The act of writing a poem is an act of faith.
– Czeslaw Milosz, Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner
I had the honor of hearing Czeslaw Milosz read his poetry while he was still teaching in Berkeley many years ago. I didn’t know that much about him at the time, but I knew he was an important poet of our time, as he had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Milosz’s family fled from the political upheaval plaguing their homeland of Lithuania when he was young. As an adult, he fled the Soviet takeover of Poland with the installation of the Communist regime after World War II and settled in the United States.
As you can imagine, Milosz lived a full life and wrote about the affirmation of human life and the survival of humanity in a world devastated by war and political ideologies. But his poetry is accessible and heartfelt. In honor of National Poetry Month, I celebrate Czeslaw Milosz’s poetry. Consider this an opening of a window for those who aren’t familiar with his poetry to reach out and read more of his work. Here is his timely poem, “Late Ripeness”:
Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.
One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.
And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.
I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget—I kept saying—that we are all children of the King.
For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.
We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.
Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago—
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef—they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.
I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.
from Collected Poems, 1931-1987. Copyright © 1988 by Czeslaw Milosz Royalties, Inc.