Jun 08 2018

Czeslaw Milosz – Forget

Published by at 10:42 am under Poetry

by Czeslaw Milosz

English version by Robert Hass

Forget the suffering
You caused others.
Forget the suffering
Others caused you.
The waters run and run,
Springs sparkle and are done,
You walk the earth you are forgetting.

Sometimes you hear a distant refrain.
What does it mean, you ask, who is singing?
A childlike sun grows warm.
A grandson and a great-grandson are born.
You are led by the hand once again.

The names of the rivers remain with you.
How endless those rivers seem!
Your fields lie fallow,
The city towers are not as they were.
You stand at the threshold mute.

— from New and Collected Poems 1931 – 2001, by Czeslaw Milosz

/ Image by koposs /

There’s something so healing about this poem. It’s strange to speak of the healing power of forgetting, but there’s something here for us to consider.

Have you ever heard someone say, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget”? That is a person who hasn’t yet learned to forgive. Perhaps that person isn’t yet ready to forgive but doesn’t want to admit it. For some hurts, forgiveness cannot be rushed. But it must, on some level, remain the goal. And to achieve forgiveness, one must forget in a certain sense.

No one truly forgets any experience. But we can mean different things when we speak of forgetting. There is willful blindness, which should never be a goal. This is what the person who says he won’t forget is trying to avoid, but usually what they are choosing to do is to nurse old hurts in secret, deriving a sense of purpose in continued suffering.

There is another kind of forgetting that isn’t forgetting, that is to let go of the repeating cycle of internal dialog and its associated hot, binding emotions. To do so is an affront to the ego’s sense of self-importance. It requires humility, perhaps even weariness. To let go in this way makes us feel temporarily vulnerable. We usually carry our wounds like shields, imagining that surrounding ourselves with past hurts fortifies us against future injury. The truth is less direct and more elegant: Those shield walls built of past pains trap us. They limit our movement and limit our interaction with the rich drama of life. Letting go of those hurts frees us to more dynamically experience life, while simultaneously allowing us to better recognize and avoid those future hurts. Put simply, the more shielded the heart is with remembered hurts, the less it feels and knows and experiences joy.

A good reminder to myself as much as anyone: No one makes it through this life without acquiring some hurts. The well-lived life is not one that has avoided pain; it is one that has integrated that pain along with its delights and discoveries, and in that rich mixture sees the lineaments of its own face.

Of course, seeing this, we see something much bigger than we imagined ourselves to be. Approaching this immense vision of Self, we fall silent.

You stand at the threshold mute.

Recommended Books: Czeslaw Milosz

New and Collected Poems 1931 – 2001 The Collected Poems Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness To Begin Where I Am: The Selected Prose of Czeslaw Milosz A Treatise on Poetry
More Books >>

Czeslaw Milosz, Czeslaw Milosz poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Czeslaw Milosz

Poland (1911 – 2004) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic
Christian : Catholic

Czeslaw Milosz was a Polish-American Nobel Prize winning writer. He was a rare voice of conscience, human insight, and gentle mysticism, in the midst of the Cold War era that defined the latter half of the 20th century.

Milosz was born in a small town in Lithuania during the final years of czarist Russia. At the end of World War I, while he was still a boy, his family moved to Vilna (Vilnius). There, he received a rigorous Roman Catholic education, but one that didn’t allow for much intellectual freedom or exploration.

After graduating from the University of Vilna in 1934 with a degree in law, Czeslaw Milosz traveled to Paris, where he connected with his uncle, a diplomat who put Milosz in touch with the Parisian literary community.

Czeslaw Milosz settled in Warsaw just before the German invasion at the beginning of World War II. He became a leading figure in the Warsaw literary scene, and championed art that was both personal and political, rather than merely an expression of aesthetic craft. As the war and occupation continued, Milosz became a writer for the Polish resistance movement.

At the end of the war, when Poland fell under Communist control, Milosz briefly became a diplomat in the service of the new government. However, in the early 1950s, he sought asylum in France, along with his wife and children.

In 1960, Milosz moved to the United States, becoming a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Very late in life, Czeslaw Milosz returned to Poland as a cultural hero, and settled in Krakow. It is there that he died in 2004.

More poetry by Czeslaw Milosz

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