Milosz, Czeslaw, editor. A book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry. 1997. Harcourt Brace & Company. USA & UK.

This is a wonderful collection of poetry that will never date from many lands and many centuries. I usually find anthologies disappointing, but I found this volume of 300 poems chosen by the Nobel Prize winner, Czeslaw Milosz, to be the best gathering of poetry in one volume that I have read. His choices are based on his criteria of, ‘…realist, that is loyal toward reality and attempting to describe it as concisely as possible.’ He selects poems that are universal in their timeless themes of love, transience, death. He quotes the philosopher, Schopenhauer who believed that artists are committed to, ‘the predominance of knowing over willing…purely objective perception to the most insignificant objects…a lasting monument of…spiritual peace…’

But what is seemingly insignificant is often very important – we see the results of insignificance every day – wars and massive change are often precipitated by small events. An anonymous Inuit poet says in Magic Words:

There was a time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.

But as Milosz says, Šthe secret of all art, also of poetry is…distance.’ Our memories are often purer and more distilled after an event, when we are away from the powerful emotions evoked at the time. Then also we may be able to judge their importance. These poems may be defined as realist, but they also may be memorable for their truths, their beauty and clarity of expression which make them timeless in their ability to move, inspire and inform us.

Some of my favourites are the words of African bush people who express their sense of transience in:

the day we die
the wind comes down
to take away
our footprints

Tu Fu expresses he loneliness of exiles in the 8th century:

I watch the spring go by and wonder
if I shall ever return home.

There are fine poems from the contemporary poets like Denise Levertov, always an inspiration for me, she writes in Eye Mask:

I need
more of the night before I open
eyes and heart
to illumination…

I am sorry the author did not find poems by the great Canadians like Dorothy Livesay & Margaret Atwood, and contemporary Arabic poets, like Mourid Barghouti; many of their poems would fit perfectly in this collection but I was happy to find the Spanish Antonio Machado & Polish Nobel winner, Wislawa Symborska and, he had to stop somewhere. There are always more anthologies to be written that will record the distilled wisdom, passion and truth of many more poets around the world. This selection is a treasure to keep for constant reference and pleasure.

Filed under Book Reviews, Czeslaw Milosz