Fortnightly logo

Czeslaw Milosz
Confessions of an Object
MONDAY, APRIL 27, 1998
As the culmination of the four-day festival in honor of Czeslaw Milosz, Mr. Milosz himself will have the final word. In this unusual talk and reading, which he has tentatively titled "Confessions of an Object," we will be treated to a great poet's gratitude and irony.

In 1978 the late Joseph Brodsky wrote: "I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that Czeslaw Milosz is one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest." Seventeen years later Brodsky's view had changed only in that he no longer said "perhaps." For Brodsky, his fellow Nobel Laureate was "absolutely unequaled by any writer in our civilization in the past half-century, a poet in whom the lyrical and the revelatory seamlessly combine-the rarest of occurrences in our line of work."

Milosz was born in Szetejnie, Lithuania in 1911. His childhood was broken by World War I when his father Alexander, a road engineer, was recruited by the Czar's army. Milosz and his mother accompanied his father on dangerous bridge-building expeditions near Russian battle zones. The family returned to Lithuania in 1918. Milosz received a rigorous formal education in Wilno, the capital of Polish Lithuania. In his early twenties he published his first volume of poems, A Poem on Frozen Time (1933).

The Soviet regime in Wilno eventually forced Milosz to flee the city of his youth to Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where he joined the resistance. Milosz's anthology of anti-Nazi poetry, The Invincible Song (1942), was published by underground presses in Warsaw, where he also wrote The World (A Naive Poem) (1943) and the cycle Voices Of Poor People (1943).

The end of the war brought more dislocation. Milosz worked as a cultural attache of the Polish communist government, serving in both New York and Washington over a period of years. He broke with the Polish government in 1951 and sought political asylum in France, even though it meant virtual disconnection from Polish readers. His ten years in France found him at odds with the strongly pro-socialist and communist intellectual community. He wrote two novels during this period, Seizure of Power (1952) and The Issa Valley (1955), as well as his most famous book, The Captive Mind (1953), a study of the dangerous appeal of totalitarian thought, along with portraits of friends who had been seduced by it. Banned in Poland, Milosz's poetry was published in Paris by the Instytut Literacki.

Milosz moved yet further west when, in 1961, at age fifty, he became a professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Though an unknown member of a small department, he eventually became popular for his courses on Dostoyevsky and, to those outside the university, as a translator of poems of Zbigniew Herbert. Milosz's Selected Poems were not published in English until 1973. In 1978 Bells in Winter appeared, and Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1981 he visited Poland for the first time in thirty years and in 1992 saw his native Lithuania again after a 52-year absence.

Since his Nobel Prize, Milosz has published many volumes of prose and poetry. His prose includes Visions from San Francisco Bay (1982), Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections (1991), The Land of Ulro (1977), and The Witness of Poetry (1983). His Collected Poems appeared in 1988, followed by Provinces (1991). A diary of the year 1988, A Year of the Hunter, was published in 1994, and another volume of poetry, Facing the River, appeared in 1995. His latest book, Roadside Dog (1998), will be published this fall.

The dinner is reserved for the CMC community only. The talk at 6:45 p.m. is open to all without reservations.