Thomas Pfau on The Realist Poetry of Czeslaw Milosz

Episode 36

In this episode, I am joined by Professor Thomas Pfau (Duke University) to discuss the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. We talk about his realism–i.e., his conviction that the task of poetry is to convey the truth by getting us to pay careful attention to reality. We discuss his philosophical and theological influences–Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Weil–and how these show up in his poems. For Milosz, poetry is the habit of accurate vision–we can only capture the real by looking. Therefore poetry is not self-expression, but testimony or witness. Milosz, we agree, is a religious poet in that he seeks to affirm the world, to celebrate and marvel at the mystery of existence, even as he is keenly aware that the world is fallen and full of suffering and, in the end, not really our proper home.

I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Thomas Pfau (PhD 1989, SUNY Buffalo)  is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English, with secondary appointments in Germanic Language & Literatures and the Divinity School at Duke University. He has published some forty-five essays on literary and philosophical subjects ranging from the 18th through the early 20th  century. In addition to two translations, of Hölderlin and Schelling (SUNY Press, 1987 and 1994), he has also edited seven essay collections and special journal issues and is the author of three monographs: Wordsworth’s Profession  (Stanford UP 1997), Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, Melancholy, 1790-1840  (Johns Hopkins UP 2005) and Minding the Modern: Intellectual Traditions, Human Agency, and Responsible Knowledge  (Notre Dame UP, 2013). He has recently completed a new book project that focuses on phenomenology of image-consciousness in literature, theology, and philosophy.

Jennifer A. Frey is an associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with a Classics minor) at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana. She has published widely on action, virtue, practical reason, and meta-ethics, and has recently co-edited an interdisciplinary volume, Self-Transcendence and Virtue: Perspectives from Philosophy, Theology, and PsychologyHer writing has also been featured in First ThingsFare ForwardImageLaw and LibertyPloughThe Point, and USA Today. She lives in Columbia, SC, with her husband, six children, and six chickens. You can follow her on Twitter @jennfrey

This episode of Sacred and Profane Love is sponsored by The Classical Learning Test, which provides an to alternative standardized tests rooted in tradition. Featuring passages selected from great works across a variety of disciplines, the CLT suite of assessments provide a highly accurate and rigorous measure of reasoning, aptitude, and academic formation for students from diverse educational backgrounds. The exams are taken online in just two to three hours, and all three assessments (traditional CLT, CLT10, CLT8) give test results within 24 hours. (Please note that scores for the new remote-proctored CLT are available 1-2 weeks after testing.) The CLT also provides colleges and secondary schools with detailed information about student learning trends, to facilitate decisions about admissions, curricula, and instruction. The CLT unites a dedicated group of educators, businesspeople, and scholars, all in service to a shared passion: to reconnect intellectual pursuit with the pursuit of virtue.

Sacred and Profane Love is a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life. Host Jennifer A. Frey is associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina. The podcast is generously supported by The Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America and produced by Catholics for Hire.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5

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