Primary school teaching is an amalgamation of more small jobs than I’d ever imagined: almost simultaneously, you have to be a lecturer, an actor, a stand-up comedian, a glorified babysitter. Now that the school has decided to produce A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the end of term, I’m a director and a playwright too, becoming just another minor writer working in the long shadow of Shakespeare. I go through the play act by act and attempt to bring out all that’s relevant to a group of primary school children who are separated from Shakespeare by four centuries and several thousand miles.
In Act 5, Scene 1, I find a phrase I know already: Theseus tells Hippolyta that ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact.’ I’d stolen the lines for a poem in my MA portfolio, accepting without question that lunatic, lover and poet are linked by a sense of being somehow outside the world, standing at one remove from the comfort of the quotidian. Now, though, the comparison seems too easy, too convenient. Another line springs into my mind — a line from Foucault about madness having ‘the function of manifestation, of revelation… in the age of Shakespeare and Cervantes.’ Foucault goes on to argue that madness has lost that function, that the wise madman (the fool in Lear, Hamlet) no longer exists in literature. Is it worth bridging the gap between lunatic and poet and arguing that poetry, too, has lost ‘the function of revelation’?
Who really expects poets to be ‘the antennae of the race’, to tell uncomfortable truths about society? Who’s left to listen? From a British perspective, you’d argue that the poet-prophets have ceased to exist. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate and one of the most widely-read contemporary poets, is respected, but nothing more. People nod politely, murmur a few words of encouragement (or vitriol, if they care about overturning the ‘poetry establishment’), and turn away again. The idea of a poet reading to a packed stadium, as Neruda once did in São Paulo, seems faintly ridiculous.
And yet the poet-prophets do exist. In an article for the TLS last year, Cynthia Haven describes the ‘rock star exuberance’ with which the late Czesław Miłosz is feted in Poland: ‘a triumph of twenty-first-century branding and marketing, featuring commemorative books, pens, postcards, blank books, and T-shirts; Miłosz’s scrawled signature appears on napkins and even on the wrappers of tiny biscotti.’ Miłosz was (and, even after death, still is) a poet whose words were regarded as revelatory, who possessed the rather unfathomable ability to speak to a nation.
He certainly had high ambitions for his own writing. In ‘Dedication’, he set out what can be read as a credo:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls…
It’s hard to imagine a British writer getting away with the bombastic rhetoric (or the sneering at sophomore girls), but ‘Dedication’ is a breathtakingly powerful poem (the imagery in the preceding stanza of ‘an immense bridge going into white fog’, ‘a broken city’, ‘the wind throw[ing] the screams of gulls on your grave’ is magnificent) and a poem which, from my small room in Dhaka, seems worth reading and rereading.
I spent two years at a United World College, where one of the many running jokes was that every student arrived wanting to ‘save the world’ and left wanting to become an investment banker. As with all good jokes, this one came uncomfortably close to the truth. Students really did talk about ‘saving the world’, because at sixteen the world seemed small enough to save. Afterwards, it became huge and unknowable and people retreated to smaller ambitions — setting out to make as much money as possible is perhaps the smallest ambition of all.
Miłosz worked on a scale grand enough to believe that poetry could conceivably ‘save nations or people’. He mentioned (returning to Haven’s comprehensive article) that his ‘intellectual impulses are religious, and in that sense my poetry is religious’, which explains the grandeur, the high words and the depth of vision. Of course, it’s possible to read ‘Dedication’ as defeatist, an acknowledgement that poetry cannot possibly ‘save nations’ and therefore must fall short, must connive with ‘official lies’ and appeal only to those rather unfairly maligned ‘sophomore girls’. Miłosz writes in another poem (‘A Confession’) of literature as ‘a tournament of hunchbacks’, the preserve of ‘smaller men, like me.’
But Miłosz is surely too strong a poet to accept defeat easily. Cynthia Haven describes him as ‘a poet of wonder’ (perhaps remembering the final lines of ‘Encounter’, the first Miłosz poem I ever read), and a fair amount of that wonder is directed towards poetry itself. He believed that poetry could stand up to power and demand to be heard, as illustrated (perhaps) by the last line of ‘Campo dei Fiori’, in which ‘rage will kindle at a poet’s word.’
It isn’t unfair to say that the general public in Britain tends to regard poets as successors to Fotherington-Thomas: ‘hello clouds, hello sky’-types. Not so Miłosz: Miłosz can be read as a man’s-manly sort of poet, and not just because he possesses a truly intimidating, eagle owl-esque pair of eyebrows. He demands respect because of his involvement in the Warsaw resistance, and because of his bravery in speaking out against the post-War republic of Poland and creating a new life as an exile in California. His translator (and friend) Robert Hass talked of readers who ‘press their nose longingly against the window of people who have had dramatic historical experiences’, and Miłosz was certainly one of those people (however odd you find the window imagery).
Meanderingly, I suppose I’m attempting to suggest that Miłosz embodies a form of poetry that no longer exists in Britain: a public poetry which endows the poet with a prophetic, or revelatory, function (moving the poet ever-closer to ‘the lunatic’). After introducing the link between lunatic, lover and poet, Theseus mentions ‘the poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling… glanc[ing] from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.’ The lines may seem meaningless to a contemporary British audience, but there are vast areas of the world where that wild, all-encompassing vision is still something to be celebrated.