A loss of harmony with the surrounding space, the inability to feel at home in the world, so oppressive to an expatriate, a refugee, an immigrant, paradoxically integrates him in contemporary society and makes him, if he is an artist, understood by all. Even more, to express the existential situation of modern man, one must live in exile of some sort.
—Czeslaw Milosz, “On Exile”
Though Nobelist Czeslaw Milosz considers himself a Polish poet because he writes in that “native mother tongue,” he was not born in Poland, nor has he lived there for over half a century. Nonetheless, the poems of this sensuous mystic are inscribed on monuments in Gdansk as well as printed on posters in the New York City transit system.
He was born in 1911 in Szetejnie, Lithuania, the impoverished estate of his grandfather, a gentleman farmer. Milosz remembers the rural Lithuania of that time as a “country of myth and poetry.” 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. For several years Milosz enjoyed youthful solitude before beginning a rigorous formal education in Vilnius, the capital of Polish Lithuania. In his early twenties he published his first volume of poems, A Poem on Frozen Time. Three Winters, his second volume, appeared in 1936. Milosz received a law degree from the university in Vilnius and spent a year in Paris on a scholarship, where he met his distant cousin Oscar Milosz, the French poet who became his mentor.
The Soviet regime in Vilnius eventually forced Milosz to flee the city of his youth to Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where he joined the socialist resistance. Milosz’s anthology of anti-Nazi poetry, The Invincible Song, was published by underground presses in Warsaw, where he also wrote “The World (A Naive Poem)” and the cycle Voices of Poor People. After the destruction of Warsaw he lived for a while outside of Krakow. The state publishing house brought out his collected poems in a volume entitled Rescue.
The end of the war brought more dislocation. Milosz worked as a cultural attaché 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 prosocialist and communist intellectual community. He wrote two novels during this period, Seizure of Power and The Issa Valley, as well as his most famous book, The Captive Mind, a study of the dangerous appeal of totalitarian thought, along with portraits of friends who had been seduced by it. An exponent of Simone Weil, he translated her essays into Polish. He also wrote two volumes of poetry and an intellectual autobiography, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition. 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 began a new career as 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 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, Beginning with My Streets, The Land of Ulro, and his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, The Witness of Poetry. His Collected Poems appeared in 1988 and included portions of Unattainable Earth. It was followed most recently by another collection, Provinces. A diary of the year 1988, A Year of the Hunter, was published in 1994 and another volume of poetry, Facing the River, is due out in 1995. Milosz resides in Berkeley most of the year but spends portions of his summers in Cracow.
This interview was conducted primarily at Milosz’s home in the Berkeley hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, where he lives with his wife, Carol, and a cat named Tiny. Other portions were recorded before a live audience at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YMHA in New York. The first part of the conversation in Berkeley lasted four hours without interruption, until the poet looked at his watch and then, somewhat sympathetically, at his exhausted interlocutor to ask, “It is six o’clock, time for a little vodka?”
You returned to Lithuania recently for the first time in fifty-two years. How was it?
It was a moving experience. I was received very cordially as a native son. I was given an honorary degree at the University of Kaunas. Then I visited my county, where I was greeted by a border delegation in peasant costumes—quite a big event in the region. I was made an honorary citizen and attended a mass in the wooden church where I was baptized. But many villages have disappeared. I have to presume enormous numbers of their inhabitants were deported to Siberia. Instead there are neat little red-brick towns. I visited the place where I was born, but there was no house, only the bare remnants of a park, and the river is polluted.
What literature shaped your imagination as you grew up in Lithuania?
Imagine a world without radio, without television, and without film. That was my childhood in a provincial part of Europe. At that time, the impact of books was much greater than it is now, and I profited from the library of my grandfather, which was largely composed of books from the nineteenth century. The only atlas was so outdated that it had a big white spot in the middle of Africa. The mystery of time was revealed to me not by Marcel Proust but by James Fenimore Cooper. Authors like Fenimore Cooper were very popular at the time in abridged and somewhat garbled versions for children. For instance, all the volumes of the epic The Deerslayer were condensed into one. Still, it made a tremendous impression upon me, because it was really the story of a young hunter gradually changing into maturity and then into an old man as he slowly moved from the East to West. His tragedy was that he was an exile, but could not escape civilization. I also read authors who have never been heard of in the United States, like Thomas Mayne Reid. He was an Irishman, who spent some time in America as a hunter, teacher, and who then made a career as an author of children’s books while living in London. His books were filled with all kinds of plants, animals, and birds—each identified with a Latin name. That was crucial for me, for at the time I wanted to become an ornithologist. I knew all the names for birds and their Latin equivalents. I also read Karl May, who was beloved by little boys all over Europe and translated into all European languages but unknown in America. He was a German who wrote novels of adventure sitting in a debtor’s prison.
Later, when I lived in Vilnius, I saw films. My education in this respect was like that of contemporary American children. Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and later Greta Garbo, all made an impression on me. It’s very difficult to draw a line between childhood reading and the beginning of reading more mature books. But because of my rural and provincial childhood and because of those books from the library of the nineteenth century, I was always entranced by books on nature, especially those with illustrations and colored woodcuts—Audubon, Alexander Wilson, and so on. These books defined my attitude toward nature.
What fascinated you about nature?
Well, my great hero was Linnaeus; I loved the idea that he had invented a system for naming creatures, that he had captured nature that way. My wonder at nature was in large part a fascination with names and naming. But I was also a hunter. So was my father. Today I am deeply ashamed of having killed birds and animals. I would never do that now, but at the time I enjoyed it. I was even a taxidermist. In high school, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I discovered Darwin and his theories about natural selection. I was entranced and gave lectures about Darwin in our naturalists’ club. But at the same time, even though it was a state school, the priests were very important. So on the one hand, I was learning about religion, the history of the Church, dogmatics, and apologetics; on the other hand, I learned about science, which basically undermines religion. Eventually I turned away from Darwinism because of its cruelty, though at first I embraced it. Nature is much more beautiful in painting, in my opinion.
Can a connection be made between the naturalist’s and the poet’s appreciation of nature?
David Wagoner has written a poem called “The Author of American Ornithology Sketches a Bird, Now Extinct.” It’s a poem about Alexander Wilson, one of the leading ornithologists in America, shooting and wounding an Ivory-billed woodpecker, which he kept to draw because it was a specimen that was new to him. The bird was slowly dying in his house. Wilson explains that he has to kill birds so that they can live on the pages of his books. It’s a very dramatic poem. So the relation of science to nature, and I suspect also of art to nature, is a sort of a meeting of the minds of both scientist and artist in that they both have a passion to grasp the world. I am more concerned with the erosion of the religious imagination because of the impact of science. It goes to the root of one of the essential problems of our time—the incapacity of contemporary man to think in religious terms. I have also been influenced by Thomas Merton, with whom I corresponded for many years. We mostly discussed religion and nature. I reproached him for his optimistic and largely American attitude toward nature.
So the Catholic faith in which you were raised overrides the impact of science?
Oh, yes. But the trouble is that writing religious poetry in the twentieth century is very difficult. We are in a largely postreligious world. I had a conversation with the present Pope, who commented upon some of my work, in particular my “Six Lectures in Verse.” Well, he said, you make one step forward, one step back. I answered, Holy Father, how in the twentieth century can one write religious poetry differently?
And how did the Pope respond?
In your book The Land of Ulro, you address these problems and the importance to you of your older cousin, Oscar Milosz. To what extent did he influence your work?
As far as style was concerned, I was aware that his influence was dangerous. His style was late symbolist, something I felt should not be imitated at that time. But the essence of his mystical writings, “The Epistle to Storge” and “The Ars Magna”—namely that the world was created through a transmutation of nonphysical light into physical light—that was very important to me. He intuitively conceived, indeed before Einstein, a cosmology of relativity—a moment when there is no space, no matter, no time; all three are united in his imagination with movement.