891: A Treatise on Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz

by Gerard

891.8: Milosz, Czeslaw. A Treatise on Poetry. New York: Ecco Press, 2001. 125 pp. ISBN 0-06-018524-4.

The fact that literature from areas of the world not named Europe or the United States all get crushed into the 890s is both a shame and a blessing. It’s a shame because all “non-Western” literatures have a uniqueness and truth to offer. From Iranian literature to Japanese literature to Nigerian literature to Russian literature, we can get a wondrous and varied sense of being from those very much removed from ourselves and our cultures. It’s a blessing because Dewey section 891 is for East Indio-European and Celtic literatures, and if I didn’t have this interesting and slim volume of Polish poetry, I would have to read War and Peace to satisfy this section, and that scared the bejesus out of me.

Czeslaw Milosz’s Treatise on Poetry is both a tour through the great poets of Poland, but also a look at Polish history and the author’s experiences while in post-WWII America. While I won’t explicate the poem fully (as it would take from the first-time reader’s experiences), I will say that it requires a lot of attention. My version of the translation is 125 pages, almost evenly split between the poem itself and the author’s and narrator’s notes about the poem and its references.

The poem refers to many Polish poets of the early twentieth century and I spent a lot of time flipping back and forth to understand the context of the lines. But without the references, there is still a haunting beauty. When speaking of history, he states that “When gold paint flakes from the arms of sculptures, / When the letter falls out of the book of laws, / Then consciousness is naked as an eye.” Milosz’s experiences in 1930’s Poland, witnessing the German blitzkrieg are too much for the poem to bear at times. The last part of the poem deals with Milosz’s travels around America after World War II. He was captivated with experiencing the American countryside, but he ultimately decided (at that time) that he could not stay.

This is definitely a book that you have to read twice. Once with the endnotes to get a sense of the historicity of the text, and again to simply enjoy the imagery and emotionality of the poem. Milosz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980 at a time when many of his countrymen had not even heard of him even though he had been writing since the 1930s. Reading him now made me sympathize with those Polish men and women who, coming across this amazing author for the first time, felt both joy and shame—joy for the finding, shame for ignoring him for this long.