'And Yet the Books' by the Polish Nobel Prize-Winning Poet Czesław Miłosz

'And Yet the Books' by the Polish Nobel Prize-Winning Poet Czesław Miłosz

Wednesday, 30 March, 2022

This poem, written in 1986, celebrates the power of books to endure — even with ‘fires on the horizon’ and ‘castles blown up.’ It hearkens back to the dark days of book burning through the ages but is also poignantly timely.

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And Yet the Books — Czesław Miłosz, translated from the Polish by Czesław Miłosz & Robert Hass

  • And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
  • That appeared once, still wet
  • As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
  • And, touched, coddled, began to live
  • In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
  • Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
  • ‘We are,’ they said, even as their pages
  • Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
  • Licked away their letters. So much more durable
  • Than we are, whose frail warmth
  • Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
  • I imagine the earth when I am no more:
  • Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
  • Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
  • Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
  • Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
 

 black and white photo of poet czeslaw milosz

About Czesław Miłosz

Czesław Miłosz (born 30 June 1911) was a Polish poet, novelist, translator, and diplomat. Born in what’s now Lithuania, Miłosz was active in the Resistance during WWII, editing anti-Nazi pamphlets and helping Jewish families in Nazi-occupied Poland. After the war, he worked as a diplomat stationed in Paris but defected to the West in 1951. In his anti-Stalinist book The Captive Mind, written after his defection, he said, ‘My mother tongue, work in my mother tongue, is for me the most important thing in life.’

Miłosz wrote his poems and prose in Polish, and his works were then translated by others (and himself) into English. His poetry and books addressed questions of politics, history, morality, and faith. As a translator, he made Western works — like Shakespeare’s As You Like It and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — accessible to a Polish audience. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. Poetry Foundation has a complete biography and more poems.

This video from 1998 is quite charming. First, the poet reads one of his poems (so serious), then discusses his favorite English-language poets with warmth and humor.

Top image courtesy of Clem Onojeghuo/Unsplash.

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