Though Nobelist Czeslaw Milosz considers himself a Polish poet because he writes in that “native mother tongue,” he was not born in Poland, nor has he lived there for over half a century. Nonetheless, the poems of this sensuous mystic are inscribed on monuments in Gdansk as well as printed on posters in the New York City transit system.
He was born in 1911 in Szetejnie, Lithuania, the impoverished estate of his grandfather, a gentleman farmer. Milosz remembers the rural Lithuania of that time as a “country of myth and poetry.” His childhood world 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. For several years Milosz enjoyed youthful solitude before beginning a rigorous formal education in Vilnius, the capital of Polish Lithuania. In his early twenties he published his first volume of poems, A Poem on Frozen Time. Three Winters, his second volume, appeared in 1936. Milosz received a law degree from the university in Vilnius and spent a year in Paris on a scholarship, where he met his distant cousin Oscar Milosz, the French poet who became his mentor.
The Soviet regime in Vilnius eventually forced Milosz to flee the city of his youth to Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where he joined the socialist resistance. Milosz’s anthology of anti-Nazi poetry, The Invincible Song, was published by underground presses in Warsaw, where he also wrote “The World (A Naive Poem)” and the cycle Voices of Poor People. After the destruction of Warsaw he lived for a while outside of Krakow. The state publishing house brought out his collected poems in a volume entitled Rescue.
The end of the war brought more dislocation. Milosz worked as a cultural attaché 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 prosocialist and communist intellectual community. He wrote two novels during this period, Seizure of Power and The Issa Valley, as well as his most famous book, The Captive Mind, a study of the dangerous appeal of totalitarian thought, along with portraits of friends who had been seduced by it. An exponent of Simone Weil, he translated her essays into Polish. He also wrote two volumes of poetry and an intellectual autobiography, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition. 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 began a new career as 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 the poems of Zbigniew Herbert. Milosz’s Selected Poems were not published in English until 1973. In 1978 his collection 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 fifty-two year absence.
Since winning the Nobel Prize, Milosz has published many volumes of prose and poetry. His prose collections include Visions from San Francisco Bay, Beginning with My Streets,The Land of Ulro, and his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, The Witness of Poetry. HisCollected Poems appeared in 1988 and included portions of Unattainable Earth. It was followed most recently by another collection, Provinces. A diary of the year 1988, A Year of the Hunter, was published in 1994 and another volume of poetry, Facing the River, is due out in 1995. Milosz resides in Berkeley most of the year but spends portions of his summers in Cracow.
This interview was conducted primarily at Milosz’s home in the Berkeley hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, where he lives with his wife, Carol, and a cat named Tiny. Other portions were recorded before a live audience at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YMHA in New York. The first part of the conversation in Berkeley lasted four hours without interruption, until the poet looked at his watch and then, somewhat sympathetically, at his exhausted interlocutor to ask, “It is six o’clock, time for a little vodka?”
To read Paris Review's interview with the Polish poet, click here.