Book Review: A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry edited by Czeslaw Milosz

I’ve had this poetry book on my shelf since university but never made a focused effort to read through it until this year. I enjoyed the variety of voices, styles, and historical contexts brought together by Czeslaw Milosz. Many of the poems are translations with quite a lot of those being done by Milosz himself.

There is a definite influence here of California, Buddhism, and mid-20th century aesthetics. Each poem has a short blurb from Milosz and he seems to have picked a lot of poets he knew or worked with. But that is really what makes this a unique anthology. Milosz isn’t trying to collect a certain kind of poem or to anthologize a certain period. The poets are quite varied and instead of being organized by form or time period they are collected in chapters with names like “The Moment” or “A Woman’s Skin.” (I was ready to not enjoy that chapter, expecting a heavy dose of the male gaze but was pleasantly surprised by the poems Milosz included there, including several by women poets from past and present.)

This is a book of poetry for poetry’s sake. It isn’t attempting to teach anything but really reads simply as a lot of poems that Czeslaw Milosz enjoys and wants us to read. Reading the poems in the clusters that he gathers them within offered a varied and interesting perspective on his categories, as arbitrary as they seemed at times. For a reader who enjoys reading poetry, this would make an enjoyable book.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry edited by Czeslaw Milosz”

  1. I always think translating poetry must be the hardest thing in the world, and any time I read any (rare!) I wonder how much is the original and how much the translator’s interpretation. But I’m glad people do it, since otherwise monoglots like me wouldn’t be able to access poetry from other cultures at all.

    1. It really is almost impossible. It seems either the language or the rhythm suffers. The ideal would probably be for the original poet to provide the translation but of course that’s rarely possible.

  2. I agree with FictionFan – I’ve read some parallel text Goethe, with the original on one page and the English translation on the other (back when my German was better than it is now) and got frustrated with the inadequacy of the translation to convey the sense of the original language while sticking to the rhyme and rhythm – not because the translators were doing a bad job, just because it’s next to impossible to do. This does sound enjoyable, though, and I am always up for being introduced to more poets!

    1. I tend to agree too though I’m also thankful that translations exist. The closest I come to reading another language is French and I’m not strong in that but I have noticed the way translations create different meanings. I’m glad though that he included so many different poets here and so many countries were represented. Clustering them the way he did rather than by country did a good job of showing how poets of differing backgrounds approach the same subject.

  3. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last couple of days is how translation works. Because I’m going to do the ASL interpreting program, and because I’m thinking about how to sign what I mean, I’ve realized that my brain does a lot with figuring out what a word means and less what the direct word-to-word between languages is. I forget that direct translations often don’t exist, or don’t actually fit.

    1. I find it such a fascinating topic. Sometimes a direct translation is not the best either, but especially in poetry, I think.

    2. And I know sometimes in translated poems that rhymed in the original language they will tweak to make rhyme in the second language to keep the experience.

    3. I usually feel that I’d rather see rhyme sacrificed in order to keep the meaning or even the sound. But of course, it’s hard to really make that call without being able to compare the two languages.

  4. I really wish I was poetry person, but unfortunately I’m just not. Still, I like reading reviews of them. Nice to know the ‘women’s skin’ chapter was not eye-roll inducing! haha

    1. I heard someone in a poetry class once say that the people who read poetry are also the people who write poetry and I think that’s (mostly) very true!

      I was fully prepared to just set the book down and walk away when I got to “The Skin of a Woman” so it was a pleasant surprise.

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