Czesław Miłosz, 1999
|Born||30 June 1911|
Šeteniai, Kovno Governorate, Russian Empire
|Died||14 August 2004 (aged 93)|
|Occupation||Poet, prose writer, essayist|
|Notable works||Rescue (1945)|
The Captive Mind (1953)
A Treatise on Poetry (1957)
|Notable awards||Neustadt International Prize for Literature (1978)|
Nobel Prize in Literature (1980)
National Medal of Arts (1989)
Order of the White Eagle (1994)
Nike Award (1998)
Czesław Miłosz (//, also US: /- , - /,,[c] Polish: [ˈtʂɛswaf ˈmiwɔʂ] (listen); 30 June 1911 – 14 August 2004) was a Polish-American poet, prose writer, translator, and diplomat. Regarded as one of the great poets of the twentieth century, he won the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy, in its Nobel citation, described Miłosz as a writer who "voices man's exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts".
Miłosz survived the German occupation of Warsaw during World War II and became a cultural attaché for the Polish government during the post-war period. When communist authorities threatened his safety, he defected to France and ultimately chose exile in the United States, where he became a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. His poetry—particularly about his wartime experience—and his appraisal of Stalinism in a prose book, The Captive Mind, brought him renown as a leading émigré artist and intellectual.
Throughout his life and work, Miłosz tackled questions of morality, politics, history, and faith. As a translator, he introduced Western works to a Polish audience, and as a scholar and editor, he championed a greater awareness of Slavic literature in the West. Faith played a role in his work as he explored his Catholicism and personal experience.
Czesław Miłosz was born on June 30, 1911, in the village of Šeteniai (Polish: Szetejnie), Kovno Governorate, Russian Empire (now Kėdainiai district, Kaunas County, Lithuania). He was the son of Aleksander Miłosz (1883–1959), a Polish civil engineer, and his wife, Weronika (née Kunat; 1887–1945).
Miłosz was born into a notable family. On his mother's side, his grandfather was Zygmunt Kunat, a descendant of a Polish family that could trace its lineage to the thirteenth century, and which owned an estate in Krasnogruda (in present-day Poland). Having studied agriculture in Warsaw, Zygmunt settled in Šeteniai after marrying Miłosz's grandmother, Jozefa, a descendant of the noble Syruć family, which was of Lithuanian origin. One of her ancestors, Szymon Syruć, had been personal secretary to Stanisław I, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. On Miłosz's father's side, his grandfather, Artur Miłosz, was also from a noble family and fought in the 1863 January Uprising for Polish independence. Miłosz's grandmother, Stanisława, was a doctor's daughter from Riga, Latvia, and a member of the German/Polish von Mohl family. The Miłosz estate was located in Serbiny, a name which Miłosz's biographer, Andrzej Franaszek, has suggested could indicate a Serbian origin—it is possible the Miłosz family originated in Serbia and settled in present-day Lithuania after being expelled from Germany centuries earlier. Miłosz's father was born and educated in Riga. Miłosz's mother was born in Šeteniai and educated in Kraków.
Despite this noble lineage, Miłosz's childhood on his maternal grandfather's estate in Šeteniai was not filled with the trappings of wealth or the customs of the upper class. He memorialized his childhood in a 1955 novel, The Issa Valley, and in a 1959 memoir, Native Realm. In these works, he described the influence of his Catholic grandmother, Jozefa, his burgeoning love for literature, and his early awareness, as a member of the Polish gentry in Lithuania, of the role of class in society.
Miłosz's early years were marked by upheaval. When his father was hired to work on infrastructure projects in Siberia, he and his mother traveled to be with him. After World War I broke out in 1914, Miłosz's father was conscripted into the Russian army, tasked with engineering roads and bridges for troop movements. Miłosz and his mother were sheltered in Wilno when the German army captured it in 1915. Afterward, they once again joined Miłosz's father, following him as the front moved further into Russia, where, in 1917, Miłosz's brother, Andrzej, was born. Finally, after moving through Estonia and Latvia, the family returned to their home in Šeteniai in 1918. However, the Polish-Soviet War broke out in 1919, during which Miłosz's father was involved in a failed attempt to incorporate the newly independent Lithuania into the Second Polish Republic, resulting in his expulsion from Lithuania and the family's move to Wilno, which had become part of Poland after the Polish-Lithuanian War of 1920. The Polish-Soviet War continued, forcing the family to move again. At one point during the conflict, Miłosz and his mother were fired upon by Polish soldiers, an episode Miłosz later recounted in his memoir, Native Realm. The family returned to Wilno when the war ended in 1921.
Despite the interruptions of wartime wanderings, Miłosz proved to be an exceptional student with a facility for languages. He ultimately learned Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English, French, and Hebrew. After graduation from Sigismund Augustus Gymnasium in Wilno, he entered Stefan Batory University in 1929 as a law student. While at university, Miłosz joined a student group called The Intellectuals’ Club and a student poetry group called Żagary, along with the young poets Jerzy Zagórski, Teodor Bujnicki, Aleksander Rymkiewicz, Jerzy Putrament, and Józef Maśliński. His first published poems appeared in the university's student magazine in 1930.
In 1931, he visited Paris, where he first met his distant cousin, Oscar Miłosz, a French-language poet of Lithuanian descent who had become a Swedenborgian. Oscar became a mentor and inspiration. Returning to Wilno, Miłosz's early awareness of class difference, and his sympathy for those less fortunate than himself, inspired his defense of Jewish students at the university who were being harassed by an anti-Semitic mob. Stepping between the mob and the Jewish students, Miłosz fended off attacks. One student was killed when a rock was thrown at his head.
Miłosz's first volume of poetry, A Poem on Frozen Time, was published in Polish in 1933. In the same year, he publicly read his poetry at an anti-racist "Poetry of Protest" event in Wilno, occasioned by Hitler's rise to power in Germany. In 1934, he graduated with a law degree, and the poetry group Żagary disbanded. Miłosz relocated to Paris on a scholarship to study for one year and write articles for a newspaper back in Wilno. In Paris, he frequently met with his cousin Oscar.
By 1936, he had returned to Wilno, where he worked on literary programs at Radio Wilno. His second poetry collection, Three Winters, was published that same year, eliciting, from one critic, a comparison to Adam Mickiewicz. After only one year at Radio Wilno, however, Miłosz was dismissed due to an accusation that he was a left-wing sympathizer—as a student, he had adopted socialist views from which, by then, he had publicly distanced himself, and he and his boss, Tadeusz Byrski, had produced programming that included performances by Jews and Byelorussians—activities that angered right-wing nationalists. After Byrski made a trip to the Soviet Union, an anonymous complaint was lodged with the management of Radio Wilno, claiming the station housed a communist cell, and Byrski and Miłosz were subsequently dismissed. In the summer of 1937, Miłosz moved to Warsaw, where he found work at Polish Radio and met his future wife, Janina (née Dłuska; 1909–1986), who was, at the time, married to another man.
Miłosz was in Warsaw when it was bombarded as part of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Along with colleagues from Polish Radio, he escaped the city, making his way to Lwów. However, when he learned that Janina had remained in Warsaw with her parents, he looked for a way back. The Soviet invasion of Poland thwarted his plans, and, to avoid the incoming Red Army, he fled to Bucharest. There, he obtained a Lithuanian identity document and Soviet visa that allowed him to travel, by train, to Kiev and then to Wilno. After Lithuania was invaded by the Red Army, he procured fake documents that he used to enter the part of German-occupied Poland which the Germans had dubbed the "General Government". It was a difficult journey, mostly on foot, that ended in the summer of 1940. Finally back in Warsaw, he reunited with Janina.
Like many Poles at the time, to evade notice by German authorities, Miłosz participated in underground activities. For example, with higher education officially forbidden to Poles, he attended underground lectures by Władysław Tatarkiewicz, the Polish philosopher and historian of philosophy and aesthetics. He translated Shakespeare's As You Like It and T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" into Polish. Along with his good friend, the novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski, he also arranged for the publication of his third volume of poetry, entitled Poems, under a pseudonym in September 1940. The title page claimed the author was "Jan Syruć" and the volume had been published by a fictional press in Lwów in 1939—in fact, it may have been the first clandestine book published in occupied Warsaw. In 1942, Miłosz arranged for the publication of an anthology of Polish poets, entitled Invincible Song: Polish Poetry of War Time, by an underground press.
However, Miłosz's riskiest underground wartime activity was aiding Jews in Warsaw, which he did through an underground socialist organization called Freedom. His brother, Andrzej, was also active in helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland; in 1943, he transported the Polish Jew Seweryn Tross and his wife from Wilno to Warsaw. Miłosz took in the Trosses, found them a hiding place, and supported them financially. The Trosses ultimately died during the Warsaw Uprising. Miłosz helped at least three other Jews in similar ways: Felicja Wołkomińska and her brother and sister.
Despite his willingness to engage in underground activity and his vehement opposition to the Nazis, Miłosz did not join the Polish Home Army. In later years, he explained that this was partly from an instinct for self-preservation and partly because he saw its leadership as right-wing and dictatorial. He also did not participate in the planning or execution of the Warsaw Uprising. According to Irena Grudzińska-Gross, he saw the uprising as a "doomed military effort" and he lacked the "patriotic elation" for it. He called the uprising "a blameworthy, lightheaded enterprise", although he later criticized the Soviet Red Army for failing to support it when it had the opportunity to do so.
As German troops began torching Warsaw buildings in August 1944, Miłosz was captured and held in a prisoner transit camp; he was later rescued by a Catholic nun—a stranger to him—who pleaded with the Germans on his behalf. Once freed, he and Janina escaped the city, ultimately settling in a village outside Kraków, where they were staying when the Red Army swept through Poland in January 1945, after Warsaw had been largely destroyed.
In the preface to his 1953 book, The Captive Mind, Miłosz wrote, "I do not regret those years in Warsaw, which was, I believe, the most agonizing spot in the whole of terrorized Europe. Had I then chosen emigration, my life would certainly have followed a very different course. But my knowledge of the crimes which Europe has witnessed in the twentieth century would be less direct, less concrete than it is". Immediately after the war, Miłosz published his fourth poetry collection, Rescue; it focused on his wartime experiences and contains some of his most critically praised work, including the twenty-poem cycle "The World," composed like a primer for naïve schoolchildren, and the cycle "Voices of Poor People". The volume also contains some of his most frequently anthologized poems, including "A Song on the End of the World", "Campo Dei Fiori", and "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto".
From 1945 to 1951, Miłosz served as a cultural attaché for the newly formed Polish People's Republic. In this capacity, he moved from New York City to Washington, D.C., and finally to Paris, organizing and promoting Polish cultural occasions such as musical concerts, art exhibitions, and literary and cinematic events. Though he was a representative of Poland, which had become a Soviet satellite country behind the Iron Curtain, he was not a member of any communist party. Writing in The Captive Mind, he explained his reasons for accepting the role:
My mother tongue, work in my mother tongue, is for me the most important thing in life. And my country, where what I wrote could be printed and could reach the public, lay within the Eastern Empire. My aim and purpose was to keep alive freedom of thought in my own special field; I sought in full knowledge and conscience to subordinate my conduct to the fulfillment of that aim. I served abroad because I was thus relieved from direct pressure and, in the material which I sent to my publishers, could be bolder than my colleagues at home. I did not want to become an émigré and so give up all chance of taking a hand in what was going on in my own country.
Miłosz did not publish a book during his time as a representative of the Polish government. Instead, he wrote articles for various Polish periodicals introducing readers to American writers like T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Robert Lowell, and W.H. Auden. He also translated into Polish Shakespeare's Othello and the work of Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Pablo Neruda, and others.
In 1947, Miłosz's son, Anthony, was born in Washington, D.C.
In 1948, Miłosz arranged for the Polish government to fund a Department of Polish Studies at Columbia University. Named for Adam Mickiewicz, the department would feature lectures by Manfred Kridl, Miłosz's friend who was then on the faculty of Smith College, as well as produce a scholarly book about Mickiewicz. Mickiewicz's granddaughter wrote a letter to Dwight Eisenhower, then the president of Columbia University, to express her approval. However, the Polish American Congress, an influential group of Polish émigrés, denounced the arrangement in a letter to Eisenhower that they shared with the press, which reported that there was a communist infiltration at Columbia. Students picketed and called for boycotts. One faculty member resigned in protest. Despite the controversy, the department was established, the lectures took place, and the book was produced. However, the department was discontinued in 1954 when funding from Poland ceased.
In 1949, Miłosz visited Poland for the first time since joining its diplomatic corps and was appalled by the conditions he saw there, including an atmosphere of pervasive fear of the government. After returning to the U.S., he began to look for a way to leave his post, even soliciting advice from Albert Einstein, whom he met in the course of his duties.
As the Polish government, influenced by Stalin, became more oppressive, his superiors began to view Miłosz as a threat—he was outspoken in his reports to Warsaw and met with individuals not officially approved by his superiors. Consequently, his superiors labelled him "an individual who ideologically is totally alien". Toward the end of 1950, when Janina was pregnant with their second child, Miłosz was recalled to Warsaw, where in December 1950 his passport was confiscated, ostensibly until it could be determined that he did not plan to defect. After intervention by Poland's foreign minister, Zygmunt Modzelewski, Miłosz's passport was returned. Realizing that he was in danger if he remained in Poland, Miłosz left for Paris in January 1951.
Upon arriving in Paris, Miłosz went into hiding, aided by the staff of the Polish émigré magazine Kultura. With his wife and son still in the United States, Miłosz applied to enter the U.S. and was denied. At the time, the U.S. was in the grip of McCarthyism, and influential Polish émigrés had convinced American officials that Miłosz was a communist. Unable to leave France, Miłosz was not present for the birth of his second son, John Peter, in Washington, D.C., in 1951.
With the United States closed to him, Miłosz requested—and was granted—political asylum in France. After three months in hiding, he announced his defection with a press conference and an article in Kultura, entitled "No", that explained his refusal to live in Poland or continue working for the Polish regime. He was the first artist of note from a communist country to make public his reasons for breaking ties with his government. His case attracted attention in Poland, where his writing was banned and he was attacked in the press, and in the West, where prominent individuals voiced criticism and support. For example, the future Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, then a supporter of the Soviet Union, attacked him in a communist newspaper as "The Man Who Ran Away". On the other hand, Albert Camus, another future Nobel laureate, visited with Miłosz and offered his support. Another supporter during this period was the Swiss philosopher Jeanne Hersch, with whom Miłosz had a brief romantic affair.
Miłosz was finally reunited with his family in 1953, when Janina and the children joined him in France. That same year saw the publication of The Captive Mind, a nonfiction work that uses case studies to dissect the methods and consequences of Soviet communism, which at the time had prominent admirers in the West. The book brought Miłosz his first readership in the United States, where it was credited by some on the political left (such as Susan Sontag) with helping to change perceptions about communism. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers described it as a "significant historical document". It became a staple of political science courses and is considered a classic work in the study of totalitarianism.
Miłosz's years in France were productive. In addition to The Captive Mind, he published two poetry collections (Daylight (1954) and A Treatise on Poetry (1957)), two novels (The Seizure of Power (1955) and The Issa Valley (1955)), and a memoir (Native Realm (1959)). All were published in Polish by an émigré press in Paris.
Notably, A Treatise on Poetry has been described by Andrzej Franaszek as Miłosz's "magnum opus", while the scholar Helen Vendler compared it to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land", a work "so powerful that it bursts the bounds in which it was written—the bounds of language, geography, epoch". A long poem divided into four sections, A Treatise on Poetry surveys Polish history, recounts Miłosz's experience of war, and explores the relationship between art and history.
In 1960, Miłosz was offered a position as a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. With this offer, and with the climate of McCarthyism abated, he was able to move to the United States. He proved to be an adept and popular teacher, and was offered tenure after only two months. The rarity of this feat, and the degree to which he had impressed his colleagues, are underscored by the fact that Miłosz lacked both a PhD and teaching experience. Yet his deep learning was obvious, and after years of working administrative jobs that he found stifling, he reported to friends that he was in his element in a classroom. With stable employment as a tenured Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature, Miłosz was able to secure American citizenship and purchase a home in Berkeley.[e]
Miłosz began to publish scholarly articles in English and Polish on a variety of authors, including Fyodor Dostoevsky. However, despite his successful transition to the U.S., he described his early years at Berkeley as frustrating, as he was isolated from friends and viewed as a political figure rather than a great poet. (In fact, some of his Berkeley faculty colleagues, unaware of his creative output, expressed astonishment when he won the Nobel Prize.) His poetry was not available in English, and he was not able to publish in Poland.
As part of an effort to introduce American readers to his poetry, as well as to the work of his fellow Polish poets, Miłosz conceived and edited the anthology Postwar Polish Poetry, which was published in English in 1965. It has been credited by American poets like W.S. Merwin, and American scholars like Clare Cavanagh, with having a profound impact. For many English-language readers, it was their first exposure to Miłosz's poetry, as well as the work of Polish poets like Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, and Tadeusz Różewicz. (In the same year, Miłosz's poetry also appeared in the first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, an English-language journal founded by prominent literary figures Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort. The issue also featured Miroslav Holub, Yehuda Amichai, Ivan Lalić, Vasko Popa, Zbigniew Herbert, and Andrei Voznesensky.) In 1969, Miłosz's textbook, The History of Polish Literature, was published in English. He then followed this with a volume of his own work, Selected Poems (1973), some of which he translated into English himself.
At the same time, Miłosz continued to publish in Polish with an émigré press in Paris. His poetry collections from this period include King Popiel and Other Poems (1962), Bobo’s Metamorphosis (1965), City Without a Name (1969), and From the Rising of the Sun (1974).
During Miłosz's time at Berkeley, the campus became a hotbed of student protest, notably as the home of the Free Speech Movement, which has been credited with helping to "define a generation of student activism" across the United States. Miłosz's relationship to student protestors was sometimes antagonistic: he called them "spoiled children of the bourgeoisie," and deemed their political zeal naïve. At one campus event in 1970, he mocked protestors who claimed to be demonstrating for peace and love: "Talk to me about love when they come into your cell one morning, line you all up, and say 'You and you, step forward—it’s your time to die—unless any of your friends loves you so much he wants to take your place!'" Comments like these were in keeping with his stance toward American counterculture of the 1960s in general. For example, in 1968, when Miłosz was listed as a signatory of an open letter of protest written by poet and counterculture figure Allen Ginsberg and published in The New York Review of Books, Miłosz responded by calling the letter “dangerous nonsense” and insisting that he had not signed it.
After eighteen years, Miłosz officially retired from teaching in 1978. To mark the occasion, he was awarded a "Berkeley Citation", the University of California's equivalent of an honorary doctorate. However, when his wife, Janina, fell ill and required expensive medical treatment, Miłosz returned to teaching seminars.
On October 9, 1980, the Swedish Academy announced that Miłosz had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The award catapulted him to global fame. On the day the prize was announced, Miłosz held a brief press conference and then left to teach a class on Dostoevsky. In his Nobel lecture, Miłosz described his view of the role of the poet, lamented the tragedies of the twentieth century, and paid tribute to his cousin, Oscar.
Miłosz's winning the Nobel Prize was the first time that many Poles became aware of him. After a thirty-year ban in his home country, his writing was finally published in Poland in limited selections. He was also able to visit Poland for the first time since fleeing in 1951 and was greeted by crowds with a hero's welcome. He met with leading Polish figures like Lech Wałęsa and Pope John Paul II. At the same time, his early work, until then only available in Polish, began to be translated into English and many other languages.
In 1981, Miłosz was appointed the Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, where he was invited to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. He used the opportunity, as he did before and after becoming a Nobel laureate, to draw attention to writers who had been unjustly imprisoned or persecuted. The lectures were published as The Witness of Poetry (1983).
Miłosz continued to publish work in Polish through his longtime publisher in Paris. This included the poetry collections Hymn of the Pearl (1981), Bells in Winter (1984) and Unattainable Earth (1986), as well as the essay collection Beginning with My Streets (1986).
In 1986, Miłosz's wife, Janina, died.
In 1988, his Collected Poems appeared in English; it was the first of several attempts to collect all of Miłosz's voluminous poetry into a single volume. After the fall of communism in Poland, he split his time between Berkeley and Kraków, and he began to publish his writing in Polish with a publisher based in Kraków. When Lithuania broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991, Miłosz visited for the first time since 1939. In 2000, he moved permanently to Kraków.
In 1992, Miłosz married Carol Thigpen (1944 – 2002), an academic at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. They remained married until her death in 2002. His work from the 1990s included the poetry collections Facing the River (1994) and Roadside Dog (1997), and the collection of short prose, Miłosz’s ABC’s (1997). Miłosz's last stand-alone volumes of poetry were This (2000), and The Second Space (2002). Uncollected poems written afterward appeared in English in New and Selected Poems (2004) and, posthumously, in Selected and Last Poems (2011).
Czesław Miłosz died on August 14, 2004, at his Kraków home, aged 93. He was given a state funeral at the historic Mariacki Church in Kraków. The Prime Minister of Poland, Marek Belka, attended, as did the former President of Poland, Lech Wałęsa. Thousands of people lined the streets to witness his coffin moved by military escort to his final resting place at Skałka Roman Catholic Church, where he was one of the last to be commemorated. In front of that church, the poets Seamus Heaney, Adam Zagajewski, and Robert Hass read Miłosz's poem, "In Szetejnie", in Polish, French, English, Russian, Lithuanian, and Hebrew—all of the languages Miłosz knew. The funeral was covered by media from around the world.
Protesters threatened to disrupt the proceedings on the grounds that Miłosz was anti-Polish, anti-Catholic, and had signed a petition supporting gay and lesbian freedom of speech and assembly. Pope John Paul II, along with Miłosz's confessor, issued public messages confirming that Miłosz had received the sacraments, which quelled the protest.
Miłosz's brother, Andrzej Miłosz (1917 – 2002), was a Polish journalist, translator, and documentary film producer. His work included Polish documentaries about his brother.
Miłosz's son, Anthony, is a music composer and software designer. He studied linguistics, anthropology, and chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, and neuroscience at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. In addition to releasing recordings of his own compositions, he has translated some of his father's poems into English.
Miłosz received numerous honors during his life. In addition to the Nobel Prize in Literature, he received the following awards for his body of work:
Miłosz was named a distinguished visiting professor or fellow at many institutions, including the University of Michigan and University of Oklahoma, where he was a Puterbaugh Fellow in 1999. He was an elected member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He received honorary doctorates from Harvard University, University of Michigan, University of California at Berkeley, Jagiellonian University, Catholic University of Lublin, and Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania. The latter institution also has an academic center named for Miłosz.
His individual books also received awards. His first book, A Poem on Frozen Time, won an award from the Union of Polish Writers in Wilno. His book, The Seizure of Power, received the Prix Littéraire Européen (European Literary Prize), while the collection Roadside Dog received a Nike Award in Poland.
Miłosz has also been honored posthumously. The Polish Parliament declared 2011, the centennial of his birth, the "Year of Miłosz". It was marked by conferences and tributes throughout Poland, as well as in New York City, at Yale University, and at the Dublin Writers Festival, among many other locations. In the same year, he was featured on a Lithuanian postage stamp. Streets are named for him near Paris, France, Vilnius, Lithuania, and in the Polish cities of Kraków, Poznań, Gdańsk, Białystok, and Wrocław. In Gdańsk, there is also a Czesław Miłosz Square. In 2013, a primary school in Vilnius was named for Miłosz, joining schools in Mierzecice, Poland, and Schaumburg, Illinois, that bear his name.
In 1978, the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky called Miłosz "one of the great poets of our time; perhaps the greatest". Miłosz has been cited as an influence by numerous writers—both among his contemporaries and succeeding generations. For example, scholars have written about Miłosz's influence on the writing of Seamus Heaney, and the scholar Clare Cavanagh has identified the following poets as having benefited from Miłosz's influence: Robert Pinsky, Edward Hirsch, Rosanna Warren, Robert Hass, Charles Simic, Mary Karr, Carolyn Forché, Mark Strand, Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, and Derek Walcott.
By being smuggled into Poland, Miłosz's writing was a source of inspiration to the anti-communist Solidarity movement there in the early 1980s. Lines from his poem, "You Who Wronged", are inscribed on the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970 in Gdańsk, where Solidarity originated.
Writing about the effect of Miłosz's edited volume, Postwar Polish Poetry, on English-language poets, W.S. Merwin claimed that "Miłosz’s book had been a talisman and had made most of the literary bickering among the various ideological encampments, then most audible in the poetic doctrines in English, seem frivolous and silly". Similarly, the British poet and scholar Donald Davie argued that, for many English-language writers, Miłosz's work encouraged an expansion of poetry to include multiple viewpoints and an engagement with subjects of intellectual and historical importance: "I have suggested, going for support to the writings of Miłosz, that no concerned and ambitious poet of the present day, aware of the enormities of twentieth-century history, can for long remain content with the privileged irresponsibility allowed to, or imposed on, the lyric poet".
Miłosz's writing continues to be the subject of academic study, conferences, and cultural events. His papers, including manuscripts, correspondence, and other materials, are housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
Miłosz's birth in a time and place of shifting borders and overlapping cultures, and his later naturalization as an American citizen, have led to competing claims about his nationality. Although his family identified as Polish and Polish was his primary language, and although he frequently spoke of Poland as his country, he also publicly identified himself as one of the last citizens of the multi-ethnic Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Writing in a Polish newspaper in 2000, he claimed, "I was born in the very center of Lithuania and so have a greater right than my great forebear, Mickiewicz, to write 'O Lithuania, my country.'" However, in his Nobel lecture, he said, "My family in the sixteenth century already spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland English, so I am a Polish, not a Lithuanian, poet".
Public statements such as these, and numerous others, inspired discussion about his nationality, including a claim that he was "arguably the greatest spokesman and representative of a Lithuania that, in Miłosz’s mind, was bigger than its present incarnation". Others have viewed Miłosz as an American author, hosting exhibitions about him from that perspective and including his work in anthologies of American poetry. However, writing in the New York Review of Books in 1981, the critic John Bayley claimed that "nationality is not a thing [Miłosz] can take seriously; it would be hard to imagine a greater writer more emancipated from even its most subtle pretensions". Echoing this notion, the scholar and diplomat Piotr Wilczek argues that, even when he was greeted as a national hero in Poland, Miłosz “made a distinct effort to remain a universal thinker”. Speaking at a ceremony to celebrate the poet's birth centenary in 2011, the President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaité, stressed that Miłosz's works "unite the Lithuanian and Polish people and reveal how close and how fruitful the ties between our people can be".
Though raised Catholic, Miłosz as a young man came to adopt a "scientific, atheistic position mostly", though he later returned to the Catholic faith. He translated parts of the Bible into Polish, and allusions to Catholicism pervade his poetry, culminating in a long 2001 poem, "A Theological Treatise". For some critics, Miłosz's belief that literature should provide spiritual fortification was outdated: Franaszek suggests that Miłosz's belief was evidence of a "beautiful naïveté", while David Orr, citing Miłosz's dismissal of "poetry which does not save nations or people", accused him of "pompous nonsense".
Miłosz had expressed some criticisms of both Catholicism and Poland (a majority-Catholic country), causing a furor in some quarters when it was announced that he would be interred in Kraków's historic Skałka church. Cynthia Haven writes that, to some readers, Miłosz's embrace of Catholicism can seem surprising and complicates an understanding of the poet and his work.
Miłosz's body of work comprised multiple literary genres: poetry, fiction (particularly the novel), autobiography, scholarship, personal essay, and lectures. His letters are also of interest to scholars and lay readers; for example, his correspondence with writers such as Jerzy Andrzejewski, Witold Gombrowicz, and Thomas Merton have been published.
At the outset of his career, Miłosz was known as a "catastrophist" poet—a label critics applied to him and other poets from the Żagary poetry group to describe their use of surreal imagery and formal inventiveness in reaction to a Europe beset by extremist ideologies and war. While Miłosz evolved away from the apocalyptic view of “catastrophist” poetry, he continued to pursue formal inventiveness throughout his career. As a result, his poetry demonstrates a wide-ranging mastery of form, from long or epic poems (e.g., A Treatise on Poetry) to poems of just two lines (e.g., "On the Death of a Poet" from the collection This), and from prose poems and free verse to classic forms such as the ode or elegy. Some of his poems use rhyme, but many do not. In numerous cases, Miłosz used form to illuminate meaning in his poetry; for example, by juxtaposing variable stanzas to accentuate ideas or voices that challenge each other.
Miłosz's work is known for its complexity; according to the scholars Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, Miłosz "prided himself on being an esoteric writer accessible to a mere handful of readers". Nevertheless, some common themes are readily apparent throughout his body of work.
The poet, critic, and frequent Miłosz translator Robert Hass has described Miłosz as "a poet of great inclusiveness" with a fidelity to capturing life in all of its sensuousness and multiplicities. In fact, according to Hass, Miłosz's poems can be viewed as "dwelling in contradiction", where one idea or voice is presented only to be immediately challenged or changed. According to Donald Davie, this allowance for contradictory voices—a shift from the solo lyric voice to a chorus—is among the most important aspects of Miłosz's work.
The poetic chorus is deployed not just to highlight the complexity of the modern world but also to search for morality, another of Miłosz's recurrent themes. Nathan and Quinn claim that "Miłosz’s work is devoted to unmasking man’s fundamental duality; he wants to make his readers admit the contradictory nature of their own experience" because doing so "forces us to assert our preferences as preferences". That is, it forces readers to make conscious choices, which is the arena of morality. At times, Miłosz's exploration of morality was explicit and concrete, such as when, in The Captive Mind, he ponders the right way to respond to three Lithuanian women who were forcibly moved to a Russian communal farm and wrote to him for help, or when, in the poems "Campo Dei Fiori" and "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto", he addresses survivor's guilt and the morality of writing about another's suffering.
Miłosz's exploration of morality takes place in the context of history, and a confrontation with history is another of his important themes. The scholar Helen Vendler argued that "for Miłosz, the person is irrevocably a person in history, and the interchange between external event and the individual life is the matrix of poetry". Miłosz, who had experienced both Nazism and Stalinism, was particularly concerned with the notion of "historical necessity", which, in the twentieth century, was used to justify human suffering on a previously unheard-of scale. Yet Miłosz did not reject the concept entirely. Nathan and Quinn summarize Miłosz's appraisal of historical necessity as it appears in his essay collection, Views from San Francisco Bay: "Some species rise, others fall, as do human families, nations, and whole civilizations. There may well be an internal logic to these transformations, a logic that when viewed from sufficient distance has its own elegance, harmony, and grace. Our reason tempts us to be enthralled by this superhuman splendor; but when so enthralled we find it difficult to remember, except perhaps as an element in an abstract calculus, the millions of individuals, the millions upon millions, who unwillingly paid for this splendor with pain and blood".
Miłosz's willingness to accept a form of logic in history points to another recurrent aspect of his writing: his capacity for wonder, amazement, and, ultimately, faith—not always religious in a traditional sense, but "faith in the objective reality of a world to be known by the human mind but not constituted by that mind". At other times, however, Miłosz was more explicitly religious in his work. According to scholar and translator Michael Parker, "crucial to any understanding of Miłosz’s work is his complex relationship to Catholicism". His writing is filled with allusions to Christian figures, symbols, and theological ideas, although Miłosz himself was closer to Gnosticism, or what he called Manichaeism, in his personal beliefs, viewing the universe as ruled by an evil whose influence human beings must try to escape. From this perspective, "he can at once admit that the world is ruled by necessity, by evil, and yet still find hope and sustenance in the beauty of the world. History reveals the pointlessness of human striving, the instability of human things; but time also is the moving image of eternity". According to Hass, this viewpoint left Miłosz "with the task of those heretical Christians…to suffer time, to contemplate being, and to live in the hope of the redemption of the world".
Miłosz had numerous literary and intellectual influences, although scholars of his work—and Miłosz himself, in his writings—have identified the following as significant: Oscar Miłosz (who inspired Miłosz's interest in the metaphysical) and, through him, Emanuel Swedenborg; Lev Shestov; Simone Weil (whose work Miłosz translated into Polish); Fyodor Dostoevsky; William Blake (whose concept of "Ulro" Miłosz borrowed for his book The Land of Ulro), and T.S. Eliot.
Weronika would retain two passports throughout her life, while Czesław, as a child, had only Lithuanian citizenship.
Birth and death of Miłosz's parents are noted on pp. 36, 38, 242, 243.
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