That expansive kettledrum of hilarity, with blue eyes firing laser probes to check for accompaniment from his companions, allowed Czeslaw to express a simultaneous enjoyment and shame that he was himself: a complex, shrewd appreciation by a genius of his own character and appetites, without the moral stupidity of mere egotism. Stringent attention to the world, stringent attention to himself: and, mediating between the two forms of attention, an alert sense of the ridiculous.
Early in our friendship he showed me some newspaper clippings his brother had sent from Warsaw: a photograph of people lined up in a city square, the queue turning at the corners so that it took up all four sides of the square—they were waiting outside a bookstore to buy Milosz's poems, in the first government-sanctioned edition available in decades. He explained, with that ameliorating fortissimo chuckle, that the edition had been kept small by the Polish Communist authorities.
A second clipping was a two-panel cartoon strip. In the first panel, one man is walking down the street while reading a book, oblivious to a second figure lurking around the corner with a dagger. In the second panel, the corpse of the man who was reading lies in a dark pool, with the dagger in his back. The assassin-thief is walking along reading the book—he is drawn walking toward us, so the title is now legible, in all caps: "MILOSZ POEMS."
Without denying a certain pleasure in such things, Czeslaw also made clear an element of skepticism: public acclaim, like the public neglect of which he had ample experience, was a matter of petty caprice and of large historical processes, mindless currents that had little to do with art itself. His balanced detachment and pleasure reminded me of the way professional athletes say that one must not be overly elated by victories or overly discouraged by defeats.
For example—as a context for his pleased but non-deluded laughter at those clippings, and at much else—he told me that after years of having his name excluded from official encyclopedias and literary textbooks in Poland, the first sign of rehabilitation was when a certain reference work referred to him—not by name, but identifiably to an informed reader—as one member of a certain group not worth serious consideration. He perhaps existed, according to that authoritative text, but if so the fact had no significance. After decades of wintry silence, that anonymous dismissal was the first indicator of a thaw.
Our conversation over those clippings took place in the period after the rise of Solidarity and just before the Nobel Prize—five or six years after Czeslaw wrote "A Magic Mountain," his poem about being one of the emigre professors who found themselves in Berkeley. After surviving the Nazi occupation, witnessing the Holocaust, experiencing exile, writing in The Captive Mind about the moral collapse of artists and intellectuals under a totalitarian regime, the poet faced the seeming resolution of life in a half-sleepy, half-irritable neverland, a bland anticlimax he resisted with a spirit of sardonic, flinty comedy. A passage from "A Magic Mountain":
Budberg, gently pensive,
Said that in the beginning it is hard to
For here there is no spring or summer, no winter
"I kept dreaming of snow and birch forests.
Where so little changes you hardly notice how time
This is, you will see, a magic mountain."
Budberg: a familiar name in my childhood.
They were prominent in our region,
This Russian family, descendants of German Balts.
I read none of his works, too specialized.
And Chen, I have heard, was an exquisite poet,
Which I must take on faith, for he wrote in Chinese.
Sultry Octobers, cool Julys, trees blossom in February.
Here the nuptial flight of hummingbirds does not
Only the faithful maple sheds its leaves every year.
For no reason, its ancestors simply learned it
I sensed Budberg was right and I rebelled.
So I won't have power, won't save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?
This English translation by Lillian Vallee appeared in Milosz's book Bells in Winter, published in 1978, the year before I moved to Berkeley, where I first met Milosz. The book had made a large impression on me, as on many American poets of my generation. A colleague at Berkeley told me that soon after Bells in Winter was published he had arranged a reading on the University campus by two poets: Czeslaw Milosz and Daniel Halpern, the poet who was also, as the director of Ecco Press, Milosz's publisher. This poetry reading was attended by fewer than ten people—most of them apparently there, that colleague told me, to hear Halpern.
A couple of years later, after Solidarity and his poem quoted on the Gdansk monument, after the Nobel Prize, Milosz gave a reading on that same campus, where he taught in the Department for Slavic Languages for many years, to a crowd overflowing from the equivalent of a circus big top. Fame had not "passed him by" after all, and in his vigorous seventies he enjoyed the parade without mistaking it for some true Parnassus.
A further coincidental working of history, in particular of Poland and Poles, put him onto still another unlikely and prominent stage. One day I came home to find Czeslaw in the living room, being entertained by my children, who had let him in. He was just back from Italy and had a new poem for which he had prepared an English trot. He presented the text to me, and asked me, what did I think of it?
I hemmed and stalled, trying to take it in: this part looks wonderful, but I'm not sure I understand this other section . . . Milosz smiled: "The Pope," he chuckled, understanding the absurd magnitude of the implied argument-by-authority, "liked this poem very much."
Years later, after we both had left Berkeley, I saw Czeslaw during his final illness, in a Krakow hospital, a week or so before he died. He was nearly ninety-three.
He greeted me with a familiar mixture of courtliness and attentive self-examination: "I am very moved you have come to visit me. Fortunately, I am conscious."
A little embarrassed, searching for something to say, I asked, "Czeslaw, have you been composing sentences in your head? Are you writing in your mind?"
He responded, "Nooo," the one syllable prolonged into two or three, in a crooning, Slavic way. "Only absurd bric-a-brac."
Then he chose to give an example of the bric-a-brac, a dream he had that day, in his hospital bed: "I dreamed I was in eighteenth-century Boston," he said. "Arguing with Puritans." Then, "Everybody was in uniform!" the old basso laughter kabooming, with its sense of absurdity and purpose, conviction and skepticism, grief and renewal: an essential sound not just of the twentieth century, but of art itself.