LYRIC COMPANIONS Czeslaw Milosz “Reading the Notebook of Anna Kaminska”


Reading her, I realized how rich she was and myself, how poor / Rich in love and suffering, in crying and dreams and prayer. / She lived among her own people who were not very happy but supported each other, / And were bound by a pact between the dead and the living renewed at the graves. / She was gladdened by herbs, wild roses, pines, potato fields / And the scents of the soil, familiar since childhood. / She was not an eminent poet. But that was just: / A good person will not learn the wiles of art.

Human flourishing is a paradoxical thing. The lyric narrative draws on a myth of poverty found in the story of Eros, in the Gospels, in the Daoist lyric of China.

The practice of lyric is a kind of verbal dance that takes us through movements which, as a sequence, tell a story. From the outer world to the inner world, from the lower world to the higher, and each of these naming relativing conventional meanings of inner, outer, lower, higher. This knot eventually releases the self from the illusion of self understanding through a reconfiguration of values in a final image of the finite other beyond the self. That’s it in a nutshell.

Czeslaw Milosz struggled with the lyric narrative. If the paradox of poverty is a Golden thread he resists its pull. In “Reading the Notebook of Anna ” (New and Collected Poems 1931-2001, p. 531), he describes her as “Rich in love and suffering, in crying and dreams and prayer.” The poem then moves into the perplexities conveyed by this sense of wealth. It involves supporting your own people however unhappy; it involves being true to your dead; it involves , as he descends from the living to the dead, from the dead to the growing things, herbs, wild roses, crops.

This descent is also an ascent, it is kenotic and embraces the way of emptiness and nothingness, values abundantly celebrated in the Daoist and Christian mystical tradition. So this poem becomes a form of resistance to oblivion, the ignorance willfully and unconsciously promoted by the regimes of modernity seen in materialism, consumerism, and nihilism. The lyric narrative when performed over time, duly practiced as musicians practice their Bach, reconnects the mind and spirit of the reader to its higher self.

One finds this narrative brilliantly and as it were covertly, in a kind of spiritual reserve appropriate to the mysteries, by a wide range of modern and contemporary poets. I find it emerging as I study say the poems of Geraldine Clarkson and Charles Wright, strange bedfellows for sure. Such promiscuity, in the language of phenomenology, is a source of renewable energy for the devote of the lyric. And of course, the tradition stretches unbroken into the mythic past. It appears to be a sign of humanity.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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