Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bells in Winter by Czeslaw Milosz

I first discovered Mr. Milosz in a book of polish poets and quickly fell in love with his style. I admire his ability to look at the world around him and describe it poetically, in a translation, no less.

Bells in Winter is from 1978, 2 years before he would win the Nobel Prize. The collection consists mostly of shorter works, which are my favorite style of poems and where he shines best. The longer works towards the end are rather rambling and don't hold my interest as much as the poems at the beginning, but that is true for just about every poet I've ever read--for me, the longer the poem, the more likely it is to lose its poetic qualities that drew me to it in the first place.

However, there are still flashes even within the longer poems, such as this start to the third section of "From the Rising of the Sun":

"If I am responsible
It is not for everything.
I didn't support the theses of Copernicus.
I was neither for nor against Galileo's case.
My ships have never left the pond to sail the seas.
When I was born, locomotives ran on rails
Moving in a jumble of wheels and pistons,
And the echo of an express train rang wide
Through forest no longer primeval.
The district was inhabited by folk, Jews and gentlemen.
You went by horse cart to buy kerosene, herring, and salt,
But in the towns they were using electricity.
It was said that someone had invented the wireless telegraph.
Books were already written. Ideas thoroughly discussed.
The ax was put to the tree."

That's the story of a person who cannot believe the changes of the past century--it sounds like your grandparent talking. It's the poetry of the everyday, given the artistic touches of a master poet. That is the style I like best, and Milosz has it in abundance.

Here's another example, "Calling to Order":

"You could scream
Because mankind is mad.
But you, of all people, should not.

Out of what thin sand
And mud and slime
Out of what dogged splinters
Did you fashion your castle against the test of the sea,
And now it is touched by a wave.

What chaos
received bounds, from here to there.
What abyss
Was seen and passed over in silence.
What fear
Of what you are.

It shows itself
But that is not it.
It is named
Yet remains nameless.
It is coming to be
But has not begun.

Your castle will topple
Into the wine-colored
Funeral sea,
She will assuage your pride.

Yet you knew how
To use next to nothing.
It is not a matter of wisdom
Or Virtue.

So how can you condemn
The unreason of others."

Note that the last sentence is a statement, not a question. You can almost see Milosz and another, phantom person--Milosz's internal self, perhaps?--arguing about the state of the world and this poem being the result.

In fact, argument and doubt is at play in most of the works I've read by Milosz so far. It seems he wrestled with his faith after conversion and poems like "How it Was", "Readings", and "Temptation":

"Under a starry sky I was taking a walk,
On a ridge overlooking neon cities,
With my companion, the spirit of desolation,
Who was running around and sermonizing,
Saying that I was not necessary, for if not I, then someone else
Would be walking here, trying to understand his age.
Had I died long ago nothing would have changed.
The same stars, cities and countries
Would have been seen with other eyes.
The world and its labors would go on as they do.

For Christ's sake, get away from me.
You've tormented me enough, I said.
It's not ip to me to judge the calling of men.
And my merits, if any, I won't know anyway."

Those are the same sorts of questions I have wrestled with since I was a teenager. While Milosz and I came to different conclusions--I left the church he opted to join--the journey is a similar one.

It seems almost silly to tell people they should read a Nobel-winning poet, but I'm going to do it anyway. Find a book of Milosz's poetry and read it. You'll be glad you did.


  1. I first heard about Milosz via Virginia Quarterly Review, which printed a poem or two having to do with his WWII experiences. I think I bought his huge New and Collected poems book within the week.

    I'm still not into as much poetry, but after Milosz others have a high bar to live up to.

  2. I can see that, it's hard to go wrong with using Milosz as your poetry bar. :)