“And if you cannot save the world…” Milosz and the calling of the poet

IMG_4580In 2002 I met Bogdana Carpenter at the University of Michigan, while researching the Ardis archives for my doctoral thesis at Oxford. She very kindly signed a copy of Milosz’s collection of essays To Begin Where I Am, which she had translated with Madeline Levine.  I am now re-reading the book in preparation for a course on Poetry and the Language of Oppression I am to teach at Michigan as the 2018 Helen DeRoy Professor in Honors this September, and I can’t help but laugh at one particular note I have made on Milosz’s essay “Notes on Exile” when I first read the book.  Milosz wrote:

“And if you cannot save the world, why would you care whether you have a large or a small audience?”

I circled the world “save” and wrote above it: “Well, calm down.  Isn’t salvation something that belongs to God?”  Sixteen years later, it’s funny to think that I am still attracted to the notion that the writer should write in order to save the world (and only God knows, we’re in big trouble these days).  Yet I am reminded of how unrealistic I thought the job was even before I published my first book of poems.  Milosz succeeded at changing the world with his writing, there is plenty of evidence that his readers have understood something fundamental about the role of the writer, and the beauty of language, both from his poetry, and from the honesty with which he had spoken about his job.  I don’t have a way of gauging his readership, though I suspect his publishers will have a good idea of how many books he had sold.  I imagine that teaching and speaking all over the world, and winning the Nobel Prize have won him large audiences who wanted to know what had happened with our humanity during the horrors of the last century.  As for me, as the perspective on my native country and language widens with time, so does the perspective on writing itself.  The dream to change the world is less tangible with time, but no less real for being unattainable.

The main question returns: “Why write?” If the poets working in the harsh conditions of historical turmoil are clear about the urgency of their job–to keep the language alive and to help people imagine and claim their freedom–the poets living in less traumatic circumstances are quite lost.  They imagine that the great poets had a conflict to prove themselves against, attributing their stature to misfortune.  They let their own creative language–of privilege–fall into mere chatter, forgetting that it requires care to maintain it robust so that it can represent our outer lives as well as our inner worlds. We must write, I think, to keep the world in balance. To offer imagination, and to maintain our shared values–of freedom and health as a society, of happiness which does not come at the cost of the suffering of others.  Yet these days, with so much turmoil around us, and with destabilizing trends in politics and political language, it’s becoming unrealistic to talk about a language of “privilege” and of peace from which poets can draw.  Maybe, with Milosz, we need to find a language of resistance. To offer another metaphor: the poet working in today’s world could accept the humbler role of custodian of language–dusting, cleaning, polishing, repairing, restoring, reinforcing, and adding to language–to keep it strong, warm, and safe.  Not a savior, but close enough, and to my mind, venerable.


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