“What is Poetry That Cannot Save Nations or a People?”

January 11, 2010 :: Tags: , , , :: Comments Off on “What is Poetry That Cannot Save Nations or a People?”

I forwarded¬†Hila Sedighi’s poem for oppressed students of Iran, to my friend Garrett Hongo, poet, audiophile and Distinguished Professor of The College of Arts and Sciences, University of Oregon. In response, Garrett wrote to me about the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz who once said “what is poetry that cannot save nations or a people.”

“Ferocious political oppression spawns outcry and plants a strength of resolve and resentment at the instant it punishes and strikes for fear. Yet, economic and cultural oppression do too, though the cries take longer to develop and be heard, sometimes silenced so long the result is a counter-violence some call revolutionary. Yet, violence is itself tyrannous, reigning over all redress and hope in turn. Poetry is a peaceful plaint to register our grief and outrage, yet I hope it might move millions to revive justice–in their hearts and in the world.” — Garrett Hongo


by Czeslaw Milosz

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed thee dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

Warsaw, 1945

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