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| Czeslaw Milosz Essay

Czeslaw Milosz was a very special poet. He lived a long life throughout the 20th century and wrote in an original and inimitable style. Much of his work had to do with being in the world and the difficulties and potential pains of life. He embraced a sort of quiet ethic that did not call attention to itself. Nor did he fall into various poetical or political trends. He wanted to describe the world around him and his reaction to it as clearly as possible. In one of his great poems, “Gift,” he wrote:

I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no . . . pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.

The quietude and the reluctance to grandstand are hallmarks of his style, and it is what he looked for when he compiled A Book of Luminous Things, an anthology of international poetry by American, Chinese, and eastern European poets. These poems showcase a similar strain of poetical work. As he wrote in the introduction to the anthology: “My proposition consists in presenting poems, whether contemporary or a thousand years old, that are, with few exceptions, short, clear, readable, and, to use a compromised term, realist . . . I act like an art collector who, to spite the devotees of abstract art, arranges an exhibition of figurative painting, putting together canvases from various epochs to prove . . . that certain lines of development, different from those now universally accepted, can be traced.” These words provide the lens through which we should examine two poems in particular from this anthology: Herbert’s “Elegy for Fortinbras” and

In “Elegy for Fortinbras,” the tension between realism and idealism is expounded upon by the poet. Hamlet was famously idealistic but had great trouble implementing his ideas. He thought too much about the world and was unable to accomplish much. In Herbert’s work, much like Milosz’s there is a strong tendency to reject all political ideologies and cyncisims. Fortinbras, who is a prince and a politician, is very different than Hamlet and is too entwined in the world. To some extent he even envies Hamlet and his relationship with the ethereal and the world of forms. He says in this poetic soliloquy:

Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to breathe . . .

This observation, that Hamlet’s way of doing things is not a true engagement with life, no matter how tempting it might appear to be, is a vital poetic observation. All life involves compromises and the acceptance of certain types of knowledge. Without these compromises we doom ourselves and appear political and morally naïve. This is of significance in the other interesting poem I have chosen, “For the Anniversary of My Death” by W.S. Merwin.

Fortinbras ponders mortality and what it might mean in a life without compromises. To some extent Merwin also does in his poetry. Like Milosz much of Merwin’s work focuses on issues relating to mortality and the transience of life. What can be done when one accepts this knowledge? What then does that reduce the present life to? How to live in this shadow? Of course, the point in Merwin’s poety is that life is compromised by this knowledge but must go on anyway. Life to the poet is a “strange garment,” and he is unable to comprehend its purposes. It is all unknowable. He is no Fortinbras, seeking to fix the prisons and sewers of Denmark; he is effectively lost in speculation and uncertainty. In the end, only details (not knowledge) become concrete to him and provide him with context around which to base what remains of his life and perhaps center his death on a world he cannot understand:

As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

This poem appears to be highly influenced by Milosz, who sought again and again clarity and realism in his work even if that meant admitting and accepting your own ignorance and your own inability to comprehend the hugeness of the world and the impossible question of mortality.

These themes haunt many of the poems in this anthology, compiled by Milosz. Instead of embracing poetic fads such as postmodernism, the great Polish poet seeks to go back to first principles and to discuss basic philosophical questions of life and death. There are no easy answers and many compromises to be made. Thankfully, in choosing poems for this anthology, Milosz never poetic quality.

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