Czesław Miłosz: Intelligence and Ecstasy

Czeslaw Milosz
Czeslaw Milosz; drawing by David Levine

In honor of the birthday of Czesław Miłosz (born in Lithuania on June 30, 1911; died in Kraków on August 14, 2004) we present a selection of his work from the Review’s archives.

Miłosz defected from Poland to the West in 1951, living in France at first and moving in 1960 to the United States. In 1980 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In a 2004 essay, Adam Zagajewski praised the bravery and scope of his work: “Lesser talents develop a snail-like tendency to take refuge in a hut, a shell, to escape contrary winds, contrary ideas, to create miniatures. As both a poet and a thinker, though, Miłosz courageously takes the field to test himself against his foes, as if he’d told himself, I’ll survive this age only by absorbing it.”

Miłosz’s very first contribution to the Review was this short letter, humorously objecting to the addition of his name to a manifesto on “Poet Power” that had been drafted by Allen Ginsberg in 1968.

November 7, 1968

My belief is that poets should not add to the general confusion by using words in an irresponsible way. A joke should not be presented as a credo. Because of my European background I consider a search for salvation through racial myths, tribal structures, high natural herbs etc. dangerous nonsense.

Miłosz was awarded the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, cited as a writer “who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts.” He delivered the following lecture on December 8, 1980. (You can listen to it here.)

March 5, 1981

Every poet depends upon generations who wrote in his native tongue; he inherits styles and forms elaborated by those who lived before him. At the same time, though, he feels that those old means of expression are not adequate to his own experience.
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This 1985 poem was translated by Miłosz in collaboration with Robert Hass, his neighbor and colleague at the University of California, Berkeley. (Hass talked about his work with Miłosz in this NPR program.)

September 26, 1985

Still one more year of preparation
Tomorrow at the latest I’ll start working on a great book
In which my century will appear as it really was.
The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.
Springs and autumns will unerringly return,
In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay
And foxes will learn their foxy natures.

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February 27, 1986

Do we have a truthful way of thinking, of judging good or evil in the West?
Miłosz: Yes, but under the condition that intellectuals and writers do not insist on forcing nihilism in their descriptions of the world as the only valid image from the point of view of the literary establishment. Of course, every period has its fashions. To break away from fads is extremely difficult. Nihilistic presentation of the world is a fad today.

In 1992 Helen Vendler reviewed two books of Miłosz, one of poems and one of “essays and recollections,” written from “a new province,” that of old age.

Helen Vendler

August 13, 1992

Miłosz’s genius is for the very small and the very large—the intensely sensual detail and the bleak interstellar spaces. His eye, at once microscopic and telescopic, has almost no middle range; it is this peculiar cast of vision that identifies a poem as his. It causes the fundamental contrast in his poetry between the tenderness of an eerily precise recollection and the wintriness of philosophical irony. When you read him, it becomes impossible to live in any comfortable middle distance yourself.

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A late poem.

December 20, 2001

My ears catch less and less of conversations, and my eyes have weakened, though they are still insatiable.

I see their legs in miniskirts, slacks, wavy fabrics.

Peep at each one separately, at their buttocks and thighs, lulled by the imaginings of porn.

Old lecher, it’s time for you to the grave, not to the games and amusements of youth.

But I do what I have always done: compose scenes of this earth under orders from the erotic imagination.

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In an essay composed shortly before his death in 2010, Tony Judt considered Miłosz’s The Captive Mind, “the most insightful and enduring account of the attraction of intellectuals to Stalinism and, more generally, of the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.”

September 30, 2010

Tony Judt
One hundred years after his birth, fifty-seven years after the publication of his seminal essay, Miłosz’s indictment of the servile intellectual rings truer than ever: “his chief characteristic is his fear of thinking for himself.”

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