Monday, February 6, 2012

Tuesday Poem--Incantation by Czeslaw Miłosz

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence or banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal idea 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.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun.
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
and poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountain by a unicorn and an echo.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.
Czeslaw Miłosz
Berkeley, 1969


  1. as too often happens, melissa, i am mystified as to allusions that i think i should know but dont. still...i can respond in my own fumbly way. i like "as late as yesterday Nature..." because of the way it plays with the specificity of time. nice, yes? and of course, "a unicorn and an echo"; friends of lonely children everywhere....
    maybe if i heard you read it, as last week....who knows?


  2. Thanks for posting this poem, Melissa. I've been meaning to read some Milosz because of his influence on Robert Hass (on whom I am doing my PhD). Interesting poem!

  3. Now Sarah that's interesting - I felt immediately that the first line of the poem had a familiar Hassian feel to it...poetry as the place to ponder big ideas.... I love that it's an 'Incantation', too - thanks for this, Melissa

  4. Dear Susan, sometimes poems mystify us by too many allusions--and sometimes a person can 'get' a poem or parts of it by just letting the words and images wash over. I always told my students to begin with the literal, and go line by line down the poem trying to discover what is actually happening, what the poem is literally trying to tell us. Then the metaphors have a way of attaching themselves to the literal and lift like little hot air balloons off the page, and suddenly it's clearer. And 'responding in your own fumbly way' leads to its own understanding. xo

  5. Dear Sarah Jane, ah, yes! you can't separate Robert Hass and Milosz. Good luck on your PhD. Milosz is a giant, gorgeous, moving and masterful. Glad you found this poem interesting.

  6. You're welcome, Mary. I guess I'll have to get to Hass by going through Milosz, as Hass is new to me, except as his translator!

  7. "It saves austere and transparent phrases
    From the filthy discord of tortured words."
    I'd be fool to say this is plain spoken. But it speaks to me plainly. Or maybe I am just under a spell?
    And now I must follow Milosz... ;)

  8. Yes, you are under a spell, and sometimes things that are not plain spoken can still speak loud and clear. Yes, follow Milosz--he will take you to some extraordinary places, Jayne. xo

  9. A fellow fumbler, or a lone one, but understanding the guided hand that writes Truth and Justice with capital letters. Taking the literal path, incantation raises magic, as does life the way I understand it. I find this lovely. xo

  10. Yes, Marylinn, incantation raise magic, and in an ordinary life--it's like following the enchanted breadcrumbs down through the trail until one reaches the end, and then we understand. xo