Czeslaw Milosz – Biography – The Wilno Poet Under California Skies

Czeslaw Milosz – The Wilno Poet Under California Skies

November 2012

It is not an anomaly to be transformed by the breadth and scope of the Northern California landscape.

To stand on a mountain and look over the rocky shore and the expanse of the blue Pacific is a powerful sensation. While one’s awe eventually is brought back to even keel, the sensation, the experience, can often be everlasting. This experience seems to rearrange the human chemistry and cells on some fundamental basis and this transformation is brought into the forefront of thinking at first and then takes its place as a strong component of ones makeup.  Much of the shock to the system is embedded in the conflict of civilization with nature. In the heartland, in the city, one moves in time within the structures of civilization: families, neighbors, churches, manufacturing plants, office buildings, schools, trains, cars, and airplanes. Our language and human behaviors connect this all as a whole and we live here amidst this structure, this edifice, what it teaches us. It is this structure, this edifice that is challenged by the western landscape — when viewed in solitude all of the structure is removed and the expanse and grandeur of nature is brought to the forefront: mountains, valleys, forests, rivers, sky, clouds, wind and wildlife.

This experience was central to Czeslaw Milosz. He accepted a position of professor with the University of California, Berkeley in 1960. Milosz was living in Paris at the time, and was in exile from his beloved Poland homeland.  While living in California for forty years, Milosz remained a Polish patriot throughout, though he spent critical formative years under the rule of the western Pacific land and sky.

Fundamental to the Milosz makeup was his poetry, language and participation in the mighty European struggle of his time. He lived through WWI as a boy and as a man lived through the devastation and brutality of the German Nazi invasion and both Russian invasions of Poland – one in 1939 (eastern Poland) and the second after the German departure and failed Polish uprising of 1944. These invasions tested the limits of human endurance  — the Nazis decimated the country and in particular Warsaw, such that few of the inhabitants and buildings were left standing upon the Nazi departure — the image of a smoldering city with the stench of flesh all around provides the foreground. This a city with a population just over one million people. With barely days in-between, the Red Army was waiting at the Vistula River and then proceeded to take the country under its dominance. Stalin at this point had experience with brutalizing his own people, and the Poles in eastern Poland, and soon unleashed his skills on the western Polish people. Between 1939 and 1945, six million Polish people were murdered, one half were Jews – 90% of the deaths were unrelated to military conflict. The chaos also included massive deportations (German and Russian), separating the country into districts, select strategies to kidnap children for exportation (German), and executions of the educated (German and Russian). No one can establish the psychic damage to survivors that this kind of sustained experience caused.

Milosz mainly wrote poetry through the war years and then began his seminal study in the causes and effects of the forced acceptance of Russian communism and its dialectical materialism. Thus a next phase of humiliation and degradation. His book, “The Captive Mind,” was written in the early fifties in Paris and it established Milosz as a psychologist of the mental apparatus that is used to subjugate an unwilling population of nationalists and communists of another stripe to Russian communism. Milosz uses character and biographical sketches to demonstrate the methods and rules of the Russian Way. His method of showing history and movements through peoples’ lives was powerfully creative and poetic in its nature – and in his signature tough style it also tells the history and the intellectual motivations and nuances of the times. Russia was to dominate and rule central and eastern Europe for thirty years after WWII until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990.

What we can establish is that Milosz moved on in a creative way and worked to enrich his experience of the world and his poetry. Writing the preface to “The Captive Mind” he saw his task as: “…to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.” He won the Nobel prize for literature in 1980 for these efforts to tell this incredibly complex tale both in prose and poetry, always blending the highly rational with the mystical and poetic. The Nobel committee found for Milosz: “who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts.”

Milosz continued to write and read mostly in Polish even while teaching in Berkeley. He never lost his self identification as a Pole or Lithuanian and as a Catholic. While he was educated in the Greek and Roman classics and in European thought and languages through the mediaeval and later periods, he did spend time absorbing American literature from Whitman to Jeffers. He developed a close connection with Jeffers and while they never met, Milosz visited the Tor House a few years after Jeffers death. Milosz understood Jeffers and described how he could build Jeffers case internally since he felt a kinship to Jeffers thought when he was a young man, but had outgrown the sense that nature rules the world and adopted the concept that civilization was preeminent. Mind you, this appears to be a choice of paths rather than some clear perception of ultimate reality.

As a thinker, Milosz’ training in the study of law provided a very unique blend of highly rational thought blended with his mystical instincts. He had a very strong connection to Blake, Swedenborg and to Simone Weil (he translated her poetry and prose in 1958 from French to Polish) each of whom were on his lips late in life and continued to animate his thinking as a poet. He wrote an incisive piece on Weil’s thinking and consciousness in “The Emperor of Earth” where he says that she not only saw the failure of dialectal materialism, but understood the nature of humanness to say that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” He also discusses her view that civilization that was built over the years to protect humans from natures ravages have ironically become more savage than nature.

“Milosz’ mental images rarely left Dante on the sidelines – Dante’s structure for the religio-poetica world gave a home to many of Milosz’s words and ideas. Giving a balance to this view is the prodigious reading that Milosz did of Polish and Lithuanian writing in a broad sense of poets, historians and dramatists, novelists. Some of these individual writers are: Iwaszkiewicz, Witkiewicz, Kazimierz Wierzynski, Jerzy Giedroyc and Galczynski. Milosz had personal or literary relationships with many of these writers and he writes about his emotional events with some interest in his book “A Year of the Hunter.” Importantly Milosz spend many years in government and diplomatic service that aided his ability to perform and witness the formal dealings of the political world and its its practical consequences.

Milosz taught Dostoyevsky (he has a Lithuanian heritage) as part of the Slavic Languages curriculum at Berkley. He did not approve of novelists on the whole, as he says they can say whatever they like (misrepresent facts) to tell a story — he was more disciplined and wedded to the world of reality than that. He wrote two novels himself. Having said that he was very moved as a young man by Thomas Mann and personally identified with several of the characters in “The Magic Mountain.”

Milosz believes that we cannot see ultimate reality that it hides in the shadows and in dimensions that humans are not equipped to see. Jeffers accepted his senses and the strong inclination that humans are part of the web of the world and do not have a rightful ruling position, especially when they go about disrespecting nature by destroying its creatures and its land. Jeffers was an agnostic whereas Milosz believed in his God, otherwise there was a poetic connection as different as their lives and views were.

I pray to my bedside god.

For He must have billions of ears.

And one ear He keeps always open to me.

2002 (tr: Anthony Miłosz)

In his later years Milosz gathered the eastern views of Buddhism and Zen to enrich his world of gods and church and men.

Milosz considered Paris the capital of the world and lived there for ten years after WWII and before he went back to the United States to live in Berkeley. There were intervening years directly after the war when Milosz lived in New York and later Washington, DC for five years. At the time he made some initial judgements about American capitalism and was not convinced that the American way is any improvement on socialism. He saw the ruthlessness of pure capitalism and it repulsed him. These early thoughts on America were recast in his later years, but he saw his job in Berkeley as a stabilizing force in his life.

Milosz thought of himself as a poet and patriot, rather than identifying with any political party or movement. This is not to say that Milosz is not political, he is highly political and enlists his many talents in analyzing the methods and madnesses of the political world, but Milosz is no ideologue. He sees his role as one of explicating the world of actions, thoughts and feelings in his way and this is grounded in the central drive of a sense of place. While he looks, reads, and thinks, Wilno is there in all of its imaginations.

From “Visions of San Francisco Bay”:

To Robinson Jeffers

If you have not read the Slavic poets
so much the better. There’s nothing there
for a Scotch-Irish wanderer to seek. They lived in a childhood
prolonged from age to age. For them, the sun
was a farmer’s ruddy face, the moon peeped through a cloud
and the Milky Way gladdened them like a birch-lined road.
They longed for the Kingdom which is always near,
always right at hand. Then, under apple trees
angels in homespun linen will come parting the boughs
and at the white kolkhoz tablecloth
cordiality and affection will feast (falling to the ground at times).
And you are from surf-rattled skerries. From the heaths
where burying a warrior they broke his bones
so he could not haunt the living. From the sea night
which your forefathers pulled over themselves, without a word.
Above your head no face, neither the sun’s nor the moon’s,
only the throbbing of galaxies, the immutable
violence of new beginnings, of new destruction.
All your life listening to the ocean. Black dinosaurs
wade where a purple zone of phosphorescent weeds
rises and falls on the waves as in a dream. And Agamemnon
sails the boiling deep to the steps of the palace
to have his blood gush onto marble. Till mankind passes
and the pure and stony earth is pounded by the ocean.
Thin-lipped, blue-eyed, without grace or hope,
before God the Terrible, body of the world.
Prayers are not heard. Basalt and granite.
Above them, a bird of prey. The only beauty.
What have I to do with you? From footpaths in the orchards,
from an untaught choir and shimmers of a monstrance,
from flower beds of rue, hills by the rivers, books
in which a zealous Lithuanian announced brotherhood, I come.
Oh, consolations of mortals, futile creeds.
And yet you did not know what I know. The earth teaches
More than does the nakedness of elements. No one with impunity
gives to himself the eyes of a god. So brave, in a void,
you offered sacrifices to demons: there were Wotan and Thor,
the screech of Erinyes in the air, the terror of dogs
when Hekate with her retinue of the dead draws near.
Better to carve suns and moons on the joints of crosses
as was done in my district. To birches and firs
give feminine names. To implore protection
against the mute and treacherous might
than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.



Legends of Modernity – Czeslaw Milosz – Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York) – 1996

Emperor of the Earth – Czeslaw Milosz – UNiversity of California Press (Berkeley and Los Angeles) – 1981

The Captive Mind – Czeslaw Milosz – Vintage International (New York) – 1990

To Begin Where I Am – Czeslaw Milosz – Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York)  – 2001

A Year of The Hunter – Czeslaw Milosz – Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York) – 1994


Poets Sing the Praises of Robinson Jeffers – Los Angeles Times – January 14, 1987 Reader’s Almanac: The Official Blog of the Library of America – Jane Hirshfield on Czeslaw Milosz, (California) Poet – October 12, 2012

Czeslaw Milosz, The Art of Poetry No. 70 – The Paris Review – Winter 1994

The Nobel Prize in Literature – Lecture & Interview –

The Witness of Czeslaw Milosz – Jeremy Driscoll – First Things – November 2004

UC Berkeley News – Press Release – Marie Felde – August 14, 2004

Czeslaw Milosz – Poetry Foundation –

2nd Czeslaw Milosz Festival –

Seamus Heaney on Czesław Miłosz’s Centenary – The Guardian – April 2011

Nature and the Symbolic Order: The Dialogue Between Czeslaw Milosz and Robinson Jeffers – Alan Soldofsky – Robinson Jeffers, Fordham Univ Press – 1995

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