The Charles Eliot Norton lectures are a series of six lectures given by a chosen writer each year at Harvard University. I discovered the series when I discovered Italo Calvino and his (uncompleted, since he died before he had finished the sixth) Six Memos for the Next Millenium, and continued on with Umberto Eco's Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. They had a great impact on me, emotionally and intellectually; they marked a turning point in the way I thought about literature, the way I read, opened the way to new discoveries. Eventually I would come to other writers, other turning points, and Czeslaw Milosz has been one of these later writers who stands out clearly in my mind. I thought differently about poetry after I discovered him. It was then with a sense of homecoming that I came across his own Charles Eliot Norton lectures, collected in The Witness of Poetry.
The title, so Milosz tells us, comes from the idea that we do not witness poetry, but rather it witnesses us. I am reminded a little of how as schoolchildren we talked about how the Mona Lisa's gaze followed you around the room; as an art history student much later we would talk about the interaction between the viewer and the painting - which is the viewer, and which is the viewed? There is a poem by John Ashbery, about the self-portrait by Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a painting that blurs the boundary between the viewer and the painting until there is no boundary left. It is an intriguing notion, that poetry is both a testament to history and also a part of it - and it seems that it is a question that preoccupies all poets. (Speaking of questions that preoccupy all poets, Milosz makes reference to the fact that he has 'in mind the coner of Europe that shaped [him] and to which [he has] remained faithful by writing in the language of [his] childhood,' echoing the words of Mark Pawlak which I referred to just yesterday).
In reading about poetry I thought I might understand it better, and in reading poetry I thought I would understand literature better, understand language better. In Orpheus and Eurydice Milosz wrote that Only her love warmed him, humanized him. When he was with her he felt differently about himself. When I read Milosz, I think differently about poetry, and consequently differently about myself, the patterns of thoughts in my mind shifting as though they were those colored bits of glass in a kaleidescope, a new mosaic of ideas constantly changing and evolving past what they once were.