RIP MILOSZ.

Czeslaw Milosz, one of the few unquestioned giants of world poetry remaining from the last century, died today at his home in Krakow. I don’t have anything useful to say about him except that he speaks to me directly and is one of those rare poets who seem undiminished by translation (I say “seem” because I can’t read him in Polish), so I’ll just quote a couple of poems from New and Collected Poems.

GOOD NIGHT
No duties. I don’t have to be profound.
I don’t have to be artistically perfect.
Or sublime. Or edifying.
I just wander. I say: “You were running,
That’s fine. It was the thing to do.”
And now the music of the worlds transforms me.
My planet enters a different house.
Trees and lawns become more distinct.
Philosophies one after another go out.
Everything is lighter yet not less odd.
Sauces, wine vintages, dishes of meat.
We talk a little of district fairs,
Of travels in a covered wagon with a cloud of dust behind,
Of how rivers once were, what the scent of calamus is.
That’s better than examining one’s private dreams.
And meanwhile it has arrived. It’s here, invisible.
Who can guess how it got here, everywhere.
Let others take care of it. Time for me to play hooky.
Buona notte. Ciao. Farewell.
(from Provinces, 1991)


And a prose poem from This (2000):

In advanced age, my health worsening, I woke up in the middle of the night, and experienced a feeling of happiness so intense and perfect that in all my life I had only felt its premonition. And there was no reason for it. It didn’t obliterate consciousness; the past which I carried was there, together with my grief. And it was suddenly included, was a necessary part of the whole. As if a voice were repeating: “You can stop worrying now; everything happened just as it had to. You did what was assigned to you, and you are not required anymore to think of what happened long ago.” The peace I felt was a closing of accounts and was connected with the thought of death. The happiness on this side was like an announcement of the other side. I realized that this was an undeserved gift and I could not grasp by what grace it was bestowed on me.

Thanks to Bonnie, who gave me the news, for sharing my love of Milosz.
Addendum. The NY Times has published a serviceable obituary by Raymoond H. Anderson, but it seems not to have been updated in a while; the last paragraph says “Ecco Press gathered a half-century of his work in ‘The Collected Poems 1931-1987.’ In it is a 1986 poem called ‘And Yet the Books,’…” but Ecco’s New and Collected Poems has been out for three years now (and yes, the poem Anderson quotes is still in it).

Comments

  1. “Whatever one knows, he knows for himself only and he should keep it secret. As soon as he reveals it, contradictions appear, and if he begins to argue, he will lose his equilibrium, while what is best in him will be, if not annihilated, at least shaken.”
    He always seemed to get there first, and he had the gift of sweet words.
    I was unfamiliar with “Good night”, and pleased to read it.
    It strikes me that Milosz is a particularly easy poet to memorialize, if only for the fact that so much of his work is a confrontation with mortality, and the inevitable mystery of his someday not-being-there.

  2. Thanks for this, LH. I almost quoted that prose poem myself and am glad to see it here.

  3. I’m very sorry to hear that. He will always be a giant. I was not familiar with “Good Night”. Good night Czeslaw.

  4. Well, I said it over here, but I had beers with Milosz. It was a very pleasant thing to do on a hot day, and then we had a couple more with David Malouf.

  5. “Whatever one knows, he knows for himself only and he should keep it secret. As soon as he reveals it, contradictions appear, and if he begins to argue, he will lose his equilibrium, while what is best in him will be, if not annihilated, at least shaken.”
    I’m very fond of this quote, too. It appears in Unattainable Earth, a volume of Milosz which includes quotations from other writers. And the one just above is from Goethe, not Milosz himself.

  6. George Hand says:

    In the early sixties, Milosz gave a lecture course in the history of Polish theater at Berkeley that was a real eye-opener. Did he ever turn it into a book?

  7. Folks in the Chicago area might want to know that Clare Cavanagh, who’s writing Milosz’s authorized bio, is giving a lecture this fall at the U of C: “The Americanization of Czeslaw Milosz.”
    http://poetics.uchicago.edu/events.html

  8. It’s late, the sky is dark, but I wish to add my admiration of this Polish and Californian man of letters, even if he’d not want the appendage.
    To blunt:
    my sadness at my fathers passing in 2004 is of fuller aspect grown, hearing just today, or just today its registering (so Late) of the passing of Czeslaw Milosz in that same just lost year. One does what one can in art,
    finds what one can when it wants to be found, and as for making a fool, seems I always was one.
    Still Czeslaw Milosz, I salute you!

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