The university where I work as a science writer will honor its international students in mid-November. As part of the celebration, I was assigned to determine the nationalities of all these students and the languages they speak. Then I had to find out how a simple English phrase – “Thank you” – is expressed in each tongue, and a colleague will design posters incorporating all that multilingual gratitude. The list is not quite complete, but I already have 32 languages identified and know how to say “thank you” in, among others, Urdu, Kadazan, Romanian, Bengali, and also Polish: Dziekuje!
I think of that lone Polish student and wonder if he is happy among so many Americans and other strangers. I single him out because I’ve been browsing again in Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, published earlier this year by the University Press of Mississippi, and have noticed how often the theme of thankfulness, of gratitude before the undeniable reality of existence, recurs in Milosz’s interviews, as it does in his essays and poems. He once wrote "O happiness! To see an iris,” and says in his great poem “Blacksmith Shop”:
“It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.”
The theme for Milosz is clearly rooted in his Catholicism and its centrality to his moral and aesthetic vision. As he says, “He was thankful, so he couldn't not believe in God.” Also striking is the vehemence with which Milosz denounces Philip Larkin, specifically his great poem “Aubade.” In a 1983 interview he says:
“I guess it is correct to say that every poetry is directed against death – against the death of the individual, against the power of death. That’s why I was so angry a few years ago when I read a poem by Philip Larkin on death, a desperate poem about the lack of any reason – about the complete absurdity of human life – and our moving, all of us, toward an absurd acceptance of death, which is true. But the poet shouldn’t do that. The poet shouldn’t take a passive attitude – how do I explain, it is very difficult – and attitude of complete submission to the absurdity of human existence.”
Unfortunately, Milosz weakens his stance by citing what he deems a more appropriate – “masculine,” he says – attitude toward death: Dylan Thomas’ melodramatically adolescent “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” He goes so far as to attribute to Larkin an “effeminate love of the nonsense of human existence.” This, I’m sorry to say of a poet whose work I love, is nonsense and a significant critical lapse.
In a 1994 Paris Review interview with Robert Faggen, Milosz returns to the theme: “I know Larkin’s `Aubade,’ and for me it’s a hateful poem. I don’t like Larkin. He was a wonderful craftsman, very good indeed. As a stylist I rank him very high, because he exemplifies precisely my ideal – to write clear poetry with a clear meaning, and not just an accounting of subjective impressions; but I don’t like his poetry which I consider too symptomatic to be liked.”
Pressed to explain, Milosz says:
“Symptomatic of the present, desperate worldview, or weltanschauung. It seem to me that there is no revelation in his poetry….He proposes a sort of desire for nothingness as opposed to life – which didn’t bring him much. I’m afraid we have completely lost the habit of applying moral criteria to art. Because when somebody tells me that Larkin is a great poet, and that it’s enough to write great poetry by forsaking all human values, I’m skeptical. Probably that’s my educations and instincts speaking.”
My love for the work of both poets, I know, reflects my own divided sensibility. Because, like Larkin, I am without religious faith, I can go only so far in my communion with Milosz. Temperamentally, emotionally, I have more in common with Larkin. I think Milosz willfully misunderstands Larkin, at least “Aubade.” I suspect it’s the poem’s great central stanza that particularly inflames the great Polish poet:
“This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear -- no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.”
This was anathema to Milosz, a succumbing to what he saw as all the worst primal drives of the 20th century, which lead inexorably to the horrors of Communism and National Socialism, which he experienced personally. Unlike Milosz, I hear no acquiescence in “Aubade,” no desperation and certainly no nihilistic glee. Rather, I hear a man struggling to remain clear-eyed in the face of inevitable oblivion, unwilling to settle for palliatives, too honest to embrace what he cannot believe. The tone is elegiac sadness.
In art, fortunately, one is not compelled to choose sides, one poet at the expense of another. Milosz and Larkin are not mutually exclusive loves. Aesthetic love is promiscuous without being unfaithful. I feel no compulsion to be rigorously consistent in matters of artistic taste. I can love Proust and Raymond Chandler, Schoenberg and Johnny Cash. Only in that sense, I think, is art democratic. Dziekuje.