Poland’s Poet

Alan Sheridan

1980 was certainly the year of the Poles. With Solidarity Poland was making history, for once without tragedy, or at least not immediate tragedy. The first-ever Polish pope was riding in triumph through the world’s cities, including his own Cracow. In Stockholm the Swedish jury awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Poland’s greatest living poet, Czeslaw Milosz. He, too, was given a hero’s welcome when he visited his native country, after nearly thirty years’ exile – an event that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

When a Beckett or a Sartre is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature nothing is added thereby. In Milosz’s case the Prize has served him, and us, well. For neither of these books is new: they owe their publication here solely to the Prize. Native Realm, which has been received with varying degrees of acclaim, and which will certainly continue to work upon this reader’s mind for a long time, was first published in the United States in 1968. One wonders how many rejections this book collected, 13 years ago, or even more recently, from British firms. The present publishers are to be congratulated, the Nobel Prize notwithstanding. The Issa Valley, a minor masterpiece, is even older: it first appeared in Paris, in Polish, in 1955. A new volume of poetry, Bells in Winter, appeared from Carcanet New Press last year,[*] supplementing the Selected Poems of 1973.

I know neither Polish nor Russian, but if what Milosz says of the two languages is true he must be a supreme example of Polishness. He tells of a certain exercise in which ‘one had to lake a deep breath and pronounce first in a deep bass voice: “Wyryta zastupom yama globokaya” [Russian for ‘A deep pit dug out with a spade’], then chatter quickly in a tenor: “Wykopana szpadlem jama gleboka” [the same, in Polish]. The arrangement of accents and vowels in the first connotes gloom, darkness and power; in the second, lightness, clarity and weakness. In other words, it was both an exercise in self-ridicule and a warning.’ Everything Milosz says is light and clear; it certainly isn’t weak, but it is unemphatic, unemotional, scrupulous, fastidious, reticent. Milosz returns to this contrast on a number of occasions. ‘Nothing is more deceptive than the apparent similarity between the Polish and Russian languages. A different man looks out from behind each, and their confrontation is like a meeting between a Sicilian and a Chinese’ – a resort to quite uncharacteristic hyperbole. He describes his discovery of Pushkin. Polish was incapable of such power of expression:

Gradually, however, I began to distrust the lyricism, which seemed to unfold of itself as if born from the very sounds themselves. That poetry was like a magical incantation; everything was reduced to sound. It was even free to mean nothing since the creative stuff out of which it was made was not the world but the word ... My own experiments taught me that the influence of Russian musicality is always harmful ... for weakly accented languages like Polish or Czech.

And because rhetoric is desertion of the world by the word, it has dangers for the world too: ‘To me, the “depth” of Russian literature was always suspect. What good is depth if bought at too high a price? Out of the two evils, would we not prefer “shallowness”, provided we had decently built homes, well-fed and industrious people?’ And why are the Russians, ‘so powerful, human, hungry for justice in literature ... so miserable and cruel in worldly affairs’?

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[*] 78 pp., £2.95, April 1980, 85635 290 X.