What's a national poet? Think of Milosz or Amichai
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, December 15, 2001)

Poets and governments seldom trust each other, but occasionally a giddy spirit of cultural optimism encourages them to co-operate. After much prodding from the League of Canadian Poets, Parliament finally decided on Tuesday to create the post of Parliamentary Poet Laureate, with the duty to write odes on state occasions. The laureate will be chosen for a two-year term by the House and Senate speakers, from a list compiled by four cultural grandees in Ottawa. The idea promises much rancorous controversy. Will the first laureate be attacked as a toady of the Establishment or a bad joke of the avant-garde? Surely one or the other.

The British and Americans have poet laureates, who do no real harm. It's true that not many citizens could name the current British laureate (Andrew Motion) or his equivalent at the Library of Congress (Billy Collins), but both try to spread knowledge of poetry, and sometimes even succeed.

Behind such appointments lurks a hazy awareness that there are times when poetry focuses and intensifies public feeling. National poets have in certain places embodied the concerns of a nation while exciting the affections of the people. It's unlikely such a bard will emerge through the laureate system, but miracles can happen. If a national poet appears among us, what will he or she look like?

In recent times two men have vividly though unofficially personified the ideal of the national poet, the 90-year-old Czeslaw Milosz of Poland (winner of the Nobel Prize in 1980) and the late Yehuda Amichai of Israel (1924-2000). Apart from brilliance, they had in common a quiet nobility, a sense of humour and a talent for identifying with their fellow citizens. In retrospect they also seem to have been heading in the same direction. Both the Roman Catholic Milosz, a Pole from Lithuania, and the Jewish Amichai, an Israeli from Bavaria, developed over the years a defiant faith in human values -- and maintained it in the face of every conceivable atrocity.

Amichai, like all excellent writers, was complicated. A self-proclaimed atheist, he drew much of his inspiration from stories in the Hebrew Bible, bringing to every subject a rueful intimacy. Amos Oz, the novelist, said: "When we read Amichai, we feel he has written his verse in our kitchen, in our living room, in our bedroom." Amichai witnessed the monstrous crimes of his century but refused to be overwhelmed. It was his duty to look unblinkingly at the worst evils, but he insisted on his right to love the world nevertheless. He proclaimed (his friend Leon Wieseltier wrote) "the possibility of happiness, the legitimacy of happiness, the snatching of happiness, in a universe that conspires to stifle it." One night four years ago, when I sat beside him at dinner in Tel Aviv, he seemed to take intense pleasure from every detail in his surroundings. (He also demanded the latest Toronto literary gossip, especially about Margaret Atwood.)

Mr. Milosz experienced much of the 20th-century as a time of oppression. Born under the last czar, he saw something of the 1917 revolution and much of virulent Polish nationalism. In Warsaw during the Second World War, he worked as a janitor while publishing underground magazines. After 1945, he was Poland's cultural attaché in Washington, but in 1951 he defected to the West. His brilliant book, The Captive Mind, describes how otherwise intelligent people can ardently embrace despotism for the sake of a hypothetical future. In America after 1960 he taught at the University of California at Berkeley and saw the 1968 campus revolution: "I was rather sad to see every stupidity I had experienced before being re-enacted."

Not long ago, he wrote of unexpected happiness: "In advanced age, my health worsening, I woke in the middle of the night and experienced a feeling of happiness so intense and perfect that in all my life I had only felt its premonition." Back home in Poland, where he has lived part of his old age, his words adorn the monument at Gdansk to workers killed while demonstrating during the Soviet period. They're from You Who Wronged, written in secret while he was a government official:

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.

It seems that a national poet must not be a nationalist, in the obvious sense. Such a poet can be ironic, melancholic, tragic -- but never bombastic. The poet, unlike a politician, may question even the most cherished collective goals. Amichai expressed this in a poem about a feat of engineering. Two generations ago, Israel made the draining of swamps near Galilee a national project, a matter of pride. Alas, it was also an ecological calamity, and the swamps had to be recreated. Amichai:

When I was young I believed with all my heart the
Huleh swamp had to be drained.
Then all the bright-colored birds fled for their lives.
Now half a century later they are filling it with water again
because it was all a mistake. Perhaps my entire life
I've been living a mistake.

As for Mr. Milosz, he considers patriotic slogans tolerable only when ironic. He endorsed the phrase, "Sacred love of our beloved fatherland" in another Polish poet's work, but that was when it appeared in a poem called The Mouse-iad and was spoken during a war between armies of mice.

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