April 29, 2013

NPM 2013 - Czesław Miłosz

Today, four poems by  Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. (Yes - two Polish poets [1] won the Nobel Prize within 20 years; quite significant given that poets receive this prize only infrequently.)

[1] Though, you can read in this interview with him in the Paris Review, that though... 

..Nobelist Czeslaw Milosz considers himself a Polish poet because he writes in that “native mother tongue,” he was not born in Poland, nor has he lived there for over half a century. Nonetheless, the poems of this sensuous mystic are inscribed on monuments in Gdansk as well as printed on posters in the New York City transit system.
A loss of harmony with the surrounding space, the inability to feel at home in the world, so oppressive to an expatriate, a refugee, an immigrant, paradoxically integrates him in contemporary society and makes him, if he is an artist, understood by all. Even more, to express the existential situation of modern man, one must live in exile of some sort.
—Czeslaw Milosz, “On Exile”

Anyway, the nationality of a poet does not really matter; only his poems do. So, on to his poems:


On Prayer
by Czeslaw Milosz

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word ‘is’
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.


by Czeslaw Milosz

Translated By Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

                                                         Wilno, 1936

by Czeslaw Milosz

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.  
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.  
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.  
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.  
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,  
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;  
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge  
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;  
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave  
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save  
Nations or people?  
A connivance with official lies,  
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,  
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,  
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,  
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds  
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.  
I put this book here for you, who once lived  
So that you should visit us no more.  

                                                              Warsaw, 1945


Ars Poetica?
By Czeslaw Milosz
Translated By Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee

I have always aspired to a more spacious form  
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose  
and would let us understand each other without exposing  
the author or reader to sublime agonies.  

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:  
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,  
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out  
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.  

That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,  
though it’s an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.  
It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,  
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.  

What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,  
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,  
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,  
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?  

It’s true that what is morbid is highly valued today,  
and so you may think that I am only joking  
or that I’ve devised just one more means  
of praising Art with the help of irony.  

There was a time when only wise books were read,  
helping us to bear our pain and misery.  
This, after all, is not quite the same  
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.  

And yet the world is different from what it seems to be  
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity,  
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.  

The purpose of poetry is to remind us  
how difficult it is to remain just one person,  
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,  
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

What I'm saying here is not, I agree, poetry,  
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,  
under unbearable duress and only with the hope  
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.


I will leave you with this excerpt from his Nobel lecture:

Every poet depends upon generations who wrote in his native tongue; he inherits styles and forms elaborated by those who lived before him. At the same time, though, he feels that those old means of expression are not adequate to his own experience. When adapting himself, he hears an internal voice that warns him against mask and disguise. But when rebelling, he falls in turn into dependence upon his contemporaries, various movements of the avant-garde. Alas, it is enough for him to publish his first volume of poems, to find himself entrapped. For hardly has the print dried, when that work, which seemed to him the most personal, appears to be enmeshed in the style of another. The only way to counter an obscure remorse is to continue searching and to publish a new book, but then everything repeats itself, so there is no end to that chase. And it may happen that leaving books behind as if they were dry snake skins, in a constant escape forward from what has been done in the past, he receives the Nobel Prize.

What is this enigmatic impulse that does not allow one to settle down in the achieved, the finished? I think it is a quest for reality. I give to this word its naive and solemn meaning, a meaning having nothing to do with philosophical debates of the last few centuries. It is the Earth as seen by Nils from the back of the gander and by the author of the Latin ode from the back of Pegasus. Undoubtedly, that Earth is and her riches cannot be exhausted by any description. To make such an assertion means to reject in advance a question we often hear today: "What is reality?", for it is the same as the question of Pontius Pilate: "What is truth?" If among pairs of opposites which we use every day, the opposition of life and death has such an importance, no less importance should be ascribed to the oppositions of truth and falsehood, of reality and illusion.


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