a severe and relentless mind
Joseph Brodsky, World Literature Today
Czesław Miłosz was born in Szetejnie in Lithuania in 1911, which at the time was a part of the Russian Empire. Miłosz spoke fluent Polish, Russian, English and French, and was an accomplished translator as well as a novelist and poet. Modern Poetry in Translation No.1 features a selection of Miłosz’s self-translated poems, as well his translations of Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert.
Miłosz wrote in Polish and is considered an integral part of the modern Polish literary canon, however, Miłosz never forgot his Lithuanian origins:
I am a Polish not a Lithuanian poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me.
Czeslaw Miłosz, from his Nobel Lecture
After the Second World War, Miłosz was initially a supporter of the post-war Communist government in Poland and served as the Polish cultural attaché in Paris and Washington, D.C. However, he defected to the West in 1951, and was granted asylum in France. He lived there throughout the 1950s until he moved to the USA, and from 1961 to 1998 he was a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California.
His defection was the cause of great controversy. Living in France, where he was granted asylum in 1951, there was still considerable intellectual support for Communism. In Poland he came under attack and his work was censored – even Pablo Neruda, who he had previously translated and been translated by, denounced him in an article entitled ‘The Man Who Ran Away’. Somewhat ironically, when he moved to the USA in 1960 (at the height of McCarthyist paranoia) he was for many years denied citizenship due to his links to the Communist regime in Poland. He was eventually granted citizenship in 1970.
Nevertheless, Miłosz was very highly regarded as a poet in his lifetime. In 1965, the editors of Modern Poetry in Translation describe Miłosz as ‘one of the most influential and important of modern Polish poets’, and in 1980 Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Committee described him as a writer ‘who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts’.
Song of a Citizen from Modern Poetry in Translation No.1 is epic in scale, yet the poem leaves a powerful and personal impression:
I have seen the fall of states and the destruction of peoples,
The flight of kings and emperors, the power of tyrants,
I can say now, in this hour,
That I – am, although everything perishes,
That it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion
As Scripture says.
From Song of a Citizen
The first verse of his 1943 poem The Poor Poet, also featured in Modern Poetry in Translation No.1, and is a moving illustration of the effects of totalitarianism and repression:
The first movement is singing,
A free voice, filling mountains and valleys.
The first movement is joy,
But it is taken away.
Later this poem continues:
Some take refuge in despair, which is sweet
Like strong tobacco, like a glass of vodka drunk in the hour of annihilation.
Others have the hope of fools, rosy as erotic dreams.