Tuesday Poem: Czeslaw Milosz

My Tuesday Poem this week, was the TLS poem of the week on Oct 30th -  Andrew McCulloch's article copied below - to read the whole thing in its original form please head on over to the TLS.

The Advisor

Well, it is true that the landscape changed a little, for a lot.
We have factories now and waste tanks where the forests were.
As we approach the river-mouth we hold our noses:
A current of oil and chlorine and methyl compounds.
A huge stain of synthetic colour poisons the fish of the sea.
Where the rushes grew, fringing the sea shore,
Are rusted and smashed machines, ashes, bricks.
We used to read in the ancient poets the scents of the earth,
And grasshoppers; now we take pains to avoid the fields,
And pedal as fast as we can through the chemical zone of the farmer.
The insect, the bird, are wiped out. Far away, a bored man
Drags dust with his tractor, umbrella against the sun.
But what do we regret? The tiger? The shark?
– It may be the case that when Adam awoke in the garden
The beasts licked the air, were yawning and friendly
While the scorpion’s tail was lashed to his back, fangs
Were only a figure, and the red-backed shrike,
Later, much later, named Lanius collurio,
Did not impale grubs on the spikes of blackthorn.
However, apart from and after that moment, our knowledge
Of Nature is not in its favour; our own was no worse.
And so, I beg you, no more of these lamentations.

Translated by the author and James Shearing (2004)

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004) decided to call his 1981–82 Charles Eliot Norton lectures “The Witness of Poetry” not, he said, “because we witness it, but because it witnesses us”. In words from his poem “You Who Wronged”, inscribed on a plaque put up in 1980 to commemorate those killed at the Lenin shipyard in Gdańsk a decade earlier, “the poet remembers. You can kill one, but another is born. The words are written down, the deed, the date”.

Miłosz witnessed and took part in some of the crucial political events of the twentieth century. Born in Lithuania to the Polish-speaking gentry, he was a child in Russia when the Revolution broke out (his father was a bridge-builder for the Tsar’s army), lived in Warsaw during the Nazi Occupation, where he witnessed the destruction of the ghetto and the tragedy of the uprising, left his post as Polish cultural attaché in Paris in 1951 to stay in the West, and moved to California during the Vietnam war. At the end of his life, he returned to his Polish roots in Kraków where he carried on working into his nineties. As Michael Irwin has said, even if he had never written a line, Miłosz would be an intriguing figure “merely by virtue of his survival”. Seamus Heaney called his life “a kind of twentieth century pilgrim’s progress”.

And yet he saw himself as neither hero nor saint but simply a man attempting to understand reality. “The ideal life for a poet”, he maintained, “is to contemplate the word is“, a quest that leads, in “The Advisor”, to a conflict between materialism and the consolations of a faith to which it is perhaps difficult to return in the light of what we have learnt about ourselves over the past century. The landscape Miłosz presents here has been ravaged by scientific and industrial progress. But the cynical advice to regard man merely as an evolved animal is ironically undercut by a haunting echo of old beliefs. The reference to Adam waking in the garden is an explicit reminder of the dawn of the consciousness that separates us from the unthinking cruelty of the scorpion and the red-backed shrike, creatures whose existence is governed only by biological determinants. Evolutionary biology can shade into social Darwinism if we let it. It is only by naming the beasts that we rise above them.

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  1. Such a thought-provoking choice, Kathleen. I was particularly taken by the querying of what we regret. It seems tied up here with guilt for what the landscape has become, but regret always seems subordinate to guilt (as here). Lots of things to think about with my morning coffee - thank you for sharing this poem; Milosz is incredible!


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