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Editorial from PN Review 160

Editorial from PN Review 160
Virginia Woolf makes her own a passage from Dr Johnson"s "Life of Gray": "...I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtility and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claims to poetical honours." The Common Reader: how uncorrupted was this creature at the time of Johnson, at the time of Woolf? Could such a reader survive today? Because there are, inevitably, corruptions in the environment which affect common readers. They read, and reading itself contaminates them.

Take for example the ways in which the appointment of the new Poet Laureate of the United States have been reported in Britain. The post of laureate has been held by many major poets because it changes every eight months. The incumbent was Louise Glück. Her tenure was in many respects exemplary: she did not (like some of her busy and benign predecessors) become a cheerleader for poetry. She will be followed Great Plains poet Ted Kooser of Nebraska. Who? Where? Kooser. Nebraska... Librarian of Congress James H. Billington enlightens us: "Ted Kooser is a major poetic voice for rural and small town America and the first poet laureate chosen from the Great Plains... His verse reaches beyond his native region to touch on universal themes in accessible ways." Is this, asked a British journals, the very bottom of the barrel? Because Kooser was unknown to them, they assumed his appointment was merely political. Perhaps it was, but no evidence was adduced.

There was a corrupting prejudice in the air, that reductive, parodying irony which is a mask for ignorance and to which the common reader is all too frequently subjected. A strange name, a strange provenance, a poet of 65 years who has not yet scored a Pulitzer... He may have published ten collections, most recently Delights & Shadows (2004), but so have dozens of other poets who must now be regarded as eligible for the laureateship, even though they have not been endorsed by the central Establishment. The future might seem to promise a laureate by lottery, a wry English critic suggested. Kooser"s greatest achievements were that his 1980 collection, Sure Signs, received the Society of Midland Authors Prize for the best book of poetry by a Midwestern writer published in that year and his 2000 collection, Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, won the 2001 Nebraska Book Award for Poetry. What more needs be said? No need to proceed to the poems themselves...

I do not wish to compare Ted Kooser with Cseslaw Milosz, but Kooser"s reception in Britain reminded me of an earlier occasion. When the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980, a leader in The Times expressed resigned disgust that yet again the Swedish Academy had had the effrontery to select a poet unknown to the newspaper and, to make it worse, a poet whose name was unpronounceable. "In both an outward and inward sense he is an exile writer," the Nobel citation read, "a stranger for whom physical exile is really a reflection of a metaphysical -- or even religious -- spiritual exile applying to humanity in general. The world that Milosz depicts in his poetry, prose and essays is the world in which man lives after having been driven out of Paradise." For The Times, however, the choice was transparently political, not literary. We were safe to ignore Milosz and to think ill of the Swedes with their compromised agenda. And Milosz was ignored for a year or two, until the merits of his work and his presence made him unignorable.
Milosz died at the age of 93 on 14 August. He was in Krakow, where he spent much of the last decade and a half of his life, after years of exile in France and the United States. The obituaries had been filed for a long time, waiting for his departure, and there was an air of déja vu about them. They presented him primarily as "a poet who documented the fight against communism". It was his place in history rather than his place in poetry that detained the obituarists, who focussed on his influential book from the 1950s, The Captive Mind, about intellectuals under communism, rather than on the news that stays news of his poems, especially the mighty poems of retrospect composed in his later years, which rediscover the possibilities of the lyric mode in a world hostile to the stability that the lyric voice has traditionally required. He was, from early in his poetic career, a re-inventor of form and voice, and yet we read: "Milosz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980 as the Solidarity worker movement began its protests against communist rule in Poland."

Milosz, characterised as a "poet of witness", in later life resisted the label. True, his Harvard lectures were entitled "The Poetry of Witness"; they inadvertently defined and advertised a stance which could be easily rhetoricised and falsified. The function of poetry was less to witness than to interpret, transform and complete experience. This is why the poems which refigure childhood and the world of his own youth are so remarkable. His aesthetic was clearly affected by politics, but not a single politics over so long a period. He spoke so many languages he was a one-man Pentecost, and carried in his time a library of different passports, some issued by history and some acquired by choice. The consistency is in his aesthetic quest. There is a powerful evolution through his work until it is able to rebuild memory and, as a result, to see the present world of image and idea with remarkable subtlety.

In the Guardian, Adam Czerniawski, characterising him as "this petulant Lithuanian Pole", revived old resentments, reflecting on Milosz"s unpopularity with other Polish writers during his years of exile (and, judging by Czerniawski"s tone, right up to his death): "...Milosz remained bitter and unrelenting, convinced that his life was riddled with misfortunes brought about by the malice of his countrymen. He could never understand that by choosing a life of high exposure and ideological manoeuvring, he was bound to provoke hostile reactions, as well as fierce loyalties."

It was in part this isolation that kept him intact. He was blessed as a translator, bringing his most accomplished contemporaries into English, including Zbigniew Herbert. He was also blessed in his translators, especially Robert Hass, with whom he collaborated, producing poems that have real prosodic form and force as English verse. He is a poet who served and who spoke to the Common Reader, not despite but because of the fact that he was corrupted by "literary prejudices" (a succession, even a progression, of them) and the "refinements of subtility and the dogmatism of learning", for he was a learned, haughty and in crucial respects a generous man.

-- Michael Schmidt (10/08/2005)

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