I FIRST HEARD a Czesław Miłosz poem in a lecture hall in Vilnius, Lithuania. The room was long and a little too warm; dust motes were swimming in the shafts of light let in by arched Gothic windows, but otherwise the room was dim. I was deeply and profoundly hungover. The speaker that day was Ed Hirsch, a poet who manages to exude a frank, earthy kindness. I don’t know if Hirsch really said this or if I have confabulated it over the years, but I remember him stopping suddenly and declaring, “I am a very stupid man.” There was a laugh from the audience, but he went on, serious. “No,” he said, “I mean that. I struggle with my stupidity.” There was a feeling in the room that he was playing a game with us — we all knew he wasn’t stupid; he was and is, in fact, quite brilliant. I felt, though, I knew what he meant.
I was in Vilnius as part of a writing program at a time when I could barely see straight. I was 26. I had completed my MFA, but failed to get anything published, which felt like a failure. I had recently lost about 40 pounds and was exercising with the fervor of a religious convert. I had body dysmorphia — I couldn’t tell whether I was skinny or fat anymore (I was a size four). I couldn’t tell whether I had any talent as a writer. I couldn’t tell what I should be doing with my life. When I tried to look at things, they swayed and buckled. Nothing in the world was clear to me.
And there I was, in Vilnius, with its Baroque churches like fantastical wedding cakes and its narrow winding streets; Vilnius, with its multiple histories, erased, rewritten, statues erected and taken down, as the city became first part of one country and then the next; Vilnius, with its many tongues, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, and English spoken on the streets; Vilnius, with its tragedies, with its buried bodies, its KGB torture rooms, its Jewish ghettos. No place but Vilnius could possibly have impressed on me more quickly how stupid I was.
I was stupid in my love life, in my social life, in my fear of being disliked, but I was also stupid in my writing. I was still trying to write something I hoped someone else would find good, a cliché of a man in a professorial sport coat with leather patches on the elbows, who lived in the back of my mind, perpetually holding his chin in his hand or sighing wryly. As Claire Vaye Watkins wrote so smartly in her essay “On Pandering: How to Write Like a Man,” I was writing for men, toward them. Watkins makes direct and declarative, a situation that is often subconscious and unacknowledged:
Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.
I never consciously believed I was writing only for men, and yet I continually tried my hardest to edit everything female — anything I judged as emotional, silly, rambunctious, and dirty or sentimental — from my work. My characters, having been gutted of their messy insides, were like soap bubbles: unreal, floating pieces of film.
Part of my disorientation on that trip to Vilnius was the structure of the writing program itself: every day your work is torn apart by writers you have just met. Then, at dinner you try to charm the people who had just called your work “melodramatic” and “trite” only an hour before. In your panic, you drink too much Belgian ale. After dinner, you go to your hotel room and cry because you are sure you said something awful and exposed yourself as a phony. Worries swarm inside your swollen, hungover head — you become a wasp’s nest of self-doubt and self-importance. Writing programs, however, can also give you the gift of hearing Ed Hirsch discuss Czesław Miłosz, so that, in Miłosz’s words: “for a short moment there is no death / and time does not unreel like a skein of yarn / thrown into an abyss.” Mercifully, your head suddenly stops buzzing. There’s only Hirsch’s voice in a Gothic room, both bright and dim.
Czesław Miłosz was a Polish poet born in Lithuania who was fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English, and French. Born Catholic, he became an atheist, but ultimately converted to Catholicism again in his later life. From his time living in Warsaw under Nazi Germany’s General Government to his stint working in Paris as a cultural attaché for the People’s Republic of Poland, ideology was a cultural turbulence Miłosz had to learn to navigate. He was so preoccupied by the power of ideologies that he wrote a study, The Captive Mind, about the lure of Stalinism as well as the intellectual deformity it can cause. He was, it seemed to me, a man trying to stake out a clear spot from which to think properly. Miłosz writes repeatedly about his calling, though he doesn’t always mention poetry explicitly. He often frames writing as a desire to become “a resident of some cloister floating in the air” from which he could “give myself to one task only. Which then, however, could not be accomplished.”
Poetry has always struck me as the great task that cannot be accomplished. Though poetry was my first love, I gave it up almost entirely to write fiction. When I was 18, I attributed this to “poets need to be much smarter.” I think what I really meant was that poets are forced to engage more directly with their own stupidity. In its brevity, poetry as a form forces an intellectual and aesthetic distillation. Where other artists and writers may hide behind words, adjectives, and elaboration, poets deal in concision. It always felt to me, that in order to remain in that narrow groove between the True and the Real, poets must sit with themselves, in a room both bright and dim. They must quiet the swollen wasp’s nest of the self and be still. As Wallace Stevens said, “The poet is the priest of the invisible.” They pursue the truth by saying truths. Theirs is the straight and narrow path.
This is in opposition to writing fiction, which is a pursuit of the truth by telling lies, a much more meandering and left-hand path. Instead of quieting the wasp nest, the fiction writer delves into it, focusing first on this knot of lies and misunderstandings, then on that one, following the inflammation of human foibles, trying to capture all of our worldly illusions, in the hope — the single hope — that in the negative space of our creations we will capture what the poet can evoke in only one or two lines.
As a fiction writer, I try to read a lot of poetry. I do not read poetry particularly well. I do not read it as a scholar, aware of every historical circumstance or literary allusion. I read it more like someone going to church. I read it because I am not smart enough to remember how stupid I am, and I need much reminding. The move Hirsch made that day, interrupting all of our solemnity to call himself a stupid man, was both eye-opening and, of course, ancient. It was the Socratic avowal of ignorance. Only this was no cerebral, philosophical game playing, but instead an emotional rerooting of the self into the dumb animal body, a pulling back of the mind into the mortal shell. It gave me the courage to explore my own stupidity — to sit with it in that room. Miłosz gives me that same courage. The feeling is something akin to what religious people might call faith.
Miłosz writes, “Faith is in you whenever you look / at a dewdrop or a floating leaf / and know that they are because they have to be.” Perhaps faith is simply admitting that there is a justice in the universe, not comprised of fairness, but orchestrated by a deep and abiding rationality which is made manifest by the laws of the physics: matter, gravity, causation. You must accept these things, just as you must accept your own stupidity, your own smallness, your own humanity, the circumstances of your birth, and the inevitability of your death. In my case, this also meant accepting my femaleness, my youth, my imperfect education, my lust, my desire, my ambition. I had to become friendly with myself before I could really begin writing in earnest.
Miłosz and Hirsch became patron saints for me as I wrote my first novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar. I do not mean they joined the sport-coated professor in my mind, rather they gave me an example of how I might stand alone in my own mind. What I had been trying to tamp down — girls, in all their sticky moral ambiguity — became the star. What I had been trying to hide, I thrust forward. I offered up my own stupidity as humbly as I could, remembering Hirsch’s hands falling open as he called himself a stupid man. I read Miłosz’s poems daily, wondering how I could find my own “cloister floating in the air.”
My second book, Dear Fang, With Love, is actually set in Vilnius, that peculiar and most wonderful of cities, and I used a Miłosz poem as the epigraph. People assume I researched Miłosz for inclusion in the novel, but it was rather the other way around. He led me to it by giving me back to myself. How strange, that a Polish-Lithuanian poet born in 1911 should have had such a profound and personal impact on a California girl born in 1985. Miłosz emigrated to the United States in 1960 and eventually became a US citizen; he taught Slavic language and literature at the University of California, Berkeley. It is astounding to imagine: this man, who had lived through the great storm of the 20th century in Europe, suddenly finding himself among beatnik boys and girls at Berkeley.
There he is, breathing in the scent of the Pacific Ocean on a foggy morning — the same perfume that haunted my childhood. He is walking up and down the same streets of San Francisco that I wandered drunk as a teenager, or trotted along as a pregnant young wife. He is in his office at Berkeley talking to an anxious young woman with flowers in her hair and beads on her moccasins, a woman who doesn’t know how to say what she means yet because she is only 18. I picture him turning his hands over, admitting: “I am a very stupid man.” I hope she believes him.
Rufi Thorpe received her MFA from the University of Virginia in 2009. Her first novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, was long listed for the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize and for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her second novel, Dear Fang, With Love, was published by Knopf in May 2016.