Sunday, April 3, 2011

NPM: Road-Side Dog

For the second course of our National Poetry Month buffet, we will be having a few pieces by the Pulitzer-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (1911 - 2004). It would be dishonest of me to preface them with a listing of biographical snippets and a catalogue of his most acclaimed works, because in truth I know very little about the man and would only be paraphrasing the contents of his Wikipedia page.

The only work of his with which I am familiar is his 1999 book Road-Side Dog, which my father left in my care when he left for Poland. Even though I'm not a fan of the "prose poem" label, it would be difficult to characterize the majority of Road-Side Dog's contents as anything else.

The excerpts posted below all share a common theme. Poets have always written poems about poetry, or about the experience of writing poems. Depending on how such pieces are handled, the results can either be compelling or self-important and obnoxious. What else can you think but "hack" while reading a poet's tenth poem in a row about what a lovely thing poetry is and how wonderful/agonizing it feels to sit down and write, packed with another dozen linguistic terms used as metaphors for their experience (something people seriously need to stop doing).

Miłosz, however, gets away with writing poems about poets and poetry. Maybe that tone of his, that note of ascetic detachment. Maybe it's his managing to avoid both sententious I LIVE MY LIFE IN THE SERVICE OF THE MUSE BECAUSE LOOK WHAT A UNIQUE AND INTERESTING PERSON I AM sap and its equally unbearable inverse, the OH WHY HAS FATE THUS BURDENED ME WITH THIS GIFT CALLED ART WHICH IS ALSO A CURSE sludge. Perhaps it's how his pieces seem to have been written so that people other than his poet buddies could enjoy and learn from them.

Excerpts from

by Czesław Miłosz
(translated to English by the author and Robert Hass)


Poetry is an embarrassing affair; it is born too near the functions we call intimate.

Poetry cannot be separated from awareness of our own body. It soars above it, immaterial and at the same time captive, and is a reason for our uneasiness, for it pretends to belong to a separate zone, of spirit.

I was ashamed of my being a poet, as if, undressed, I would display in public my physical defects. I envied people who did not write poems and whom for that reason I ranged among the normal. And in this I was wrong: few of them deserve to be called that.


Poetry, every art, is a flaw and reminds human societies that we are not healthy, even if we confess it with difficulty.

The complex of Tonio Kröger in Thomas Mann: an artist, aware of his affliction, envies average people. Early, I discovered this in my own way.


Writing poetry is considered an unmanly occupation. Practicing music and painting is not so burdened. As if poetry itself were taking on itself the blemish of all the arts, which are covertly branded effeminate.

In a tribe busy with serious occupations—i.e., war and getting food—a poet secured a place for himself as a witch-doctor, shaman, a possessor of incantations which protect, cure, or harm.


Intuitions of an artist. He sees in a sudden flash, lasting a second, his oeuvre as it works in unforeseeable structures after two or three hundred years.

His oeuvre in two or three hundred years. If the language in which it was written exists. And thus a dependence, how great, upon a multitude of fools who, using that language, will pull it down, and upon the wise who will lift it up. How many of the first, how many of the second?


The desire for truth is confronted with poems, with tales written by you long ago. And then you are ashamed, because it was all sheer myth. Neither did any of it happen, nor did you feel the feelings contained therein. The language itself unfurled its velvet yarn in order to cover what, without it, would equal nothing.


We strove, but our goals disintegrated one after another and now we have nothing except works of art and our tribute paid to their creators.

Also sorrow and compassion. For an artist, a poet, or a painter, toils and pursues every day a perfection that escapes him. He is satisfied with the result of his labor for a moment only, and is never certain whether he is good at what he does.

Many share the fate of that painter. He was not concerned with earthly possessions, he lived and dressed haphazardly, and his sacred word was: "To work." Every morning he would stand before his easel, working all day, but no sooner had he finished a than he would put his canvas in the corner and forget it, to start a new picture in the morning, always with new hope. His attempt to pass the examination for the School of Beaux Arts was unsuccessful. He loved masters of painting, old and contemporary, but had no hope of equaling them. Detesting worldly life, as it would lure him away from work, he stayed apart. He lived with his model, with whom he had a son, and after seventeen years of cohabitation married her. His paintings were systematically rejected by the Salons. He needed confirmation of his worth, but though his friends praised him, he did not believe them and considered himself a failed painter. He would kick or trample his canvases or would give them away freely. In his old age he despaired over his failure but continued to paint every day. In his native town, where he lived, he was slighted and hated; it's hard to tell why, for he did not harm anybody and helped the poor. Uncouth, in stained clothes with ripped-off buttons, he looked like a scarecrow and was a laughing-stock of children. His name was Paul Cézanne.

This tale may comfort many readers, since it confirms the familiar pattern of greatness not recognized and crowned late. However, there were numberless artists, similarly humble and hardworking, often living not far from us, whose names mean nothing today.

Thoughts/reactions, anyone?


  1. (a) A good friend of mine, who is also a good writer (do good writers make good friends?) read your video game review and told me I absolutely must read your blog
    (b) but I have never played video games so instead I thought I'd read this, and I saw the poetry reviews and went poetry! who talks poetry these days? what madness!
    (c) and then there was Czesław Miłosz, whom I have never read but always wanted to and oh my god--exactly--this is why I never talk about poetry but admire people who do. Too intimate. Too much.
    (d) "However, there were numberless artists, similarly humble and hardworking, often living not far from us, whose names mean nothing today."
    He would punch us in the gut wouldn't he? That's every single fear I have about being a writer, right there.

  2. OWL: I will address this more thoroughly tomorrow (as I am on the verge of passing out as I type), but I glanced at your Blogger profile and felt I should clear something up, for accuracy's sake:

    Crack is not insufflated. It is smoked. Crackheads do not do lines.

    "Reading the way a crackhead does lines" would therefore mean something like "not very often."


    Thanks for the comment, though! I'll reply to it when I am more awake and capable of doing so.

  3. @PR

    I stand corrected and have made all the requisite change. Clearly my knowledge is somewhat lacking. (At first I was all like what? what? but I thought cocaine was snorted....BOO.)

  4. Your original comment, first:

    a.) A good writer can be a good friend, depending on what you ask of him. They're often a little preoccupied, which can be mistaken for flakiness or coldness.

    b.) The part of me that likes poetry and the part of me that plays video games have been battling it out for the last five years. It's like dating two people who both demand exclusive commitment.

    c.) Too intimate, too much...Maybe this is why the denizens of the ultra-impersonal Digital Age prefer prefer Tumblr to verse?

    d.) If you're really afflicted with whatever mental aberration compels people to write, you'll usually be too busy to think about that. (And when you're not busy enough and have the time to consider it, the thought will eat you alive.)

    On crack -- it's freebased cocaine. It's treated in such a way that it becomes chunky -- not something that can go through the nasal passages so easily. Besides, smoking it gets you more fucked up more faster, and you can't smoke cocaine. (Thank you, Erowid.)

    I should also mention that you've sold me on Invisible Cities.

  5. Re: Invisible Cities. Now that I think of it, there was an extensive passage about the living structure of Paris in The Doll that I meant to type up here before I decided to spend the whole month posting poems. Look for it in May!

  6. @PR
    b) Can't gamers and poets be friends? Like hackers and painters? The poetry of video games...the video games of poetry...
    c) don't tell anyone, but I still don't understand what tumblr is supposed to be. could you enlighten me? it's like a blog for people who don't actually want to write their own thoughts.
    d) mostly, i get eaten alive. this worries me. i feel like real writers have better ratio going on. i also feel like real writers pop out of the womb with "real writer" tattooed across their butts.

    Invisible Cities--I'm glad, it's a wonderful book. Let me know what you think.

  7. b) I dunno. I feel like games and poetry stand for completely opposite things...but that's something that would take me a few pages to work through. Maybe later, though.

    c) I think you nailed it, really.

    d) Not necessarily. A real writer is anyone who writes. Especially if they write a lot (even when it stops being as much fun as it used to be), and try their best to write well. (A good writer is something else entirely, and whether somebody is one tends to be a subjective matter.)