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Czeslaw Milosz, 93; Nobel-Winning Poet Confronted Torments of His Era

Times Staff Writers

Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who gained international acclaim by conveying the great spiritual and political struggles in postwar Europe and beyond, died Saturday in Krakow, Poland. He was 93. Milosz, who suffered from cardiovascular problems, died at his home, the Polish news agency PAP reported

One of the most widely respected thinkers of the last half-century, Milosz was the model of the prolific writer engaged in wrestling with the major questions of his time. Best known as a poet, he also wrote novels and dozens of essays.

His translations of Polish writers are credited with giving Western readers a new sensibility about the literature of his adopted homeland. His poems were inspirational to members of the Solidarity trade union movement fighting the Communist regime in Poland in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“He inspired, encouraged and strengthened us,” said Lech Walesa, the former Polish president and Solidarity leader, who himself is a Nobel laureate. “He belonged to the generation of princes, great personalities.”

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Born in what is now Lithuania to Polish parents, Milosz later settled in Poland, where he survived the Nazi occupation of World War II and the Soviet takeover that followed. In the process he took on the role of poet as witness, creating a literary record filled with anger and irony but not despair.

As a practicing Roman Catholic, Milosz was drawn to the Bible’s Book of Job, in which suffering tests a man’s faith in God but does not destroy it. Milosz translated many books of the Bible from Hebrew or Greek into Polish. His favorites were Psalms, Job and Revelation.

Faith infuses much of his writing.

“In all of his work he was preoccupied with theological problems,” said Robert Faggen, a professor at Claremont McKenna College who edited “Striving Toward Being: The Letters of Merton and Milosz” (1997).

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“He had a profound understanding of the history of religion and the Christian church,” Faggen said. “One of the questions he would always be asking is: How could a just and good God have created a world so filled with cruelty and torture? “

Milosz credited the French philosopher Simone Weil for teaching him to live with the inherent contradictions. He wrote about this conflict in several poems, including “Helene’s Religion,” from a collection in the book “Road-Side Dog” (1998):

On Sunday I go to church and pray

with all the others.

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Who am I to think that I am different?

Enough that I don’t listen to what the

priests blabber in their sermons.

Otherwise, I would have to concede

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that I reject common sense.

He explained his own rationale for the existence of God: “It’s not up to me to know anything about heaven or hell. But in this world there is too much ugliness and horror. So there must be, somewhere, goodness and truth. And that means somewhere God must be.”

For the depth of his honesty and his commitment to writing poetry about real life as he observed it, Milosz was revered among fellow poets and academics.

“Czeslaw Milosz has embodied the history and torments of the 20th century as no other poet has,” Robert Hass, a former U.S. poet laureate, told The Times.

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Haas, who translated many of Milosz’s works, called it a “staggering achievement to have stayed engaged in the problems of existence” well into his 10th decade.

“In his later poetry of memory, Czeslaw tried to understand what can be redeemed from one, individual life. It is a passionate record,” Haas said.

Faggen agreed.

“He was a heroic figure in poetry. He called poetry the passionate pursuit of the real, and he never rested from that pursuit. It was inspiring and thrilling to see him in that pursuit and to read his work. He never gave in to facile nihilism, despite his acute awareness of the threats to faith and meaning.”

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‘A Great Storyteller’

Mark Danner, a writer, editor and friend of Milosz’s who lives at the poet’s former home in the Berkeley hills, noted that despite the gravity of his subject matter, Milosz “loved to laugh and eat and drink. He was a great storyteller.

“He lived through some of the 20th century’s greatest horrors and found himself at the crossing point of the political struggles that left millions and millions dead,” Danner said. “He witnessed unprecedented violence, but it never made him morbid or obsessed with death. It increased his desire to be human and try to understand what it was to be human and an artist.”

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Milosz wrote nearly 20 books of verse.

“His work is in the great visionary tradition of Blake and Whitman,” Faggen said.

The earliest works were unsentimental reports about entire cultures being suppressed first by Nazis and later by Communists. He wrote in a voice that was direct, precise, stern at times, but also reflective. Upon the Nazis’ demolition of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, he observed:

It has begun: the tearing, the

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trampling on silks,

It has begun: the breaking of glass,

wood, copper, nickel,

silver, foam

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... Poof! Phosphorescent fire from

yellow walls

engulfs animal and human hair.

(“A Poor Christian Looks

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at the Ghetto,” 1943)

As an essayist, his mostly autobiographical writings pivot on his odyssey out of the Communist East to the democratic West, which resulted in his decision to seek asylum in France in 1951. He compared the political upheavals of Eastern Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s to a series of violent earthquakes. For the rest of his life, he felt he had viewed the catastrophe of the war years and the postwar era from the unique perspective of an Eastern European.

In “The Witness of Poetry” (1983), a collection of essays based on his addresses for the prestigious Norton lecture series at Harvard University, he wrote: “All of us who come from those parts appraise poetry slightly differently than do the majority of my audience, for we tend to view it as a witness and participant in one of mankind’s major transformations.”

His most famous nonfiction work is “The Captive Mind” (1953), which Faggen called “a trenchant investigation of the temptations of totalitarian thought.”

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Milosz believed that it was the writer’s work to call attention to what he referred to as the lies inherent in totalitarianism. He traced the steps that led many wartime writers in Eastern Europe to give up their resistance to communism and become defenders of “the new faith” preached under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

The book was widely translated and was influential both politically and in literary circles in the West. It gave him an international literary reputation.

“Unlike a lot of 20th century writers who got it wrong because they were either fascist sympathizers or communist sympathizers, Milosz saw very clearly what was going on,” Haas told The Times on Saturday. “He is by temperament a realist writer, and he shares with a lot of Eastern European writers a skepticism about ideology. Unlike [Jean-Paul] Sartre and [Pablo] Neruda, there are no odes to Stalin in his work.”

Milosz was born June 30, 1911, in Szetejnie, Lithuania, when it was part of Russia. His father was an engineer who was drafted during World War I to build roads and bridges for the czar’s army. The family followed along, living at times in a covered wagon, other times in an army railroad car. Milosz later wrote that in those years he learned to see everything as temporary, including national stability and peace.

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The family moved briefly to Poland before resettling in Lithuania in 1918. Milosz attended Catholic high school in Vilnius, the capital. He admired the teachings of Mani, the 3rd century Persian who saw life as a battle between forces of good (God) and evil (Satan).

After high school, Milosz earned a law degree at Stephan Batory University in Vilnius, but he had already decided to be a poet. He was in his early 20s when he published his first volume of poetry, “A Poem on Frozen Time.”

During a year’s stay in Paris in 1934, as a scholarship student of French culture, he was encouraged by a cousin, the French-Lithuanian poet Oscar Milosz, to pursue writing.

He left Paris for Warsaw, where he worked for a progressive radio station. He joined a circle of poets and intellectuals, “the Catastrophists,” who shared his sense of an ominous future for Eastern Europe. In September 1939, their bleak prediction came true when Germany invaded Poland.

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Milosz enlisted in the Polish army, although he was certain it could not stand up to the heavily equipped German forces. He described the invasion as “a war of tanks against lances.”

When Warsaw fell, he fled to Vilnius, which soon came under the control of the advancing Russian army. He made his way back to Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where he joined the Resistance movement, editing anthologies for the Resistance Press, including a book of anti-Nazi poetry, “The Invincible Song.” He compared Warsaw under siege to an anthill on fire.

After the Soviet takeover, he continued working as a freelance writer, with trepidation.

“When I was still published in Poland, what I was afraid of most was a slow erosion of truth,” he told the New York Times in 1981. “Usually it comes by small compromises. One sentence here, one sentence there. A word. Anything that might anger the Russians was deleted or changed.”

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Milosz never joined the Communist Party, but in 1946, he was appointed Poland’s cultural attache to the West. He lived first in Washington and later in Paris and once explained how he managed to get his enviable assignment. “It was thought that the appointment of a writer to a diplomatic post would produce a good impression abroad,” he wrote in his preface to “The Captive Mind.”

But when he was ordered to return to Poland in 1951, Milosz refused. Working in Paris while his family was still in the United States, he wrote a one-page essay in the Polish cultural journal Kultura titled “Ney,” in which he said he could not live artistically or intellectually under the rules of “social realism,” the state-sanctioned art form that upheld Communist Party ideals.

He was broke and had few job prospects in Paris, so be began supporting himself as a freelance writer and translator. A novel from that era, “The Seizure of Power” (1955), takes up the recurring theme of tyranny’s effect on artists.

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Immigrates to U.S.

In 1960, Milosz immigrated to the United States, became a citizen and was offered a position at UC Berkeley as professor of Slavic languages. He took emeritus status in 1978.

In “Milosz’s ABC’s” (2001), a book of short essays, he described his life in Northern California, where he lived longer than anywhere else, with mixed emotions.

“I came here to endure, but not to like it,” he wrote.

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“Nevertheless, whether I wanted this to happen or not, the landscapes of California have merged with the landscapes of Lithuania.”

Fame interfered with his work and threatened to turn him into a pompous fool, he said, but it also set off a burst of productivity. In the 15 years after he was named a Nobel laureate in 1980, he completed five collections of poetry and several collections of essays, which earned positive critical response.

By the turn of the 21st century a wide range of works by Milosz were being translated into English. One, “A Treatise on Poetry” (2001), was a long prose poem first published in 1957, with a fresh translation by Milosz and Hass. Another, “To Begin Where I Am” (2001), was a selection of essays written between 1931 and 1983.

“A Year of the Hunter,” a diary he kept for a year starting in August 1987, was published in 1994. In it, Milosz intimated that his life as a poet had not been easy on his family. He worried in particular about his wife, Janina “Janka,” whom he met when they both worked at the Warsaw radio station in the late 1930s.

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“Loving me, Janka would have preferred me to be the most ordinary of men; a baker, for example,” he wrote. “The Nobel Prize, when it came, was, for her, a tragedy.”

She died in 1986 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Several years later, Milosz met Carol Thigpen, an associate dean of arts and sciences at Emory University in Atlanta, when he was invited to lecture at the school. They were married in 1992. She was considerably younger than he, but once again Milosz was widowed when Thigpen died of cancer in 2002.

He is survived by his two sons with Janka, Anthony and John Peter, as well as a granddaughter and a great-grandson.

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After three decades in the West, Milosz visited Warsaw in 1981, invited there when a long-banned book of selected poems was published in a Polish edition of 150,000. He was accorded a hero’s welcome, and his book sold out in less than a week.

Milosz’s return came at a hopeful time for Poland, when Solidarity had made political gains in efforts to create a more open society.

Andrzej Wajda, one of Poland’s most noted film directors and a friend of Milosz’s, recalled Saturday how the workers in Gdansk during the Solidarity protests in 1980 decided to put the words of one of Milosz’s poems on the monument commemorating laborers killed by the Communist authorities during the 1970 strikes at the shipyard.

Several lines from the poem, “You Who Wronged,” are engraved on the monument. As much as they pay tribute to the labor movement’s struggle, they are a reminder of the poet’s mission:

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You who wronged a simple man

Do not feel safe. A poet remembers.

You can kill one, but another is born.

By the mid-1990s, Milosz was spending part of each summer in Krakow. By then he had earned the most prestigious awards and titles the U.S. had to offer, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976 and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1982.

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Despite his failing health, Milosz was active until the end. A new volume of his poems, “Second Space,” is to be published in October. Another collection of his essays, “Legends of the Modern,” will be published within the year.

Danner recalled visiting Milosz not long ago in Krakow.

“Although his eyesight and hearing were failing, he worked every day,” Danner said. “He would be seated at his desk each morning with his secretary, a lovely Polish woman, by his side. He would whisper softly into her ear while she tapped away on the keyboard.”

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Times researcher Ela Kasprzycka in Warsaw contributed to this report.

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(Begin Text of Infobox)

‘Meaning’

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From “Czeslaw Milosz: New and Collected Poems (1931-2001)”

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--When I die, I will see the lining of the world.

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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.

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--And if there is no lining to the world?

If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,

But just a thrush on a branch? If night and day

Make no sense following each other?

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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

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Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,

And calls out, protests, screams.


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