A Tail of Two Poems - A Reflection on the Search for Eternal Truths in the Poetry of the Nobel Prize Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) - Recovering Words | Richard Osler | Poetry Writing Retreats | Poetry Writing Workshops | British Columbia, Canada (2023)

A Tail of Two Poems - A Reflection on the Search for Eternal Truths in the Poetry of the Nobel Prize Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) - Recovering Words | Richard Osler | Poetry Writing Retreats | Poetry Writing Workshops | British Columbia, Canada (1)

Lithuanian Polish Nobel Prize Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)

5. Earth Again

They are incomprehensible, the things of this earth.
The lure of waters. The lure of fruits.
Lure of two breasts and the long hair of a maiden.
In rouge, in vermillion, in that color of ponds
Found only in the Green Lakes near Wilno.
An ungraspable multitudes swarm, come together
In the crinkles of tree bark, in the telescope’s eye,
For an endless wedding,
For the kindling of eyes, for a sweet dance
In the elements of air, sea, earth, and subterranean caves,
So that for a short moment there is no death
And time does not unreel like a skein of yarn
Thrown into an abyss.

Czeslaw Milosz from The Garden of Earthly Delights in Unattainable Earth (1986) in New and Collected Poems (1931-2001), Ecco, 2003

To capture moments, dear particulars, out of the flux of time and in that attention does something mysterious, or more specifically something of the lasting, the eternal, enter in?

So that for a short moment there is no death
And time does not unreel like a skein of yarn
Thrown into an abyss.

I ask this especially after spending many hours reading the poems of the Lithuanian Polish Nobel prize Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. And here, a huge shout out to the U.S. Community of Writers and its director, Brett Hall Jones, for hosting a six week series of Milosz facilitated by former U.S. Poet Laureate, Robert (Bob) Hass. Third session, tomorrow! More than two hundred participants and some of them recognizable and noted Milosz translators and scholars.

This longing of Milosz above does not take away his rigorous attention to everyday life as you see so wonderfully in his poem Earth Again, above. To the sensuous particulars of life. What the Nobel Prize Committee celebrated him for. It seems this is his way of trying to honour and make sense of human life where we all vanish. Who will remember us? This becomes his job as a poet. The job of artists as he says in these lines from the long poem IV Natura, in his 1957 volume, A Treatise on Poetry: In sculptures and canvases our individuality/ Manages to survive. In Nature it perishes.

He seems to see two polarities in life and his struggle is to find a middle, I think. He defines these polarities in his remarkable long poem III The Spirit of History in his 1957 volume, A Treatise on Poetry.

In a dream the mind visits two sharp edges.
Woe to the unearthly, the radiant ones,
While storming heaven, they neglect the Earth
With its joy and warmth and animal strength.
Woe to the reasonable, the heavy-minded.
Their lies will extinguish the morning star
A gift more durable than Nature is, or death.

Milosz, a man who says he was torn between wanting to be lost in endless contemplation, a radiant one, perhaps, and the need, to be forced back into the movement of history, its beauty and its violence. A man who seems to seek consolation even among seemingly inconsolable moments of history. He won’t look away. Especially where he had a front seat in such moments during and after the Second World War in Poland. This need not simply to mourn as he writes in his poem In Warsaw written in 1945 where he asks:

Was I born to become
a ritual mourner?
I want to sing of festivities,
The greenwood into which Shakespeare
Often took me. Leave
To poets a moment of happiness,
Otherwise your world will perish.

Put simply, I think much of his poetry is a struggle between needing to celebrate an isness of beauty and life and what we can imagine could lie beyond it but also to acknowledge a becoming of history and time with its evil and violence. Milosz witnessed the horrors and atrocities there in Poland: the Warsaw uprising and the total destruction of the city by the Nazi regime. Those atrocities, that destruction forced him to become a poet of witness. Something he did not want to be. But he was compelled to be.

In an interview in the book Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz, given a year after he won the Nobel Prize, he talks about his so called meditative poetry: “In those poems [The Separate Notebooks] my image is that of the meditative poet, which I find more comfortable and suitable. That’s a far cry from the poet of action, the poet actively involved in history I never wanted to be involved in history.”

Now before I address further this conflict in Milosz I want to include his poem Meaning published in the 1991 volume Provinces. It asks the questions directly that I see him struggle with in earlier poems. Is there another side to our existence, where imperishable truth or the divine resides or is this earth it? And as I read the ending of the poem he says even if this is all there is, it is the poet’s job, by lips that perish, to call out, protest and scream.

Meaning

— When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add Up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.

— And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?

— Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.

Czeslaw Milosz from New and Collected Poems (1931-2001), Ecco, 2003

This tension in the poetry of Milosz: from stillness to movement, contemplation back into history, life; of isness back to becoming in the movement of history, became so real for me in recent days when I found a mention by Milosz of a poem Notebook: Bon of Lake Leman, not in the Ecco Press editions of the Collected or Selected poems and came across two earlier versions of two poems of his translated by him into English in the first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation (co-founded by Ted Hughes) published in 1965.

First this poem:

Notebook: Bon by Lake Leman

Red beeches, shining poplars
And steep spruce behind the October fog.
In the valley the lake smokes. Already snow
Lies on the hillsides of the other shore.
Of life, what remains? Only light,
So that the eyes blink in the sunny
Noon of such a season. You say: this is,
And no capacity, no artfulness
Can reach beyond what is.
And memory, useless, loses power.

Kegs smell of cider. The vicar with a spade
Mixes lime in front of the school.
My son runs there on a path. Boys carry
Sacks of chestnuts gathered on the slope.
If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Says the prophet, let my right hand wither.
Underground tremors shake what is,
Mountains crack and forests break.
Touched by what was and what will be
All that is crumbles into dust.
And neither memory nor striving ceases.

Autumnal skies, the same in childhood,
In adulthood and in old age, I won’t
Stare at you. And you, landscapes
Feeding our hearts with mild warmth,
What poison dwells in you, that seals our lips,
Makes us sit with folded arms, and the look
Of sleepy animals? Whoever finds order,
Peace, and an eternal moment in what is
Passes without trace. Do you agree then
To abolish what is, and take from movement
The eternal moment as a gleam
On the current of a black river? Yes.

1957

Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Theodosia S. Robertson assisted by Czeslaw Milosz from the Eternal Moment by Aleksander Fiut, 1990

Here so clearly Milisz’s struggle with finding something that goes beyond the is of everyday life. How it [is]crumbles into the dust touched by what was and what will be. And here, his complaint of how is passes without a trace and his ask that we take from movement/ The eternal moment as a gleam/ On the current of a black river? Yes. I think what he means here we have to stay emotionally in time and not separate ourselves from what is going on but carry the eternal moment that gleam, with us as an antidote to the horrors of history, the black river.

Now these two other poems I found. One, Not More, with a tail of words after a moment of contemplation where the poem could have stopped. Another, Song of a Citizen, did stop after a moment of contemplation.

In his poem titled Not More he talks about the of moment attention or contemplation in poems of the historically older Japense poets. Close to half way through the poem he writes these five lines and then continues on before ending the poem.

Then I wouldn’t doubt. Out of reluctant matter
What can be gathered? Nothing, beauty at best.
And so, cherry blossoms must for us suffice
And chrysanthemums and the full moon.
Which disappear when one reaches for them.

And what strikes me is how he gives us the moment of contemplation, even solace perhaps:

And so, cherry blossoms must for us suffice
And chrysanthemums and the full moon.

But then he wrenches it away! Which disappear when one reaches for them. Now, I think back to his line in Notebooks: Bon on Lake Leman . Is this what he means? That we must grab this moment, consider it an eternal moment before it disappears? Or do I hear disappointment, his desire for a numinous moment or what is lasting or eternal in it, an echo of God, to stay there? To be captured? Here now the full 1965 version ( the newer version in a different translation stops at line 21):

Not More

I should relate some time how I changed
My views on poetry, and how it came to be
That I consider myself today one of the many
Merchants and artisans of the Old Japan,
Who arranged their rhymes about cherry blossoms,
Chrysanthemums and the full moon.
Could I but describe the courtesans of Venice,
As in a loggia they teased a peacock with a twig
And out of brocade, the pearls of their belt,
Set free heavy breasts and the reddish weal
Where the buttoned dress marked the belly,
As vividly as saw them the skipper of galleons
Who landed that morning with a cargo of gold;
And could I but find for their miserable bodies
In a graveyard whose gates the greasy water licks
A word more enduring than their last-used comb
That in the rot under tombstones, alone, awaits the light

Then I wouldn’t doubt. Out of reluctant matter
What can be gathered? Nothing, beauty at best.
And so, cherry blossoms must for us suffice
And chrysanthemums and the full moon.
Which disappear when one reaches for them.

And nearby – just outside the window – the greenhouse of the worlds
Where the tiny beetle and the spider are equal to planets,
Where the wandering atom glows as Saturn
And there to the side harvesters lift a cold jug to their lips
In scorching summer.

This I wanted and nothing more. In my age
Like old Goethe to stand before the face of the earth
And recognize it, and reconcile it
With the accomplished work, a forest citadel
Above the river of changing lights and brief shadows.
This I wanted and nothing more. But who
Is guilty? Who caused my youth and my ripe years to be taken
From me, that my best years are
Seasoned with horror? Whom?
Who should I blame, whom, O God?

And I can think only about the starry sky
About the high mounds of termites.

Warsaw 1943

Czeslaw Milosz from Modern Poetry in Translation Volume 1, 1965, on-line at https://modernpoetryintranslation.com/poem/not-more/

What does the longer version add? It includes his question on poetry, a question echoed in many of his poems, but it adds the despair of being in history, of being a witness to history, and suggestst hat to simply meditate on the things of this world, is not enough. He was changed by the war. He was faced with the reality that if there is a God in history why does God allow such violence and destruction and death. And at the end of the poem, his sense of the numinous, wrenched away, his searing question to God. Is he now left only to contemplate the things of nature and hope from them, for comfort. But can he find the eternal in them anymore? Are they enough: the starry sky, the high mounds of termites! Termites that chew away at life!

In his 1981 book interviews he goes on to say “I feel closer to the view that man lives in time and in some way has to build those eternal or lasting values out of time….But he should not allow himself to be completely carried away by time, because then he will be lost in relativism and utter fluidity and be smashed to bits. There he is referring to what he feels happened in Communist-controled years in Poland. Not surprising coming from a man with a rich and deep Christian belief and imagination. It is important to note that after this quote he mentions his key line from Notebooks: Bon on Lake Leman: To pluck an eternal moment from the movement.

Then, he does something different in the other poem, Song of the Citizen, from that 1965 issue of Modern Poetry in Translation. After describing the flux of lfe of living, the violence of nature and history within nature, then some lines of contemplation on ameobas and termite mounds, he is in a city, the movement and flux there, and then he finds another moment of contemplation on the particular but also one that can be seen as numinous or bringing in mystery, and the poem ends with it, not in movement or flux.

Song of a Citizen

A stone from the bottom, who has seen the seas dry up
And a million white fish leaping in torture,
I – poor man, see swarms of white denuded people
Without freedom, I see the crab which feeds on their flesh.

I have seen the fall of states and the destruction of peoples,
The flight of kings and emperors, the power of tyrants,
I can say now, in this hour,
That I – am, although everything perishes,
That it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion
As Scripture says.

I am a poor man, sitting on a cold chair, with eyelids pressed,
I sigh and think about the starry sky,
About non-euclidean space, the amoeba and its pseudopodia,
About the tall mounds of termites.

When I walk I am asleep, when I sleep I am awake,
I run, hunted and covered with sweat,
On city squares which the dawn paints garish colours,
Beneath the marble remnant of smashed gates,
I deal in vodka and gold.

And yet I was often so near,
I reached into the heart of metal, the soul of earth and fire, and of water,
And the unknown unveiled its face
As the quiet night reveals itself, mirrored in a stream
I was greeted by lustrous copper-leaved gardens.

Montgeron, 1957

Czeslaw Milosz from Modern Poetry in Translation, Volume I, 1965,on-line at https://modernpoetryintranslation.com/poem/song-of-a-citizen

Here in a moment, he sees the unknown, which I would say for him is the divine, what lasts, the ineffable, the mystery beyond time. This lasting truth he thinks we must find in time. And this time he doesn’t take the moment away. He captures it. Freezes it. And no ending, as in Not More, with termites!

And yet I was often so near,
I reached into the heart of metal, the soul of earth and fire, and of water,
And the unknown unveiled its face
As the quiet night reveals itself, mirrored in a stream
I was greeted by lustrous copper-leaved gardens.

Montgeron, 1957

But something strange happens later where he switches the tail of one poem to the other! as I describe it above. He revises these poems and, in a way that puzzles me, he reverses them. The poem Not More becomes the poem No More and it is much shorter and ends on the moment of naming, contemplating the cherry blossoms, the chrysanthemums and the full moon. And I do still sense a discouragement, perhaps even despair that as a poet he can’t capture the eternal in what is mortal, life here on earth? Can’t prevent the death of those we might remember or describe. But he can remember them!

No More

I should relate sometime how I changed
My views on poetry, and how it came to be
That I consider myself today one of the many
Merchants and artisans of the Old Japan,
Who arranged their rhymes about cherry blossoms,
Chrysanthemums and the full moon.

Could I but describe the courtesans of Venice,
As in a loggia they teased a peacock with a twig
And out of brocade, the pearls of their belt,
Set free heavy breasts and the reddish weal
Where the buttoned dress marked the belly,
As vividly as saw them the skipper of galleons
Who landed that morning with a cargo of gold;
And could I but find for their miserable bodies
In a graveyard whose gates the greasy water licks
A word more enduring than their last-used comb
That in the rot under tombstones, alone, awaits the light

Then I wouldn’t doubt. Out of reluctant matter
What can be gathered? Nothing, beauty at best.
And so, cherry blossoms must for us suffice
And chrysanthemums and the full moon.

Montgeron, 1957

Czeslaw Milosz, revised version of Not More from New and Collected Poems (1931-2001) Ecco, 2003

But, then, he takes what used to be the tail, the rest of the poem No More and adds it to Song of a Citizen so that the moment frozen, as it were, at the end of the 1965 version, now flows back into time: Lustrous copper-leaved gardens greeted me/ that disappear as soon as you touch them. Here are the last five lines as translated in the newer version with the line from the 1965 version of Not More added in.

And yet so often I was near,
I reached into the heart of metal, the soul of earth and fire, and of water.
And the unknown unveiled its face
as a night reveals itself, serene, mirrored by tide.
Lustrous copper-leaved gardens greeted me
that disappear as soon as you touch them.

This feels like even more of a loss to Milosz. There, the unknown unveils its face only to disappear. Yikes. The hope the solace in the original Song of a Citizen, gone. A moment of seeing the unknown goes the moment you touch the reality of the earth’s particulars. Now, here is the longer and newer version of Song of a Citizen.

Song of a Citizen

A stone from the depths that has witnessed the seas drying up
and a million white fish leaping in agony,
I, poor man, see a multitude of white-bellied nations
without freedom. I see the crab feeding on their flesh.

I have seen the fall of States and the perdition of tribes,
the flight of kings and emperors, the power of tyrants.
I can say now, in this hour,
that I – am, while everything expires,
that it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion,
as the Scripture says.

A poor man, sitting on a cold chair, pressing my eyelids,
I sigh and think of a starry sky,
of non-Euclidean space, of amoebas and their pseudopodia,
of tall mounds of termites.

When walking, I am asleep, when sleeping, I dream reality,
pursued and covered with sweat, I run.
On city squares lifted up by the glaring dawn,
beneath marble remnants of blasted-down gates,
I deal in vodka and gold.

And yet so often I was near,
I reached into the heart of metal, the soul of earth, of fire, of water.
And the unknown unveiled its face
as a night reveals itself, serene, mirrored by tide.
Lustrous copper-leaved gardens greeted me
that disappear as soon as you touch them.

And so near, just outside the window—the greenhouse of the worlds
where a tiny beetle and a spider are equal to the planets,
where a wandering atom flares up like Saturn,
and, close by, harvesters drink from a cold jug
in scorching summer.

This I wanted and nothing more. In my later years
like old Goethe to stand before the face of earth,
and recognize it and reconcile it
with my work built up, a forest citadel
on a river of shifting lights and brief shadows.

This I wanted and nothing more. So who
is guilty? Who deprived me
of my youth and my ripe years, who seasoned
my best with horror? Who?
who ever is to blame, who, O God?

And I can think only about the starry sky,
about the high mounds of termites.

Warsaw 1943

Czeslaw Milosz, revised version of Song of a Citizen from New and Collected Poems (1931-2001) Ecco, 2003

Here, is the 1965 shorter version of Song for a Citizen

Song of a Citizen

A stone from the bottom, who has seen the seas dry up
And a million white fish leaping in torture,
I – poor man, see swarms of white denuded people
Without freedom, I see the crab which feeds on their flesh.

I have seen the fall of states and the destruction of peoples,
The flight of kings and emperors, the power of tyrants,
I can say now, in this hour,
That I – am, although everything perishes,
That it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion
As Scripture says.

I am a poor man, sitting on a cold chair, with eyelids pressed,
I sigh and think about the starry sky,
About non-euclidean space, the amoeba and its pseudopodia,
About the tall mounds of termites.

When I walk I am asleep, when I sleep I am awake,
I run, hunted and covered with sweat,
On city squares which the dawn paints garish colours,
Beneath the marble remnant of smashed gates,
I deal in vodka and gold.

And yet I was often so near,
I reached into the heart of metal, the soul of earth and fire, and of water,
And the unknown unveiled its face
As the quiet night reveals itself, mirrored in a stream
I was greeted by lustrous copper-leaved gardens.

Czeslaw Milosz from Modern Poetry in Translation, Volume I, 1965

So where am I, now, in all this? And I wonder where you are as well, my readers? Four similiar but different poems. And to paraphrase Dickens and the title of his book A Tale of Two Cities what to make of these Poems with Two Tails and Just One City?

My answer. My greatest solace and comfort comes from the original version of Song of a Citizen. In this poem of death and destruction, dying fish , the fall of states, blasted-down gates he sees something almost miraculous, he remembers the possibility of the miraculous, of a lasting truth, what he calls the unknown unveiled. But in the newer version he takes that away. And in the newer version of Not More titled No More he takes away the cry of despair to God and the mounds of termites and leaves us with flowers and the moon but nothing more revelatory than that. We are left with this particular beauty for sure but not a moment where the unknown unveiled its face.

And here again is his poem Meaning. It does not claim a lining of the world, in the way I think he claimed it in the shorter version of A Song for a Citizen but instead it seems to say no matter what there are poets who will write, call out protest and scream. And I am seeing this in so much of the contempory poetry being published around the world. A celebration of life in love at a time faced with issues like climate change, perhaps even more momentus, than those faced by Milosz.

Meaning

— When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add Up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.

— And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?

— Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.

Czeslaw Milosz from Provinces (1991) in New and Collected Poems (1931-2001) Ecco, 2003

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