The Guardian Profile: Czeslaw Milosz

A century's witness

Once banned, but now a hero in his native Poland, he has known a world of political extremes including tsarism, revolution, Nazi occupation, 50s communism and 60s radicalism. Yet this Nobel prize-winning poet claims he has never been a pessimist. Nicholas Wroe reports

In December 1980, a monument was unveiled at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland, birthplace of the Solidarity trade union, in memory of shipworkers killed by the security forces during riots a decade earlier. Inscribed on the base was a line from Psalm 29:11, translated into Polish by the poet Czeslaw Milosz: "The Lord will give strength unto his people." The following year Milosz returned to Poland after 30 years exile in the west. When he went to view the Gdansk monument, members of Solidarity unfurled a huge banner bearing the message: "The People Will Give Strength Unto Their Poet."

In the immediate postwar years, Milosz actually worked for the People's Republic of Poland as a cultural attaché in America, but by 1951 he had broken with the regime, gone into exile in Paris, and his writing had been banned in Poland. However, his work was widely circulated in samizdat editions and he went on to become an almost mythical figure among the dissident community. His 1953 study of totalitarian ideology, The Captive Mind, had dared to face up to both its subtle attractions as well as its mechanisms of enslavement. In his poetry, particularly his autobiographical works, his depictions of an idealised and peaceful homeland provided solace to a nation living in an uncertain world under foreign domination. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in October 1980 and following a highly symbolic meeting with Lech Walesa at the Catholic university of Lublin in 1981, his status as national bard was confirmed.

Also engraved on the Gdansk monument is the defiant penultimate stanza of Milosz's poem You Who Wronged: "Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. You can kill one, but another is born. The words are written down, the deed, the date."

Milosz wrote these lines in 1950 when working in the Polish diplomatic embassy in Washington, and for some sections of the Polish opposition, particularly the more nationalist tendencies whose chauvinism he had attacked during the interwar years, his time working for the government made him an unsuitable choice as a moral and cultural conscience. But for most Poles, his lack of ideological purity made him more representative of the complex national experience.

The final, bitter stanza of You Who Wronged - "And you'd have done better with a winter dawn,/A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight" - leaves little doubt as to his profound and angry disillusionment with what had become Stalinism, even though it was not a poem written for publication. "I was following the situation in Poland and I was quite desperate," he now says. "But it was written for myself, for my drawer. It had to wait 30 years for its moment."

Milosz is now aged 90 and throughout his life and career he has often had to wait for his moment. Even his triumphant 1981 return to Poland turned out to be something of a false dawn. Within days of his visit the first official Polish publication of his poetry sold 150,000 copies, only to be once again banned and forced underground when martial law was imposed shortly afterwards as part of a government attempt to crush the Solidarity movement.

But Milosz's game has always been a long one, and it is hard now to comprehend the extraordinary times he has lived through. He was brought up a Pole, in Lithuania, under Russian tsarist rule, and as a child witnessed the October revolution and the first world war. As an adult he lived through the wartime Nazi occupation of Warsaw and then the Soviet domination of Poland. In exile, he navigated the choppy intellectual waters of 1950s Paris as an impoverished writer, and then the counter-cultural revolution of 1960s California as a professor at Berkeley.

Fellow Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney described Milosz as, "among those members of humankind who have had the ambiguous privilege of knowing and standing more reality than the rest of us". Another Nobel winner, Joseph Brodsky, said: "I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that Czeslaw Milosz is one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest."

This month sees the publication in Britain of his Collected Poems. It contains work written from 1931 right up to earlier this year. Jerzy Jarniewicz, a poet and professor of English at the University of Lodz, says his impact on 20th-century Polish and world literature has been immense. "Milosz's poetry of the 30s foreshadowed the cataclysm of the war. Then, in 1943, after the Warsaw ghetto uprising, he was unique as a Polish poet who witnessed, responded to and articulated something that had been silent for decades in Poland; the relationship between Poland and Jews, and the feeling of moral guilt for what was going on. After the war, he helped open up Polish poetry to many European and American poets. It was Milosz who made the first translation of The Waste Land, for example."

The British poet laureate Andrew Motion says that Milosz's influence extended to the west. "You cannot understand where Ted Hughes's poem Crow is coming from, formally, unless you understand its deep roots in middle-European writing. Milosz was a part of that. Everyone said when Crow came out that it was new, but, of course, it wasn't. It is idiomatically and, in terms of its symbolic life, extremely influenced by middle-European poetry which has a different way of advertising its existence as symbolic writing or allegory."

But Motion also acknowledges that Milosz's use of Polish history and literature as subject matter can be difficult for the uninitiated reader. "I very much enjoy his work, but I recently read a volume of his poetry and I spent a lot of time thinking, 'I don't get this'. It was having an interesting effect on me but I realised that I was missing so many of the references."

Robert Hass, the former poet laureate of the United States, has been the primary translator of Milosz's poetry from Polish into English. He agrees that the details of Polish artistic and cultural life sometimes found in the poetry can seem "almost like a soap opera you'll never understand the whole plot of. But also, when Czeslaw deals with the details of his world, it is, emotionally, some of his most powerful writing. Working with Czeslaw is like reliving the whole of the 20th century through this prism of great specificity. It has been very important to him to remember exactly how, say, wine was stored in 1930s working-class Paris, or the precise details of the elaborate hairdo of his piano teacher in Vilno in 1921."

Czeslaw Milosz was born in June 1911 in the Lithuanian village of Szetejnie. The family belonged to the Polish gentry, but while Milosz was bequeathed their culture, little was left of their wealth by the time he was born. His father was an engineer for the tsarist army during the first world war and his work took him, and his family, all over Russia, repairing bridges and highways. Milosz has one younger brother, Andrzej, who now lives in Warsaw. "He is 86 and he doesn't know how to walk because he runs so much," laughs Milosz. "He was a journalist and made film documentaries but he had a very difficult time in Poland in the 50s because I left the country. I was very sorry about that."

Milosz has been an American citizen since 1970, but was granted honorary Lithuanian citizenship when he returned to the newly independent country in 1992 after more than half a century away. The barn at his childhood home has been converted into a literary and cultural conference centre under the name The Czeslaw Milosz Birthplace Foundation. As he shows photographs of the newly renovated building, he points out the large, open plain in the background. "There used to be three villages there, all with orchards," he explains. "Now it is known locally as Kazakhstan because that is where the population was forced to move to. The villages and everything there were destroyed."

All this happened after Milosz had left Szetejnie, and he remembers his childhood there, returning after the chaos of war and the 1917 revolution, as an idyllic period. It is one he has returned to time and again in both his poetry and his prose, most notably in his charming 1955 novel Issa Valley, and his, very guarded 1958 autobiography, Native Realm.

Milosz attended both school and university in Wilno (now Vilnius) and remembers watching Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford films. Although he started out studying literature, he graduated in law in 1934. "There were so many girls studying literature it was called the marriage department. So I switched to law and I reluctantly passed my studies. But I never planned a legal career."

Ignacy Swieckicki, an engineer now living in Pennsylvania, is a friend from his schooldays and remembers Milosz as "always very busy with poetry and literature. He was not interested in sports, although he was in the boy scouts, but he was a boy who displayed many talents and many people expected a great future for him. His difficulty has been that he was trying to combine his faith and tradition with ideas which were rather contrary to the surroundings in which he was brought up."

Milosz received a strict Catholic education but wrote as a young man that, "in a Roman Catholic country intellectual freedom always goes hand in hand with atheism". He later returned to the church, and learned Hebrew in order to translate the Psalms into Polish, but has said that while he is a Catholic, he is not a Catholic writer. "Because if you are branded as a Catholic, you are supposed to testify with every work of yours to following the line of the Church, which is not necessarily my case."

Milosz's first published poems appeared in the Wilno university journal, and in 1931 he co-founded a literary group called Zagary, whose bleak political outlook and symbolism saw them dubbed the school of "catastrophists". During the same year he made his first trip to Paris, where he came under the influence of a distant cousin, Oscar Milosz, a French-Lithuanian writer who had been a representative of independent Lithuania at the League of Nations. "Oscar Milosz was a very important influence on my poetic life, particularly in the religious dimension," he says. Czeslaw returned to Paris for a year in 1934 when he won a scholarship to study at the Alliance Français.

Robert Hass says that in Milosz's own hierarchy of his readership, Parisian opinion remains important. "Polish readership comes first and then an international readership of other writers that matter to him. But for many Poles of his generation, the ultimate source of judgment was Paris and my impression is that he is still very aware of the French response to his work."

After returning to Wilno, Milosz worked for Polish Radio there, but was transferred to Warsaw in 1937 because of his leftist sympathies in general, and his willingness to allow Jews to broadcast in particular. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he was briefly sent to the frontline as a radio reporter before making his way back to Wilno. Following the Soviet invasion of Lithuania the following year, he made a dangerous journey across Soviet lines and returned to Nazi-occupied Warsaw where he found a job as a janitor at the university, making ends meet with some black-market trading. Throughout this period, he wrote and edited for underground publications, and even underground theatre, using his grandmother's maiden name, Jan Syruc.

"It was a very strange time to translate the Waste Land, in the middle of the German occupation," he now acknowledges, "but it was all part of me gradually acquiring self-awareness of how my road would be different to before the war." The poems he wrote directly confronting the horror of what was going on around him - Campo dei Fiori and A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto - have become some of his most famous and influential works. But Milosz points to another poem written in the wake of the failed Warsaw uprising of 1943, The World, which was published in 1945, as equally important to him and his move away from the catastrophism of his youth to a more philosophical and transcendent faith in the future.

While he has directly engaged with enormous historical and intellectual horrors, Milosz has done so not as a politician, but more as a theologian, philosopher or mystic meditating on the nature of humanity and culture. "I lived through the horror of the extermination of the Jewish population in Warsaw," he says, "and I wrote about that. But in the same year I wrote The World, which has nothing to do with the horror of the war but instead gives an image of the world as it should be - a counterbalance and a restoring of dignity to the world as it was. I didn't know at the time that I was repeating the procedure of Blake, who had written Songs of Experience and Songs of Innocence. It was very difficult to liberate myself from prewar patterns and tastes and styles, but I knew when I wrote these poems that it was a turning point in my poetry."

During the Warsaw occupation, Milosz married Janina Dluska. They had met in the late 30s when they both worked for the radio station. They had two sons who both still live in California: Antoni, who was born in 1947 and is a computer programmer; and Piotr, born 1951, who is an anthropologist. Milosz has one grandchild, Erin, who is in her third year of a joint medical school PhD in New York City. Janina died in 1986 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for 10 years . In 1992 Milosz married Carol Thigpen, who was associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. They have a home in Berkeley but over the past few years have spent most of their time in Krakow. Seeing Milosz in the city is to glimpse his place in Polish life. People spontaneously come up to him to say hello and take his photograph. The image of the dourly forbidding sage - he often looks darkly brooding in photographs - regularly dissolves into a huge, red-cheeked smile and rich chuckling.

Milosz first came to Krakow in 1944 after the failed Warsaw uprising. When the war ended, he became a government attaché. "I have never been a communist but I did have leftist inclinations before the war, largely because I was against the kind of alliance that existed between the Catholic church and the nationalists," he says. "But after the war I had a very ambiguous attitude towards the changes that were underway. On the one hand, the country was completely dependent on Moscow and it was obvious that is was a new occupation. But on the other hand, there were some radical reforms and that was good. For a time I had a hope that things would develop as I wanted, but, in fact, for countries such as Poland and Hungary, that initial period was just an introductory period of Stalinisation."

In 1946, Milosz began working at the Polish embassy in America and says that while he always had political doubts about the regime, they weren't crystallised until he returned home in 1949 and saw first-hand the direction the regime was taking. He attended a lavish evening function attended by most of Poland's ruling elite. On his way home, at about four in the morning, he has said that he came across some jeeps carrying newly arrested prisoners. "The soldiers guarding them were wearing sheepskin coats, but the prisoners were in suit jackets with the collars turned up, shivering from the cold. It was then that I realised what I was part of."

As his increasing doubts became known, so he fell under official suspicion and when he made another trip home from Washington in December 1950, his passport was confiscated. However, only eight weeks later he was allowed to travel to Paris, where he sought political asylum. Official connivance has long been suspected in his escape, but for many years Milosz has been reluctant to discuss the details. "But now it is the remote past so it can be told," he says. "The wife of the Polish foreign minister was a Russian woman. She helped me but she said, 'in my opinion a poet should stay with his country but the decision belongs to you. But if you decide otherwise, remember that you have a duty to fight him [Stalin], the executioner of Russia.' It's a very romantic story, yes?"

Has he ever thought that she was right and he should have stayed? "Many times I wondered what would have happened. I have no answer because one doesn't know oneself enough to know how one would behave in different circumstances. Maybe I would have made a fool of myself, like the friend I describe in the Captive Mind, by writing what the party desired." In The Captive Mind, Milosz wrote that ultimately his decision came, "not from the functioning of the reasoning mind, but from a revolt of the stomach. A man may persuade himself, by the most logical reasoning, that he will greatly benefit his health by swallowing live frogs; and, thus rationally convinced, he may swallow a first frog, then the second; but at the third his stomach will revolt. In the same way, the growing influence of the doctrine on my way of thinking came up against the resistance of my whole nature."

Milosz says that he doesn't like the word defect and prefers to say that he broke with the regime. Regardless, his move to Paris was physically, politically and artistically dangerous. Parisian intellectual life was overwhelmingly pro-communist and many of Milosz's Parisian friends were party members. "It is very difficult to restore today the aura and climate of politics at that time," he says, "Today, the division seems completely mythical. But among intellectuals then there was great admiration for life in the east. They were very dissatisfied by me and I was considered, at best, a madman. I had left the world of the future for the world of the past. That made my life in Paris very difficult."

Among the few intellectuals to assist him was Albert Camus, but most of his old friends shunned him, including Pablo Neruda, who went on to become the 1971 Nobel literature laureate. He and Milosz had translated each other's work but Neruda denounced Milosz in an article entitled The Man Who Ran Away in the Communist Party newspaper. Things were made even more difficult by the fact that his family had remained in America and he was denied a US visa to join them because of his association with the communist Polish government.

However, despite this, his early years in Paris were productive and he published The Seizure of Power, the first of his two novels; Treatise on Poetry, a vast, poetic overview of 20th-century Polish poetry, only recently translated into English; and The Captive Mind, in which he attempted to explore "the vulnerability of the 20th-century mind to seduction by socio-political doctrines and its readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of a hypothetical future".

Madeline Levine, professor of Slavic literatures at the University of North Carolina, has been translating Milosz's prose since the late 80s and says that, starting with The Captive Mind, there is a remarkable coherence to his vast prose output. She adds that he once claimed that the 20th-century novel would have to be capacious and include all the intellectual trends of the century, and contends that Milosz's subsequent prose work, in a fragmentary way, has, in effect, been this novel as a work in progress. "In his writing there are so many people who almost become fictional characters," she says. "It's not that they are fictionalised, but they are as vivid as characters in a novel. He has measured the intellectual engagements of these people against all the trends of the 20th century. In some ways it has been hermetic in making the passions of Polish culture and literary life come alive, but it has also been engaged with wider intellectual currents. It is about the attractions of communism and socialism, and so is often about people much like himself, people whose attraction to communism came from a principled rejection of capitalism at its worst."

The Captive Mind was the first of Milosv's work to make a significant impact on the west, but it threw up two obstacles to his future career. "It was considered by anti-communists as suspect because I didn't attack strongly enough the communists," he recalls. "I tried to understand the processes and they didn't like that. And it also created the idea, particularly in the west, that I was a political writer. This was a misunderstanding because my poetry was unknown. I have never been a political writer and I worked hard to destroy this image of myself. I didn't try to get a teaching position in political science. I went to America as a lecturer of literature."

Milosz started teaching at Berkeley in 1960 and was granted tenure a year later as professor of Slavic languages and literature. He retired in 1984. At the time of the Berkeley campus revolution in 1968, when the students began to assess their professors, he was proud to receive excellent grades. That said, he found much of the 60s student radicalism depressingly short-sighted and familiar. "I was rather sad to see every stupidity I had experienced before being re-enacted."

He says that the years at Berkeley were a time of solitude that was good for his work but left him feeling lonely. Friends say he can have periods of melancholy, but is generally a highly gregarious companion who is enthusiastic about food, drink and conversation."Living in Krakow, I have plenty of friends, but in Berkeley, while I talked to colleagues and students, I had very few friends. I was in constant correspondence with good friends in Paris, as my friendships were based upon my poetry." Milosz has always written in Polish, and it was not until 1973 that a volume of his selected poetry was translated into English. Hass has said that during this time, Milosz was living in, "intolerable obscurity and loneliness. He had to invent the idea that there was still somebody to read his poems."

The sign that his reputation had changed from political essayist to poet was the award of the Neustadt International Literary Prize in 1978 - described as the introduction to the Nobel because so many laureates have won it first. Two years later he received a 3am phone call at his Berkeley home from a journalist in Stockholm, telling him he had won the Nobel prize. "The next morning, all hell broke loose. I tried very hard not to change my habits and I went to my class not to break the routine. I tried to save myself from too much turmoil, but it was very hard. I am a private person and have resisted being made a public one."

Milosz seems to have been content to occupy this public role in Poland, but Jerzy Jarniewicz says that he may be the last in a line of Polish poets who have acted as a spokesperson for their society. While he fulfilled an important moral duty to bear witness, more recently younger poets have rebelled against this idea. "Poets who published their first books in the late 80s and 90s have largely rejected both the official culture and the underground ethos," explains Jarniewicz. "Theirs is a poetry of enormous scepticism and distrust. It goes in fear of anything that is pretentious and prophetic, and so they have replaced communal experience - which is a key idea in Milosz, and in Polish poetry generally - and instead focused on what is unique and individual and personal. As one younger poet said, 'there is nothing about me in the constitution'."

When Milosz's poem about the siege of Sarajevo was published on the front page of the biggest-selling Polish newspaper, it was also attacked for attempting to deal with a contemporary issue in a diction that had become anachronistic. He has also been criticised for what is seen as an over-romantic defence of Polish and European culture. "He has criticised western Europe for its secularisation and loss of metaphysical feeling," says Jarniewicz. "This is counterpointed by his equally strong belief that the metaphysical is still alive in certain parts of eastern Europe. Many younger poets look with great suspicion on this, but for Milosz it is something that is very much alive."

Milosz says he is uneasy about trying to assess contemporary Poland - "such a big subject" - but acknowledges that the country has changed in ways he finds difficult to recognise. "I ask myself about the country and I can't explain it. For instance, isn't it paradoxical that a country where most people go to church on Sunday should vote for the post-communists? But although the last election to the parliament had an anti-intelligentsia tinge, I have never been a pessimist. For instance, the book market is extremely lively in Poland and there is a lively cultural life. There are many papers and periodicals, and I collaborate with a weekly Catholic magazine here in Krakow."

He also takes an indulgent delight in his work still being read by a young readership. His long 1956 poem, Treatise on Poetry, has recently been translated into English for the first time. "It has been a great pleasure to see my poem apparently not getting old," he smiles. "It is really a history of Polish poetry in the 20th century, in connection to history and the problems of so-called historical necessity. And I am proud of having written a poem that deals with historical, political and aesthetic issues even though, of course, I know that for students, the parts of the poem where I deal with Hegelian philosophy and Marxism are, for them, completely exotic. They have such short memories."

Life at a glance Czeslaw Milosz

Born: June 30, 1911, Szetejnie, Lithuania.

Education: Zygmunt August High School, Wilno; Stefan Batory University, Wilno.

Family: Married Janina Dluska 1943 (died 1986), two sons; married Carol Thigpen 1992.

Career: Polish National Radio 1935-39; Polish cultural attache in America 1946-51; freelance writer 1951-60; lecturer then professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1960-84.

Some poetry collections: Poem of the Frozen Time 1933; Rescue 1945; Light of Day 1953; City Without a Name 1969; From the Rising of the Sun 1974; Facing the River 1995; Collected Poems 2001.

Some other books: The Captive Mind 1953; The Seizure of Power 1953; Native Realm 1958; A Year of the Hunter 1994.

Some awards: Neustadt International Literary Prize 1978; Nobel Prize for Literature 1980.

* New and Collected Poems 1931-2000 by Czeslaw Milosz is published by The Penguin Press at £30, see page 12.


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The Guardian Profile: Czeslaw Milosz

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 00.23 GMT on Saturday 10 November 2001. It appeared in the Guardian on Saturday 10 November 2001 on p6 of the Review comment & features section. It was last updated at 00.23 GMT on Wednesday 5 March 2003.

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