Czesław Miłosz and Nâzım Hikmet
Many of these days it feels like we as a society or as individuals are circling the drain, as it were, heading towards some sort of abyss. How do we live from day to day when the future seems so bleak and uncertain? We are certainly not the first to ask this question. This Juxtapoetry examines the viewpoints of Polish-Lithuanian-American poet Czesław Miłosz and Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet as they ponder end times both personal and global.
A Song on the End of the World
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.
—Translated from the Polish by Anthony Miłosz
Piosenka o końcu świata
W dzień końca świata
Pszczoła krąży nad kwiatem nasturcji,
Rybak naprawia błyszczącą sieć.
Skaczą w morzu wesołe delfiny,
Młode wróble czepiają się rynny
I wąż ma złotą skórę, jak powinien mieć.
W dzień końca świata
Kobiety idą polem pod parasolkami,
Pijak zasypia na brzegu trawnika,
Nawołują na ulicy sprzedawcy warzywa
I łódka z żółtym żaglem do wyspy podpływa,
Dźwięk skrzypiec w powietrzu trwa
I noc gwiaździstą odmyka.
A którzy czekali błyskawic i gromów,
A którzy czekali znaków i archanielskich trąb,
Nie wierzą, że staje się już.
Dopóki słońce i księżyc są w górze,
Dopóki trzmiel nawiedza różę,
Dopóki dzieci różowe się rodzą,
Nikt nie wierzy, że staje się już.
Tylko siwy staruszek, który byłby prorokiem,
Ale nie jest prorokiem, bo ma inne zajęcie,
Powiada przewiązując pomidory:
Innego końca świata nie będzie,
Innego końca świata nie będzie.
Listen to Polish theater director Włodzimierz Nurkowski read “A Song on the End of the World” in the original Polish, as well as a musical version of the English translation by Polish vocalist Aga Zaryan.
Czesław Miłosz was born in 1911 in what is now Lithuania and grew up primarily in the multicultural city of Wilno (Vilnius). He spent most of World War II in occupied Warsaw, where he was active in underground cultural activities, aided in the rescue of Jews, and bore witness to the 1943 Ghetto Uprising and 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Much of Miłosz’s best-known poetry dates from this period and appeared in his collection Ocalenie (Rescue), published shortly after the war.
Like a number of other poems from the collection, “Piosenka o końcu świata” (A Song on the End of the World) reflects on the seeming contradiction between mass death and destruction and the simultaneously ongoing activities of everyday life. It would make a lovely observational poem, describing a summer’s day of work and leisure in Warsaw or any city in the world, were it not for the line that begins the first two stanzas: “on the day the world ends…” This context casts a mournful shadow over each of the bright, everyday images, for we now know that this will be the last “gold-skinned” snake, the last “walk through the fields”, the last “voice of a violin” we shall ever experience. But the people experiencing these things do not seem to be aware of their finality: “As long as the sun and the moon are above, / As long as the bumblebee visits a rose, / As long as rosy infants are born / No one believes it is happening now.”
And really, why should they believe it? I’m reminded of the David Bowie song “Five Years” (the opening track to his concept album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars). In the song, “the news” that humans as a species only have five years left to live provokes collective despair and bizarre public behavior:
A soldier with a broken arm,
Fixed his stare to the wheels of a Cadillac
A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest,
And a queer threw up at the sight of that.
As a millennial, coming of age in the era of catastrophic climate change, “fake news,” and, most recently, a viral pandemic spread by willful ignorance, my reaction to Bowie’s song has always been skeptical: yeah right, who would believe that these days?
This was also more or less the sentiment of Czesław Miłosz, writing as tens of thousands of Warsaw’s residents were killed and the city systematically destroyed: “And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps / Do not believe it is happening now.” I don’t know if Miłosz is necessarily condemning these people’s ignorance as willful. The world as we know it is and has always been constantly coming to an end – literally so for those dying, but also in a sense for their friends and families, and for everyone that has seen an important institution or routine collapse, perhaps never to return.
Our attempts to keep calm, carry on and plan a future seem absurd, but they seem much more instinctual coping mechanisms than the actions David Bowie describes in “Five Years.” Even the “white haired man” in Miłosz’s poem, apparently the only one other than the speaker who seems to know that the world is ending, “would be a prophet / Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy.” Prophets tell the people to prepare for the end times, as if there were certain concrete things all people could do to mitigate their ending, as if there were something on the other side. But the would-be prophet has something better to do. The binding of his tomato plants is a pleasure as rich and as personal as young sparrows playing by the rain spout, or a drunkard “grow[ing] sleepy at the edge of a lawn.” It’s how he is choosing to spend one last day – whether it’s the last for him alone, or truly “the day the world ends.” Is there any better way to experience the constant “end” than to savor it?
I don’t understand this attitude as being hedonistic or nihilistic. Most of the activities taking place on Miłosz’s “day the world ends” could be described in modern-day terms as “socially distanced,” not causing anyone harm. And even if the white haired man’s world does end today, there may still be somebody left tomorrow to harvest his tomatoes.
The biography of Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet bears some striking similarities to that of Czesław Miłosz. Hikmet was also born in the early 20th century, in 1902, in a cosmopolitan city (Thessaloniki, then in the Ottoman Empire) with a large Jewish population.
Curiously enough, Hikmet’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side was a Polish-born military officer who converted to Islam and emigrated to the Ottoman Empire. Imprisoned in the 1940s for his left-wing political activity, Hikmet was finally released after an international campaign on his behalf, and he went into exile in the Soviet Union, around the same time that Miłosz defected from Communist Poland and was granted asylum in France. Both poets saw their work banned in their native countries; both poets died in exile.
Nâzım Hikmet’s “Yaşamaya Dair” (On Living) tackles its heavy, existential subject with light, colloquial language, peppered through with the delightfully versatile filler word “yani,” borrowed from Arabic into Turkish (and Persian, Swahili, Urdu, Malaysian, and Hebrew, among others). “Living is no laughing matter,” the poem begins. “You must live with great seriousness / like a squirrel, for example—” Hikmet then clarifies his humorous opening with a couple of “yanis”: “I mean without looking for something beyond and above living, / I mean living must be your whole occupation.” Hikmet argues that love of life, and our utter absorption in it, should be enough to conquer fear of death, to risk our lives for the sake of others. Asking us to imagine ourselves “in a laboratory / in your white coat and safety glasses,” and being willing to “die for people— / even for people whose faces you’ve never seen” is an exceptionally prescient image for our pandemic age. It reminds me of the PPE-suited medical professionals in COVID-19 wards who attach smiling photos of themselves to their gowns, so their terrified patients can see them as well-wishing human beings under all that armor.
Hikmet’s phrasing is also nearly identical to Bernie Sanders’ famous question, radical in its simplicity: “Are you willing to fight for a person you don’t know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” Even putting election results aside, the roaring answer seems more often than not to be “No.” Not willing to fight or to sacrifice anything, much less to die. Meanwhile, ordinary people die cruelly in the thousands, without any rhyme or reason.
Hikmet goes on to discuss humans’ tendency to look into the future, even in the face of poor odds, whether in a hospital or on a battlefield or in a prison. “We’ll still worry ourselves to death / about the outcome of the war, which could last years.” Knowing that we may not live into this future, we still imagine what life will be like then for those still alive, since living is all we know, all we can relate to.
A cynical person could easily interpret Hikmet’s conclusion that “we must live as if we will never die” as a call to hedonist abandon, a warning against an excess of caution that causes us to miss out on life’s richness. But I don’t think this reading fits with the rest of the poem, or with Hikmet’s biography, which was anything but cautious. I believe that “we must live as if we will never die” is instead a recognition that we must imagine ourselves on the other side of the battle if we are to contribute to the victory.
Nobody likes to talk about death, especially not their own. Apparently, our brains developed an evolutionary defense mechanism to protect ourselves from processing thoughts about our own mortality. Maybe this was what Czesław Miłosz was describing (in a poet’s terms) when he wrote “As long as rosy infants are born / No one believes it is happening now.” Nâzım Hikmet urges us to think, not just of our own individual mortalities, but of the end of human existence altogether (due to the eventual death of the Sun or the much-sooner effects of climate change or pandemics), when the Earth, “like an empty walnut…will roll along / in pitch-black space…” Hikmet’s urge for us to “grieve for this right now” is very moving to me. Grief is a sort of measure of life’s value, just like sorrow is a counterpoint to a happiness of equal intensity.
We must grieve for a desolate future we will likely never live to see; we must fight for people we don’t know, their lives as precious and irreplaceable as our own. And today we must plant our olive trees and bind our tomatoes, with no certainty whether there will be anyone left to enjoy the fruit. There is pleasure and sorrow in the work and in the dreaming. It is a lot to hold in one’s mind at the same time, but we humans are highly evolved beasts. We will continue to evolve until the very end.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example—
I mean without looking for something
beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people—
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees—
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death
you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery—
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast. . .
Let’s say we’re at the front—
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind—
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”…
—Translated from the Turkish by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk
Yaşamak şakaya gelmez,
büyük bir ciddiyetle yaşayacaksın
bir sincap gibi mesela,
yani, yaşamanın dışında
ve ötesinde hiçbir şey beklemeden,
yani bütün işin gücün yaşamak olacak.
Yaşamayı ciddiye alacaksın,
yani o derecede, öylesine ki,
mesela, kolların bağlı arkadan,
yahut kocaman gözlüklerin,
beyaz gömleğinle bir laboratuvarda
insanlar için ölebileceksin,
hem de yüzünü bile görmediğin insanlar için,
hem de hiç kimse seni buna zorlamamışken,
hem de en güzel en gerçek şeyin
yaşamak olduğunu bildiğin halde.
Yani, öylesine ciddiye alacaksın ki yaşamayı,
yetmişinde bile, mesela, zeytin dikeceksin,
hem de öyle çocuklara falan kalır diye değil,
ölmekten korktuğun halde ölüme
yaşamak yani ağır bastığından.
Diyelim ki, ağır ameliyatlık hastayız,
yani, beyaz masadan
bir daha kalkmamak ihtimali de var.
Duymamak mümkün değilse de biraz
erken gitmenin kederini
biz yine de güleceğiz anlatılan Bektaşi fıkrasına,
hava yağmurlu mu, diye bakacağız pencereden,
yahut da sabırsızlıkla bekleyeceğiz
en son ajans haberlerini.
Diyelim ki, dövüşülmeye değer bir şeyler için,
diyelim ki, cephedeyiz.
Daha orda ilk hücumda, daha o gün
yüzükoyun kapaklanıp ölmek de mümkün.
Tuhaf bir hınçla bileceğiz bunu,
fakat yine de çıldırasıya merak edeceğiz
belki yıllarca sürecek olan savaşın sonunu.
Diyelim ki hapisteyiz,
yaşımız da elliye yakın,
daha da on sekiz sene
olsun açılmasına demir kapının.
Yine de dışarıyla birlikte yaşayacağız,
insanları, hayvanları, kavgası ve rüzgarıyla
yani, duvarın ardındaki dışarıyla.
Yani, nasıl ve nerede olursak olalım
hiç ölünmeyecekmiş gibi yaşanacak…
Bu dünya soğuyacak,
yıldızların arasında bir yıldız,
hem de en ufacıklarından,
mavi kadifede bir yaldız zerresi yani,
yani bu koskocaman dünyamız.
Bu dünya soğuyacak günün birinde,
hatta bir buz yığını
yahut ölü bir bulut gibi de değil,
boş bir ceviz gibi yuvarlanacak
zifiri karanlıkta uçsuz bucaksız.
Şimdiden çekilecek acısı bunun,
duyulacak mahzunluğu şimdiden.
Böylesine sevilecek bu dünya
“Yaşadım” diyebilmen için…