Friday, October 07, 2011

After Miłosz: Simic, Levine, and Zagajewski Talk Poetry in Chicago

So two American poets laureate, a Polish poet, and a Harvard professor walk into an emergency room. It sounds like the set-up for some kind of literary joke, but in actuality it was how things began last weekend when Philip Levine, Charles Simic, and Adam Zagajewski sat down for a discussion moderated by Steve Burt downstairs at Chicago's Chopin Theater (for reasons I never discovered, the downstairs part of the Chopin is called "The Emergency Room," and looks the part: painted bright white with teal accents, it features a harshly-lit stage with a gurney in the background). I wanted to make some joke about the gurney and the advanced age of the laureates, but would have had to tear Chicu Reddy, who was seated next to me, away from his discussion with Oren Izenberg and others from the University of Chicago English department, so I let it pass.

The gathering was part of a two-day event called "After Miłosz," one of about 200 celebrations of the Miłosz centenary worldwide—Adam Zagajewski mentioned that this was the tenth such event at which he had spoken this year. There were three parts to the evening's events: readings of Miłosz's works by the participants, an open discussion among the panelists, and then a brief period in which Simic, Levine, and Zagajewski reading from their own works. Here's what I took note of in my battered Moleskine (direct quotes are approximate, from memory and quickly-taken notes—I regret any inaccuracies).

The Priest and the Jester

Philip Levine began by speaking of Miłosz as a great lyric poet of landscapes, and of water, reading poems that demonstrated this. Charles Simic then read Miłosz's poem "Encounter":

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

One of the great achievements of Miłosz, said Simic, was to make us more conscious of the world around us, this being "the essence of the lyric poem," which comes to us trying to be disinterested, hoping (perhaps impossibly) to gaze at the world as it really is, making us see it again as if for the first time. This was not the Miłosz of The Captive Mind, the anti-communist writer welcomed by Americans during the Cold War. This was Miłosz as a someone both simpler and more profound than the writer of ideological works.

Adam Zagajewski's recollections of how he first came to Miłosz soon complicated the emerging picture of the Miłosz the lyricist. Zagajewski read the first stanza of "Throughout Our Land," which he'd had been very hard to find when he was a student in Poland. He'd had to lie to a Dean about being a graduate student writing a thesis on Miłosz to be admitted to a special reading room where he was allowed to see the poem: whatever the lyrical qualities of the poems may have been, they didn't prevent the Polish authorities from seeing them as potentially ideological, and they were kept out of general circulation.

Despite the allure inherent in all things forbidden, Zagajewski confessed to not having much liked Miłosz, at least initially. "There was an essay by Leszek Kolakowski, quite famous in Poland," said Zagajewski, "called 'The Priest and the Jester.'" In this essay, he went on to say, Kolakowski distinguishes between two different types of writer: the priest, who is a guardian of tradition and absolutes, and the jester, who doubts all things. "It was then not popular to be a priest in Poland," said Zagajewski. "We liked Zbigniew Herbert, who was a jester. I wanted to be a jester. Wisława Szymborska was a jester. To us, Miłosz seemed like a priest. But we were wrong." Instead of a priest, Miłosz was a poet in which the priest and the jester wrestled. There was a constant dialogue, sometimes a war, between the two, and this made for a rich and complex body of work. It also made Miłosz a more difficult poet to love than most others. “We love a poet for his voice,” said Zagajewski, “but Miłosz had two voices, always.” After a brief scuffle among the poets on stage about whether Miłosz had two voices, or one voice with different modes, or simply offered different points of view, things settled down. The room, I thought, had taken Zagajewski’s point.

Truth, Beauty, and Exile

After the initial readings, Steve Burt led a wide-ranging conversation, which kept circling back to the question of the poet as craftsman (Levine’s statement that “craft may not be enough, but it’s presumptuous to say that it’s somehow secondary” drew a great deal of applause). At one point Burt began to reframe the question by saying “there’s a difference between being a bricklayer, which is an applied art, and being an arranger of Japanese cherry blossoms…” but before he could finish, someone (I think it was Simic) was quoting Miłosz’s poem “What Once Was Great”:

What once was great, now appeared small.
Kingdoms were fading like snow-covered bronze.

What once could smite, now smites no more.
Celestial earths roll on and shine.

Streched on the grass by the bank of a river,
As long, long ago, I launch my boats of bark.

I’m not sure where Simic was going to go with this, because Zagajewski jumped in, sparks flying in his mind between “What Once Was Great” and the image of the Japanese cherry blossoms. “Once Miłosz chose exile,” said Zagajewski, “he became a Japanese poet, an arranger of cherry blossoms, because exile was so different from the environment in which he read his poems in Poland under the Nazis, and then under Stalin.” There was an underground poetry scene even under Hitler, he explained, and people gathered, at some risk, in private apartments to hear Miłosz read. His poems spoke to their condition as occupied and oppressed people, offering a truth not available in public places. “His poems helped people to live under Stalinism,” said Zagajewski, “they needed and adored him, and he liked it, because, like all poets, he was a little vain.” When he read in Poland there was an echo, a resonance of the poem with the needs of the broad public. “But in exile, that echo went away. Now in exile there was silence, and he became increasingly a self-deprecating craftsman.” Where he had written poems devoted to speaking truths that people needed to hear (“What Once Was Great” to be a poem in this mode), he became more a poet of beauty and spiritual yearning (I take “Encounter” to be closer to this sort of thing).

I see what Zagajewski means.  It’s common for people in oppressive situations to turn to poetry as a source for the articulation of values and needs that go unarticulated elsewhere. And in most contemporary Western societies, much of poetry’s marginality relative to other modes of expression has to do with our good fortune in having a great deal of freedom to express our views and needs through other means. A recent article in the satirical newspaper The Onion made some comic mileage out of the notion that Americans were turning to the works of one of the panel’s participants, Philip Levine, to see them through our current economic crisis: there was no similar opportunity for humor when Miłosz read in occupied Poland. And if Americans truly hungered for poetry en masse, would a reading in which a current laureate, a former laureate, and one of Europe’s most prominent poets, draw a crowd of about 75, the number present in the Chopin theater? 

American History, American Landscapes

Toward the end of the evening’s events, readings and discussions flowed into one another more-or-less seamlessly, and the readings of works by Simic, Levine, and Zagajewski turned into something of a discussion of the role of history and landscape for American poets. “History,” Levine remarked, “should only be read in a funeral home, next to a coffin, preferably the poet’s own,” since the nature of the material is so very often dire. But still, one ought not to write without a sense of history, he maintained. “I was just talking to Robert Hass and Jane Hirschfield, and they told me American poets have no sense of history. Well: Simic was born in Belgrade, my parents fled from Europe: we know history.” As, of course, did Miłosz—how could it be otherwise for him, the Polish twentieth century being what it was?

Talk then ranged to the topic of landscape, particularly the Californian landscapes of Miłosz’s poetry. “You can love California landscapes, and be ecstatic in them” said Simic, “but I’ve lived in New Hampshire for decades, which is more of a Robert Frost country—dark, cold, suspicious, miserable: of course Miłosz hated Robert Frost.” Levine chimed in to say that he, too, had become a Californian poet, but his California was the inland valley, not a wild landscape, nor even an agricultural landscape. “It’s an agribusiness landscape, in which whole classes of people are sub-people, and the few have got everything sewn up so tight they’ll never share.” In this, it reminded him of the Detroit of his youth, he said. “But don’t get me wrong—I loved Detroit. I’d probably still love it… if it were still there.”

As the things wound down, I noticed they’d run longer than I expected, and I was unable to stick around and see if I could drag Steve Burt or any of the poets a few blocks uptown to the tiny upstairs room at Myopic Books, where Larry Sawyer was hosting readings by Ann Shaw and Roger Reeves. I’m sure those reading went well, though: if there’s one thing the current American poetry scene makes clear, it’s that you don’t need huge crowds to have an excellent event.