Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dark Wings of Night: Czeslaw Milosz's Haiku Path and His Haiku-Like Poem

         My motto could be that haiku of Issa—“We walk on the roof of Hell / gazing at flowers.”
         -- Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz's longtime interest in Chinese and Japanese poetries, especially in haiku, is well known. In the opening section, titled “Epiphany,” of one of his most widely-read books, A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry,  Milosz includes the following two haiku, stating that: “In Japanese haiku there are often flashes, or glimpses, and things appear like lightning, or as if in the light of a flare: epiphanies of a landscape.” (p. 6)

Above the boat,
of wild geese.

Kikaku (1661-1707)

From the bough
floating down river,
insect song.

Issa (1763-1827)

Although interested in haiku, Milosz didn't write one haiku throughout his poetic career, but his following poem in Road-Side Dog is known for its haiku-like quality and praised for being “as haunting as any he has written.” (Richard Eder, “Laughter and Lament,”  Los Angeles Times, 29 Nov 1998: 2)

Cathedral of my enchantments,
autumn wind,
I grew old giving thanks.

In 1992, his publication of Haiku, a collection of Polish translations of classical Japanese haiku and contemporary American and Canadian haiku, sparked excitement and strong interest among his readers and fellow poets.

Below is an excerpt from Milosz's interview with The Paris Review, titled “The Art of Poetry, No. 70,”  that reveals his path to Haiku:


How did you happen upon Chinese poetry?


In Warsaw, I bought an anthology, The Chinese Flute, which was a translation not from Chinese but from the French. The poetry provided clear images and, particularly, strong colors that I could inject into a dark, black and red world of the Nazi occupation. Since that time, the two-color combination of black and red has always been ominous for me....


Which Asian poets interested you most?


At that time, I didn’t know much about individual poets. That came later through my interest in American poetry. As you know, translations from old Chinese and Japanese poetry played an eminent role in its development. Ezra Pound was a pioneer in this respect: the Imagists were strongly influenced by Asian literature. So, it was a gradual influence and developed largely because of some of the philosophical premises of my work.


Such as?


Well, I don’t want to sound too theoretical, but I was reacting to certain tendencies in modern poetry towards complete subjectivization. In Asian poetry there is a certain equilibrium between subject and object rarely attained in the West. I come from a poetic tradition in which history plays a great role, my poetry involving to a large extent the transposition of certain major events, tragedies of history. The tradition in Central Europe is that the individual is weak, quite different from the West, which is very strong in its emphasis on the individual. After I stopped dealing with the big tragedies of the twentieth century, I wanted to find a balance. I didn’t want to write purely personal perceptions, which is typical of so much of the poetry today—seen through a very personal perspective, and thus very often difficult to decipher. I realized that the weakness of the individual is no good in poetry, and that an excess of individualism is a danger as well....


How do you regard Wallace Stevens’s notion that the modern poem is “the poem of the act of the mind in finding what will suffice”?


Literature and poetry today are under enormous pressure from the scientific mode of thinking, an empirical way of thinking. Wallace Stevens has a penetrating, dissecting mind, which I think applied to poetry is wrong. If we take Stevens’s poem “Study of Two Pears,” it seems an attempt to describe the pears as if to a Martian, to a creature from another planet. That’s dissection. I feel that things of this world should be contemplated rather than dissected—the kind of detached attitude towards objects one finds in Dutch still lifes. Schopenhauer considered these to be the highest form of art. That contemplation is also in Japanese haiku poems. As Basho said, to write about the pine, you must learn from the pine. This is a completely different attitude from dissecting the world. Schopenhauer, I feel, is really the artist’s, the poet’s, philosopher.




Because he stressed the need for distance. In the workings of the universe, we are in that infernal circle of passions—striving and struggling. Schopenhauer was influenced by the religious writings of India; for him liberation meant to stand outside of the wheel of eternal birth and death. Art should also stand outside that turning wheel, so that we can approach an object without passion, without desire, and with a certain detachment. Life’s passion can be eliminated through detached contemplation, which is a good definition of art: “detached contemplation.” That is why Schopenhauer’s epitome of art was the still life, the Dutch still life....


How do you feel about Larkin’s poem “Aubade,” in which he views religion as a kind of trick and calls it “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die”?


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.


Symptomatic of?


Symptomatic of the present, desperate worldview, or weltanschauung. It seems to me that there is no revelation in his poetry. Even his letters dismay his friends because they are full of hatred, especially racist hatred for blacks, Indians, Pakistanis and so on. He was a very frustrated and very unhappy, desperate man. 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 education and instincts speaking. My motto could be that haiku of Issa—“We walk on the roof of Hell / gazing at flowers.” It’s a little cheap to fall into sarcasm, irony. That emptiness and cruelty, which is the basis of Larkin’s weltanschauung, should be accepted as a basis upon which you work towards something light.


  1. Czesław Miłosz wrote a poetic commentary on Issa's haiku, and it is written in the form of a free verse, titled "Reading the Japanese Poet Issa (1762–1826),"

    For more information, see my Poetic Musings: Czesław Miłosz's Reading the Japanese Poet Issa (1762–1826),which can be accessed http://neverendingstoryhaikutanka.blogspot.ca/2013/09/dark-wings-of-night-czesaw-mioszs.html

  2. I enjoyed this so much I had to thank you. I have read a great deal by Miłosz. He had a true world view and a tremendous capacity for contemplation.

    Also, congratulations on your work being honored by the 2013 Vancouver Cherry Blossom Haiku Invitational. I am very moved by your dragonfly haiku. – Donna Fleischer

  3. Donna:

    Thanks for your warm congratulations and for your support of my work.