About Czeslaw Milosz

About Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz was born June 30th 1911 in Szetejnie, Lithuania. A poet, prose writer, essayist, and translator, he won the Nobel Prize in 1980, and many other prestigious literary awards throughout his life, and has been translated into forty-two languages. He received honorary doctorates from universities in the USA and in Poland, and was made an honorary citizen of Lithuania and the City of Krakow. He spent his school days and university youth in Wilno [Vilnius], where he also made his debut as a poet, and lived out the German occupation in Warsaw. After the war he worked in the diplomatic service of the People’s Republic in the USA and in France until 1951, when he appealed for political asylum in Paris.

In 1960 he left for California, where he spent twenty years as a professor of Slavic languages and literature, lecturing at Berkeley University. Until 1989 he mainly published in the Paris émigré journal "Kultura" and in the Polish underground press. After 1989 he lived in Berkeley and in Krakow. He died on August 14th 2004. Critics from many countries, as well as contemporary poets (like Joseph Brodsky, for instance), approach Milosz's literary output in superlatives. His poetry is rich in visual-symbolic metaphor. The idyllic and the apocalyptic go hand-in-hand. The verse sometimes suggests naked philosophical discourse of religious epiphany. Songs and theological treatises alternate, as in the "child-like rhymes" about the German Occupation of Warsaw in The World: Naive Poems (1943) or Six Lectures in Verse from the volume Chronicles (1987). Milosz transcends genre. As a poet and translator, he moves easily from contemporary American poets to the Bible (portions of which he has rendered anew into Polish).

As a novelist, he won renown with The Seizure of Power (1953), about the installation of communism in Poland. Both Milosz and his readers have a particular liking for the semi-autobiographical The Issa Valley (1955), a tale of growing up and the loss of innocence that abounds in philosophical sub-texts. There are also many personal themes in Milosz's essays, as well as in The Captive Mind (1953), a classic of the literature of totalitarianism. Native Realm (1959) remains one of the best studies of the evolution of the Central European mentality. The Land of Ulro (1977) is a sort of intellectual and literary autobiography. It was followed by books like The Witness of Poetry (1982), The Metaphysical Pause (1995) and Life on Islands (1997) that penetrate to the central issues of life and literature today.




My generation was lost. Cities too. And nations.
But all this a little later. Meanwhile, in the window, a swallow
Performs its rite of the second. That boy, does he already suspect
That beauty is always elsewhere and always delusive?
Now he sees his homeland. At the time of the second mowing.
Roads winding uphill and down. Pine groves. Lakes.
An overcast sky with one slanting ray.
And everywhere men with scythes, in shirts of unbleached linen
And the dark-blue trousers that were common in that province.
He sees what I see even now. Oh but he was clever,
Attentive, as if things were instantly changed by memory.
Riding in a cart, he looked back to retain as much as possible.
Which means he know what was needed for some ultimate moment
When he would compose from fragments a world perfect at last.

—from From the Rising of the Sun




The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

—from Ars Poetica