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Putting Their Heads Together

Two literary laureates deliver an epic to the English-speaking world.

Photo: Jane Scherr

MEETING OF MINDS: Milosz (left) and Hass draw SRO crowds to their poetry readings.

By Cynthia Haven

"Good-bye! Have a good holiday! Write poems!"

The man in the teal pullover--his tousled, pale hair getting damp in the drizzle--shouts the unusual salutation to a cluster of Berkeley students. They wave as they pass one of Cal's best-known professors and America's most renowned poets.

Robert Hass's position in the public eye has been shaped by his tenure as U.S. poet laureate (1995 to 1997) and his weekly Washington Post column on poetry, which ran from December 1995 to January 2000. He has written four poetry books and many translations and anthologies, received a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1984 and twice won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to his day-to-day work as an educator, Hass, PhD '76, is an active environmentalist who founded the River of Words poetry contest, administered through the International Rivers Network.

But he also has a less visible role: translator to a Nobel laureate, the 89-year-old Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, considered by some to be the world's greatest living poet. The latest evidence of their successful 20-year collaboration appears this spring with the first complete English version of one of Milosz's masterworks, Treatise on Poetry. (The original came out in 1956, but only parts of it were translated until now.)

The 1,500-line poem is both an epic and a personal lyric, documenting the upheavals of the 20th century, particularly in Krakow and Warsaw. Harvard English professor and eminent critic Helen Vendler calls Treatise "an enormous factual roll call" describing the tragic fate of Milosz's fellow poets. "As the poem glides along its temporal surface, it is anchored by these terrible deaths. It is the great war elegy of all the dead--the named dead and the anonymous dead; the mass dead and the particular dead," says Vendler, whose essay on the new translation will appear this spring in the New York Review of Books. An excerpt from the poem:

No ancient Greek hero entered into combat
So deprived of hope, in their heads the image
Of a white skull kicked by feet in passing . . .

Trzebinski, the new Polish Nietzsche,
Had his mouth plastered shut before he died.
He took with him the view of a wall, low clouds
His black eyes had just a moment to absorb.
Baczynski's head fell against his rifle.
The uprising scared up flocks of pigeons.
Gajcy, Stroinski were raised to the sky,
A red sky, on the shield of an explosion.

During a rare joint appearance at Stanford last year, Hass and Milosz discussed the difficulties of translating the work, with Milosz occasionally singing snatches of old Polish songs included in the poem. Initially, both men thought the poem was "too Polish" to translate, but Milosz's interest in the project was rekindled while he was working on new commentary for a recent edition. Hass admits that, with his very limited Polish, he didn't fully appreciate the original work. However, "as soon as I got going on it, I saw it was not just an interesting work but a remarkable poem." Moreover, the absence of a full translation represented a big hole in Milosz's poetic record in English.

Milosz originally wrote Treatise in an 11-syllable line with four or five stresses, and with a loose, moving caesura (or pause) occurring somewhere in the middle of each line. Hass planned to translate it into blank verse, but Milosz's preference for very literal rendering led him to scrap that plan and hew more closely to the text.

Typically, Milosz makes the first translation, to establish what Hass calls the "rhythmic regime" of the poem. "Then I submit to Bob, who works on that text," says the elder poet. "We have been very effective together. I consider it a great privilege that here in America I can exist, and communicate with an American audience thanks to these translations."

Hass's attraction to the Polish poet began in 1962, when he first read Captive Mind (1953), a landmark denunciation of totalitarianism as ideocratic, spiritual tyranny. As Hass wrote in his acclaimed book of essays, Twentieth-Century Pleasures (1984): "I wanted to read poetry by people who did not assume that the great drama in their work was that everything in the world was happening to them for the first time."

Milosz defected from Poland to Paris in 1951. Nine years later he immigrated to America and UC-Berkeley, where he taught Slavic languages and literature until 1980. Hass, who didn't join Berkeley's faculty until 1989, first met Milosz at an international poetry festival in San Francisco in 1978.

"He had a fierce, hawkish, standoffish formality," Hass recalls. "In those days, when he gave public readings, which was rare, he would read in Polish and have somebody else read the English. I thought at the time it was because he was concerned about his accent. I came to understand. . . ." Hass trails off. "Basically, his English is perfectly good. He has a strong accent, but he's not hard to understand. It was his way of insisting on his Polishness, his way of being true to himself."

Hass wasn't to be intimidated. He approached Milosz to discuss translation. "So by accident, in the course of this, at an age when I was really too old to have a master anymore, I got to apprentice myself to this amazing body of poetry," he says.

At his windswept home in Inverness, Calif., Hass discusses what he's learned from Milosz the man, as well as the poet. At first, he says, "I thought of him as being someone of enormous philosophical rigor and severity. I've come to see over the years that that is not true. He's a poet, not a philosopher." Hass observes that while "a lot of his ways of thinking about things are very instinctive, most people are lazier thinkers than Czeslaw is."

Hass cites an example: he once told Milosz he was working on an essay about American nature writing. Hass imitates the peremptory tone and deep accent of the elder poet's response: "'Oh, well, nature to me of course is pure horror.'

"I said, 'You were just talking about going up to the wine country and how spectacular the hills were, and the colors of the vines!'" Milosz's response: "'Oh, beauty--different story,' " Hass recalls with a laugh.

"Some of us asked him if he'd read Flannery O'Connor, and he said, 'No.' Had he read so-and-so? 'No.' Finally he said, 'You know, I don't agree with the novel.' Now that's a different way of thinking."

Such thinking is echoed in Treatise, which is also a valiant defense of poetry:

Novels and essays serve but will not last.
One clear stanza can take more weight
Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.

Hass admits that Milosz's mindset has rubbed off. For example, he says environmentalists tend to see nature as a pure good and civilization as a mixed good. But Milosz, Hass says, sees "that the very structure of nature--cruelty, sickness and death--is unacceptable." The tendency in environmental thinking is to envision a halcyon time "and to yearn back to it," says Hass. These days, "I often think in Czeslaw's terms: there was no such moment--which makes no particular argument one way or another, but it's a reminder not to take things sentimentally."

At times their interaction seems a luminous symbiosis. During a poetry reading last year at Berkeley, where 200 chairs were wildly inadequate for the 400 people who showed up, Hass and Milosz entered the melee together almost unnoticed, a slow-moving island of calm in the social brouhaha. During the reading, Hass silently, attentively mouthed the words as Milosz spoke. At such moments, translation becomes a rare kind of union.

Hass embarks on a different kind of translation at his 2 p.m. poetry class at Berkeley, a formidable auditorium setting with 160 students. He is trying to describe the zeitgeist of the 1920s to undergraduates who have spent much of their lives in front of computer screens--just as Milosz attempted to explain turn-of-the-century Poland to the world in the 1950s. In the middle of his discourse on Hart Crane and the Harlem Renaissance poets, a cell phone in the upper tiers interrupts with Bizet's "Toreador" tune. Hass rises to the occasion: "They lived in a world where they were never interrupted by a cell phone!"

Later, that reminds him of another reason for his enduring collaboration: "Czeslaw is fun. A lot of fun. We laugh a lot. He likes to eat and he likes to drink. He's very funny. So it was just fun, being around him.

"Milosz's poetry can be playful," Hass says. "But the stakes in his poetry are high. I think people are moved by that."

Cynthia Haven, a California writer, frequently covers arts and letters for Stanford.

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