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Prominent Poles

Czeslaw Milosz, Polish-American and Polish poet, translator and critic, Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980

Photo of Czeslaw Milosz, poet

Born:   June 30, 1911, Seteiniai, Russian occupied Lithuania (presently Lithuania)

Died:   on August 14, 2004, Cracow, Poland

The early days. Czeslaw Milosz was the son of Aleksander Milosz, a civil engineer, and Weronika Kunat. After WW I Milosz's family settled in Wilno, then belonging to Poland, where he got a strict Roman Catholic education. "In a Roman Catholic country," Milosz wrote at an early stage of his career, "intellectual freedom always goes hand in hand with atheism." Later Milosz accepted his religious background and also started to study Hebrew in order to render the Old Testament into Polish.
Higher education. Milosz received his master of law degree from the University of Wilno in 1934, and then spent a year in Paris. There he formed a close relationship with his distant uncle, Oscar Milosz (1877-1939), who was a diplomat and has also made his name as a French poet.
Early poems. Milosz's first collection of verse, POEMAT O CZASIE ZASTYGLYM, appeared in 1933. It was followed three years later by TRZY ZIMY. In 1936 he worked at a radio station in Wilno (Poland), but was dismissed the following year because of his leftist views. Milosz moved to Warsaw. He became a leading figure of the Zagary group, whose catastrophism, belief in an upcoming cosmic disaster, reflected Spenglerian ideas of cultural life-cycles. The heated literary debates of the group were carried in Wilno and Warsaw periodicals. In his articles Milosz condemned purely aesthetic trends in literature. He attacked on the formalism of the poetic avant-garde in the name of poetry that expresses the personality of the poet and his philosophy of the world. Milosz's early works also show traces of distaste for any form of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and ideological indoctrination.
Marriage. Diplomatic service. Later he returned to the theme of the decline of European civilization in The Land of Ulro (1977). And the disaster came - first in 1939 when German invaded Poland and World War II broke out. During World War II Milosz was active as a writer in the Resistance. In 1944 he married Janina Dluska; they had two sons. His collection of verse, OCALENIA (1945), so impressed the new Communist government that he was appointed junior diplomat as a non-party intellectual. Between 1946 and 1951 Milosz was in the Polish diplomatic service in Washington D.C., and in Paris.
Political asylum.In 1951 he sought political asylum in France. In ZNIEWOLONY UMYSL (tr. The Captive Mind, 1953), which appeared after Milosz left Poland, he revealed the problems of intellectuals living under Stalinism. He saw that there is some dark magnetic force in totalitarian ideology, to which intellectuals were not immune. Between the years 1951 and 1960 Milosz lived in Paris. During these years he published TRAKTAT POETYCKI (1957, in which he argues that poetry is essential for every human community wanting to survive as a community. DOLINA ISSY (1955, The Issa Valley) dealing with the author's childhood in Lithuania. ZDOBYCIE WLADZY (1955), The Seizure of Power) was about life in Warsaw after a change in power. "The exile of a poet, is today a simple function of a relatively recent discovery; that whoever wields power is also able to control language, and not only with the prohibition of censorship, but also by changing the meaning of words." (from Nobel Lecture)
Professorship in the USA. Milosz moved in 1960 to the United States, becoming professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at University of California at Berkeley (1960-78). In 1970 he became a U.S. citizen. In California Milosz's poetry became more introspective but he did not abandon his eschatological visions. His new home country Milosz viewed ironically: "What splendor! What poverty! What humanity! What inhumanity! What mutual good will! What individual isolation! What loyalty to the ideal! What hypocrisy! What a triumph of conscience! What perversity!" (from Milosz's A B C's, 2001) Milosz's writings include essays, poetry, autobiography, literary history, and translations from such authors as Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare, John Milton, T.S. Eliot, and Charles Baudelaire. As a writer Milosz is not easy - his essays are dense and reflect his search for the essence of man and the painful lessons of modern history. Repeatedly he has tried to find meaning behind fleeting moments of life. At the age of 25 he asked: "O my love, where are they, where are they going / The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles. / I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder." And in another poem written over 70 years later, he confesses resignated to God: "Now You are closing down my five senses, slowly, / And I am an old man lying in darkness. / Delivered to that thing which has oppressed me / So that I always ran forward, composing poems." Milosz believes in the redemptive power of art and treats it as a 'moral discipline.' Sartre's attack on Camus - he hesitated to criticize Stalinism when Camus did not separate Fascism and Communism - was something that he did not want to forget. Without any compromises, Milosz has considered Russian Communism "a decidedly antihuman system." In Poland Milosz' s moral stand made him a voice of conscience during the Cold War period. After his defection Milosz's works were banned in Poland. He was given a hero's welcome, when he returned to his native land shortly before he was honored with the Nobel Prize. Milosz settled in Cracow, where his 90th birthday was widely celebrated in 2001.
Awards. He has received European Literary Prize (1953), Kister Award (1967), Neustadt International Prize (1978),Nobel Prize (1980), National Medal of Arts (1989). He has been appointed member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and American Institute of Arts and Letters. Milosz's The History of Polish Literature (1969) is the best introduction to Polish literature in English. Milosz has continued to write in Polish, but published many works in English. AWARDS: Presented with an award for poetry translations from the Polish P.E.N. Club in Warsaw in 1974; a Guggenheim Fellow for poetry 1976; received a honorary degree Doctor of Letters from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, in 1977; won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1978; received the "Berkeley Citation" (an equivalent of a honorary Ph.D.) in 1978; nominated by the Academic Senate a "Research Lecturer" of 1979/1980. NOTE: According to the Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, Milosz is perhaps the greatest poet of our time.

Based on the biography by Petri Liukkonen, Chief Librarian Kuusankoski Library Finland, with the permission of the author. See the original at:
where is also a list of his selected works.

English translations of some of his works:
Constance J. Ostrowski

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