Thursday, April 30, 2009

National Poetry Month - "Moment" by Wislawa Szymborska & "Account" by Czeslaw Milosz

April is National Poetry Month and the New York Review of Books has been posting a poem every day this month to celebrate the, I suspect, not widely recognized occasion. Even though I can only read them in translation, I have always had a particular affinity for twentieth century Eastern European writers and poets (Brodsky, Milosz, Szymborska, Kundera and of course Kafka). They seem to capture the twentieth century zeitgeist in deeply intimate ways, perhaps because so many of the century's defining struggles and human tragedies played out on their soils.

Here are two poems by two Polish Noble Laureates that NYRB picked for April 28th and 30th respectively. The poem "Account" is by Czeslaw Milosz (pronounced chess-wahf mee-wosh) who was the recipient of the Nobel in 1980 and "Moment" is by the 1996 honoree Wislawa Szymborska.

I have posted Szymborska's wonderful poem " A Few Words on the Soul" in a previous post. In this poem "Moment", she evokes the serene, timeless harmony of nature's beauty. These beautifully contemplative descriptions of nature are a popular theme in her poetry. However, the subtext is the ephemeral human observer, with or without whom nature would continue on oblivious of being observed and indifferent to history's events unfolding around it.

"Moment" - Wislawa Szymborska

I walk on the slope of a hill gone green.
Grass, little flowers in the grass,
as in a children's illustration.
The misty sky's already turning blue.
A view of other hills unfolds in silence.

As if there'd never been any Cambrians, Silurians,
rocks snarling at crags,
upturned abysses,
no nights in flames
and days in clouds of darkness.

As if plains hadn't pushed their way here
in malignant fevers,
icy shivers.

As if seas had seethed only elsewhere,
shredding the shores of the horizons.

It's nine-thirty local time.
Everything's in its place and in polite agreement.
In the valley a little brook cast as a little brook.
A path in the role of a path from always to ever.
Woods disguised as woods alive without end,
and above them birds in flight play birds in flight.

This moment reigns as far as the eye can reach.
One of those earthly moments
invited to linger.

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak

The second poem here by Milosz is considerably darker. As is to be expected from the author of "The Captive Mind", this is a powerful poem of intellectual introspection.

"Account" - Czeslaw Milosz

The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.

Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
Like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
Would have tended nevertheless toward the candle's flame.

Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
The little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.

I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
The time when I was among their adherents
Who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.

But all of them would have one subject, desire,
If only my own—but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it's late. And the truth is laborious.

(Berkeley, 1979)

Translated from the Polish by Robert Haas & Robert Pinsky

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