Fifteen years have gone by since the illustrious writer Czesław Miłosz passed away, although his writing still offers admirers all over the world a window into the delightful brilliance of his mind
Not that I want to be a god or a hero. Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone.
The Polish poet, novelist and essayist is unanimously recognized as a giant of twentieth century literature. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, and the National Medal of Arts of the United States Congress in 1989.
Language is the only homeland.
Miłosz was born into a Polish-speaking family in Lithuania, and was therefore very aware of the subtleties of national identity in Europe throughout the twentieth century. His strong ties to the Polish tongue anchored him to Poland, but having worked as a literary translator also gave him some insight into the emotional magnitude of language, explored in detail in his autobiography Native Realm.
Calm down. Both your sins and your good deeds will be lost in oblivion.
New and Collected Poems: 1931-2001, translated by the author and Robert Hass
A deeply spiritual man, Miłosz went through several phases of belief in his life but ultimately returned to Catholicism. However, the minimalism and genuineness of his postulates prove seductive to any reader.
The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.
The Collected Poems: 1931-1987, translated by the author and Robert Hass
In spite of his immense accomplishments, Miłosz’s sense of humour never left him. His down-to-earth nature amused his friends and entertained many of his admirers. To give only one example, his good friend (and specialist of his oeuvre) Professor Aleksander Fiut recalls that immediately after winning the Nobel prize, Miłosz declared that he was in the mood for a Big Mac. And thus they went in tuxedos to have supper at a Stockholm McDonald’s.
Western audiences confronted with poems or novels written in Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary, or with films produced there, possibly intuit a similarly sharpened consciousness, in a constant struggle against limitations imposed by censorship.
Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1980
While Miłosz often wrote about the Central European political reality of the communist years, he effortlessly found understanding and appreciation in readers far beyond those geographical borders. By appealing to universal longings, in his time he made a significant contribution to the difficult dialogue between Western and Eastern cultures. For those interested in this particular aspect of his writing, his 1953 non-fiction work The Captive Mind is a must.
How is it, Chloe, that your pretty skirt
Is torn so badly by the winds that hurt
Real people, you who, in eternity, sing
The hours, sun in your hair appearing
And disappearing? How is that your breasts
Are pierced by shrapnel, and the oak groves burn,
While you, charmed, caring not at all, turn
To run through forests of machinery and concrete
And haunt us with the echoes of your feet?
A Book in the Ruins, 1941, translated by the author and Robert Hass
Miłosz’s wartime experience had a great impact on his poetry, wherein the idyllic and the apocalyptic go hand-in-hand. The wealth of visual metaphors in his verse has earned him warm praise from the most eminent critics, including his fellow countryman in exile Joseph Brodsky.
Undoubtedly, one comes closer to the truth when one sees history as the expression of the class struggle rather than a series of private quarrels among kings and nobles. But precisely because such an analysis of history comes closer to the truth, it is more dangerous. It gives the illusion of full knowledge; it supplies answers to all questions, answers which merely run around in a circle repeating a few formulas.
While Miłosz is famous for his exquisite verse, his prose is equally known and esteemed. The clarity and philosophical depth of his intellectual universe has made him one of the most distinct voices of his time.
And the city stood in its brightness when years later I returned,
My face covered with a coat though now no one was left
Of those who could have remembered my debts never paid,
My shames not eternal, base deeds to be forgiven.
And the city stood in its brightness when years later I returned.
"And the City Stood in Its Brightness" 1963, translated by the author and Robert Hass
Miłosz was no stranger to exile. After WWII he settled in France, and then in the United States, where he lectured as a Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Berkeley. At the time, his works were banned from the People’s Republic of Poland. After winning the Nobel in 1980, his books were finally allowed and he was permitted to return. Thereafter he divided his time between California and Kraków.
Our memory is childish and it saves only what we need.
"Yellow Bicycle" 1986, translated by the author and Robert Hass
Remembrance is a leitmotiv in Miłosz’s works. His long and tumultuous life ran parallel to the turbulent history of Central Europe, and the poet constantly strived to present a purified, universal truth drawn from both individual and collective memories.
Earth, what have I to do with thee?
With your meadows where dumb beasts
Grazed before the deluge without lifting their heads?
What have I to do with your implacable births?
So why this gracious melancholia?
Is it because anger is no use?
"A Portal" 1976, translated by the author and Robert Hass
The sheer beauty of his writing elevates Czesław Miłosz to the rank of an immortal writer. Szymborska said of him: 'he is no longer here but he is still present. Only the writers we love can pull off such a trick'.