How I love this poet! Yet he considered himself a feminist and how I hate to have that word attached to anything I like. But then I read his works and I think he is not a feminist! He does not know what feminism is! Feminism is a type of Marxism that seeks division by attacking the sexes instead of the classes. All in the name of “equality.” Is Milosz a feminist in that regard? No. He is not. Did he believe in the equality of sexes – that they are the same? No, not entirely.
In fact, Milosz’s openness to feminism was largely superficial. According to Anna Nasilowska* he did not familiarize himself with any of the feminist’s writings. And within his writings he frequently describes women tenderly (not bitterly) as mothers, housewives, “care takers of socks and pants” Feminist? No. Perhaps only in the way many modern men throw around the word hoping to win affection. Thinking that feminism means believing in the equal dignity of a man and woman.
Milosz’s love poetry is erotic and sex is considered a good. As Anna Nasilowska points out, Milosz never woes a lover in his poems, nor is foreplay ever described. Sex is always in memory, described only in recollection. Which enhances the idea of the “moment” Milosz relishes this union, knowing it is momentary. This recollection also magnifies a sense of tenderness. Certainly I find Miolsz has a soft spot for the complementary aspect of the sexes saying the masculine and feminine create a one. (I can not help but think of Pope John Paul II when I read Milosz.) Do feminist believe the sexes are complementary? No. They believe in equality.
Milsoz also often describes women with feminine paraphernalia : corsets, lace, eyelashes, rouge, petticoats, skirts and these are things are always spoken of with interest, not resentment. Bras, skirts and lace are not something to be thrown off and burned! No, the poet is intrigued by it all. By the “female humanity” intrigued, yes, but he does not but women on a pedestal romanticizing their femininity. No, far from it. For Milosz femininity is also carnal:
Retinues of homespun velveteen skirts,
giggles above a railing, pigtails askew,
sittings on chamberpots upstairs
when the sledge jingles under the columns of the porch
just before the moustachioed ones in wolf fur enter.
children’s snots, legs spread apart,
snarled hair, the milk boiling over,
stench, shit frozen into clods.
And those centuries,
conceiving in the herring smell of the middle of the night
instead of playing something like a game of chess
or dancing an intellectual ballet.
and pregnant sheep,
and pigs, fast eaters and poor eaters,
and cows cured by incantations.
here, is “female humanity” in all it’s light and darkness. carnal and mysterious! intelligent beings capable of great grace and yet conceiving in the dark, curing cows like witches with secret incantations. Competent midwives and women swaying in labor, desires and skirts are all felt in this passage, but they are not all named. Clearly in Milosz’s world “female humanity” is set apart, different from the world of men. There is no sameness here.
Is a hierarchy expressed in Milosz’s poetry? He was Catholic. I believe there was certainly a hierarchy on a basic level for example sex is carnal and prayer is elevated. But is hierarchy shown between the sexes? Is submission of a women desired and expressed? Anna Nasilowaska does not believe there is ever any masculine “ownership” of the feminine. Well perhaps not in his love poetry, but I found this poem expressing the feminine sex as submissive, awaiting a doer:
Poetry’s sex is feminine. . . Poetry opens up and waits for a doer, a spirit, a daimon. Probably Jeanne was right when she said she had known anybody else as instrumental as I was; that is, passively submitting myself to voices, like an instrument.
Here the feminine opens up, submits and is played and this is considered a good – desirable.
So why did Milosz identify as a feminist? I find very little of it in his poetry. But Milosz greatly enjoyed the intellectual company of women (again John Paul II is brought to my mind) He even believed in women philosophers (unlike Richard Wilbur). I believe Milosz considered himself a feminist because he enjoyed the literary works of women, their friendship their intellectual friendship especially, he believed in women’s intellectual equality. And perhaps on the literary terrain this intellectual equality exists. Though I am hard pressed to find it elsewhere.
*Source: Many of the passages and facts used here were brought to my attention by this essay.