A Poet Reads from His Work
TUESDAY, APRIL 11, 1995
-When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.
-And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?
-Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.
-Translated by the author and Robert Hass from Provinces, Ecco Press, 1991.
In 1978 Joseph Brodsky wrote: "I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that Czeslaw Milosz is one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest." Seventeen years later Brodsky's view has changed only in that he no longer says "perhaps." For Brodsky, his fellow Nobel Laureate "is absolutely unequaled by any writer in our civilization in the past half-century, a poet in whom the lyrical and the revelatory seamlessly combine-the rarest of occurrences in our line of work."
Milosz was born in 1911 in Szetejnie, Lithuania. 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. Milosz had a rigorous formal education in Wilno, the capital of Polish Lithuania. In his early twenties he published his first volume of poems, A Poem on Frozen Time (1933).
The Soviet regime in Wilno eventually forced Milosz to flee the city of his youth to Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where he joined the resistance. Milosz's anthology of anti-Nazi poetry, The Invincible Song (1942), was published by underground presses in Warsaw, where he also wrote "The World (A Naive Poem) (1943)" and the cycle Voices of Poor People (1943).
The end of the war brought more dislocation. Milosz worked as a cultural attache 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 pro-socialist and communist intellectual community. He wrote two novels during this period, Seizure of Power (1952) and The Issa Valley (1955), as well as his most famous book, The Captive Mind (1953), a study of the dangerous appeal of totalitarian thought, along with portraits of friends who had been seduced by it. 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 became 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 (1968) 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 (1969), Beginning with My Streets (1973), The Land of Ulro (1977), and his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, The Witness of Poetry (1983). His Collected Poems, 1931-1987 appeared in 1988 and included portions of Unattainable Earth (1984). It was followed most recently by another collection, Provinces (1991). A diary of the year 1988, A Year of the Hunter, was published in 1994 and another volume of poetry, Facing the River (1995), has just appeared.