Milosz – A Biography
By Andrzej Franaszek
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £25.95
There is too much talk about what poetry ought to be and too little about what poetry ought to be and too little about what it is. It is primarily a contradiction to nihilism. Like an apple in a Dutch painting […] because it refers to something that is particular. An author of rhyming introductory articles can be a fairly good poet for a while, because he uses his observations as resources, but he has to shout much louder… because this is the price for moving away into a desert of ideas. One real tree, one real droplet of dew, are enough to destroy him and reduce him to nothingness.
Czeslaw Milosz (‘Poetry and Diadectics – 1951’)
What equipped him for his truth-telling role was the incomparable quality of his intellect and poetic skills, which enabled him to endure and, much later, process imaginatively experiences and sufferings which might well have destroyed a less driven individual.
Seamus Heaney (Introduction)
In order not to kill himself, he sought any argument that could dissuade him from such an act, although the most important and hardest to pinpoint was something deep within him. Faith and piety? To be more precise, it was the belief that the world was not based on a void, that there was a higher authority which did not allow anything to occur by chance.
(‘A Story of One Particular Suicide Case’)
What is it that drives a person to such incomparable lengths as to endure, and as a result, be capable of delivering occasional work that is (almost) beyond description? Beyond depiction? As Seamus Haney clearly states, perhaps its a mixture of acute gift and suffering.
But gift and suffering alone, do not necessarily make for terrific, enlightening and what’s more, in-depth writing. One need only ask Vladimir Nabakov, Ted Hughes or indeed W. H. Auden. All three of whom somehow, inadvertently subscribed to the ideological thinking of ”One real tree, one real droplet of dew, are enough to destroy him and reduce him to nothingness.”
It is just such open-wound-like, regal realisation on the part of Andrzej Franaszek, that accounts for this book being such a spell-binding and all round invigorating read. As Adam Zagajewski has since written: ”Franaszek is well suited to his subject.” To be sure, Milosz – A Biography might well be considered as being many things to many people; one being that it could nigh well be deemed a cleansing of the intellect…
Just one of the (many) reasons being – apart from the huge body of extraordinary work it traverses – is that Milosz, surely one of the most unquestionably important poets of the last century, simply bypassed all folly, all insincerity, all hypocrisy.
And if such weren’t enough to fully engage with both Milosz and Milosz – A Biography, then I really don’t know what is.
Once again, returning to Zagajewski: ”Franaszek’s outstanding biography of Czeslaw Milosz narrates one of the great lives of the twentieth century and does not shy away from recounting the more private side of the poet’s loves, moods, victories, and defeats. Milosz was an artist who was also a political thinker, who stood in the centre of the ideological debates of his time, who was an incredibly industrious writer and on top of all this had a sublime gift for poetry:
My generation was lost. Cities too. And nations.
But all this is a little later. Meanwhile, in the window, a swallow
Performs its rite of the second. That boy, does he already suspect
That beauty is always elsewhere and always delusive?
Now he sees his homeland. At the time of the second mowing.
Roads winding uphill and down. Pine groves. Lakes.
An overcast sky with one slanting ray.
And everywhere men with scythes, in shirts of unbleached linen
(‘Diary of a Naturalist’)
When Zagajewski writes about the author not shying away from ”the poet’s loves, moods, victories, and defeats;” as much is rather evident within the fine selection of black and white photographs contained herein – where many a picture does indeed paint many a thousand words.
Each of these 470 pages (excluding Maps, Chronology, Notes, Bibliography, Acknowledgements, Illustration Credits and Index) lends the reader with a most refined window into one of the most understated, misunderstood, greatest of (Polish) poets to have ever graced the blank, yet seemingly troubled, page.
Edited and translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker, I can honestly say that Milosz – A Biography opens many, many an invigorating and (already preordained) invigorated window.