Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Road-side Dog

Poetry is an embarassing affair; it is born too near to the functions we call intimate.

Poetry cannot be separated from awareness of our body. It soars above it, immaterial and at the same time captive, and is a reason for our uneasiness, for it pretends to belong to a separate zone, of spirit.

I was ashamed of being a poet, as if, undressed, I would display in public my physical defects. I envied people who do not write poems and whom for that reason I ranged among the normal. And in this I was wrong: few of them deserve to be called that.


In the act of writing, a transformation occurs: the direct data of consciousness, our feeling of ourselves from inside, is changed into an image of other individuals, similarly feeling themselves from inside, and thanks to that, we can write about them, not only about ourselves.


He could not control his thoughts. They wandered wherever they liked and as he observed them, he grew uneasy. For they were not good thoughts, and if he were to judge himself by them, there was, deep within him, a lot of cruelty. He thought that the world was very painful and that human beings didn't deserve to exist. And he suspected that the cruelty of his imagination was somehow connected with his creative impulse.


What is deepest and most deeply felt in life, the transitoriness of human beings, illness, death, the vanity of opinions and convictions, cannot be expressed in the language of theology, which for centuries has responded by turning out perfectly rounded balls, easy to roll but impenetrable. Twentieth century poetry, or what is most essential in it, gathers data on the ultimate in the human condition and elaborates, to handle the data, a language which may or may not be used by theology.


How difficult it would be today to write Robinson Crusoe! The hero of the novel, when he found himself on a desert island, was incessantly active, trying to arrange his life as best he could. A new Robinson would probably sit and think, with the worst possible results. So in any case we must presume, judging by the general inclination of literature to introspection as well as to narratives in the first-person singular.


An artist, a poet or a painter, toils and pursues every day a perfection that escapes him. He is satisfied with the result of his labor for a moment only, and is never certain whether he is good at what he does.

Many share the fate of that painter. He was not concerned with earthly possessions, he lived and dressed haphazardly, and his sacred word was: "To work." Every morning he would stand before his easel, working all day, but no sooner had he finished than he would put his canvas in the corner and forget it, to start a new picture in the morning, always with new hope. His attempt to pass the examination for the School of Beaux Arts was unsuccessful. He loved masters of painting, old and contemporary, but had no hope of equaling them. Detesting worldly life, as it would lure him away from his work, he stayed apart. He lived with his model, with whom he had a son, and after seventeen years of cohabitation he married her. His paintings were systematically rejected by the Salons. He needed confirmation of his worth, but though his friends praised him, he did not believe them and considered himself a failed painter. He would kick and trample his canvases or would give them away freely. In his old age he despaired over his failure but continued to paint every day. In his native town, where he lived, he was slighted and hated; it's hard to tell why, for he did not harm anybody and helped the poor. Uncouth, in stained clothes with ripped-off buttons, he looked like a scarecrow and was a laughing-stock of children. His name was Paul Cezanne.

This tale may comfort many readers, since it confirms the familiar pattern of greatness not recognized and crowned late. However, there were numberless artists, similarly humble and hardworking, often living not far from us, whose names mean nothing today.


Wherever you lived - in the city of Pergamum at the time of the Emperor Hadrian, in the Marseilles under Louis XV, or in the New Amsterdam of the colonists - be aware that you should consider yourself lucky if your life followed the patterns of life of your neigbours. If you moved, though, felt, just as they did; and, just as they, you did what was prescribed for a given moment. If, year after year, duties and rituals became part of you, and you took a wife, brought up children, and could meet peacefully the darkening days of old age.

Think of those who were refused a blessed resemblance to their fellow men. Of those who tried to act correctly, so that they would spoken of no worse than their kin, but who did not succeed in anything, for whom everything could go wrong because of some invisible flaw. And who at last for that undeserved affliction would receive the punishment of loneliness, and who did not even try then to hide their fate.

On a bench in a public park, with a paper bag from which the neck of a bottle protrudes, under the bridges of big cities, on sidewalks, where the homeless keep their bundles, in a slum street with neon, waiting in front of a bar for the hour of opening, they, a nation of the excluded, whose day begins and ends with the awareness of failure. Think, how great is your luck. You did not even have to notice such as they, even though there were many nearby. Praise mediocrity and rejoice that you did not have to associate yourself with rebels. For, after all, the rebels also were bearers of disagreement with the laws of life, and of exaggerated hope, just like those who were marked in advance to fail.


Extracts from Czeslaw Milosz's Road-Side Dog (translated by the author and Robert Hass)

It's a fascinating book - not quite poetry and not really prose. A collection of pithy little pieces like the ones above: almost, in retrospect, what Milosz's blog posts would have looked like, if Milosz had ever kept a blog.

It's reading stuff like this that makes you wonder why you even bother to write.

The answer, of course, is that writing isn't a bother. It's a need. It's not writing, however prudent such silence might be, that is the real inconvenience.



Vi said...

"The answer, of course, is that writing isn't a bother. It's a need."

I think that just about says it all.

Space Bar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Space Bar said...

how strange that you should post extracts from milosz; a friend and i were talking about his work just this morning...

Swathi said...

wonderful read, thanks for sharing this one

sunshine said...

true.. prolonged silence can be quite a bother