Friday, July 24, 2020

Wild Fridays #29: The Living Dead

– Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)

The pungent smells of a California winter,
Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon.
I add logs to the fire, I drink and I ponder.

“In Ilawa,” the news item said, “at age 70
Died Aleksander Rymkiewicz, poet.”

He was the youngest in our group. I patronized him slightly,
Just as I patronized others for their inferior minds
Though they had many virtues I couldn’t touch.

And so I am here, approaching the end
Of the century and of my life. Proud of my strength
Yet embarrassed by the clearness of the view.

Avant-gardes mixed with blood.
The ashes of inconceivable arts.
An omnium-gatherum of chaos.

I passed judgment on that. Though marked myself.
This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent.
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize in them myself.

You, moon, You, Aleksander, fire of cedar logs. 

Waters close over us, a name lasts but an instant. 
Not important whether the generations hold us in memory. 
Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of the world. 

And now I am ready to keep running 
When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death. 

I already see mountain ridges in the heavenly forest 
Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits. 

You, music of my late years, I am called 
By a sound and a color which are more and more perfect. 

Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love. 
Be young forever, seasons of the earth.

From Selected and Last Poems 1931-2004. Selected by Robert Haas and Anthony Milosz, translated by Anthony Milosz. USA, HarperCollins (Ecco) 2006; UK, Penguin Classics, 2014.

I'm in the middle of reading this book at present, a recent purchase.  It's a wonderfully full volume in both length and content. These poems deserve some pondering (to use his own word). Seamus Heaney, another great 20th Century poet, says in his foreword, 'From start to finish, merciless analytic power coexisted with helpless sensuous relish.'

Milosz witnessed and survived German Naziism and the early days of Russian Communism. And he lived long enough to be aware of humanity's environmental destructiveness. Some of his poems are understandably bleak (despite his strong Catholic faith). Others, however, display that 'sensuous relish' Heaney mentions. I chose this one partly because it is so positive and so visionary, partly because of what it suggests about being a poet.

Wikipedia tells us: 
Czeslaw Milosz ... was a Polish-American poet, prose writer, translator, and diplomat. Regarded as one of the great poets of the 20th century, he won the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature. In its citation, the Swedish Academy called Miłosz a writer who "voices man's exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts".
Miłosz survived the German occupation of Warsaw during World War II and became a cultural attaché for the Polish government during the postwar period. When communist authorities threatened his safety, he defected to France and ultimately chose exile in the United States, where he became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His poetry—particularly about his wartime experience—and his appraisal of Stalinism in a prose book, The Captive Mind, brought him renown as a leading émigré artist and intellectual.
Throughout his life and work, Miłosz tackled questions of morality, politics, history, and faith. As a translator, he introduced Western works to a Polish audience, and as a scholar and editor, he championed a greater awareness of Slavic literature in the West. Faith played a role in his work as he explored his Catholicism and personal experience.
Miłosz died in Kraków, Poland, in 2004. He is interred in Skałka, a church known in Poland as a place of honor for distinguished Poles.

The article expands to a lot more detail about his life and work. If you'd like the extra information, click this link.

Meanwhile here is Jane Hirshfield reading the poem, after which she gives a very interesting analysis of it. Yes, I know we all hated the way poems were pulled apart at school. This is on a different level, being for adult students, and is done with great respect and love for the poem as well as deep understanding.

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright).

This photo of Czeslaw Milosz is by Artur Pawlowski, made available under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 4.0


  1. It’s interesting that he wrote into old age, right up to his death, which I think I will be doing too, and that he was part of a poetry group. I feel a kinship with Czeslaw Milosz. I love the opening stanza, which appeals to the senses so delicately, and the night-time pondering on the news item. I also like the way we accompany him in his thoughts about the poets he once knew and his own life. The ‘avant -gardes mixed with blood’ and ‘ashes of inconceivable arts’ are a reminder of the terrible events of WW2. My favourite lines are:
    ‘And now I am ready to keep running
    When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death’
    ‘Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
    Be young forever, seasons of the earth.’
    Thank you so much for sharing, Rosemary. I’m tempted to read it, not least because of what Seamus Heaney said about it.

    1. I love your appreciative comments, Kim! I also love the lines you mention, but my very favourites are:
      Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of the world.
      ... I am called
      By a sound and a color which are more and more perfect.

  2. WOW. Thank you for sharing, Rosemary.( Ponder is one of my favorite words, and shows up frequently in my poems!) The poem resonates with me, as my little poetry group just came to an end when our most venerable member passed and others of us moved a distance away. BUT (and this is a huge but), applying the analysis to my own poetry, I am reminded once more that my poems are simplistic, and lacking in the eloquently worded philosophical forays I see most often. I am, nonetheless, compelled to put to paper the words that come to me and I am "ready to keep running". Being the eternal optimist that I am, I was drawn to the "I am called by a sound and a color which are more and more perfect" Thank you once again for making Friday mentally stimulating!

    1. Bev, I think there is a place for all kinds of poetry. I don't think your poems lack depth, and I do think they are elegant in their simplicity. That too is a talent. If you are 'compelled to put to paper the words that come' then you have a vocation, and it's right that you honour it. Aside from all that, I enjoy reading what you write – and isn't that what counts most?

  3. Greetings! What an immensely satisfying post ... I especially enjoyed Ms. Hirshfield's analysis of Milosz's fine poem. As I approach age 79, this line resonates most deeply;'You, music of my late years, I am called by a sound and a color which are more and more perfect' ~ I echo Bev who laments her poetry is simplistic, lacking in eloquence; as I too, am compelled to put what is in my heart and mind onto paper.

    1. Well, you had better read what I just said to Bev and apply it to yourself too! I included the Hirshfield commentary because I found it quite fascinating, and also thought that as poets we could pick up some helpful hints about our craft (I for one have never looked at my poems with an eye to 'transitions'). I didn't mean to be giving people complexes! I think that we are all 'called' or we wouldn't be doing it, let alone participating here – because we are called not only to express but to communicate that expression – and that over time we find our own voice and also try out various tools, keeping and honing some and discarding others. Above all, I think it's important to remember that this is, as well as our compulsion, our play – and that play is actually very important and even necessary. I think the most important thing is to continue to enjoy what we do.

  4. And, Bev and Helen, sorry if it sounds like I am taking you to task! I'm grateful that you took the time and trouble to comment in detail and share your thoughts and feelings. I just can't bear for either of you to disparage your excellent poetry!

  5. Thanks so much, Rosemary! I have a couple of his books, and love his poetry. The analysis of the poem was interesting to listen to, but I feel that no one can know what a poet means,
    except the poet in his heart.

    1. That's very true – and yet we try to convey something to our readers, in the hope that they will understand. For me the interest in the video, apart from hearing the words read aloud, was in her remarks about craft, for instance her delight in realising it's OK to include one's private ruminations in a poem.

  6. Thank you so much for featuring and sharing Czeslaw Milosz this week, Rosemary!💝 His poem has left quite an impact on me. I especially love; "Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon." His words speak to me of a person who has lived life and experienced every nook and cranny; the image of winter confirming both the hardships and joys. He goes on to confess eloquently his many virtues and vices and at last shares his musings.. which depict his own analysis of himself. He shares with the reader that he has already begun to see "mountain ridges in the heavenly forest/Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits." It's almost as though he is ready to transcend.. and as the poem closes he implores the seasons of the earth to "be young forever," perhaps so as to leave hope alive for future generations.

    It makes me realize that we as writers and poets are so lucky! We have the means to express ourselves, to record each and every feeling that rears its head, (some of which most people only begin to grasp fully) I think I too will write on until death. 💝

    I also loved the YouTube video of Jane Hirshfield reading the poem. Now I am off to click on the link and learn more of his life and work.

    1. Thanks, Sanaa, for sharing how much you got out of this. I am so pleased to have aroused your interest in this poet.

      Yes, I expect you will indeed go on writing as long as you live. And yes again, we are very lucky to have poetry to help us deal with all circumstances, emotions and experiences. I am always seeing mention in the news about what a toll this pandemic is taking on people's mental health. Not that poets are immune to the effects of stress and isolation and all the practical concerns – yet it does seem to me that we're handling it rather better emotionally than many others.

    2. Rosemary, thank you for introducing Czeslaw Milosz to me. I must find some of his his works to read. I had always thought of Poland with music and but not with poetry and poets. Of course he developed his talents from a couisin in Paris. Thw Wikipedia article was fine for my info needs.
      Our paths may have crossed when we visited Krakow, i know they have for those tracks of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, of Jesus Christ, of Shakespeare and Burns, Keets, and even my own Fletcher in the British Isles.
      I was doubly impressed by Milosz participating in protest against Hitler's racist actions ("... in 1933. In the same year[1933], he publicly read his poetry at an anti-racist "Poetry of Protest" event in Wilno, occasioned by Hitler's rise to power in Germany.
      Thank you again. I am hoping for our local library has some of his but for sure Houston City or one of our universities will. I also buy used books on eBay, it will probably my second choice.
      Stay Safe, we hear that you are having a second round of COVID-19. Texas and especially are atrocious with it, we have misaligned and misguided know-it-all governor who is in cahoots with trump.
      Oh yes, I am on an on-line writing sabatical but try to handle a Wednesday write here and my Friday meme other blog write.
      (Sorry for the typos, I'm using my smart phone and time is a scarcity here.)

    3. Fletcher as in James Elroy? One of my favourites too. I haven't really thought a lot about famous people whose paths I've crossed, but I did feel affectionate when I saw John Donne's statue in St Paul's. Also sent lots of love to Chaucer in Poets' Corner.
      Where I live we haven't yet had any cases of COVID-19, but are being very careful anyway. It's different in the big cities. Most of my family members and many old friends are in Melbourne, where it's the worst at present – but I am sure they are being intelligent about it too.

  7. I am glad for you having no COVID-19 where you live. Our neighborhood is relatively free but our county is exceedingly high with it. My sister-in-law lives in a small town in Louisiana with a low rate but the rehab center where she was being helped after her stroke all of a sudden developed 25 positives between residents and the staff. Very soon she caught it and died. Her funeral is tomorrow.
    We've pretty well covered the British Isles, I'd call them the "home of modern poetry." I have 1/4 Manx blood, we visited there also. I don't think their poets were prominent.
    Our Fletcher family was represented on our Mayflower, probaly distant somethings of James Elroy, I've peeked at him but now had even forgotten his name.

    1. Oh, so sorry about your sister-in-law, Jim! It seems even more terrible when the statistics become personal.

  8. I really like the 4th stanza. It makes me think of growing up and older and (hopefully) wise enough to see the good and know the loses that come if one chooses not to see the bad. There is power in understanding the value of one's strength. The same goes for type of shame that comes with being able to see that world for what it is.

    1. When you put it so beautifully, I can quite see why you appreciate that verse so much. My own favourite is the 7th. He says’a name lasts but an instant’ and I’m reminded of those I think of as being in my generation of Australian poets — though some were younger and some older, but we all had our most active heyday during the same decades. It saddens me a little that many of the current crop don’t even know or recognise the names of their brilliant predecessors who have died or gone quiet. And yet I also recognise the truth in the next lines of that verse. It’s the journey that matters, much more than the destination — and, I would add, the vitality of poetry more than the life of any individual poet.

  9. Thanks so much, Rosemary! This poem touched me deeply and I shared it with a friend who I believe will feel the same way. I checked out Czeslaw Milosz and discovered more of his poems. Another that I liked is “Incantation” He writes so beautifully about the passage of time and his poems give inspiration. Thank you again for introducing him to us.

    1. It’s always a joy when I can treat people to some literary pleasures they weren’t already acquainted with!


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