Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Tim Suermondt reads “This World” from Selected and Last Poems 1931-2004 by Czeslaw Milosz.
Thank you, Tim, for introducing me to Czeslaw Milosz. I am assuming, based on the title of the book and the poet’s name, that Milosz wasn’t writing in English. Is this a translation? (Who was the translator?) Can you tell me a little about the poet?
Tim Suermondt: Milosz spoke English and may have done a bit of writing in English. He was a Professor of Slavic Literature at UC Berkeley for many years. But he worked with translators—mostly with the poet, Robert Hass. Hass does most of the translations of the poems in the Harper Collins addition. There are a few others who translate and a number of the later poems in the book are translated by his son, Anthony.
Milosz did some work for the Polish resistance against the Nazis in WWII, and after the war he became an attache for the Polish Government. In 1951 he defected to Paris. And by 1960 he was at Berkeley. He did eventually make it make it back to Poland after the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1989. He’s considered by many to be one of the most important poets of the 20th Century. He won the Nobel Prize in 1980, and died in 2004.
This is what he said in an interview in 1983: “I feel that today poetry is under a kind of blackmail on the part of all the theorists who are trying to make poetry different from prose: ‘This is true poetry, this is not true poetry.’ I know that American poets today try to overcome this. But, in my own experience, I felt the need to liberate those requirements of what was considered poetry, to get a more free hand in order to say something. That is why I say in a poem, ‘Ars Poetica’: ‘Yes, I can see this is not poetry. This is something else. I don’t know what it is.’ Then I am much more free in writing.”
Sundress: The quote you shared is interesting. Do you feel this need to determine what is and what is not ‘true poetry’ has been overcome?
Tim Suermondt: No, far from it and it will never be overcome. We’re often far too contentious creatures to agree on the truth of almost anything, let alone what constitutes “real” poetry.
Ask ten poets and critics and you’re likely to get ten different answers. I like what the poet/critic Adam Kirsch has written about the “cooked” poets and the “uncooked” poets, and this doesn’t even cover the layers within and outside that definition. Just look at what we’ve been subjected to over the recent decades: Formalism and some strain of Neo-formalism, Language Poetry, Experimental Poetry, Narrative Poetry, “Free Verse is bad”, “Free Verse is good”, “What do we do about the Lyric?” Prose Poetry, and on and on. The traditional Canon that once held sway was good in the sense that it gave, or tried to give, clarity as to what made for good to great poetry.
But it often overlooked the daring and the inventive, keeping its classical sheen as aloof as possible. And it very often left out many poets, especially women and minorities and rightly lost ultimate authority. While there’s nothing wrong with a poet looking at certain rules about the poetic art that have come down through the ages—there’s much that can still be put to use—there’s nothing wrong with a poet tweaking, if not sometimes breaking those rules. Milosz had it right: write the poem as well as you can and let others and history attempt to categorize—rest assured, they will.
Sundress: “This World” is a heavy poem. Are you able to put it into a little more context for us? Am I right to hazard a guess that this was written sometime during or shortly after WWII?
Tim Suermondt: It’s logical to assume that “This World” was written during or shortly after WWII—especially given Poland’s tragic history for most of the 20th Century. The country endured the Bolsheviks, the Nazis and the Soviet Union before being set free in 1989 when that Soviet Union finally collapsed. And the ending of the poem certainly echoes those long, difficult years. But the poem was written in 1995—a reflection of an older man assessing this world in a most imaginative way. Just to think that, in particular, so much suffering in the world (of humans, not abstractions) was not the end game, that it will be reversed and made whole, is quite a powerful statement. And though not stated as such, the poem implies that the good we experience might be given back to us a thousand fold. Of course, it’s probably not the case but who really knows? I’m more than happy to give Milosz the benefit of the doubt and let poetry do the impossible.
Sundress: As a baby-boomer, growing up post WWII, how did you feel about “This World” when you first read it? I know I immediately inserted my own generation references—the “War on Terror” and the highly-publicized school shootings—into my first listening of the poem. What did you think of and how did you connect to it?
Tim Suermondt: I’m indeed a baby boomer, oh the Cold War years for me. But every generation can feel this poem to be speaking to them—and in a sense it is. The poem is universal and touches on concerns that will always be a part of our human condition. And it was this universality that moved me when I first read the poem. And I have to say it was also just an enjoyable poem to read—I loved the construct. Good poems can do that to us—all of us.
Sundress: How has Czeslaw Milosz influenced your own work?
Tim Suermondt: I don’t think any writer can say exactly how another writer influenced his or her own work. Let me put it this way. In the early 80’s in a small bookshop in Florida, I was browsing around and pulled out a book by Milosz (I’d heard of him only vaguely)—”Bells in Winter”—and was taken by the very first poem “Encounter”—the final line being: “I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.” I was struck by the beauty, humanity and gravitas of the poem, along with my desire to be able to write a poem like that one day. I knew I would keep this Milosz around. And in addition to those attributes I mentioned, his poems employ hard and interesting questions about faith, ethics, history and philosophy—sometimes done with a sly humor and flesh and blood sensuality. Quite a list, and I always hope the poems I write show some of those qualities too.
Sundress: You mentioned before that you’re “more than happy to… let poetry do the impossible.” Are there other poems by Milosz you can point us to which voice hope for the impossible? Or other or interviews we should follow-up on?
Tim Suermondt: Milosz has many poems that flirt with the impossible. I’ll mention three poems that I really like and that deal with this flirtation: “Gift,” “Amazement,” and “Meaning”—which was written four years before “This World” but seems to be a precursor of it. All of these poems and all the others are only a Google click away. As for interviews, Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations from the University of Mississippi Press is a good one to read—it’s nicely wide-ranging.
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
Tim Suermondt is the author of two full-length collections of poems: Trying To Help the Elephant Man Dance (The Backwaters Press, 2007) and Just Beautiful (New York Quarterly Books, 2010.) His third collection Election Night and the Five Satins will be published early in 2016 by Glass Lyre Press. He has poems published and forthcoming in Poetry, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, Blackbird, Bellevue Literary Review, PANK, North Dakota Quarterly, december magazine, Plume Poetry Journal, and Stand Magazine (U.K.) among others. He lives in Cambridge (MA) with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong.
Born in Lithuania in 1911, Czeslaw Milosz spent much of his childhood in Czarist Russia, where he published his first collection of poems, Poemat o czasie zastyglym at the age of twenty-one. As an adult, he defected, leaving Poland due to the oppressive Communist regime which had come to power post WWII. He moved to the United States where he lived from 1960 until his death in 2004. Milosz wrote his poems, novels, essays, and other works in his native Polish. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.