Czeslaw Milosz

April is the Cruelest Month

NPG x88526,Thomas Stearns ('T.S.') Eliot,by Ida Kar

T.S. Eliot is this month’s poet. Last month’s poet was Milosz and it was a great success that is,  I learned a great deal. I am more familiar with Eliot but just couldn’t resist dedicating the month of April to studying his works.  Where to begin? I suppose The Waste Land or The Four Quartets would be a good start.

Upon Reading Milosz

I read a poet’s work,

I think how long it took to write,

Of what he saw and I did not.

Concise and hammered

not in metal, in –

meter, rhythm, rhyme and word,

Wrought in inked heart-blood,

There he is.

I close the book,

set it down

Atop the coffee table

and go about my day –

Like a cloth pattern imprinted for a time

on my skin

His images and verse,

press upon my mind.

Milosz, Precision and Storybooks.

Preface

First, plain speech in the mother tongue.
Hearing it, you should be able to see
Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road,
As if in a flash of summer lightning.

And it should contain more than images.
It has been lured by singsong,
A daydream, melody. Defenseless,
It was bypassed by the sharp, dry world.

You often ask yourself why you feel shame
Whenever you look through a book of poetry.
As if the author, for reasons unclear to you,
Addressed the worse side of your nature,
Pushing aside thought, cheating thought.

Seasoned with jokes, clowning, satire,
Poetry still knows how to please.
Then its excellence is much admired.
But the grave combats where life is at stake
Are fought in prose. It was not always so.

And our regret has remained unconfessed.
Novels and essays serve but will not last.
One clear stanza can take more weight
Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.

Czeslaw Milosz
reading1
There is a lot going on within this poem-  I especially love the last stanza. The importance of precision seems to be a reoccurring theme of his and as a mother, who is preoccupied with diapers, children, laundry and storybooks, I began to relate this theme to Children’s Literature.
    Lack of precision irritates me and seems to be a problem in children’s story books. When I read to my children, some books just D-R-A-G on.  The reader shouldn’t be muttering to himself, “how much longer?”  A poem or story should move forward without being too wordy; Quick and crisp details carrying it forward. The reader should desire to read on.
I am guilty of abridging poorly written storybooks just to get it over with. When I find myself doing this, I look at the book and think, ‘why do I have this on my shelf?’ And if it doesn’t have excellent illustrations that stand on its own-out it goes.
At times, when I am pressed for time and don’t feel like reading a lengthy book, I get Beatrix Potter’s little tale, “The Story of the Fierce Bad Rabbit.” It’s very concise, minimalistic even and my children love it.
Another problem of children’s literature, which Tolkien touches on in some of his writings, is “sniggering” tones. But, of course, that’s another story entirely.

Toads and Ashes

Here’s a poem for you on this Ash Wed:

At A Certain Age

We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
Was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee
Ought not be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom.
It would be humiliating to pay by the hour
A man with a diploma, just for listening.
Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess there what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half-opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”

Czeslaw Milosz
toad
Some quick thoughts:
I love the movement of this poem: It begins with inner turmoil and quickly moves to the sky and wind. The sinner finding no rest in the clouds, turns to the land and its creatures. The description of the dog and cat brings the poem to earth in one quick sweep and invoke the domestic life. They are uninterested and disappointed. He moves to humanity. Friends are indifferent and how humiliating and sterile it would be to pay someone!
We have a turning point – Churches – Clouds, animals, friends, professionals – Churches.  The tone seems to shift a bit with the turning point. The examination of conscience begins. What is this unrest? “But to confess what?” The poet seems unsatisfied with what he knows he should confess. Pride. He thought himself noble but now he is no more than a  toad. His description is so perfect! Slit eyes -half open. The image of the toad brings to mind both land and sea, the mythical fairy tales and the factual, the scientific- both body and soul. The poem ends with knowledge of self- seeing oneself as is, and not what’s thought to be. And so, this Ash Wed, let us remember what we really are – Toads and Ashes.