Untranslatable into words,
I choose my home in what is now,
In things of this world,
Which exist and for that reason,
Czeslaw Milosz, one the greatest poets of the last century, was unknown in his motherland throughout most of his life. Until he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, the overwhelming majority of Poles had never heard of him. Of course, how could they have when all of his poetry and prose was banned until the end of Communist rule in 1989. Although, Milosz, a Lithuanian-Pole, spent less than half his life within the borders of modern day Poland, he is considered to be the nation’s greatest living bard.
Milosz was born on June 30th, 1911, in Szetejnie, on the banks of the Niewiaza River, in what was then the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. His family was one of the Polish speaking gentry in the area, but by the time of his birth, were both politically and economically ruined. His father, Alexander Milosz was an engineer for the Tzar’s army from 1914-18 and during this time his family traveled throughout Russia. After the Russian Revolution, Milosz returned to the town of his birth, where he remained until he moved to Vilnius (then known as Wilno) to attend high school. In 1934 he completed a law degree at Stefan Batory University, also in Vilnius.
His first poems were printed in 1930 in the University literary journal and in 1931 he formed a literary circle called Zegary (clocks). In 1933, he published his first book of poems, Poem Frozen in Time, for which he was awarded by the Union of Polish Writers in 1934. After completion of his degree, he spent a year studying metaphysics in Paris.
Milosz returned to Vilnius in 1935 and began working as a radio announcer for Polish Radio. In 1937 he was transferred to Warsaw and in 1939 sent to the front to work as a radio operator. He was caught in Vilnius in 1940 when the Soviet forces moved in and took over the city, but he managed to escape across Soviet and Nazi occupied territories, to Warsaw, where he remained until 1944. During this time he met and married Janina Dluska. He continued to write poetry during this time and edited a collection of anti-Nazi poetry, Invincable Song.
After the war, rather than emigrate, Milosz became a diplomatic attaché for the newly formed People’s Republic of Poland. From 1946-1950, he worked in New York and Washington, but was arrested by authorities upon his return to Poland in 1950. The government did not appreciate his public ambivalence towards Communism. He was stripped of his passport, and separated from his family who remained the US. In 1951, however, he was inexplicably allowed to travel to Paris, where he sought political asylum. His life as an exile began.
From 1951-53 Milosz continued to write, but remained generally unread and unappreciated. He was disliked by French intellectual circles, the majority of which supported Stalinist communism as Europe’s hope for the future. And there were few who were able to read his poetry in Polish. During this time he wrote one of his most political books, The Captive Mind. In the introduction he writes that the book is about: the vulnerability of the twentieth-century mind to seduction by sociopolitical doctrines and its readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of a hypothetical future. It remains his most read book of political essays.
In 1953, Milosz won the Prix Littéraire Européen, which enabled him to bring his family to Paris, where they lived until 1960. During this time, he continued to write both poetry and prose and develop his style.
In 1960, Milosz accepted a position at Berkeley, where he became a full professor in 1961. In 1973, Seabury Press published the first translation of his poetry into English and he began to gain rapid popularity as a poet. In 1974, he was awarded the Polish P. E. N. club’s prize, further generating popularity and recognition. In 1978, he received the Neustadt International Literary Prize and the University of California presented him with the Berkeley citation for his literary and academic merits.
His greatest recognition came in 1980, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1981, Milosz visited Poland for the first time since his escape in 1951, and Polish journals began publishing excerpts of his poetry. For the first time, the words of one of the nation’s greatest living poets were read in their native tongue. Milosz was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Lublin. The declaration of martial law in December 1981, following the strikes in Gdansk, once again drove his poetry underground. He had, however, made his mark and his works continued to circulate, albeit illegally.
Milosz held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship at Harvard University in the 1981/82 academic year. Currently, well into his 80’s , he continues to write and publish.
I apologize for the scarcity of information about Czeslaw Milosz today. I believe this lack of information can be attributed to the esteem attached to the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is certainly the pinnacle of any artist's career and what more can s/he do afterwards except continue to write? As compensation I leave you with a beautiful poem.
Song on the End
of the World
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A Fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through fields under their umbrellas
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet,
Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.
- After Paradise / Czeslaw Milosz. Berkeley, Calif.: Black Oak Books, 1986.
- Beginning With My Streets: Essays and Recollections / Czeslaw Milosz; translated by Madeline G. Levine. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, c1991.
- Bells In Winter / Czeslaw Milosz; translated by the author and Lillian Vallee. New York: Ecco Press, 1978.
- The Captive Mind / Czeslaw Milosz; translated by Jane Zielonko. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1953.
- The Captive Mind / Czeslaw Milosz; illustrated by Janusz Kapusta; with a new preface by the author. New York: The Limited Editions Club, c1983.
- The Collected Poems, 1931-1987 / Czeslaw Milosz. 1st ed. New York: Ecco Press, c1988.
- Czeslawa Milosza autoportret przekorny / rozmowy przeprowadzil Aleksander Fiut. Wyd. 1. Krakow: Wydawn. Literackie, 1988.
- Czlowiek wsrod skorpionow / Czeslaw Milosz. Warszawa: Panstw. Instytut Wydawn., 1982.
- Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision / Czeslaw Milosz. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1977.
- Fire / Czeslaw Milosz. Washington, DC: Watershed Tapes, 1987.
- The History of Polish Literature / Czeslaw Milosz. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
- Hymn o perle / Czeslaw Milosz. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, between 1980 and 1983.
- Incantation / Czeslaw Milosz. Berkeley, Calif.: Black Oak Books, 1983?.
- The Issa Valley / Czeslaw Milosz; translated from the Polish by Louis Iribarne. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, c1981.
- The Land of Ulro / Czeslaw Milosz; translated by Louis Iribarne. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.
- Meaning / Czeslaw Milosz. Berkeley, Calif.: Black Oak Books, 1991.
- Metafizyczna pauza / Czeslaw Milosz; wybor, opracowanie i wstep Joanna Gromek. Wyd. 1. Krakow: Wydawn. Znak, 1989.
- Native realm: A Search for Self-definition / Czeslaw Milosz; translated from the Polish by Catherine S. Leach. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981, c1968.
- Odczyt w Akademii Szwedzkiej. English & Polish. Nobel Lecture / Czeslaw Milosz. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. c1980.
- Piosenka o porcelanie
- Song on Porcelain / Czeslaw Milosz; translated by Robert Pinsky. Elk, Calif.: Dougherty Designs, c1985.
- Poematy / Czeslaw Milosz; z grafikami Jana Lebensteina. Wyd. 1. Wroclaw: Wydawn. Dolnoslaskie, 1989.
- A Portrait With a Cat / by Czeslaw Milosz. Tucson, Ariz.: Chax Press, 1987.
Provinces / Czeslaw Milosz; translated by the author and Robert Hass. 1st ed. New York : Ecco Press, c1991.
- The Seizure of Power / Czeslaw Milosz; translated by Celina Wieniewska. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, c1982.
- Selected Poems / Czeslaw Milosz. New York: Ecco Press, 1980, c1973.
- The Separate Notebooks / Czeslaw Milosz; translated by Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky with the author and Renata Gorczynski. New York: Ecco Press, 1984.
- Swiat = The World / Czeslaw Milosz: a sequence of twenty poems in Polish; translated into English by the poet; with an introduction by Helen Vendler and a portrait of the poet in dry-point engraving by Jim Dine. San Francisco: Arion Press, 1989.
- Unattainable Earth / Czeslaw Milosz; translated by the author and Robert Hass. New York: Ecco Press, 1986.
- The Usurpers / Czeslaw Milosz; translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska. London: Faber and Faber, 1955.
- Visions from San Francisco Bay / Czeslaw Milosz; translated by Richard Lourie. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, c1982.
- The Witness of Poetry / Czeslaw Milosz. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.
- Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz / Ewa Czarnecka and Aleksander Fiut; translated by Richard Lourie. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, c1987.
- Rozmowy z Czeslawem Miloszem / Aleksander Fiut. Krakow: Wydawn. Literackie, 1981.
- Ferdydurke / Witold Gombrowicz; translated by Eric Mosbacher; with an introduction by Czeslaw Milosz. New York: Penguin Books, 1986, c1961.
- Selected Poems / Zbigniew Herbert; translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott; with an introduction by A. Alvarez. New York: Ecco Press, 1986, c1968.
- Listy do Czeslawa Milosza, 1952-1979 / Zygmunt Hertz; wybor i oprasowanie, Renata Gorczynska. Paryz: Instytut Literacki, 1992.
- Exiles / photographs by Josef Koudelka; essays by Czeslaw Milosz. New York: Aperture Foundation, c1988.
- Bible. N.T. Mark. Polish. Milosz. 1984.
- Ewangelia wedlug Marka; Apokalipsa / tlumaczyl z Greckiego Czeslaw Milosz. Paris: Editions du Dialogue, 1984.
- Bible. N.T. Revelation. Polish. Milosz. 1986.
- Apokalipsa / tllumaczyl z greckiego Czeslaw Milosz; ilustrowal Jan Lebenstein. Paris: Editions du Dialogue, 1986.
- Bible. O.T. Five Scrolls. Polish. Milosz. 1982.
- Ksiegi pieciu megilot/ tlumaczyl z hebrajskiego i greckiego Czeslaw Milosz. Paris: Editions du Dialogue, 1982.
- Bible. O.T. Job. Polish. Milosz. 1980. Ksiega Hioba / tlumaczyl z hebrajskiego Czeslaw Milosz. Paris: Editions du Dialogue, 1980.
- Bible. O.T. Psalms. Polish. 1979. Ksiega psalmow / tlumaczyl z hebrajskiego Czeslaw Milosz. Paris: Editions du Dialogue, 1979, 1981 printing.
- The Noble Traveller / O.V. de L. Milosz; introduction by Czeslaw Milosz; edited by Christopher Bamford. West Stockbridge, Mass.: Lindisfarne Press; New York: Distributed by Inner Traditions International, c1985.
- Piesn niepodlegla
- The Invincible Song: A Clandestine Anthology / edited by Czeslaw Milosz. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1981.
- Postwar Polish Poetry: An Anthology / Selected and translated by Czeslaw Milosz. 1st ed. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1965.
- Happy as a Dog's Tail / by Anna Swirszczynska; translated by Czeslaw Milosz, with Leonard Nathan; with an introduction by Czeslaw Milosz and an afterword by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. 1st ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, c1985.
- The Trial Begins; and, On Socialist Realism / Abram Tertz; translated by Max Hayward, George Dennis; with an introduction by Czeslaw Milosz. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1982.
- Mediterranean Poems / Aleksander Wat; edited & translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz. Ann Arbor: Ardis, c1977.
- With The Skin: Poems of Aleksander Wat / translated and edited by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. 1st ed. New York: Ecco Press, 1989.