There are many taboos in poetry. Some of them cycle in and out of fashion. For example, in the wake of so much confessional poetry of the last few decades, many contemporary poets now spurn an insecure, dramatic speaker in favor of the quiet power that comes from a more detached, objective presentation. In fact, a large part of the modern mindset eschews sentimentality, even subtly detected, as unpoetic.
Reading Czeslaw Milosz’s “Preparation,” I am reminded of Marvin Bell’s credo: “Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, then break those rules.” Consider the poem:
Still one more year of preparation.
Tomorrow at the latest I’ll start working on a great book
In which my century will appear as it really was.
The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.
Springs and autumns will unerringly return.
In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay
And foxes will learn their foxy natures.
And that will be the subject, with addenda. Thus: armies
Running across frozen plains, shouting a curse
In a many-voiced chorus; the cannon of a tank
Growing immense at the corner of a street; the ride at dusk
Into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire.
No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is a man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with a bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.
I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.
Unlike most ars poetica (including Milosz’s own poem “Ars Poetica?”), which addresses poetics in the course of a poem, this is a poem about the process of writing a poem — or, more accurately, the inability to write a particular kind of poem. If there are rules for writing about victims in a poem, the first one is to never mention their mother, second to not make matters worse by bringing in their childhood innocence symbolized by a teddy bear, and third, to never ever mention the pleasurable moment of conception. In other poems, this would toll the aesthetic death knell of the works’ literary merit. Why does this poem work?
First of all, if we consider that sentimentality means an outpouring of emotion disproportional to an event, this poem does not qualify. The Nazi invasion and holocaust in Poland are events for which there is no comparable emotion. Milosz could wail endlessly. It still would not be enough. So, instead, he takes a different tact altogether: he focuses on himself, and his own struggle to put these experiences into a poem.
The struggle is between such great emotion and his understanding of, perhaps even agreement with, the idea that sentimentality can ruin a poem. Instead of trying to write an unsentimental poem, he addresses this struggle head-on. First, he draws on nature as an introduction and a metaphor. Then, as so-called “addenda,” he begins sketching the atrocities of the Nazi invasion.
He pulls back, and decides he is still unprepared — that perhaps he needs five or ten more years. And why? Because he still thinks about that emblem of sentimentality, “the mothers.” Here Milosz does something remarkable: he does not contrast atrocity with the victim’s innocence. He instead speaks generally about “a man born of woman,” how he “curls himself up and protects his head / While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running, / he burns with a bright flame.” This is objective language, almost scientific, reporting human traits. There is no specific victim tugging at our proverbial heart strings. Not until we reach the line “Her child.”
The reason Milosz can now bring in the emblems of sentimentality without ruining this poem is that he does so ironically, and self-consciously. He knows he should not do this. Yet this is not a poem about the victims; this is a poem about how much he knows he should not do this — and how much he can not help but follow his human nature. Even as a man kicked will cover his head, Milosz will keep returning to thoughts of the victims’ mothers.
In the end, though he has been reproaching himself for his inability to be less sentimental, he finally turns that reproach outward. He has not learned to speak as he “should,” that is, “calmly.” But, in this final declaration, there is as much reproach for the “should” as there is for himself. Why should anyone be calm about such unspeakable events? Why should we not include the teddy bears? Is it not, after all, human nature?
In addressing his struggle to write a poem about his experiences, so emblematic of atrocity in the Twentieth century, Milosz calls into question not only our understanding of poetry, but our very humanity. Through creating a tension between the desire to understand this work literally, as hyperbolic sentimentality, and ironically, as a poem on what never to do, Milosz imparts some of his own modern struggle to us. Through an incredibly transparent, and clearly ashamed self, we come to understand more of our own frailties, and the ambiguities in both art and life.