Ars Poetica?

By Czeslaw Milosz 1911–2004 Czeslaw Milosz

Translated By Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee

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 daimonion,   
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 demons,   
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.

Berkeley, 1968

Czeslaw Milosz, "Ars Poetica?" from The Collected Poems: 1931-1987. Copyright © 1988 by Czeslaw Milosz Royalties, Inc. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source: The Collected Poems: 1931-1987 (The Ecco Press, 1988)

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Poet Czeslaw Milosz 1911–2004

POET’S REGION Poland

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Mythology & Folklore, Poetry & Poets

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Rhymed Stanza, Mixed, Ars Poetica

 Czeslaw  Milosz

Biography

Czeslaw Milosz ranks among the most respected figures in twentieth-century Polish literature, as well as one of the most respected contemporary poets in the world: he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Born in Lithuania, where his parents moved temporarily to escape the political upheaval in their native Poland, as an adult, he left Poland due to the oppressive Communist regime that came to power following World . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Mythology & Folklore, Poetry & Poets

POET’S REGION Poland

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Rhymed Stanza, Mixed, Ars Poetica

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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