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Ars Poetica -- Czeslaw Milosz

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1545) Ars Poetica
 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 its 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.
-- Czeslaw Milosz
It's been little over a month now since Milosz died and I've finally managed
to find the courage to send in a poem to mark his passing. I do this not
because I feel I have something special to say about Milosz (I admit to
having discovered him only about a year ago) but because as a long-time
devotee of Minstrels I feel it would be a shame if so great a poetic voice
passed away from among us and we said nothing. All his life Milosz found the
words to make loss quiet and exact - exiled by silence, he found a way to
fight it without screaming back. Now that he's dead, we owe it to him not to
let the silence win.

This poem is a good demonstration of just why Milosz, was, IMHO, so
important to the poetry of his century. It was a century that Milosz himself
described as a time when "We were permitted to shriek in the tongues of
dwarfs and demons / But pure and generous words were forbidden / Under so
stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one / Considered himself a
lost man" (Milosz - A Task) - too much of the literary legacy of the century
lies with Plath and Ginsberg, with Auden and Eliot, with Langston Hughes and
Bishop and Berryman, with Neruda and Paz. This is not to say, of course,
that these poets do not deserve their stature (far from it - their influence
is clearly well deserved) or that they are the only ones from the last
hundred years who "matter" - only that Milosz represents another and no less
authentic strain of the poetic measure. As he put it himself: "in me there
is no wizardry of words. I speak to you with silence, like a cloud or a
tree."

Milosz's voice is the voice of a twilight between the silence and the cry,
at once gentle and threatened and uncertain. Milosz speaks from the heart,
but his poems are not to be shouted or declaimed, they are to be read
softly, as among a circle of intimates. He is not a flame - he is a lamp,
his light low yet illuminating.

Of course, Milosz is not alone here - much of Brodsky resonates with the
same voice and at least some of Walcott. What makes Milosz special, I think
(and I can't explain this) is that his voice is more humble because wiser,
less bitter because more forgiving, more apt to find, if not joy, than at
least peace. Irony is not a major theme for Milosz - on the contrary he
specialises in making moral judgements straight to his reader's face (what
other poet in the last fifty years would say "There was a time when only
wise books were read"). Many people would argue that Milosz is less
important than I make him out to be here (though fifty years of incredible
poetry and a Nobel prize are pretty hard to argue with) and Milosz would be
the first to agree with them.

As I said earlier, this poem is a stunning summary of what Milosz's poems
are about. As we think about his work, I think there are few better ways to
remember him than as the poet who wrote "reluctantly / under unbearable
duress and only with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us
for their instrument". It's a test that few poets today could pass.

Aseem.

[Minstrels Links]

Poems about poetry:
  Poem #187, Poetry for Supper  -- R. S. Thomas
  Poem #188, Ars Poetica  -- Archibald MacLeish
  Poem #189, dear Captain Poetry  -- bpNichol
  Poem #190, Young Poets  -- Nicanor Parra

Czeslaw Milosz:
  Poem #837, Child of Europe
  Poem #1229, You Whose Name

55 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

rita liddle said...

You say "...I do this not because I feel I have something special to say about Milosz..."

How wrong you are ! I dont know to whom I'm more grateful at this very moment, to Czeslaw Milosz, or to you, who brought this poet into my world this morning with soooo "special" a commentary that I dare any lover of poetry not to rush out and look for more of Milosz. You both walked into my world, unheralded, softly, but 'carrying a big stick', and my world is more awake for it. Thank you.

PS: I think it's also time again to thank the hosts of this magnificent site for their generosity. Thank you for the beauty you bring us so generously.

Divya Guru Rajan said...

That is beautiful. Recently, came across this article in The New Republic
(Sept 13th '04 issue) written by Seamus Heaney on Milosz. In itself, despite
being prose, it feels like poetry. Unfortunately, it's reached the
subscriber-only domain. However, (Oh joy!) Googling produced it in the
Guardian --
[broken link] http://books.guardian.co.uk/poetry/features/0,12887,1301596,00.html

The TNR article had this poem -- A Confession -- by Milosz as well. Won't
say anything about it because here it is --

"A Confession"

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam

And the dark sweetness of a woman's body.

Also, well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,

Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.

So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit

Have visited such a man? Many others

Were justly called, and trustworthy.

Who would have trusted me? For they saw

How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,

And glance greedily at the waitress's neck.

Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness,

Able to recognize greatness wherever it is,

And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,

I know what was left for smaller men like me:

A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud.

A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.

Mbassuk said...

Many thanks for the beauty of this poem as well as for the analysis.

all the best,
Miriam

Rajalaxmi Kamath said...

The line "for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors", reminded me of a poem by Rumi, called "Guest House" (From "The Essential Rumi"). Thanks for this, and for prodding my memory so.

"This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the sham, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond."

Vivian said...

Thanks for the Milosz!

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