I was introduced to the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz in the context of a college-level seminar on European Intellectual History. We were not required to read a great deal of his poetry (10 poems, I think), but I remember the thrilling sense of discovery I experienced when I sank my teeth into his lovely verses. Many say that he is the greatest of all Polish poets; I do not know if that is true, but he is certainly one of my favorites--a high compliment, I think, if you consider the fact that my knowledge of his stupendous oeuvre is based on English translations.
The book under review is a collection of Milosz' prose pieces in English. Some were written in English, most were translated from the original Polish, and all are fantastic. The first section of the book ("These Guests of Mine") introduces the poet through a series of autobiographical and biographical sketches, all of which shed light on the historical events and people that shaped his life and the themes he would so thoroughly explore through verse. It is in this section, my favorite section, that you'll find such gems as "Dictionary of Wilno Streets," "Journey to the West," and "Miss Anna and Miss Dora." Writing about Anna and Dora (a retired teacher and her retarded sister), Milosz writes: "I have never stopped seeing those two old women, defenseless against historical time, and simply time itself. No one but me remembers their names anymore." Want another? How about this (from "Pity"): "In the ninth decade of my life, the feeling which rises in me is pity, useless. A multitude, an immense number of faces, shapes, fates of particular beings, and a sort of merging with them from inside, but at the same time my awareness that I will not find anymore the means to offer a home in my poems to these guests of mine, for it is too late."
The second section of this book, entitled "On the Side of Man," explores Milosz' attempts to remain a man of religion (in his case, Catholicism) when faced with the cold, irrefutable facts of scientific investigation. Particularly interesting (at least for this reader) are his gloss on Dostoyevsky and his eloquent "An Essay in Which the Author Confesses that he is on the Side of Man, for Lack of Anything Better."
In part three, Milosz makes a poignant case against the trend of obscure poetry. I was not familiar with many of the poets he discusses in this section, but his interpretation of others--Frost, Eliot, and other giants of the stanza--changed the way in which I read and appreciate their inimitable verses. Should you not have the time to read all nine pieces in this section, at least read "Against Incomprehensible Poetry" and "Ruins and Poetry"; in these, I think, you will find the crux of his convincing argument against obscurantism.
The book ends with a series of excerpts from the "Notebook," all of which elaborate on his favorite themes: suffering, history, the scientific worldview, etc. You will find much to delight you here, and I'll sum up this review with one pithy aphorism: "For years I used to think about the indecency of all types of artistry, which, in every country I am familiar with, now or in the past, would have been impossible if the fate of the downtrodden and the humiliated were really felt intensely by others."