Immigration and the Artistic Sense of Cultural Identity

George Abraham, USA, Florida, Stanton College Preparatory High School,12th Grade, 1st Place Winner

 

“And now that the years have transformed my blood

And thousands of planetary systems have been born and died in my flesh,

I sit, a sly and angry poet

With malevolently squinted eyes

And, weighing a pen in my hand,

I plot revenge.”[1]

The excerpt above is the second stanza of Czeslaw Milosz’s “The Poor Poet,” which was written in 1944 at Warsaw. Milosz, a prominent Polish poet who experienced Warsaw’s Nazi invasion during WWII, describes Warsaw as “the most agonizing spot in the whole of terrorized Europe.”[2]As a result of undergoing this traumatic incident, Milosz decided to immigrate to the United States of America. Milosz’s story and the transformation of his poetic voice across his immigrations demonstrate that cultural assimilation can be the best way for an immigrant, and the cultural heritage that lives within him or her, to survive, even if that survival requires a difficult transformation.

In order to understand Milosz’s shift in poetic voice, it is necessary to investigate the background of the Warsaw crisis. In the early years of WWII, Poland was invaded by Germany on the Western front and the USSR on the Eastern front.[3]In response to the invasion, an underground resistance developed; many ended up dying while fighting to free their country due to the lack of sophisticated weaponry as compared to that of the Nazi and Soviet invaders. Milosz ended up surviving the chaos but witnessed the death of many friends and family members. The atrocity of the situation was so intense that he admits to having a hard time fully capturing the atrocity in his piece, “Dedication” (see appendix A).

Milosz’s Warsaw poems serve as valuable insights into the true ramifications of

WWII on a human soul. In the piece “In Warsaw,” Milosz writes:

“How can I live in this country

where the foot knocks against

the unburied bones of kin?”[4]

This piece serves as a spine-tingling account of the Warsaw invasion’s aftermath. Milosz questions whether or not he still wants to live in Poland, and even contemplates the nature of poetry in this piece. His work “Song on Porcelain” (Appendix B) delivers a very similar message; Milosz ironically questions the presence of porcelain on a battlefield in order to comment on the role of art in the face of atrocity. Literary critic Calvin Bedient commented on how Milosz’s poetry was “more valuable than journalism”[5] in its ability to capture the true horror behind the Warsaw crisis; this thesis establishes the argument that art, due to its subjective accounting, serves to most authentically represent traumatic societal changes.

As a very direct result of the Warsaw crisis, Milosz decided to move to Berkeley, California. In his self-reflective piece titled “Who Was I?” Milosz describes this cultural transformation as a “poetic exile”[6]that gave him a new, enlightened perspective on the world. His poetry underwent a very abrupt shift after his move; what was once the harrowing, genuine voice of a WWII survivor was replaced by a nonchalant, carefree, philosophical tone. What were once poems describing funeral dedications to courageous soldiers now became witty social commentaries on a much smaller scale.

An excellent example of Milosz’s shift in both tone and subject after the Berkeley move can be seen in his work “Higher Arguments in Favor of Discipline Derived from the Speech before the Council of the Universal State in 2068”[7](Appendix C). This piece develops a satirical, faux-socialist tone that mocks the thought process behind governmental policies at the time of its publication. The social criticism seen in this work conforms to the American tradition of beat poetry,[8]which was enormously popular at the time of its publication (1968). Thus, this work illustrates poetry’s versatile ability to give insight onto the social tendencies of an epoch in a different way than his Warsaw poems do. Indeed, Milosz’s work at this point shows signs of assimilating into the American tradition of poetry.

This poetic shift, which Milosz characterizes as the experience of having“ new eyes,”[9] has heavy implications pertaining to the sociocultural ramifications of immigration. First and foremost, Milosz’s story demonstrates that cultural assimilation is not only possible; it can be inclusive of a writer’s roots as well as creatively rewarding. Milosz ascertains that he is not doing his fellow Poles injustice in this shift of voice;[10] in fact, Milosz still wrote many of his later poems in Polish first, and then translated them into English to make it accessible to both audiences. Milosz even wrote some Berkeley poems that conformed to a new style of “naked poetry”[11]that was prominent in Poland in the 1970s-80s. Milosz thereby successfully achieved a delicate balance of adapting to a new culture, yet still preserving ties to his original ethnicity. Milosz’s story demonstrates that, for some immigrants, a balance of assimilation and cultural preservation provides an opportunity for creative rebirth, a means for celebrating the past while looking onto the future.

On the other hand, it could be argued that Milosz was more successful at assimilating into American society than he was at preserving his cultural heritage. This claim implies that, depending on one’s reason for immigration, letting go of the past may be the most settling conclusion for many immigrants. This is supported by Milosz’s Warsaw works that question art’s role in atrocity (Appendices A and B); Milosz’s case illustrates that sometimes, events are too difficult to represent and remember, in which case, assimilation (as a sort of cultural amnesia) may be the best resolution. In fact, according to a study in Polish demographics done by Marek Okolski of the University of Warsaw, there was an acceleratory peak in emigration out of Poland in the mid and late 1900s.[12]Many who were in Milosz’ position abandoned the land they once called home in an attempt to lead more stable lives, thus confirming in fact that which is suggested by the artistic shift in Milosz’s works.

During the transitional phase when the Israelites moving into Palestine, my grandparents decided to leave their Palestinian homeland to seek a more stable life in America just like Polish WWII survivors did in the mid 20th century; my grandparents wanted a life free from the fear of being attacked by various radical groups. My grandparents did preserve some aspects of their culture, such as food and language, here in America. However, in regards to most everything else, they assimilated into American culture to provide the means for the rest of the family to have a more stable life, and in this very personal case, living on through assimilation seemed to be the best option.

However, given that art can express the kinds of radical change of perspective and lifestyle inherent to the immigrant’s plight, changes that my family situation dramatizes, to what extent can art represent the exact opposite situation? What about artists who live in a country with unfavorable circumstances but who choose NOT to immigrate? Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet persecuted under Stalin’s regime for the nostalgic qualities of her poems,[13]is just one of many examples of how art can reflect social tension within a distraught homeland. As an Acmeist[14]poet, Akhmatova’s beliefs led her to grow so close to her country that she never left, which illustrates that preservation of one’s culture can come at the cost of one’s quality of life. In this way, though a very nationalistic perspective such as that of Akhmatova holds that immigration is NOT the answer for cultural preservation, it also risks annihilation in its longing for purity. Milosz, then, offers a far more hopeful example, one that celebrates immigration as a means for both personal and cultural preservation.

This argument begs the question: how can this immigration issue be approached from the angle of the host country itself? To what extent should a host country be supportive of other cultures and their immigrants? On one hand, host countries have a right to their own unique culture, and immigrants to said host country should expect to assimilate if they truly want to leave behind their homeland and forge authentic new lives. However, if we examine countries that host LOTS of different immigrants, such as The United States of America, we will see that such places tend to form a “melting pot” culture that is composed of various races and ethnicities. In other words, if a country is willing to welcome immigrants in a truly hospitable manner, said country’s culture will, in fact, be founded on transformation and assimilation itself, always morphing in relation to the immigrants to whom it lays claim.

This “melting pot” culture is STRONGLY reflected in even the most “original” forms of American art. For example, George Gershwin’s music is hailed for being the very symbol of American life in the 1920s, and for being one of the most influential sparks to the jazz movement. In an article by Allen Forte, a musical scholar of Oxford University, it is revealed that George Gershwin was not nearly as original as some may have perceived him at the time; in fact there are clear tonal links in the works of Gershwin and English composer, Berg.[15]This example demonstrates that even one of the most “original” American composers was not without strong influence of another culture.

Even further, the development of American jazz music was largely influenced by African immigrants of the early 20th Century. Immigrants from the Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Ghana came to the New Orleans area starting back in the 1600s, and the city turned out to be the birthplace of jazz.[16]The musical traditions brought from these West African countries revolutionized American music as we know it, and our culture would not be the same had these immigrants not impacted our music like they did. Improvisation, a jazz technique of playing music impromptu without any form of planning, was originally an African tradition, and now it has come to revolutionize the world of jazz as we know it.[17] Furthermore, this whole concept of music without any specific planning led to further embellishments within the music industry such as the development of atonality,[18]and chance music.

This demonstrates that our American culture advances as we open ourselves up to

cultures of immigrants. The USA, as a host nation, is blessed with the availability of an amalgamation of people with differing views, experiences, ethnicities, and cultures. Individuals can be seen as puzzle pieces to the massive enigma that has become American culture. American culture thrives precisely because it is a culture of immigrants, and it is for this reason that host countries should be open-minded about the cultures of their immigrants. I am so glad to live in a country where I can have friends who embrace the fact that I’m Middle-Eastern. Instead of being ostracized for my cultural differences, I am accepted as a constituent member of a “global village,” and despite that my family is largely “Americanized,” we can still maintain a sense of Middle-Eastern cultural preservation.

 

Works Cited

Bedient, Calvin. “Czeslaw Milosz: Examining the Witness.” Salmagundi 68, no.69 (1986): 226-44.

Forte, Allen. “Reflections upon the Gershwin-Berg Connection.” The Musical Quarterly 83, No. 2 (1999): 150-168.

Gridley, Mark, and Wallace Rave. “Towards Identification of African Traits.” The Black Perspective in Music 12, no. 1 (1984): 44-56.

Hayward, Max. Poems of Akhmatova. New York, NY. Mariner Books. 1973.

Karpowicz, Tymoteusz, and Jacek Laskowski. “Naked Poetry: A Discourse About the Newest Polish Poetry.” The Polish Review 21, no. 1 (1976): 59-71.

Milosz, Czeslaw. The Captive Mind. Zielonko, Jare, trans. New York, NY. Vintage International. 1990.

Milosz, Czeslaw. The Collected Poems. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1988.

Milosz, Czeslaw. To Begin Where I Am. New York, NY. Farrarr, Strauss, and Giroux. 2001.

Okolski, Marek. “Demographic Processes Before and During Ongoing Transition in Poland.”International Journal of Sociology 34, no. 4 (2004): 3-37.

Tadeusz, Piotrowski. Poland’s Holocaust: Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with Occupying Forces and Genocide. New York, NY. McFarland & Company. 1997.

[1] Milosz, Czeslaw. The Collected Poems. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1988.

[2] Milosz, Czeslaw. The Captive Mind. Zielonko, Jare, trans. New York, NY. Vintage International. 1990.

[3] Tadeusz, Piotrowski. Poland’s Holocaust: Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with OccupyingForces and Genocide. New York, NY. McFarland & Company. 1997.

[4] Milosz, Czeslaw. The Captive Mind. Zielonko, Jare, trans. New York, NY. Vintage International. 1990.

[5] Bedient, Calvin. “Czeslaw Milosz: Examining the Witness.” Salmagundi 68, no. 69 (1986): 226-44.

[6] Milosz, Czeslaw. To Begin Where I Am. New York, NY. Farrarr, Strauss, and Giroux.

[7] Milosz, Czeslaw. The Collected Poems. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1988.

[8] The beat poetry movement was an American poetry movement of the mid to late 20th century that was characterized by socially critical, vociferous pieces that focused on sound and spoken aesthetic as well as phrasing.

[9] Milosz, Czeslaw. To Begin Where I Am. New York, NY. Farrarr, Strauss, and Giroux.

[10] Milosz, Czeslaw. To Begin Where I Am. New York, NY. Farrarr, Strauss, and Giroux.

[11] Karpowicz, Tymoteusz, and Jacek Laskowski. “Naked Poetry: A Discourse About the Newest Polish Poetry.” The Polish Review 21, no. 1 (1976): 59-71.

[12] Okolski, Marek. “Demographic Processes Before and During Ongoing Transition in Poland.”International Journal of Sociology 34, no. 4 (2004): 3-37.

[13] Hayward, Max. Poems of Akhmatova. New York, NY. Mariner Books. 1973.

[14] Acmeism is a modern poetic movement that emphasizes themes such as appreciation of one’s own culture, and nostalgic writing. Both of these qualities did not fit well into Stalin’s scheme of Socialist Realist art, and thus, many Acmeist poets were persecuted under his regime.

[15] Forte, Allen. “Reflections upon the Gershwin-Berg Connection.” The Musical Quarterly 83, No. 2 (1999): 150-168.

[16] Gridley, Mark, and Wallace Rave. “Towards Identification of African Traits.” The Black Perspective in Music 12, no. 1 (1984): 44-56.

[17] Gridley, Mark, and Wallace Rave. “Towards Identification of African Traits.” The Black Perspective in Music 12, no. 1 (1984): 44-56.

[18] Atonality is a musical movement that was characterized by deviations from tonal harmony. European composers from the Impressionist era such as Debussy also heavily influenced the rise of atonality as well.