Treatise on Poetry

Overview

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz began his remarkable A Treatise on Poetry in the winter of 1955 and finished it in the spring of 1956. It was published originally in parts in the Polish émigré journal Kultura. Now it is available in English for the first time in this expert translation by the award-winning American poet Robert Hass.

A Treatise on Poetry is a great poem about some of the most terrible events in the twentieth century. Divided into four sections, the ...

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Overview

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz began his remarkable A Treatise on Poetry in the winter of 1955 and finished it in the spring of 1956. It was published originally in parts in the Polish émigré journal Kultura. Now it is available in English for the first time in this expert translation by the award-winning American poet Robert Hass.

A Treatise on Poetry is a great poem about some of the most terrible events in the twentieth century. Divided into four sections, the poem begins at the end of the nineteenth century as a comedy of manners and moves with a devastating momentum through World War I to the horror of World War II. Then it takes on directly and plainly the philosophical abyss into which the European cultures plunged.

"Author's Notes" on the poem appear at the end of the volume. A stunning literary composition, these notes stand alone as brilliant miniature portraits that magically re-create the lost world of prewar Europe.

A Treatise on Poetry evokes the European twentieth century, its comedy and terror and grief, with the force and expressiveness of a great novel. A tone poem to a lost time, a harrowing requiem for the century's dead, and a sober meditation on history, consciousness, and art: here is a masterwork that confronts the meaning of the twentieth century with a directness and vividness that are without parallel.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Making it to the major leagues at age 35. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060185244
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/10/2001
  • Pages: 144
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Czeslaw Milosz was born in Szetejnie, Lithuania, in 1911. He worked with the Polish resistance movement in Warsaw during World War II and was later stationed in Paris and Washington, D.C., as a Polish cultural attaché. He defected to France in 1951, and in 1960 he accepted a position at the University of California, Berkeley. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, and was a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He died in 2004.

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Read an Excerpt

Beautiful Times

Cabbies were dozing by St. Mary's tower.
Kraków was tiny as a painted egg
just taken from a pot of dye on Easter.
In their black capes poets strolled the streets.
Nobody remembers their names today,
And yet their hands were real once,
And their cufflinks gleamed above a table.
An Ober brings the paper on a stick
And coffee, then passes away like them
Without a name. Muses, Rachels in trailing shawls,
Put tongues to lips while pinning up their braids.
The pin lies with their daughters' ashes now,
Or in a glass case next to mute seashells
And a glass lily. Angels of Art Nouveau
In the dark WCs of their parents' homes,
Meditating on the link between sex and the soul,
Went to Vienna for migraines and the blues
(Dr. Freud, I hear, is also from Galicia),
And Anna Csilag grew her long, long hair.
The hussars' tunics were trimmed out with braid.
News of the emperor spread through mountain villages.
Someone had seen his carriage in the valley.

This is our beginning. Useless to deny it.
Useless to recall a distant golden age.
We have to accept and take as our own
The mustache with pomade, the bowler hat acock.
Also the jingle of a tombac watch chain.
It's ours, the worker's song, the mug of beer
In factory towns black as heavy cloth.
The match struck at dawn and the twelve hours
Labor to make wealth and progress out of smoke.

Lament, Europe! And wait for a Schiffskarte.
On a December evening in the port at Rotterdam
A ship full of immigrants stands silent
Under the frozen masts like snow-clad firs.
A chorus, or litany, breaks from below deck
In some peasant, Slovenian or Polish, dialect.
A pianola, hit by a bullet, begins to play.
A quardrille in a saloon drives the wild couples,
And she, fat, red-haired, snapping her garter,
In fluffy slippers, her thighs sprawling
Waits on a throne, she, mystery,
For traveling salesmen of Salvarsan and condoms.

This is our beginning. A cinematograph:
Max Linder leads a cow and falls down flat.
In open-air cafés lamps shine through the leaves.
A women's orchestra blows into trombones.

Till from hands, jeweled rings, lilac corsets,
From the ashes of cigars, it all unwinds, meanders
Through forests, lowlands, mountains, plains —
The command "Vorwarts!" "En avant!" "Allez!"

There are our hearts, sprinkled with quicklime
On empty fields that have been licked by flame.
And nobody knew why it suddenly ended,
— A pianola played — progress and wealth.

Our style, unpleasant to say it, was born there.
The sound of a lyre from a garret window
Hums in the dawn above a Tingeltangel,
The song as ethereal as the creaking stars,
Not needed by tradesmen and their wives, not needed
By the peasant farmers in a mountain village,
A pure thing, against the sad affairs of earth.
Pure, forbidden the use of certain words:
Toilet, telephone, ticket, ass, money.

A muse with long hair learns to read
In the dark toilet of her parents' home
And knows already what is not poetry,
Which is only a mood and a breeze. It dwells
In three dots, followed by a comma.

It flows and waves, ineffable. A stand-in
For religion, and such it will remain.
The breath of normal syntax will be banned:
"Eh, journalism. Let them write in prose."
Then, in the schools of a new avant-garde,
They will call this old injunction a discovery.
Not all poets vanished without a trace.
Kasprowicz roared, tore at the silken tethers
Yet could not break them: they were invisible.
And not tethers, they were more like bats
Sucking the blood out of speech on the fly.
Leopold Staff was the color of honey.
He praised witches, gnomes, and the rains of spring.
His praise was as if in a world of as if.
As to Lesmian, he drew his own conclusions:
If it's all a dream, let's dream it to the bottom.

In Kraków, on a narrow little street,
Two boys lived not far from one another.
When one of them walked to St. Anne's school,
He saw the other playing in the sand.
They had different fates, different fames.
For the sailor oceans, vast, incomprehensible,
Islands where naked tribes sounded a conch
Beyond a coral reef. The moment still exists
When, in a deserted street, in humid Brussels,
He walked slowly up the marble stairs
And pushed a bell marked by the letter S,
The Anonymous Society, listened to the silence,
Entered. Two women, knitting, pulled at threads —
They seemed to him Parcae —, then put away
Their skeins and gestured toward a door,
Behind which rose the managing director,
Also anonymous, to shake his hand.
It was in this way that Joseph Conrad
Came to captain a steamer on the Congo,
As was fated. For those who would hear it,
His tale of a jungle river was a warning:
One of the civilizers, a madman named Kurtz,
A gatherer of ivory stained with blood,
Scribbled in the margin of his report
On the Light of Culture: "The horror." And climbed
Into the twentieth century.

Meanwhile
In a Krakóvian village, peasant costumes,
Wedding dances until daybreak to the tune
Of a double bass, also a puppet theater,
The same for centuries. Indomitable Wyspianski
Dreamed of a national theater, as in Greece.
He couldn't overcome the contradiction.
His medium deformed his vision and our speech.
It would make us prisoners of history,
Not persons, traces of persons, on a seal
Stamped only with the style of a time.
Wyspianski has not been of help to us.

As heritage we received another monument:
Conceived as a joke, not for any glory,
As much of the language as a street song,
A thumbing of the nose at abstract thought.
A pity it's a trifle: Little Words by Boy.
That day fades. Someone has lit the candles.
On Oleandry field the locks of the carbines
Don't click anymore, the plain is empty.
The aesthetes in infantry boots have departed.
Their hair has been swept from the barber's floor.
Fog and a smell of smoke hang about the place.

And she, she wears a lilac-colored veil.
By candlelight she puts her fingers to the keys
And while the doctor fills glasses with liqueur
She sings an air that seems to come from nowhere:

The laughter in cafés
Echoes about a hero's grave.

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Table of Contents

Translator's Note ix
Preface 1
Beautiful Times 3
The Capital 11
The Spirit of History 27
Natura 45
Author's Notes 63
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