Friday, February 10, 2012

A Case of Substance Over Style: Milosz's Provinces

     Off and on for the past few years, I've been working my way through a voluminous edition of collected poems of the late, great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. While I might post my impressions of the whole collection later, I've recently been thinking about some of his later poems. At present, I'm working my way through his 1991 volume Provinces. The poems are obviously the work of an old man (though he'd continue to publish for 10 more years), and the book came over a decade after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
     This later work is still characteristic Milosz both stylistically and thematically. Indeed, it's remarkable that Milosz's work stayed so steadily consistent in quality over such a long period. Working over such a long period as Milosz did, however, will inevitably bring some changes, and to my eye at least, his later work did display some subtle differences from his earlier pieces. Most notably, I found Milosz's earlier work to be much more appealing artistically - it had an energy and imagery that really propelled the work forward in a way you don't always find in his later poems. That said, however, I still oddly enough seem to be enjoying some of his later poems as much, if not more, than some of his earlier ones.
     I believe this is largely due to the subject matter of Milosz's work in Provinces. By and large, these poems are the philisophical musings of an old man pondering the transience of our mortal world and what happens when we pass from it. If you don't think mortality and aging is on his mind, then just look at a sampling of some of the lines that open poems in this volume: "You would like to hear how it is in old age?" ("A New Province"), "Your unhappy and silly youth" ("Youth"), "Listen, perhaps you will hear me, young man" ("Inheritor"), "In my old age I decided to visit places where I wandered long ago in my early youth" ("Return"), "When I die, I will see the lining of the world" ("Meaning").   
It's a theme common enough to poetry, granted, but Milosz here is grappling with the lofty subject with an apparent sincerity that is much more rare. It is this grappling that makes these poems so interesting, to me at least, even if the verse itself lacks some of the artistic integrity of his earlier pieces.
     You see, one of the things that bothers me about contemporary poetry is that often it's the opposite case. Many of the talented poets today, particularly those being cranked out by some of these MFA programs, seem to care more about the style of their poetry than the message that so often gets pushed to the background or diluted by their obscure renderings. Oftentimes, I even get the distinct impression that some of these poems start with the stylistic structure and then finds a subject to incorporate into it. It's a pet peeve when I read many literary journals today.
     Some of these later poems of Milosz are the complete opposite, and it's refreshing. In fact, let me close with one of the poems Milosz writes that seems to be just about that subject. It's called "Good Night," and in it, one senses that the poet is glad that he's at the stage of his career where he doesn't need to worry about the artistic reception to his poetry:

No duties. I don't have to be profound.
I don't have to be artistically perfect.
Or sublime. Or edifying.
I just wander. I say: "You were running,
That's fine. It was the thing to do."
And now the music of the worlds transforms me.
My planet enters a different house.
Trees and lawns become more distinct.
Philosophies one after another go out.
Everything is lighter yet not less odd.
Sauces, wine vintages, dishes of meat.
We talk a little of district fairs,
Of travels in a covered wagon with a cloud of dust behind,
Of how rivers once were, what the scent of calamus is.
That's better than examining one's private dreams.
And meanwhile it has arrived. It's here, invisible.
Who can guess how it got here, everywhere.
Let others take care of it. Time for me to play hooky.
Buena notte. Ciao. Farewell.

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