To Celebrate World Poetry Day – Praise and Wonder In Spite of Everything – Poems by Kaminsky and Milosz And a Kaminsky Interview Excerpt from March 15th, 2022

Lithuanian Polish Nobel Prize Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)

from The Separate Notesbooks: A Mirrored Gallery

Pure beauty, benediction: you are all I gathered 
From a life that was bitter and confused, 
In which I learned about evil, my own and not my own. 
Wonder kept seizing me, and I recall only wonder. 
I asked, how many times, is this the truth of the earth? 
How can laments and curses be turned into hymns? 
What makes you need to pretend, when you know better? 
But the lips praised on their own, on their own the feet ran; 

The heart beat strongly; and the tongue proclaimed its adoration.


Czeslaw Milosz, from The Separate Notebooks, ECCO, 1984

In this time of war in Ukraine I keep coming back to Czeslaw Milosz, his first hand experience of the occupation, then destruction, of Warsaw during the Second World War.  And I think of Ilya Kaminsky (he came to the U.S. in 1993) whose Ukrainian family has had lots of first hand experiences with that war and other violent outbreaks since then. And I think of Ilya’s first book published in 2004, Dancing in Odessa, with his astonishing line from his poem Envoi: Lord, give us what you have already given.


Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky (1977 – ) – Recipient of the 2021 Carnegie Great Immigrant Awards. Photo Credit: Carnegie Corporation of New York

There is an acceptance in Lord, give us what you have already given that gobsmacks me even as I know in Ilya’s poems how he is not afraid to give the “isness” of our human cruelty. And I think about how both he and Milosz look for a balance. Describe horror, praise joy and beauty. Never lose their love for this world. In a recent blog post I shared these lines of Ilya’s which he wrote for Georgia Tech where he works as a professor of poetry:

Is it foolish to speak of little joys that occur in the middle of tragedy? It is our humanity. Whatever we have left of it. We must not deny it to ourselves. I am a love poet, or a poet in love with the world. It is just who I am. If the world is falling apart, I have to say the truth. But I don’t stop being in love with that world.

Milosz’s poem celebrates the truth of Kaminsky’s lines so unapologetically. Such a celebration of wonder inspite of all of this world’s evil. In a dark time I cherish the words from the poem above by Milosz, a man who sheltered in a field for hours in Poland during WWII as shells and bullets kept him pinned to the ground. Do I believe him when he says wonder kept seizing me? I do. Do I believe him when he says: I recall only wonder? No, I don’t. But do I believe that he never lost his sense of wonder for all of life, his love of it? That I do.

Milosz’s reminder to feel wonder. Kaminsky’s call to arms in his well-known introductory poem (see below) from Dancing in Odessa:Even in the darkest days I must praise.

Author’s Prayer

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,

I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.

If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man

who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture.

Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking “What year is it?”
I can dance in my sleep and laugh

in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,

I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak

of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say

is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.

Ilya Kaminsky (1977 – ) from Dancing in Odessa, Tupelo Press, 2004

I am grateful not just for Author’s Prayer but for all of Dancing in Odessa, its tribute in poems to great European and Russian poets and the flavour it gives of some of the difficult times of war and conflict in Ukraine. But also the resilience of its people, including among many members of his family, his grandmother, raped by a Russian government official. Now, we see, that resilience being called on again. And I wish it wasn’t!

Ilya’s poem We Lived Happily During the War gets a lot of press these days. Here it is again with an excerpt about it from a recent interview in the New York Intelligencer. The link to the full interview is also below.

We Lived Happily during the War

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.

Ilya Kaminsky (1977 – ) from DEAF REPUBLIC, Greywolf Press, March 5th, 2019


For the interview with Ilya please click here.

A lot of Americans tend to share your poem “We Lived Happily During the War” when war is in the news. Do you think there is something ironic about the way your poem has become something of a meme?
“We Lived Happily During the War” is not a piece of journalism or philosophy, where one might go into facts or questions of ethics. In a poem, one hopes to create an experience in the reader: In this case, the hope of the poem is to help the reader see their own complicity.

The poem doesn’t want to be a pronouncement. The poem is a warning. This is what happens when half-measures take place. “We lived happily during the war,” the poem begins, and it ends with the same words. But by the time it gets to its final line, one hopes the reader might find the horrific irony in that fact of repetition. How many wars can we live through, happily?

One hopes the reader sees the critique of this “we” and what it has done. By the time you get to the repetition of “our country of money” and then to “our great country of money” — one questions the word “great.” That is what art hopes to do: It doesn’t shout at the reader, “You must change!” Instead, the reader is changed via the act of reading.

There’s a part in that poem, the line “(forgive us),” where the speakers seem to be asking to be absolved of their guilt, for the “not enough” protesting and opposing they did, for living “happily during the war.” Do you think that is something that can be forgiven? What should be expected of those living outside Ukraine, or any country experiencing unrest, in times like these?

As an author, I see the irony in the citizens of the American empire showing so much concern for the victims of, for example, the Russian empire while America is regularly bombing people’s houses, and all the while it uses police brutality against its own citizens at right this very moment.

But author is not speaker. The speaker of the poem says “we lived happily,” the happiness of living our heads in the sand, pursuing wealth over justice. What can be done, you ask. I will answer your question with a question: Who remembers Chechnya right now?

Putin used ballistic missiles to bomb its capital, Grozny, to the ground in 1999 and 2000. The West shouted about it for five minutes. Then we forgot. We’re encouraged to forget. Why? Because oil and gas companies make money on their dealings with Putin. Follow the dollar and you will see the root of the problem. Our country of money, the poem says. Our great country of money.

As for irony in the poem’s reception. You know, when this particular war began, journalists began to email and ask me to comment on this piece. Which is ironic, yes — a very “We Lived Happily During the War” thing to do — to ask a poet to comment on a poem while this poet’s birth country is bombarded.

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