A Post-war Polish Poet Encounters the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference

Czesław Miłosz

Translated from Polish by Jennifer Grotz

Translator’s Introduction

Czesław Miłosz had a long, extraordinary, and complex relationship with American poetry that began well before his first stay in the United States. Even though he learned English and started to translate American poetry (beginning, characteristically ambitiously, with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) during World War II and well before he left Poland, it may be, however, that his first—or at least certainly one of his earliest—actual encounters with American writers took place when he attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in the summer of 1947. Miłosz’s presence is not mentioned in any of the Bread Loaf archives and files that remain, but in a footnote in the essay below, Miłosz mentions later publishing the full conversation with “Frank” in Poland in 1947, meaning that he would have had to attend the conference either in 1946 or 1947. However, it’s also clear that the “Howard” referred to in the essay was Joseph Kinsey Howard, a journalist from Montana who was on the Bread Loaf faculty in the summer of 1947, which makes it certain that was the year of Miłosz’s visit.

As someone who herself has attended and now works for the conference, I confess that I found Miłosz’s descriptions of his experience rather odd at first, though also at moments delightful. To read a newcomer’s description of a familiar landscape, such as his description of the campus and the surrounding Vermont forests, brought me a pleasing flash of recognition and connection. And although my background could hardly be more different than Miłosz’s, I, too, attended Bread Loaf for the first time as a young and hopeful writer, marveling at the history of this special place. (Founded in 1926, the Writers’ Conference was already a good twenty years old when Miłosz was there.) Small details in this piece intrigue me, particularly the descriptions of rituals that no longer exist, such as the assigned seating in the dining hall and its changing every two days. Or, for that matter, how the waiters serving the writers are college students working summer jobs, not the promising young writers from all over the country and beyond who have been awarded work-scholarships and now actually take part in the conference.

The essay is constructed as a series of character studies of conference attendees from a variety of backgrounds and at diverse moments in their writing lives. Miłosz makes some assertions and assumptions that are sometimes somewhat curious (and questionable) like, for example, his description of conference director John Ciardi as “an avant-garde poet.” But by far the most fascinating character study revealed over the course of these descriptions and reported conversations with others is certainly that of Miłosz himself.

Miłosz had come to the United States in 1946 as a cultural attaché for the Polish communist government—and it is surely under those auspices that he attended the conference. One of the more fascinating aspects of this essay is how it catches Miłosz at such a vulnerable moment, apparently before he’d fully come to reject communism and dialectical materialism. The tone of the essay sounds like a Miłosz most American readers wouldn’t quite recognize, one who seemed for the most part to be toeing the party line. It is possible that Miłosz would have been expected to report on certain conversations and findings, and there is an air of that kind of reportage in this piece, but Miłosz did eventually republish this essay in a 1956 volume of essays Kontynenty (Continents), well after his break with the Communists and after the publication of the brilliant—and scathing—The Captive Mind in 1953. While there is “a moment of hostility” in this essay, specifically his tirade about “Mrs. Snyder,” other moments are enthusiastic and respectful. Mostly, however, one senses the voice of a wary, sometimes bewildered, but also curious observer. And after surviving the Warsaw Uprising and World War II, this is certainly understandable.

Miłosz’s poem “Mid-Twentieth-Century Portrait,” written in Krakow the year before he arrived in the US, describes an unnamed “he” who is also lost in painful and angry ambivalence:

Hidden behind his smile of brotherly regard,
He despises the newspaper reader, the victim of the dialectic of power.
Says: “Democracy,” with a wink.

Later in the poem he describes the “he” as:

Utterly spent.
Mumbles in sleep or anaesthesia: “God, oh God!”. . .

Keeping one hand on Marx’s writings, he reads the Bible in private.
His mocking eye on processions leaving burned-out churches.
His backdrop: a horseflesh-colored city in ruins.
In his hand: a memento of a boy “fascist” killed in the Uprising.

Starting with poems like this one and continuing with the poems written in the US that would ultimately be collected in his 1953 volume Daylight (Światło dzienne), Miłosz appears to be proving true Yeats’s famous declaration: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Perhaps this essay, then, is more in the realm of “quarreling with others,” but it nevertheless marks a lesser-known and fascinating moment in Miłosz’s (and Bread Loaf’s, for that matter), history. At the end of the conference, Miłosz writes that he is overtaken with a sadness, one that appears to suggest that his Eastern European and Western worlds are ultimately incompatible. But Miłosz’s life and poetry ended up being inestimably influenced by the United States, to the point that he became, as Robert Pinsky once called him, “an essential American poet,” even if, at the same time, the wariness and fascination registered in this essay may never have fully dissolved.

A word of thanks is due to Bread Loaf historian David Haward Bain, who not only helped track down several essential details about the summer of Miłosz’s visit but also evinced great enthusiasm at the existence of this essay—as well as encouragement to translate it.

From the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference

(Vermont State, on the Canadian border)

All around are forested slopes with fog spread out on them, and in the valley trimmed lawns, wooden houses with white columns, and the everyday sounds of a university facility: the lobbing of balls on the tennis court, the sound of lawn mowers, the rustle of automobile wheels on the asphalt. Limply sprawled in the wooden chairs, we give ourselves over to contemplation of the landscape. Already a light shade of rust appears in the layers of forest. Bears live in these forests. Man drives on the highways, or goes to the mountains on marked tourist trails, so the bears have their preferred calm. Only in March do the forests crowd with people—that’s the time when Vermonters cut maple trees to force them to give up a few gallons of sweet juice that is used for making maple sugar. By our chairs are beds of nasturtium, marigolds, and snapdragons. A hummingbird hovers above them like a bee, a bird-like insect, behaving nothing like a bird. When it perches on a twig, it shimmers an emerald color, although it did not receive as colorful plumage as his South American cousins. The stutter of a bell rings out—time to go to the reading, from which can be heard through the open doors friendly voices from the tennis court. Afterwards there will be lunch in the dining room, at tables, where the seating plan varies according to plan every two days, in order to facilitate better fellowship with each other. Students wait the tables—it’s the most common way of earning money during summer vacation.

• •

These people see every event and phenomenon as something separate. I am not surprised that they are such journeymen of the anecdote in their literary creations because all of their attention is directed to a single event. The inability to grasp processes is so great that it completely explains the typical American lack of ideological disputes, as well as sheds light on American politics. Whoever wants to discuss the future of the United States must take this into account, because this trait probably survives political change. From Mrs. Smith, who spent three years in a Japanese concentration camp in Shanghai, I could not find out a thing about China, and I do not at all consider her a stupid person. Everything was separate, a sea of perfectly narrated details, few compounds.

 

Ciardi
Ciardi is a lively man. He is the only one who talks sensibly about poetry and has a gift rare in America—passion. He is the enemy of romantic poetry, which I strongly applaud. He considers the main feature behind romantic poetry to be the naturally excessive seriousness that doesn’t tolerate the conceptual, the trick, the slant approach, or formal humor, as if about serious matters we had to only speak solemnly. His determination of the structure of the poem is transparent. Yes—the way a piece of music—he says—asks questions and gives answers, the poem creates similar expectations and should in the following phrases fulfill these expectations. Ciardi says a lot about the importance of the symbol in poetry. Listening to him, I regret that Poland, as a result of excessive historical and literary inclinations, always condemns very useful expressions just because they are associated with something in the past. Because so-called symbolism is a no-no, the symbol is a no-no, while the symbol has existed in poetry since time immemorial and is one of the best means available to modern poetry. Perhaps the ability to employ a symbol distinguishes the human species from animals. You can teach a monkey to stop the car when there is a red light and to go when the light turns green. The monkey, however, will never understand that red and green lights are only symbols, and it will stop the car even when it appears before the red taillight of another vehicle. This is a Ciardian example. Ciardi is an avant-garde poet and earns a living as a professor of literature. He is a veteran and with a gun can shoot a fleeing rabbit.

 

Barbara
Barbara is no less picturesque of a figure than her father, who is an Arab-French aristocrat, flaunting his curled moustache and cane with a silver knob all around New York. He is, moreover, as befits a nobleman, most perfectly poor. Barbara is a fine actress on Broadway. She has only a little of brightness or softness, those trappings of American women. Most often in dark clothes, with a polite but slightly ironic smile, she differs from the environment in that she can be cutting and rude. We fought a few Homeric battles, not without applause from nearby listeners. Belonging to a New York intellectual clan and moving among the best minds of the publishing center, Barbara doesn’t have the characteristics of the American middle-class. Her nostrils hurl fire, she rebels against convention, she wants to leave for Paris, and I would not wish anyone the task of trying to subdue her. However, the story of her life represents the final victory of the rebelling class over convention. This Barbara has a six-year-old daughter from her first marriage that ended in divorce. A prominent New York physician, an elderly man and an excellent specimen of the middle-class, wants to marry her and the date is already set. The wedding will be in a few weeks.

Barbara is a serious woman. Ensuring that her child has a good upbringing, and therefore a home, is for her the most important thing. There is also another man, but he’s a writer, one who has sworn that he wouldn’t write anything opposing his reluctance to flatter the tastes of the audience. So he lives very modestly, using his war savings on the arduous days of an independent writer. Marriage—according to Barbara—would hinder him in his work, forcing him to earn an income for the family. Now there’s a conflict.

 

Roger
Roger is twenty years old and is the coeditor of a small literary quarterly published by a small college and is crippled: half of his body is paralyzed. His melancholy Jewish eyes look sadly behind his glasses. He is a poet, reads poetry in the original French and Spanish, has a remarkable intelligence, and the absolute Weltschmerz of early youth. He says he is afraid of everything, that he is afraid of life. “This conference,” —he says—“what hopeless nonsense. Look at these clowns, how they talk such rubbish, and the audience applauds. I know what’s necessary, what must be said, but I am lost. Nowhere, nowhere is there to rest.”

“Roger”—I say to him—“poetry is a matter of passion or, if you like, what the French call engagement. The poet must have a fervent heart. You are losing your way in this feeling of uncertainty.”

Roger looks at me askance. “Yes, go on and say about such things in this country that tends toward terrible things. It may come down to politics. How? The Right is zero, a complete zero. I don’t want to be a politician, I want to be a poet. But how? Which way should I turn? If only I could write like that Frenchman, Emmanuel!”

Roger’s maladjustment dates back even to his school years. “I was in an art school that had three departments: painting, music, and writing. Many blacks studied at the school and relations between whites and blacks were good, he says. I made a mistake. Once I decided to buy ice cream for twenty of the black students. A whisper went through the school and the pointing of fingers at me: “a rich Jew.” A few days later, during ball games, all the black students rushed at me. They were pretending to fight each other, but I was at the bottom of a large pile of bodies, and they beat me bloody. The white students moved away from me because I was giving to the black students. I had to leave the school. Everywhere, however, I am marked: I come from a family that is both Jewish and rich—which together is bad, and, well, there’s my disability. The worst is the awareness that one is foreign. I know I exaggerate, but once you fall into it, it’s hard to get free.”

 

Frank
My roommate at the villa Maple comes from South Carolina. He spent the war years as a soldier in the Panama Canal Zone and now is a teacher of literature in Baltimore. A very nice guy, we wrestle in long, night discussions. Frank took the normal way of his generation: moving from the Left to the position in which only question marks exist. “We don’t want tyranny,” he says. “If you nationalize industry and everything is grouped in the hands of the state—where will there be even a trace of freedom? The state will be the master of life and death of its citizens. What about elections, democratic rights?”

“Frank,” I say, “don’t you think that sometimes there are situations where what gets voted in is not what you like, but what you can choose from? There are processes independent of our will. Such as the absorption of small businesses by large corporations and the clustering of capital into the hands of a few. As I walk through the streets of a major city, I see that stores in all the better places are not owned by small businesses but are branches of one huge company that has hundreds of them. The same is repeated almost everywhere. Is it not so?”

“Undoubtedly”—agrees Frank—“however, those capitalist forces are not as capable as the state would be at using the rack and the screw. What would distinguish economic domination by the state? That people would be more dependent than they are now, because now, if they lose their job at one company they can find one with another. Freedom is too precious to get rid of it recklessly.”

“As for me”—I answer—“I know that the state would be able to prevent the insanities which lie in the nature of big capital. I also believe that such a system is possible without tyranny. Do you, an American, suppose that tyranny would survive for at least a while in America? If so, then you underestimate the strength of American civilization.”

“Let’s suppose it would be possible and that this power, which today has great capital, was assumed by the state. But experience shows that the state is incompetent. Didn’t we, with our capitalist system, supply the whole world in planes, tanks, ships and cars? The state only knows how to waste money. We figured this out, that with our technical improvements a thousand workers can perform the work that in other countries would take twenty thousand workers. Why can’t others?”

It’s old, this argument, and as one can guess, the discussion does not come to a conclusion. Frank, by no means, loved the current Congress of the United States, but he couldn’t see any other way out. He is a former soldier, and this also explains something. Like most former soldiers he suffers from an acute obsession with Russia.

I translated everything I wrote about Frank into English and asked him if it was fair. He answered yes. So I am being accurate. [This entire discussion was published in Poland. The year was 1947.]

 

Cinderella
Meo is by no means a maladjusted person. She is exuberant since for her the myth on which America stands has come true, namely that of Cinderella. Meo lives with her husband in Detroit and has two daughters. She is still very young. Marriage and the birth of children occupied her for a few years after leaving school. When she took a break, she started to write. She recently sent her short story to McCall’s magazine with a letter of recommendation of someone she knew who worked for the magazine. The editors soon informed her that the short story was accepted and that the fee amounted to a thousand dollars. “I trembled like a leaf when I got that phone call,” says Meo.

Soon after, she sent some of her stories to one of the big publishing companies. The company expressed its wish that Meo attend, at their expense, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Meo is one hundred percent middle-class, any rebelliousness is foreign to her, and she invariably smiles the sweet smile of American friendliness.

 

Frost
Robert Frost is undoubtedly the most famous of American poets. He is seventy-two years old and has not stopped writing while still maintaining his high standards of simplicity and brevity. It’s old school, but a solid school. He is already a classic of American literature. In any textbook you will find his poetry defined as “rural,” “bucolic,” “clearly realistic,” “reaching the rhythm of natural wisdom.” His readings at the conference enjoy a huge success: he is the master of clear poetic humor and is considered an extract of Americana—optimism, folk-tale like didacticism, and regionalism. [Only on the surface. In fact, it’s a very harsh poetry.]

An entirely gray mop of hair on the face of a farmer, joviality, geniality—here is the Horace of New England. I overheard him say to someone: “I hate pessimists.” This portrait of him will probably be passed on to posterity: the poet-farmer, seeing in the transformations of wildlife moral lessons for man.

It is amazing. How much effort he must have had put forth to chisel himself in this way! Because it seems artificial to me: all this being rural and bucolic and Horatian. Art in any case—I would dare to say this precise artificiality, to erect such a monument of oneself, is art of a high order. I understand why he cannot stand pessimists: the seventy-third year of life is not the time to show cracks in a heart that has been sealed with such difficulty. His personal life has been one long string of tragedies: insanity, suicide, tragic deaths. Today he’s a lonely old man, rows of graves beside him, a family’s ruin. No, let’s leave it be, let it be simply the Robert Frost from the literature textbook, may nobody track him down on these paths of personal drama. Bow down to the person knowing that once one covers one’s tracks, one should rub them well.

 

Sylvia
Sylvia unquestionably loves a man from Boston who belongs to the Boston patrician—and this is a class where the art of masking feelings achieved perfection. It seems that this man also is eager, but nothing follows from this, because at stake here is his emotional complication, which is the result of a mother complex—a disease known and widely discussed in America, and consisting of the fact that sons are in love with their mothers without realizing it. There are no sexual relations between Sylvia and him, simply this feeling like a volcano that does not want to explode—and two people’s absurd fatigue. When I express surprise, Sylvia shakes her head with disdain. “Apparently you have not lived long in America if you do not know the power of a Puritan heritage.”

 

A Moment of Hostility
The road we drive passes along cascades of mountainous forest streams and runs to the village—it puzzles me where its inhabitants live, because there is no piece of land, only forest and mountain meadows. Mrs. Snyder keeps calm and sure hands on the steering wheel of the big Cadillac, and beside her in the car sit three similar dames. In the invincible fortress of America, the social bedrock, the actual ruler of the country, is a wealthy woman in her fifties! You have a good life, don’t say a word, in this age, when in other countries your contemporaries are sad old ladies “in a black, emaciated suburb”—as the poet says. From fifty to seventy your hands lead gleaming machines, mix alcohols for cocktail parties and accompany in a fluid motion your speeches in countless women’s clubs. Tyrant and lover of sons, creator of opinions, puritan mainstay, terror of the intellectual clans! You move in an armor of rules never followed with doubt, your imagination is equal to zero, your mind is that of a chicken’s, but there is no subject about which you are unable to speak with absolute certainty. I know your especially pink complexion, acquired in the most undoubtedly rich years and your fear before every new thought, which you consider right away as a social faux pas. I know you, Mrs. Snyder, mother of three adult sons, all educated at the best universities.

 

A Speech with Content
Howard the journalist held the room, though after the portion of jokes about the beginning of his career (a gossip column in a provincial newspaper), he continued in a quite serious tone, thundering in his stentorian voice to the end about the duties of the writer cultivating nonfiction. He spoke of the need for strict adherence to the region in which the writer lives and works, as well as the need to fight there, where the writer sees the wronged man. He introduced the subject of his own terrain—the West, specifically the state of Montana, in particular, the case of expropriation of Indian reserves where big capital was hunting for land. Howard spoke angrily of large areas cultivated by financial corporations, how in times of sowing and harvesting cars bring in hired laborers and how on hundreds of thousands of acres, there is no building, no private farm. He was applauded like none of the other speakers. “Well now, that was already something”—a young employee of a New York publishing firm told me. “I know Howard, I know he was holding himself back, because he could have said a lot more.”

• •

At the end of the conference, I am overtaken by a kind of sadness. What is there that binds me to their world? When the pollen of the intellectual conversations is rubbed away and habits begin to reveal themselves, old addictions reaching far backwards beyond the end of my and their birth, then the comedy ends. It all turns into the great fiction of fictions, as if nothing happened and what I had experienced did not exist, as if those blue mountains and girls in shorts with long, loose men’s shirts falling to their knees, heading with tennis rackets across the lawns, weren’t something real. Here comes the moment when I start swearing while shaving in the morning, which makes Frank anxious, because for my cursing I use languages richer in juicy expressions than English. In any case, other participants of the conference are a little tired of the continual symposium. So we leave this too quiet corner without remorse.

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