When Czeslaw Milosz received the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1980, only two slim volumes of his poetry were available in English translation: SELECTED POEMS and BELLS IN WINTER. Since that time, two more volumes have appeared in English: THE SEPARATE NOTEBOOKS, a bilingual collection, and UNATTAINABLE EARTH. All of the poems from these four books are included in THE COLLECTED POEMS: 1931-1987; in addition, this volume includes previously untranslated poems from earlier periods in Milosz’s career as well as a selection of new poems.
Among the previously untranslated poems is “Artificer,” the first poem in the book, written when Milosz was twenty years old; it has the apocalyptic (and, as circumstances provided, prophetic) vision that was to characterize the “catastrophist” school of Polish poetry in the 1930’s. The magnificent long poem “From the Rising of the Sun” appears in its entirety here for the first time in English translation; when the poem was first published in English, in the volume BELLS IN WINTER, one section was omitted because it was thought to contain too much detailed Polish and Lithuanian historical material (the poem includes some substantial prose extracts). Much was lost with the omission, and it is good to have the poem whole.
The greatest treasure of this collection, though, is the section of new poems: They attest that, in his seventies, Milosz is producing some of his best work. Many of the poems look back over a long life; many recall childhood. It is fitting that the concluding poem in the book, the last in a series of “Six Lectures in Verse,” should meditate on the mysteries of time and memory, hovering between affirmation and despair. The translations, on many of which Milosz collaborated, are excellent throughout.