Czesław Miłosz, one of the greatest poets and thinkers of the past hundred years, is not generally considered a Californian. But the Polish-Lithuanian Nobel laureate spent four decades in Berkeley—more time than any other single place he lived. His debut collection in America, a short Selected Poems in 1973, was published by a small New York house, Seabury Press. Introduced by Kenneth Rexroth, the collection of about fifty poems included many from Ocalenie, the book that had appeared in Warsaw in 1945.
The translation of the Ocalenie poems in English brought the wartime Polish poet who had been facing an unknown future into the present, and into English, nearly thirty years later when he was a Berkeley professor. In that light, some of the translation choices are revealing: we can see the American poet gently burnishing the man he once was into the man he had become, and the subtle shifts give the translated poems a less elevated, more American idiom.
The poem that had originally opened Ocalenie was “Przedmowa,” a foreword or dedication. It includes the renowned line about the poet’s labors—“In this and only this I find salvation [ocalenie]”—and it not only introduces the early volume but sets its tone. By contrast, in the American Selected Poems, “Przedmowa” was moved to the middle of the volume, an explicit reshuffling of theme and emphasis. The translation of Ocalenie as a volume title also changed in subsequent years when it was rendered not as “Salvation” but as “Rescue.” Miłosz also translates ludzie as “people” rather than “peoples” in the famous lines “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?” The singular form is less particular, more general, making it less the statement of a tribe or race—and so a little anticlimactic when paired with the sweeping “nations.”
Why did he make these alterations? Peter Dale Scott, who noticed the substitutions, raised these questions with Miłosz. Scott objected to the translation of ocalenie as “rescue.” “Rescue,” he explained, is like getting a cat down from a telephone pole. Ocalenie has more spiritual, even sacramental, implications. Ocalenie implies a miracle . . . or fate. “Something important was at stake here. I sensed at the time that in his isolated exile he was backing away from his earlier lofty hopes for poetry,” Scott wrote. “Only later did I learn that even in his youth he had mistrusted the grandiloquence of all public poetry, including his own, and that for years he was ambivalent about this poem in particular. It became clear that, for whatever reason, Miłosz wanted his poem to be not just translated but changed in English, and I resisted this.”
Izabela Barry, a Polish librarian and salonnière, echoed his remarks when I phoned her in New York to discuss the subtleties of translation. Ocalenie, as she described it, also has a physical element to it, rather than simply a psychological or spiritual aspect—“like when you are drowning and I help you to survive,” she explained. Besides, “rescue” already has its own word (ratować), and so does “survival” (przeżycie). “Salvage” might be a closer match for ocalenie. Perhaps the best English equivalent is something more akin to “deliverance”—from an avalanche, or a massacre, or a Holocaust. Ocalenie has more poetry and solemnity. Maybe “salvation” was a better equivalent, but then zbawienie is also “salvation,” she pointed out.
Barry found twenty-five occasions of ocalenie and its grammatical variants in the Polish translation of the Old Testament. How is it translated in the King James Bible? Barry and I went through a sampling that showed both “salvation” and “deliverance” used by translators, but no “rescue” in sight:
Book of Exodus 15:2: “The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation”
Deuteronomy 32:15: “then he forsook God which made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation.”
2 Kings 5:1: “Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master, and honorable, because by him the Lord had given deliverance under Syria”
Obadiah 1:17: “But upon mount Zion shall be deliverance, and there shall be holiness”
2 Chronicles, 12:7: “They have humbled themselves therefore I will not destroy them, but I will grant them some deliverance: and my wrath shall not be poured out on Jerusalem”
So how did “Rescue” come to be used for the title? Scott offered a plausible explanation: Miłosz was in America now—indeed, he became a citizen in 1970—and although he had written Ocalenie for a Polish audience, his Selected Poems targeted an American one.
He had been steeped in American poetry since his first sojourn to the States beginning in 1946. He had absorbed the rhythms of Auden and Eliot, and admired the role of Swift in his times, dedicating a poem to the Irish satirist. Miłosz was also fascinated by the most vatic of our poets—Whitman, Jeffers, Ginsberg—though not always approvingly.
Miłosz may not have been entirely aware that he was gradually turning away from the vatic tradition, remembering the effect it had on an idealistic generation of young men who gave their lives in a gesture of futile resistance and were buried in the wreckage of Warsaw. He was downplaying these bardic elements in the United States, perhaps relieved to put some distance between himself and that dark history, and he would eventually come to a new understanding as he was later drawn back to a free Poland. In the meantime, bardic prophecy and messianism wouldn’t do in a country that was increasingly turning to science and technology to answer age-old questions.
There were other exiles, and exiles within exiles. Poland is an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, and the Catholic paradigm that has endured for two millennia informs every level of society. It sees the family, not the individual, as the building block of community. It promotes order, harmony, beauty as an expression of the true and the good, and submission to truth as it has been revealed, not as it has been individually rewritten or socially reinvented. In this worldview, “the Church” is more than a building—it’s a body of believers who have existed throughout time, comprising saints and sinners, the living and the dead. Solidarity—the trade union founded in Poland in 1980 that expanded into a widespread social movement with an emphasis on unity and a collective vision for peace—is a natural expression of this vision. At various points in early U.S. history, Catholicism was illegal—America has always been suspicious of this body of thought that interrupted direct, unmediated connection with the divine, however conceived.
Americans, by contrast, often overlook how much their cultural and historical sensibility has been shaped around a radical Protestantism, with an emphasis on individualism, hard work, and private revelation. John Calvin’s vision of an imminent God and Original Sin influenced Lincoln’s national vision and was foundational for American writers including Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, and Poe. Hence, Americans are always seeking quirky and idiosyncratic means of personal “salvation” and enlightenment—just look at the hippies, social activists, religious cranks, and nudists who populated Berkeley, then and since. Ironically, “individualism” often takes collective forms, and for some that means turning en masse to LSD, political protest, communes, or Burning Man as a way to cleanse the doors of perception. We are a people ever on the lookout for a sign of election.
America’s Pelagian soteriology of self-salvation—the notion that we can spiritually lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps and don’t need help—has led to a history of socioreligious backsliding and Great Awakenings. This is perhaps what Miłosz had not yet digested from his early stays in America: He had entered a world whose ethos was formed by this turbulent sensibility, contributing to an anomic society trapped in restless Gatsby-like self-reinvention, self-expression, paleo diets, and earth-worship, in the undying quest to make a more perfect “me.”
At its worst it descended into anarchy, rioting, chaos—and endless years of psychotherapy. But it did at times rise to the level of art, and led to this:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night . . .
As a young man living in Harlem, Allen Ginsberg was inspired by Blake, as Miłosz had been throughout his life. When Ginsberg read Blake’s visionary verse, he experienced a hallucination, an “altered state” that lasted for several days. He initially interpreted it as the voice of God but later understood it as the voice of Blake himself or sometimes the voice of “the ancient of days.” While he claimed that the experience wasn’t drug-induced, he used drugs later to recapture the experience that “God was in front of my eyes—existence itself was God.”
Ginsberg landed like a missile in San Francisco during the staid 1950s. Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s landmark City Lights bookstore. The book both catalyzed and presaged the social explosions to come. However, the generation was enthusiastic about Zen Buddhism even as their behavior was unaccompanied by Zen disciplines—or the principles of discretion and self-control that were bred in the bone for Miłosz. Ginsberg’s brand of mysticism remained stubbornly American—utopian, humanist, self-deterministic, and Transcendentalist.
In California, where sobriety is not always held at a premium, Ginsberg’s indulgent brand of divine madness challenged Miłosz’s seriousness. Yet “Howl,” despite its extravagances, is a deadly serious poem. The neon Jeremiah who cried out “America when will you be angelic?” was bound to fascinate the dislocated Polish mystic hungering for a restoration of an exiled spiritual dimension to modern life, but he sought one that would be an illuminating and enduring framework—bedrock, rather than American lightning. He would call it “second space.”
Miłosz, too, embraced a divine madness, but he didn’t need acid to find it; like Whitman, he could be intoxicated by the smell of an orange. He censured Ginsberg for sometimes deplorable writing and the outrageous invasion of his family’s privacy, yet he was intrigued, for Ginsberg, however indecent and heedless, never lost sight of the anguished humanity of his mad mother: “My attitude toward Ginsberg is contradictory,” he explained. “His ‘Kaddish’ is, in a way, a horrible piece of writing but extremely daring. To speak of one’s mother’s insanity, describing its various phases . . . that’s incredible. I have always denounced that sort of personal indiscretion. So I’m shocked and somewhat envious of Ginsberg’s daring, and that is what I have expressed in my poem about him.”
In his “To Allen Ginsberg,” Miłosz salutes the poet as “you good man, great poet of a murderous century,” and in Miłosz’s ABC’s, he considers him to be Whitman’s heir because of “the courage with which he broke with convention, often against his own will.” One could argue, I suppose, that Ginsberg loosened up Miłosz’s verse, too, and opened up new possibilities while helping him clarify points of difference.
His poetic letter to Ginsberg is not as famous as his address to Robinson Jeffers, and rightly so. It is an odd poem, confessional and conversational. Miłosz later distanced himself from the persona who speaks in the poem, but never convincingly—he did, after all, express many of the same thoughts elsewhere. Nowhere else does Miłosz so frankly confide his self-doubts and self-reproach as in this equivocal tribute, in which he reproaches Ginsberg, echoing the American poet’s long, Whitmanesque lines with a distinctly different message in a poem he admitted was “tricky”:
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.
Miłosz, after all, was not averse to his own divine revelation, as he wrote at the end of his life about “The pungent smells of a California winter, / Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon.” The poem, “Winter,” continues:
Waters close over us, a name lasts but an instant.
Not important whether the generations hold us in memory.
Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of the world.
The poem moves toward a beautiful conclusion:
And now I am ready to keep running
When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death.
I already see mountain ridges in the heavenly forest Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits.
You, music of my late years, I am called
By a sound and a color which are more and more perfect.
The Stony Brook World Poetry Conference in June 1968 was an unlikely setting for Miłosz, though he would not have known that when he accepted the invitation. Most of the 108 poets attending were Americans, but there was a significant sprinkling of world poets—Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert among them. “It was the only attempt in this country, as far as I know, to bring together such a wide range of poets, young and old, from mainstream to avant-garde and those who eluded classification,” wrote poet Charles Simic years later. But the political factions of “po biz” would be rubbing shoulders, and though one could roughly determine poetical persuasion by dress and length of hair, that was no guarantee that one would be able to identify fellow travelers.
“The festival started amiably enough with a dinner of fresh lobster, polite introductions all around, and small talk,” Simic remembered. “But as the evening progressed the manners of the guests began to deteriorate somewhat and one could see people whispering in small groups and looking suspiciously over their shoulders. Of course, there was a lot of drinking.” The conference went over its ample $50,000 budget for food and wine, and everyone was wrestling with a hangover the next morning.
On the last day of the conference, a fistfight broke out, and the fracas spread among the crowd, Three Stooges–style. “As soon as the fight started, Allen Ginsberg went down on his knees and began chanting some Buddhist prayer for peace and harmony among all living creatures, which not only distracted those fighting, but also startled a few puzzled couples who had discreetly retreated into the bushes during the party and were now returning in a hurry with their clothes in disarray.” None of the people with bloody noses could remember how it all started. The permanent record of this boisterous occasion, which appeared as a letter to the editor in the New York Review of Books, was published with thirty-six signatories—all poets who had been in attendance—but is said to have been authored by Ginsberg. It certainly bears his ethos and style, although Robert Duncan is credited with having some sway on the final draft. The piece included the obligatory denunciation of the “police state military tyranny” and the “closed vision, crippled mechanical consciousness, and bad poetry mouthed by all governments and propagandized thru controlled mass media.” (“Joy to all poets’ wives and lovers in every country,” Zbigniew Herbert inserted, apropos of nothing in particular.) The rest is just as incoherent, a wild mix of non-sequiturs and words of praise for Black Power, the African soul, and the “new consciousness articulated by longhair revolutionary student generations” and the “fulfillment of human anarchy.” It was, perhaps, evidence of how high the liquor tab ran during those crazed few days. It concluded on a Ginsbergian note: “Academies should return to wisdom study in tree groves rather than robot study in plastic cells—Bless the Universe!”
What to say? It is impossible to imagine such a statement written today by a group of influential poets. Part of the reason is that the rhetoric of the peace movement itself had shifted from blowsy idealism and toughened into a kind of think-tank pragmatism. In any case, the statement captured the zeitgeist and gives some indication to future generations of the spirit of the times.
Some surprising names appeared on the list of signatories of the manifesto, including Robert Duncan, Donald Hall, Anthony Hecht, Denise Levertov, and Donald Justice. What did the two Poles who were included, Miłosz and Herbert, think of the events?
Miłosz had a zeitgeist of his own. Although he was still an inconnu in his adopted land, he managed to get his own letter published in the New York Review of Books two months later. He did not expect to see his name attached to the manifesto and wrote:
My belief is that poets should not add to the general confusion by using words in an irresponsible way. A joke should not be presented as a credo. Because of my European background I consider a search for salvation through racial myths, tribal structures, high natural herbs etc. dangerous nonsense. When the text was being written by Allen Ginsberg at Stony Brook, both myself and my friend Zbigniew Herbert treated the whole matter as an exercise in humor. We did not sign the thing.
Despite the cultural tensions, the rapprochement between the philistines and the bohemians was underway. The Midas touch of nearby Silicon Valley taught the hippies how to cash in, and eventually even Ginsberg took part, selling his papers to Stanford for a million dollars in 1994. (One wonders what the frugal Stanford poet-critic Yvor Winters, “the sage of Palo Alto,” would have thought.) In an interview with New York Times reporter David Margolick in 1994, Ginsberg said, “Stanford was dominated by a very conservative, formalist poetry that very much rebelled against the kind of ecstatic, apocalyptic, William Carlos Williams–based naturalistic poetry we wrote.” Over fried dumplings and shrimp with lobster sauce in San Francisco’s Chinatown, just up the street from the City Lights bookstore, the poet explained, “I gave readings for ten years or so, at every university up and down the coast, and the one place that never invited me was Stanford.”
For the most part, Miłosz took the measure of the times with wry humor, and later even attended one of Ginsberg’s readings. The Beat poet approached Miłosz afterward and said, “Well, I guess you are not as much of a square as you present yourself.” Miłosz was pleased, and repeated the story, again and again.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Excerpted from Czesław Miłosz: A California Life (available 19 October 2021) by Cynthia Haven. Reprinted with permission from Heyday Books, © 2021 Cynthia Haven. Our special thanks go out to Kalie Caetano for all her help.