended to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

It seems to me that people who read him‹in English‹somehow miss many things, because his poetry doesnıt translate well.

And he interfered with his own translations . . .

He translated himself, and he wrote poems in English, but I didnıt favor that change in him.

Yes, but he wrote some remarkable essays in English.

His essays are fantastic. But his poetry in English, written in English or translated into English, is not faithful to himself.

    I agreed with him in this whole attitude of‹he is much more sober than his contemporary poets in America. Sober. You said that he is cranky, but he is sober. And because of that he had a different perspective.

Thatıs one aspect that has been somewhat discarded.

First of all, he lived in that period‹the sixties‹that had a great impact in America, and people were more or less leftist. He had those experiences in Russia, and he had absolutely no illusions in this respect. Fortunately, he lived in America, where political correctness was not absolutely obligatory‹so there were some zones where political incorrectness could operate. Fortunately for him, he was not in France, where he wouldnıt have been able to breathe even, yes? Because everything there was submitted to a leftist political correctness. But certainly his attitude toward history was influenced by his knowledge of the Soviet Union.

You and Brodsky had some apparent disagreements about the role of language. He had said, ³If thereıs any deity for me, itıs language.² Did you ever have any discussions about that?

I donıt remember‹but in any case, he attached enormous importance to the language. Itıs very strange. Iıll tell you why itıs strange. Because the new fashion in the theory of literature‹and those ismıs succeeding each other, structuralism, deconstructionalism, and so on‹attaches enormous importance to the language. We have some linguistic poets‹for instance, people like Ashbery. The approach of Brodsky to the language is completely different. It has nothing to do with those fashions. You understand? This is very striking, because . . . I define it as follows: all those fashions [that] come to America from France are reductionist. Reductionist, which means they are part of the big philosophy of suspicion.

    Marx introduced the suspicion that everything is the result of economic factors. Freud introduced the idea that everything is the result of the libido. Nietzsche introduced the notion of the will to power. The followers of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche applied various kinds of suspicion to literature. You can follow all those movements and their suspicion consists of this: It is not what it seems. Because there is underneath a hidden mortar which should be revealed. Thereıs no such reductionism in Brodsky. Absolutely not.

How would you characterize him, as opposed to this philosophy of suspicion?

I characterize him as a pious man‹and piety is the reverse of suspicion.

You had some differences on poetics. He was a big stickler on form and the role of form in poetry. Since coming to America, you changed your thinking on some of that.

All his life he wrote metrical poetry and rhymed poetry. This is the influence of the Russian language. In Russian poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there were many new currents, but contrary to what happened, let us say in France or in England, all those transformations‹I mean, relying on metaphor, extremely daring metaphor, and so on‹took place within certain metrical forms, which is due to the Russian language. The Russian language in poetry never released, let us say, its attachment to meter, especially. Russian is an iambic language‹very strongly iambic.

    Brodsky admired Frost. He didnıt seem to appreciate Whitmanesque verse. As you know, American poetry is largely influenced by Whitman and William Carlos Williams. And that verse is based on breathing.

You were initially a metrical poet in Poland‹even Treatise on Poetry is mostly in a kind of blank verse, an eleven-syllable line with four or five stresses.

In Poland, the change occurred in the period between the two wars. Poets largely abandoned metrical poetry, because the nature of language is very different. I have written some metrical poetry, but mostly not.

You said something about piety. I return to the quote I mentioned earlier: ³Perhaps to write poetry in our twentieth century, you need to believe in God.²

Ah. [Pauses, sighs.] Poets in Poland are mostly agnostic‹or atheists. But there is a poet by the name of Tadeusz Rozewicz whose thoughts are focused on God. He says life with God is impossible, life without God is impossible. In one breath‹yes? So he thinks constantly about that problem. My feeling is that itıs better to believe in God in a positive way, or negative way, like Rozewicz does‹hmmm?

    Brodsky was very sensitive to the sacredness of being. Yes. Thatıs why I call him pious. I didnıt ask him if he believes in God‹you felt in him that openness to the sacred.

    We had a point of friction, I should say. I learned not to press that pedal.

What was that?

He was extremely patriotic about Russia. He wrote a poem about Marshal Zhukov, ³On the Death of Zhukov.² I like Russians very much and like to talk Russian, but I donıt like Russia. I donıt like the imperial Russia‹Brodsky was a Russian patriot, if not chauvinist, I donıt know. I knew that it was a very sensitive point.

You pressed that pedal once?

Once I touched, I knew that I shouldnıt. And this is paradoxical‹he did not want to go back to Russia. But he went to Poland and he was very happy there.

With the reforms in Russia, so many people were expecting him to go back.

Precisely. Yes. He would be greeted like Solzhenitsyn. But he didnıt want. And when he was in Poland, he praised Poland for contributing to the demise of Communism in Russia‹and the whole Solidarity movement, and so on. He was very moved listening to actors reciting his poems in Polish translations. But to Russia? No.

    For me, the value of Brodsky was his sobering effect, and his enormous feeling of hierarchy. He had a great feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.

You once said, ³I havenıt learned to speak as I should‹calmly.²

Yes. I didnıt learn to speak as I should‹calmly. Helen Vendler once wrote in a letter to me, ³you speak of the most horrible things but in a voice of nearly superhuman calm.² So I tried to learn that very sober voice‹without exaltation, without exaggeration. Besides, all the poetry of the twentieth century is mostly using irony as a counterbalance for affection.

Kind of a tepid polarity.


You said Brodsky had learned that lesson, to speak calmly. How?

Well, there was in Brodsky a side of the shaman.

In his readings you can hear that.

Yes. But his way of writing was to a large extent shamanlike. I envied him that enormous ingenuity in finding metaphor and rhymes. His acrobatics!

    There is a Polish poet, Stanisaw Baranczak, a professor at Harvard. He was a virtuoso of translation‹he translated practically all of Shakespeare, the metaphysical English poets, Emily Dickinson also, and so on. But his own poetry, also, is . . . equalibristics. He writes rhymed poetry, because his inventiveness in this respect is fantastic.

    I envy the inventiveness of Brodsky in this aspect of poetry. Nobody used before him such rhymes in Russian as he did. Thatıs why I say that he was a shaman, because he was under an influence of poetic inspiration. Those things were not contrived, not done in accord with reflection. Iım sure itıs received as a gift of a daimon. [With certainty.] Yes.

You once said that writers in the twentieth century might well wish to look to the Gospel According to St. Luke for their model.

Who said that?

You said that.

No, I donıt remember. I donıt remember. Why St. Luke especially?

Yes, thatıs what I wondered.

[Laughter.] No. I donıt know.


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