Selected Poems: 1931-2004
by Czesław Miłosz
"Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope."
- from "Incantation", 1968 (p 87)
His poetry runs the gamut of feeling and thought, of nature and man, of beauty and the truth of poetry. The author of The Captive Mind, a great statement about the effects of totalitarianism, Czeslaw Milosz is even better when his daimon inspires him to write poetry. This selection covers his work over more than seven decades beginning with his early days in Poland, underground during the War, and beyond into his time in America. His survival, overcoming the ordeal of war and suppression gives his poetry a nobility that seems palpable on every page.
The following poem resonates with me along with others of his best from the Selected Poems. Just as he fought the battle of ideas, the books are durable soldiers going into battle with a simple "We are,"; confident in the knowledge that they are "more durable than we are". The reference to the dismal twentieth century with its fires and flame is tempered by the optimism of the closing: "Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights."
And Yet the Books
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it's still a strange pageant,
Women's dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
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