“You gave me gifts, God-Enchanter.
I give you thanks for good and ill.
Eternal light in everything on earth.
As now, so on the day after my death”
“To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.”
– Czeslaw Milosz
Everyone should read him. He is a great poet and great poets should be read. Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet, born in 1911, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, died in 2004 at the age of ninety-three. He never petered out in silence. It astonishes and encourages me, who at eighty-five feels and hates any depletion of creative energy, that Milosz was still writing strong and marvelous poetry up to the time of his death.
One is blessed to be given longevity not only with reason intact but with the faculty which generates ideas and insights unimpaired and the ability to give still powerful expression to them. It is rare. The ebbing of energy and enthusiasm is what happens to the huge majority of us as we grow older and surrender the eager freshness of youth which opens wide the heart and mind to every adventure of thought and deed in this inexhaustibly astonishing world. But no one ever wrote an elegy for lost youth for Milosz. He never ceased to celebrate or to be amazed or to be hurt to his depths as if for the first time. The world for him was always new and sometimes terrible and he was restlessly concerned to respond to its beauty and cruelty as long as he lived.
He had this to say about poetry and love which informs the best poetry.
“People observe and describe people, people pronounce their opinions on people, but, above all else, people are bound to people by feelings of love, hate, compassion, fear, admiration, loathing. It is not certain whether good poetry can arise from hatred… At the risk of being pedantic, it is worthwhile to invoke here three Greek words denoting kinds of love. Eros is sexual love, but not only such, because it is “an intermediary between gods and humans,” an unlimited desire, a true motoric force of creativity in art and science. Agape is love of our fellow man, love-empathy, allowing us to see in another human being a creature as frail and as easily hurt as we are ourselves: that is the same as Latin caritas, charity. A third Greek word, storge, denotes a tender care, affection uniting parents and children. Perhaps some teachers feel such a love for their pupils. It is also not impossible that storge may be applied to the relationship between a poet and generations of readers to come: underneath the ambition to perfect one’s art without hope of being rewarded by contemporaries lurks a magnanimity of gift-offering to posterity.”
I choose two poems written when Milosz was well into what others call old age.
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 knew what was left for smaller men like me:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud,
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.
Still one more year of preparation.
Tomorrow at the latest I’ll start working on a great book
In which my century will appear as it really was.
The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.
Springs and autumns will unerringly return,
In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay
And foxes will learn their foxy natures.
And that will be the subject, with addenda. Thus: armies
Running across frozen plains, shouting a curse
In a many-voiced chorus; the cannon of a tank
Growing immense at the corner of a street; the ride at dusk
Into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire.
No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.
I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.
And I cannot help ending with Milosz’s famous lines warning all tyrants, murderers, those who do great evil unto others and think they have got away with it.
“You who wronged a simple man
Bursting into laughter at the crime,
And kept a pack of fools around you
To mix good and evil, to blur the line,
Though everyone bowed down before you,
Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way,
Striking gold medals in your honour,
Glad to have survived another day,
Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.”