On The Dangers Of Forgetting

I want to offer up a wonderful poem by the late contemporary Polish-American poet. I am fully aware there is risk in presenting such a poem because most people don’t read contemporary poetry these days. I get that. I suppose we have all been conditioned to think it is too difficult, way too nuanced, or simply irrelevant to our fast-paced reading habits.

But give this poem a try. Stay with it. Read it carefully, slowly, maybe several times. As I used to tell my students: When reading poetry, turn off any music in the room, or pull out the ear buds. Let the poem’s own music take hold of the moment.

A brief word of background: Milosz passed away in 2004. He lived through the brutal Nazi invasion of Poland and the subsequent, iron-fisted occupation of his country by the Soviets. He was a compatriot in history, culture, and Catholic faith to Karol Józef Wojtyła, who later became Pope John Paul II. Their country was subdued and humiliated under strong and often violent measures. People suffered. Those reigning empires sought to take away the identity, religion, hope, and often the lives of the Polish people.  Hovering over all of this was the discovery, and then the searing memory, of the atrocities of the holocaust.

Milosz felt called to persist as a poet. Sometimes ridiculed for continuing his craft, he said, no, no, “gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare themselves for life.” He believed in the power of writing even in the face of evil.

This poem is a reminder of the need to remember: The immeasurable suffering of the holocaust, in this case, though it could be any kind of inflicted evil on human sanctity. Even though we live in an apparently peaceful time, the poet says, a supposedly innocent time, how can we believe “everything was fine,” or imagine that “sin had vanished”? How can we be so frivolous in our forgetfulness? This is a good word for us on this Memorial Day weekend of remembering, as we honor those who fought and died to resist the same forces of darkness Milosz is talking about.

Milosz knew he was not granted the serenity of forgetfulness. But then he deepens the discussion: To whom should I turn, he asks, to understand this dark affair of human suffering? In the end, it is “the only one, all loving” who suffered the “nails of torture” on the cross.  Though “totally enigmatic,” this act of ultimate self-sacrifice by Jesus is where we turn to understand suffering and to find its triumph through love.

Here is this marvelous poem:

A Poem For the End of the Century

When everything was fine
And the notion of sin had vanished
And the earth was ready
In universal peace
To consume and rejoice
Without creeds and utopias,

I, for unknown reasons,
Surrounded by the books
Of prophets and theologians,
Of philosophers, poets,
Searched for an answer,
Scowling, grimacing,
Waking up at night, muttering at dawn.

What oppressed me so much
Was a bit shameful.
Talking of it aloud
Would show neither tact nor prudence.
It might even seem an outrage
Against the health of mankind.

Alas, my memory
Does not want to leave me
And in it, live beings
Each with its own pain,
Each with its own dying,
Its own trepidation.

Why then innocence
On paradisal beaches,
An impeccable sky
Over the church of hygiene?
Is it because that
Was long ago? . . . .

To whom should I turn
With that affair so dark
Of pain and also guilt
In the structure of the world,
If either here below
Or over there on high
No power can abolish
The cause and the effect?

Don’t think, don’t remember
The death on the cross,
Though everyday He dies,
The only one, all-loving,
Who without any need
Consented and allowed
To exist all that is,
Including nails of torture.

Totally enigmatic.
Impossibly intricate.
Better to stop speech here.
This language is not for people.
Blessed be jubilation.
Vintages and harvests.
Even if not everyone
Is granted serenity.

Czeslaw Milosz