Road-Side Dog

By Peter Kurth
Published November 19, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

When Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, most of his works had never been translated into English and were not even available in his own country -- or, rather, the country that Poland had become after two World Wars and 35 years of Communist rule. Milosz spent the Nazi years in Warsaw, where he was a witness both to the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the general uprising that followed in 1944. After the war, he served in Poland's new Communist government until his ethics, or scruples, or dignity, demanded that he defect. After 10 years in Paris, he moved to the United States, where he accepted a professorship at Berkeley and continued to write in Polish, likening the experience to "hiding words in tree-hollows," not knowing if they would even be found, much less translated and hailed as among the greatest works of the century.

For Milosz, now 87, poetry is witness. "It's astonishing to think about the multitude of events in the twentieth century and about the people taking part in them, and to realize that every one of those situations deserved an epic, a tragedy, or a lyric poem," he writes in "Road-side Dog," his new collection of poems, short essays, fables and epigrams. "But nothing -- they sank, leaving only a faint trace." Worse, says Milosz, they were trivialized, dumbed-down to fit the political and commercial interests of a culture that no longer seeks to know "what" or "why" but only "how."

"We have become indifferent to content," Milosz writes, "and react, not even to form, but to technique, to technical efficiency itself." It's one of dozens of brilliant and provocative ideas that float through "Road-side Dog," ranging from pronouncements on the nature of poetry, history and writing to thoughts on technology and the passage of time. All the while, Milosz remains amazed that he has made it this far. Like his contemporary and compatriot, Pope John Paul II, he is deeply troubled by the evaporation of meaning and context from the world, by the "pragmatic" debasement of all moral issues, by the elevation of money and its pursuit to the highest good, by the emptiness of celebrity and the desecration of words. Unlike the pope, however, Milosz is not bound by dogma of any kind; he has even said that no one can think seriously about religion anymore without becoming a heretic.

"Little animals from cartoons," he writes in "A Warning," "talking rabbits, doggies, squirrels, as well as ladybugs, bees, grasshoppers. They have as much in common with real animals as our notions of the world have with the real world. Think of this, and tremble." For all his pessimism, despair is not Milosz's mode. Poetry, he tells us, is a "futile ... yet absolutely necessary" response to emptiness and horror: "One can say that even the most powerful, full-blooded, active personality is hardly a shadow compared to a few well-chosen words, even if they describe no more than the rising moon. Since my early youth, I felt the presence of a daimonion, or, if you prefer, a Muse, and if not for that companion, I would have perished." Keep this book by your bed and dip into it for pleasure or instruction or both -- there are few enough left of Milosz's kind

Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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