Arts Listings

Books: Czeslaw Milosz: The Poet in His Times

By Phil McArdle, Special to the Planet
Tuesday June 27, 2006

On the day in 1980 when Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) received the Nobel Prize for literature most people in Berkeley had never heard of him. When we went to the bookstores looking for his work, we were disappointed. What little there was sold out before noon. But when the stores restocked and newly published books by him became available, we discovered he was a prolific writer. And one of extraordinary stature.  

Milosz was Polish, a handsome, well-built man who dressed in the dark brown and gray colors favored by Eastern European intellectuals. Six feet tall, he had a face that was ruddy, craggy, and heavily lined. We became used to seeing him walking around Berkeley and, from time to time, at poetry readings. He read translations of his poems—all composed in Polish—in a pleasant, distinctly accented voice. 

He had personal gravitas, moral authority, and a sense of proportion. He described himself as “one of many poets in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of them write in English, but there are also those who write in Spanish, Greek, German, Russian. Even if one has some renown, he is, in his everyday dealings with people, anonymous, and so is, again, one among many.”  



Born in the early years of the 20th century, Milosz grew up in Wilno, the once and future capital of Lithuania. His mother was Lithuanian, his father Polish. He regarded both their languages as equally his own. He attended the University of Vilnius in Wilno. He published his first poem in 1929, and his first book, Poem on Frozen Time, four years later.  

He became a member of the Catastrophist movement, a group of young avant garde writers who looked at the future with a real apprehension of doom. Decades later Milosz would have been content to let his poetry from the Catastrophist period disappear, but he was persuaded to reprint a translation of “Artificer” in his Collected Poetry, a poem portraying a monster who “plants a big load of dynamite/and is surprised that afterward everything spouts up in the explosion.” It ends with the image of “a long row of military trains.”  



By 1936 he was in Warsaw working for Polish State Radio, which modeled itself on the BBC. When Germany attacked Poland in 1939, Milosz, an army reservist, was called to active service but got caught up in the maelstrom of the army’s collapse before he could reach the front. In poems and prose written throughout his life he recalled the shock of losing friends in the blitzkrieg and the executions that followed—their sudden disappearances seem to have ached in his mind, the way nerves throb in a body which has not reconciled itself to losing an arm.  

He made his way back to Warsaw and joined a socialist resistance group. (He refused on principle to have anything to do with the right wing Home Army or the Communists.) He found a library job which provided cover for his underground writing, editing and publishing. He translated Jacques Maritain’s On the Roads of Defeat, an important attack on collaborationism. Milosz took satisfaction in the fact that his version of that book was published and circulating in Poland before a clandestine edition appeared in France. He also edited an anti-Nazi anthology, The Invincible Song. If the Germans had caught him, he’d have been shot.  

The war changed Milosz’s conception of poetry, and feelings and perceptions that had been building up in him came to a point one day in 1944. The Home Army had risen in an attempt to expel the Germans from Warsaw, and during the street fighting Milosz found himself pinned down by machinegun fire. In The Captive Mind he described this episode as though it happened to someone else:  

“A man is lying under machine-gun fire on a street in an embattled city. He looks at the pavement and sees a very amusing sight: the cobblestones are standing up-right like the quills of a porcupine. The bullets hitting against their edges displace and tilt them. Such moments in the consciousness of a man judge all poets and philosophers... In intellectuals who lived through the atrocities of war in Eastern Europe there took place what one might call the elimination of emotional luxuries.”  

This change showed in such poems as “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” memorializing the Jewish uprising in 1943, and “Dedication,” addressed to the 200,000 members of the Home Army lost in the tragic battle for Warsaw. It is blunt writing, relying more on assertion than on the kind of showing we expect in poetry. Its effect is more like vodka than sherry—and it sneaks up on you.  

In 1944 he married Janka Dluska (“the central fact of my life story”), and their marriage lasted until her death 42 years later. It might have been much shorter: during the Warsaw uprising they were arrested and confined behind barbed wire for transportation to a concentration camp. A brave Catholic nun talked their jailor into releasing them. They escaped from Warsaw, coming to rest in Krakow.  


New York, Washington, and Paris  

After the war Milosz accepted a position in the Polish diplomatic service. He was posted to its New York Consulate in 1946 and promoted to cultural attache in Washington, D.C. As he performed his duties—trying to sell Americans on “the new Poland”—he became increasingly dismayed by what he heard of the Stalinist terror at home. In 1950, he returned to Warsaw for a visit, only to have his passport confiscated (usually a prelude to disappearance in the gulag). Through the secret intervention of an unknown friend, it was returned to him, and he was allowed leave the country.  

In 1951 he broke with the government, obtained asylum in France, and wrote The Captive Mind, a devastating analysis of life under Stalinism. This book put him in the company of Orwell, Koestler, and Camus, and made him a social leper in the artistic circles where formerly he had been most happy. Sartre and Neruda (among others) attacked him in print, and some of his friends were afraid to be seen with him. Worst of all, the publication of his work was prohibited in Poland. Free to publish in the West, he became an underground poet in his native land.  

But he kept writing. His poetry began to change once more, and the metaphysical and religious concerns which had always been part of it came to the fore. This was due in part to the influence of Simone Weil. 



In 1960 Milosz returned to the United States, becoming Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the UC in Berkeley. Here he led a quiet, productive life. A fine appreciation of this phase of Milosz’s career can be found in Twentieth Century Pleasures by Robert Hass, who considers the poetry written by Milosz during this time to be his most characteristic. In fact, he suggests that for someone beginning to read Milosz, the California period is the best place to start.  

The changes worked in Milosz by his life in Berkeley are reflected in A Year of the Hunter, a fascinating journal he kept during 1987-88—a marvelous tapestry of his past and present. When he arrived here, feeling like a perpetual exile, he seems to have been as mistrustful of the place as a feral cat in a new neighborhood. 

A Year of the Hunter shows how Berkeley mellowed him despite the inevitable tribulations of life, and how secure he became:  

“A couple of weeks ago, Carol [his second wife] planted an apple tree. The planting of an apple tree is optimistic ... but the deer went after it and ate half its leaves, just as in the last few days they have eaten all sorts of flowers, pansies, even the spirea and whatever else Carol buys to add to the garden. As I write these notes, a search is under way for means of outsmarting the deer.”  

“Yesterday I gave a poetry reading in Black Oak Bookstore to mark the publication of Collected Poems. It’s difficult to comprehend how four hundred people could have crowded into the bookstore’s two rooms; that’s the delighted owner’s count. I had total control over my audience. I could have read for another half hour. A successful evening, in other words.”  

“The colors of autumn in Berkeley where, not long ago, before the first rains, there was gray and tan; now, the intensive green of the lawn on the hillsides. The rusty gold of the sycamore leaves, the unchanged color of the eucalyptus and the conifers. Splashes of bright cinnabar reds: those are the cotoneaster bushes, covered with red berries.”  

And this naturally overflowed into his poetry:  


A day so happy.  

Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.  

Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.  

There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.  

I knew no one worth my envying him.  

Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.  

To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.  

In my body I felt no pain.  

When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.  



Even so, Poland was never far from his “severe and relentless mind” (the words are Joseph Brodsky’s). As the power of the regime faltered, his work was read more and more openly, and he became the laureate of Solidarity. The rebels recited his poems and carved them on monuments. After the government fell, he was invited to come home. So, in 1981 he made his first visit to Poland in 30 years. Honors were heaped on him, he read his work to audiences numbering in the thousands, and they hailed him as a hero.  

Milosz began dividing his time between Berkeley and Krakow, where he had acquired another home. But on a visit in 2000 he suffered a stoke which left him too frail to travel. When he died in Krakow in 2004, memorial services were held for him in cities throughout the world. He was 93.