"Between Poetry and Prose": Czeslaw Milosz's Latest Writing as a Metaphysical Statement

Kimberly Jastremski, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The focus of my proposed paper on Czeslaw Milosz is his two most recent publications: Piesek przydrozny (Roadside Dog, 1997) and Abecadlo Milosza (Milosz's ABC's, 1997) which are as yet untranslated. This paper is a section of my dissertation on Czeslaw Milosz as a modern metaphysical poet.

My research began as a study of the influence of the metaphysical philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg on Milosz's religious philosophy. I expanded my reading to other metaphysicians who appeared to be influential to Milosz's writing: I studied Gnosticism and Manicheanism, the Kaballah, the works of Fedor Dostoevskij and other Russian mystic philosophers, as well as the writings of William Blake, Simone Weil and Oscar Milosz. I came to realize that what I had thought was a mystical attraction to Swedenborg was actually only a small part of Milosz's much broader spiritual quest, in the course of which he has sought inspiration from a vast array of teachers and mentors, visionaries and mystics of all faiths. While Milosz is a self-acknowledged skeptic, his published readings of the metaphysicals (most notably Ziemia Ulro) Land of Ulro) treat their tendencies toward mysticism in a serious and scholarly manner and, I argue, beg a reading of his own poetry in kind--that is, as situated in a literary tradition of metaphysical poets who use the potent language of mysticism to convey the common human experience.

My dissertation is an examination of this interplay between the public exploration of questions of faith which Milosz conducts in his prose writing and the activation of that faith as reflected in Milosz's art. In metaphysical language, Milosz attempts to create an alphabet of archetypal symbols on the one hand, and a code by which to read them on the other. My proposed paper looks at Milosz's two latest publications as a continuation of this calculated tension between genres. Piesek is a collection of thoughts, dreams, observations, and the like, written both in verse and a very loose prose. Abecadlo, written in adherence to the "ABC's" genre specific to Polish literature, contains the alphabetical arrangement of essays on people, places and events from the poet's life. Piesek presents the author as the passive instrument of, to use Milosz's terms, "voices" or "daimonions," while Abecadlo is the poet's active recall of memories for the purpose of preserving them in this archive. The near simultaneous publication of the two books is further evidence that Milosz continues to strive toward an expression of reality in the form that he described in the 1968 poem "Ars poetica?": "I have always aspired to a more spacious form / that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose."