Poem for Pentecost

Sunday, 15 May, 2016

In an interview with The Paris Review in 1994, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz talked about the role of religion in modern poetry:

“But the trouble is that writing religious poetry in the twentieth century is very difficult. We are in a largely postreligious world. I had a conversation with the present Pope, who commented upon some of my work, in particular my ‘Six Lectures in Verse.’ Well, he said, you make one step forward, one step back. I answered, Holy Father, how in the twentieth century can one write religious poetry differently?

And how did the Pope respond?
He smiled.”

Czeslaw Milosz’s Veni Creator, from Selected and Last Poems, is derived from the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus, which is attributed to Rabanus Maurus, a ninth-century monk. Milosz draws upon the uniquely Catholic imagination of the prayer but, in contrast to the certainty of the monk, the poet’s disbelief is never far from the surface.

Veni Creator

Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
lifts its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore call one man, anywhere on earth,
not me — after all I have some decency —
and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.

Czeslaw Milosz (1911 — 2004)


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