Bells in Winter
While not widely known among American readers, Czesaw Miosz is a poet of longstanding reputation in Europe; he has a well-deserved reputation, as well, for his work as an essayist, a novelist, and a literary scholar. Early in his life he began his work as a poet, becoming one of the leaders of “new poetry” in Poland during the 1930’s. During the terrible years of World War II he was in the Resistance movement, editing an anthology of anti-Nazi writings entitled Invincible Song. A few years after the war ended, he left Poland for America, where he now teaches, in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to his writings in Polish, he has published a study of Polish poetry after World War II, a history of Polish literature, volumes of essays, a translation of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, and a volume of his own selected poems. In 1978 he was awarded the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
At the center of Czesaw Miosz’s poetry is the realization that we humans are unable to grasp our experience, that as time passes what we have experienced becomes more and more difficult to comprehend. The poet relates this approach to life by writing poems in which he leads us to see the world as a manifestation of another, superior realm. Joseph Brodsky’s written presentation of Miosz as a candidate for the Neustadt Prize explains: “Shortcutting or, rather, short-circuiting the analytical process, Miosz’s poetry releases the reader from many psychological and purely linguistic traps, for it answers not the question ’how to live’ but ’for the sake of what’ to live.” Not all the poems in Bells in Winter, it should be noted, are published for the first time in English, for some appeared earlier in magazines: American Poetry Review, Antaeus, and New Poetry.
One way to gain, or at least begin, understanding this excellent series of poems is to begin a second reading with “Bells in Winter,” the title poem and final selection in the collection, as well as the sixth and last of a series of poems from “The Rising of the Sun.” The poem starts with an imagined experience within an imagined experience. The “I” of the poem says that late one day, while on a journey, he stopped his horse and began to read in St. Paul’s epistles. While reading he fell asleep and dreamed that a young man from Paul’s Greece spoke to him. Then the “I” of the poem tells the reader that what has just been read is but an exercise in style, a prelude to something that is not invented. Apparently drawing from Miosz’s own experience, the poem leads the reader to student days and a student’s lodging in Literary Lane, to see an old woman named Lisabeth who brought firewood to the student’s room. Why bring this back? asks the poem, replying that everything has a double existence, “both in time and when time shall be no more,”—the kind of belief held by St. Gregory of Nyssa, Johannes Scotus Erigena, and William Blake. Returning to the old woman and memories of her, the poem places her among the saints, among the souls of women abused in earthly existence by men and society. Returning to the “I” of the poem, the reader is led to contemplate a different world, the world of modern-day California, where firewood is cut with a chain saw and the towers of San Francisco can be seen in the distance. The poem ends by reminding us of the words of Old Testament prophets, and the promise of completion when every form will be “restored in glory.”
One of the problems of being a poet is what appears to the poet’s eyes when he has written a poem. In “Ars Poetica?” Czesaw Miosz suggests...
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