Monday, January 16, 2012
(Czeslaw Milosz answers the door to
reporters after the announcement of
his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980;
photo by Jim Palmer)
How does the poet come to create poetry? Where does he find his inspiration?
In the poem below Czeslaw Milosz suggests that the practice of poetry involves spirits, or daimonions, transmitting their messages to the artist.
Why the question mark in the title? Is he being ironic? Or expressing doubts?
I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion¹,
though it’s an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.
What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons²,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?
It’s true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking
or that I’ve devised just one more means
of praising Art with the help of irony.
There was a time when only wise books were read
helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.
And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
~ Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), Polish poet, essayist, and translator,
¹daimonion and ²demons – spirits, both good and bad
A dozen years later, in the lecture on the occasion of his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Milosz argued for a more deliberative craft, the conscious use of reason in the service of the reader.
“‘To see’ means not only to have before one’s eyes,” Milosz said in Stockholm in 1980. “It may mean also to preserve in memory. ‘To see and to describe’ may also mean to reconstruct in imagination. A distance achieved, thanks to the mystery of time, must not change events, landscapes, human figures into a tangle of shadows growing paler and paler. On the contrary, it can show them in full light, so that every event, every date becomes expressive and persists as an eternal reminder of human depravity and human greatness. Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were, and by wresting the past from fictions and legends.”
These two understandings are not mutually exclusive. The art of poetry relies on both the heart and the head, the imaginative and the rational.