National Poetry Month Poem-a-Week: Czesław Miłosz’s “Dedication”

April 23, 2011

Czeslaw Milosz, Miami Bookfair International, 1986

Czeslaw Milosz, Miami Bookfair International, 1986

This year marks a couple of important centenaries in poetry, which I will celebrate this week and next.  The first is the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who was one of the giants of 20th-century Polish literature.

Miłosz was born in Lithuania, where his parents escaped the political upheaval in their native Poland.  Late, as an adult, he fled Poland and the oppressive post-war Communist regime.  He could not have picked a place of greater contrast in which to settle: Berkeley, California in the 1960s.

As Seamus Heaney wrote recently, Miłosz “was poised between lyricism and witness.”  Indeed, as Miłosz himself wrote in The Witness of Poetry, “A peculiar fusion of the individual and the historical took place, which means that events burdening a whole community are perceived by a poet as touching him in a most personal manner. Then poetry is no longer alienated.”

But Heaney sums up the poet’s lasting power. “What irradiates the poetry and compels the reader is a quality of wisdom,” wrote Heaney. “Everything is carried and feels guaranteed by the voice.  Even in translation, even when he writes in a didactic vein, there is a feeling of phonetic undertow, that the poem is a trawl, not just talk.  And this was true of the work he did right up to his death in Kraków in 2004.

Probably one of Miłosz’s most famous poems, “Dedication,” was written in 1945 in Warsaw at the end of World War II.  That is, as Stephen O’Connor wrote in an excellent essay on sentimentality in Miłosz’s poetry, “after more than six years of Nazi occupation, after the bloody suppression of the Warsaw uprising, the subsequent deportation of the city’s more than one million inhabitants, the destruction of all its remaining buildings, and its liberation by the Soviet army… under such circumstances, the notion that poetry might help ‘save nations and people’ takes on a rather different character than it had for me when I first read ‘Dedication’ back in 1973.”

Here is Czesław Miłosz’s “Dedication,” in his own translation:


You whom I could not save

Listen to me.

Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.

I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.

I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.


What strengthened me, for you was lethal.

You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,

Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;

Blind force with accomplished shape.


Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge

Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;

And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave

When I am talking with you.


What is poetry which does not save

Nations or people?

A connivance with official lies,

A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,

Readings for sophomore girls.


That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,

That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,

In this and only this I find salvation.


They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds

To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.

I put this book here for you, who once lived

So that you should visit us no more.


Czesław Miłosz,Warsaw, 1945


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2 Responses to “National Poetry Month Poem-a-Week: Czesław Miłosz’s “Dedication””

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