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Czeslaw Milosz: Poet

Updated on October 10, 2014

A Poet in Service of the Good . . .

In his own words . . .

poetry is an "ally in the service of the good", and that it "was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo".

"At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor, Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds. I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this: To glorify things just because they are."

"It is impossible to communicate to people who have not experienced it the undefinable menace of total rationalism."

Selected Poems: 1931-2004
Selected Poems: 1931-2004

Reading Milosz is like enjoying an evening in someone's formal living room, silent as an invited guest should be. It is a privilege to read these poems. Here is a contemporary who lived through it all and was not ground to dust. (J M Albert, reviewer)

 

Encounter

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn

A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.

One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,

Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going

The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

About Milosz

EARLY YEARS

Czeslaw Milosz is born on June 30, 1911 in Szetejnie (or Seteiniai, in Kedainiai District, Lithuania), to Weronika nee Kunat and Aleksander Milosz. His father was a highway engineer and was drafted into the Tzar's army during WWI. As a combat engineer officer, he built fortifications and bridges near or at the front lines. His wife and son Czeslaw accompanied him as he traveled until they returned to Lithuania in 1918.

In 1921, Milosz started at Zygmunt August High School in Wilno. After graduating he went on to study law at the Stefan Batory University in Wilno and participated in the Polish Studies Literary Club. "Poems of Frozen Time' was his first book of poems published (1933). After receiving his Master of Law degree in 1934, The Union of Polish Writers awarded him the first Philomath Literary Award, for poetry, in Wilno. He was awarded a grant and Milosz went to France for one year.

After returning from France in 1936, Milosz was employed as a literary programmer at Polish Radio in Wilno. With the help of The Union of Polish Writers, he publishes his second book of poetry called "Three Winters." But, due to leftist views, Milosz was let go from his job, traveled to italy, and later found work at the Polish Radio in Warsaw in the planning office.

Milosz escaped from Soviet-occupied Wilno to Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1940 and joined the socialist resistance. Here he published his volume of poetry, "Poems," using a mimeograph and a pen name, Jan Syruc.

Milosz studied in Wilno, Poland

Wilno, Poland
Wilno, Poland

On Angels

All was taken away from you: white dresses,

wings, even existence.

Yet I believe you,

messengers.

There, where the world is turned inside out,

a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and beasts,

you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seams.

Short is your stay here:

now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,

in a melody repeated by a bird,

or in the smell of apples at the close of day

when the light makes the orchards magic.

They say somebody has invented you

but to me this does not sound convincing

for humans invented themselves as well.

The voice -- no doubt it is a valid proof,

as it can belong only to radiant creatures,

weightless and winged (after all, why not?)

girdled with the lightning.

I have heard that voice many a time when asleep

and, what is strange, I understood more or less

an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:

day draws near

another one

do what you can.

Tender towards innocence,

tough-minded when faced with brutality and injustice, Milosz could be at one moment susceptible,

at another remorseless.

Seamus Heaney

Reading of the poem "Gift" - yeah, its black & white & shadowy, but it's a nice reading

Facing The River
Facing The River

"I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that Czeslaw Milosz is one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest." -- Joseph Brodsky

 

This Only

A valley and above it forests in autumn colors.

A voyager arrives, a map led him here.

Or perhaps memory. Once, long ago, in the sun,

When the first snow fell, riding this way

He felt joy, strong, without reason,

Joy of the eyes. Everything was the rhythm

Of shifting trees, of a bird in flight,

Of a train on the viaduct, a feast of motion.

He returns years later, has no demands.

He wants only one, most precious thing:

To see, purely and simply, without name,

Without expectations, fears, or hopes,

At the edge where there is no I or not-I.

Milosz taught at Berkeley for many years

Berkeley
Berkeley

About Milosz

MIDDLE - LATER YEARS

In 1941 Milosz worked as a janitor at the Warsaw University Library. The following year an underground press published his anthology of anti-Nazi poetry. Milosz moved to Cracow in 1945 where he had some poems published, but he moved again in 1946 to New York, taking a diplomatic post. He worked for the Polish consulate and continued writing poetry.

In 1947, Milosz tranfered to Washington to be a cultural attache. 1950 saw the poet as first secretary of the Polish embassy in Paris. When he traveled to visit Warsaw his passport was taken away. It was returned however and Milosz went back to Paris and asked the French government for political asylum on 2/1/1951. He moved to Maisons-Laffitte. For the next several years, Milosz wrote, translated and published extensively. His published volumes spanned from "The Daylight" in 1953 to Bobo's Metamorhposis in 1965, to From the Rising Sun, 1974.

In 1960, Milosz became a long-time lecturer in the department of Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Then in 1976, Milosz received a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue his work on poetry and translations of poetry. He was given the Nobel Prize in 1980, about the time he moved to Cracow. Books of his poetry were finally published in Poland, the first time since 1945. His 90th birthday was celebrated widely in Poland.

Czeslaw Milosz died in 2004 at his Craków home, He was 93. His first wife, Janina, had died in 1986. His second wife, Carol Thigpen, an historian, died in 2002. He is survived by two sons, Anthony and John Peter. Milosz's body was entombed at Church of St. Michael and St. Stanislaw on the Rock.

Unattainable Earth,
Unattainable Earth,

This book combines poetry, prose commentary, and "inscripts" quotations from other writers to create an intimate, multi-layered chorus of voices exploring themes of loss, the inadequacy of language, and the imaginative search for spiritual transcendence.

 
"What is poetry which does not save nations or people?" ~ Czeslaw Milosz ~
"What is poetry which does not save nations or people?" ~ Czeslaw Milosz ~

Love

Love means to learn to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills-

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things

So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.

It doesn't matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn't always understand.

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend

Window

I looked out the window at dawn and saw a young apple tree

translucent in brightness.

And when I looked out at dawn once again, an apple tree laden with

fruit stood there.

Many years had probably gone by but I remember nothing of what

happened in my sleep.

Second Space : New Poems
Second Space : New Poems

The last collection that the late Nobel laureate himself prepared for publication shows him wrestling with faith and disbelief, sin and redemption, death and immortality.

 

The voice of passion is better

than the voice of reason.

The passionless

cannot change history.

~ Czeslaw Milosz ~

Cracow, Poland
Cracow, Poland

Faith

The word Faith means when some sees

A dew-drop or a floating leaf, and knows

That they are, because they have to be.

And even if you dreamed, or closed your eyes

And wished, the world would still be what it was,

And the leaf would still be carried down the river.

It means that when someone's foot is hurt

By a sharp rock, he also knows that rocks

Are here so they can hurt our feet.

Look, see the long shadow cast by the tree;

And flowers and people throw shadows on the earth:

What has no shadow has no strength to live.

Collected Poems
Collected Poems

To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. No to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.

-- Czeslaw Milosz

 

Comments Welcome - What do you think of Milosz's poetry?

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    • profile image

      Betsey 

      3 years ago

      I'm impressed by your writing. Are you a professional or just very knabledgeowle?

    • JakTraks profile imageAUTHOR

      Jacqueline Marshall 

      7 years ago from Chicago area

      @Geeve: Thank you for the blessing. It's appreciated!

    • profile image

      Geeve 

      7 years ago

      A very nice introduction to Milosz's poetry, and accompanied by some lovely illustrations. Blessed.

    • sheilamarie78 profile image

      Sheilamarie 

      7 years ago from British Columbia

      Wonderful poet! I love poetry, too, and do my own scribbling. I really like Milosz's work.

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