Wanted: More Complexity

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Date: Winter 1997
From: The Southern Review(Vol. 33, Issue 1)
Publisher: Louisiana State University
Document Type: Book review
Length: 4,708 words
Lexile Measure: 1190L

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COMPLEXITY, MEANING INTEGRATION ACHIEVED against multiple currents, against odds, is indispensable to major poetic accomplishment. The exquisitely simple lyric--say, "O wild West Wind"--is rare; and given its extreme brevity, "O wild West Wind," at least, is not so very simple. It is undeniably a great lyric. But major? Major implies the inner bonding of much complexity, even if the result is--as increasingly it has been required to be--half open.

Czeslaw Milosz may write many poems that verge on being tracts, even diatribes: after all, he expresses the wrath of disenfranchised peoples. But the effort to annihilate Polish culture, circa 1910, has only made a poet like Milosz more complex. Love of childhood and its rivers, grasses, social customs, of youth and youth's flair for cities, of art--these and everything else that makes the word culture bearable now try to circulate, like thin blood, in the monumental ice statue (now resembling Stalin, now Hitler) created by modern Eastern European history.

For Milosz, culture is now everywhere in danger. One of the finest voice-of-wrath poems in Facing the River is "Sarajevo." "Perhaps this is not a poem," the prefatory line states, "but at least I say what I feel." Despite some rant ("And nothingness ... brings forth only nothingness" and so on), it is, I think, poem enough, and it ends with a warning to all those who, "repeating: 'We at least are safe,'" are "unaware that what will strike them ripens in themselves."

Milosz has tried to pacify his conscience (why write, he questions, if it's more honorable to remember, untransformed, the screams of the human hunt?) by being the recording angel of his people, indeed of life as quality, not quantity: "Quality passes into quantity at the century's end," he says in "Pierson College." Quality? Not least the love of nature, despite its pact with death (it is this pact that makes culture, not nature, our home): "I bless you, rivers, I pronounce your names in the way my mother pronounced them, with respect yet tenderly" ("Capri").

He is, then, not always the ferocious moralist; insofar as Mnemosyne, queen of dust, is (as he says) his Muse, he can be grandly, fervidly elegiac and tender. No sorrow more comprehensive than his of everything good in life. This mixture is, again, Milosz's complexity, and not least because, for him, Eros is a second, a primal Muse--Eros who, in his words, puts oil in one's muscles, who glorifies things (as he writes in his 1993 collection, Provinces) "just because they are."

In the prose work Visions from San Francisco Bay, Milosz defended culture against the '60s cult of nature and primitive man. Now, in his moving poem "To Allen Ginsberg," he regrets that he could not share in that generation's hope, the compass of his regret, always quivering, swinging round in an unwonted direction:

I was an instrument, I listened, snatching voices out of a babbling chorus, translating them into sentences with commas and periods. As if the poverty of my fate...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A454704129