The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056

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“With Trumpets and Zithers” is an extended meditation on physical being and on the relationship of the particular to the abstract. It is divided into eleven sections, each of which consists of an irregular number of long lines of free verse.

The title invokes musical instruments of a biblical origin. Trumpets and zithers are found both in books of prophecy, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, where they signal outbursts of energetic vision or ecstasy, and in books of hymnal praise, such as the Song of Solomon or Psalms, where they serve as sweet musical accompaniment to rhapsody. A trumpet blast also marks, in the New Testament book of Revelation, the onset of apocalypse, the fulfillment of divine justice and the end of time.

Czessaw Miosz’s poem is difficult to describe sequentially or in summary because it lacks a single, coherent narrative. It is certainly rhapsodic, visionary and, in a sense, apocalyptic, but there is no one action or directed argument that can be said to unify the poem. Indeed, one of Miosz’s aims is to emphasize the particular and the individual over and above any general sense of unity. There is, however, clearly an overarching emphasis in this poem on the interrelated issues of poetic expression, the function and shape of divinity, and humanity’s relationship to the natural world.

The poem begins with a “gift.” Miosz praises the variety and energy of life and creation, kneeling to “kiss the earth” with gratitude for having received consciousness and breath. That “gift,” he says, “was never named.” To name a thing is to comprehend it. Like Adam, Miosz can assign a catalog of names to objects and beings in the world around him—as he proceeds to do, poetically, in this first section—but he cannot name or identify exactly the essential primal impulse that allowed him to perceive, to know, and to be. Creation, at its heart, escapes the limited capacities of human language.

In the second section, the reader discovers the poet aboard a descending airplane at night. Afforded a panorama of creation below, a kind of God’s-eye view, he reflects on his ability to perceive and to know the whole. He addresses his own consciousness, an offshoot of that power which, miraculously, has escaped naming. He finds himself momentarily lifted out of time, without an immediate past or future. He wonders how, without memory or desire, he can still be overtaken by “blame and merit,” by the responsibilities of life and knowledge, even when he is attuned ecstatically to the ethereal and the ideal.

The third section is a scene in Mesopotamia, often called the cradle of civilization. Miosz envisions a “beauty”—an erotically charged image of woman—who stands among animalistic, lustful “grey beards” and represents an eternal principle of order, culture, and motherhood. The whole scene is surrounded by a dark, ecstatic music like that of the preceding section.

Miosz next finds himself pulled into that music, that frenzied dance of flesh and blood. He tastes in rain a sexual, animal energy. “In the darkness,” the physical world as opposed to the pure, divine “light” of creation at the poem’s outset, he hears beating “the heart of the dead and the living,” a percussive music like that of the drums and strings of the previous section. He sees life as part of an eternal musical cycle, forever breathing in and out, weaving and unweaving itself.

The sixth section is the thematic heart of the poem. “What separates,” Miosz begins, “falls.” Whatever resists the unifying drive of the human mind, focused on the eternal and the “crystalline,” falls away for Miosz from ecstasy and the purity of knowledge. Yet he screams “No!” as soon as he makes this statement, resisting the movement that he detailed in the second section to forget “who I am and who I was.” Only what separates, he reveals paradoxically, “does not fall.” Against his excited disappearance into “architectural spirals,” the dervish dance of the mystics and the whirlpool of the cosmos, Miosz welcomes in his poetry the particular: “this, not that, basket of vegetables.” Rather than be lost in generalities, he maintains his individuality. In effect, he wants to make the abstract grammatical forms of his language suit the singular and the unique, but he finds himself thwarted by the generalization inherent in words themselves.

In the seventh section, he has the mute and the animal aspects of existence, those that seem to have an essence prior to any words or names, “testify” in vain “against the language.” Particular cases and physical being, he realizes, cannot be “distinguished” in common speech.

In the eighth part, he returns from abstract images and archetypes to the present reality of the United States and modern civilization, to the blur of present-day urban life. Even here, at the end of night, however, Miosz finds himself still amazed by the incontrovertible fact of his individuality and conscious existence: “this place, this timethis particular body.”

In the next two sections, Miosz looks for some form of redemption (“forgiveness”) in the music both of human and nonhuman creative labors. He recognizes his memory and his “naming” of the world in poetry as dishonest and as a betrayal of the individual. Yet, he wants to redeem himself and his work by locating in the sensual, sexual, and physical aspects of his experience a spark of divine energy.

The poem concludes with a constellation of images designed to reflect Miosz’s preoccupations. The coelentera (from the phylum name for anemones and jellyfish) is completely physical, sexual, and animal, “all pulsating flesh,” yet its energy ties it directly to “the center of a galaxy,” to the overarching, spiraling order of the cosmos. The abstractly spiritual and the particular are joined in the vital pulsations of life. Miosz’s “terrestrial homeland” turns round “with the music of the spheres,” and he discovers a bond between the physical and the ethereal in his own humanity. He also recognizes, however, that now he can only be certain of his own “unknowing,” that, in attempting to bridge the gap between abstract forms and the concrete world, he has forgone the possibility of definitively formulating that bridge in words. As in his other poems, he pursues a vital energy but acknowledges his ongoing failure ever to complete his mission.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 381

Miosz himself translated this poem from Polish into English, capturing much of the original’s imagistic density. “With Trumpets and Zithers” takes the form of a mosaic. A mosaic consists of particular objects or fragments of a given color or texture which, when fastened together, yield a larger pattern which no one object could supplant but to which each contributes meaning. Most of the poem’s lines are closed, end-stopped grammatical units, and a given line describes a discrete image, thought or action. The connections between successive lines and among those images, thoughts, and actions are difficult to establish. Even within the scope of a single line, Miosz may introduce several units of meaning that are disjunctive or opposed. For the most part, each line is unique, and when the lines are combined in a series of ninety-five verses, an extremely complex, interlaced web develops. Formally, in Miosz’s poem, one can sense the tension between the particular and the abstract, between the discrete line or image and the variegated whole.

The leaps undertaken from line to line and from image to image give the poem a wild, ecstatic energy. The poet’s mind seems to be moving at an incredible rate, his imagination and memory fired either by visionary insight or by the sexual, sensual impulses that he describes throughout the text. “With Trumpets and Zithers” is a dithyramb, a form of poetry which dates to the ancient Greeks, whom he invokes in the first section of the poem. This form embraces extravagant cadences and images and was derived from religious chants or songs. Miosz’s unmetered, extended lines give the impression of a mind unfettered and wildly inspired by some otherworldly presence.

Yet, each line is carefully limited by syntax and ends with a definite period, which suggests that Miosz also recognizes the bounds of speech and human intellect. The poem has no argument, no readily discerned progression from section to section. He cannot expound with any logical clarity the inspired vision that seems to have overtaken him. Miosz can only go so far, he himself suggests; others may even come to write about this ecstasy in a better, more fulfilling fashion. Throughout the poem, Miosz formally counterbalances his divinely inspired frenzy with a recognition of his earthly limitations.