California’s Greatest Poet Wrote in Polish — From Berkeley

Want to be the leading voice of your country? Try decades of asylum in California.

It worked for Česław Milosz, who entered the pantheon of Polish poets, largely thanks to the work he wrote at Berkeley.

The poet’s story, told by scholar Cynthia L. Haven in her thought-provoking book Cesław Miloš: Life in California, suggests that our state has seen people move away from home, closer to home, and often at the same time. indicates that it is possible to

Milos, though famous among Poles and poets (Joseph Brodsky called him the greatest poet of our time), is unfamiliar to most Californians. But he is the only faculty member at the University of California to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“The irony is that one of California’s greatest poets, and certainly one of America’s greatest, could be a Pole who wrote a poem in English.”

Born in 1911 in Lithuania to a Polish-speaking gentleman, Milos pursued a literary career in Warsaw and witnessed the destruction of World War II. He served as a diplomat for Stalin’s government in Poland until he fled into exile in Paris in 1951.

In 1960 he took a teaching post at Berkeley. He stayed for his 40 years in Grizzly He lived in a cottage on the Peak, where he did his writing.

At first, California seemed irrelevant to his life and work. “If California isn’t an independent planet, it’s at least an independent colony on planet Earth,” a friend of Milos recalls him saying.

But social turmoil soon arrived in California in the 1960s, and Milos did it at Berkeley. He also witnessed the development of Silicon Valley.

The state permeated his work. His 1969 poem “Reading the Japanese Poet Issa (1762-1826)” travels just a few lines from the West Coast…

invisible sea,

fog until noon

Heavy rain drips from redwood branches,

A siren sounds below the bay.

to southern Poland

…whether this is the village of Szlembark

there was a salamander on it

Flashy colors like Teresa Roszkowska’s dress

California, Haven The show broadened the poet’s perspective and enabled him to place the horrors of his early life in Lithuania and Poland in a global context. It transformed him from a poet who wrote from a corner to a poet who could say it all, from a historically focused poet to a poet who was interested in modernity and always on the lookout,” she said. is writing eternally. ”

Haven says that Winter Bells, the book of poetry that effectively won Milos the Nobel Prize in 1980, was originally supposed to be called Berkeley’s Poetry. In the book, he imagines his unmarried sisters (“His Two Parakeets from Samogitia,” a region of Lithuania) visiting Joshua in the desert in the middle of his tree. increase.

“The majestic expanse of the Pacific Coast imperceptibly entered my dreams, remade me, stripped me, and perhaps thereby liberated me,” writes Milos.

If Milos had not come to California, he would never have become a great Polish poet. Had he stayed in Soviet Poland, he might have been censored or persecuted. Without exile in such a remote and thoughtful place, would he have been able to “explore the boundaries of loneliness, alienation and abandonment”?

Of course not, she replies. He had to come here to become an international icon of Polish literature.

Milos eventually returned to Poland with his second wife, an American university administrator. He died in Krakow in his 2004.

His work remains relevant today, in a time of political and environmental catastrophe. Haven suggests that Californians in particular have much to learn from Milos through his “twins of vision and historical awareness.”

In Winter Bells, Milos writes:

So for me everything is a double existence

Both on time and when time runs out.

Milos was both European and Californian. He was a man both past and future. Like many Californians, he struggled with the duality of place, identity, and home.

In one of his English poems, To Raja Rao, Milosz writes:

not accepted for years
where i was.
I felt like I should be somewhere….

I finally learned to say: this is my home


Before the glowing coals of the sea sunset

On the shores of your Asian shores,

A great republic, moderately corrupt

Joe Mathews writes the “Connecting California” column for Zócalo Public Square. California’s Greatest Poet Wrote in Polish — From Berkeley

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