GREAT WORDS: Czeslaw Milosz on Creating Under Unbearable Duress


Quotation: Czeslaw Milosz


Born in a cross-border region of Lithuania in 1911, Czeslaw Milosz grew up a polyglot—fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English and French.


“Milosz was swept up in the maelstrom of the twentieth century from the beginning. When he was three, the First World War made him a refugee, as his family fled the advancing German Army. His father, an engineer, served first the tsarist and then the Bolshevik government, and the family spent the war years crisscrossing the region—Belrus, Russia, Latvia, Estonia…”


After studying law, Milosz traveled to Paris, where he published poems, fiction and essays. This led him to Warsaw, where he spent World War II working for underground presses. Surviving Nazi rule, he went on to serve as a cultural attaché of Poland in Paris, but was recalled to Poland where his passport was confiscated for fear that he would defect to the West. Indeed, in 1951, he escaped during a trip to Paris and defected to the West and wrote his most famous prose work, The Captive Mind. By 1960, Milosz had emigrated to the U.S. to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. Throughout, he continued to publish poetry that spoke in clear words to the human condition during times of tumult. In 1980 the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Czeslaw Milosz “who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts.” With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Milosz returned to Poland in 1993, where he passed away in 2004 at the age of 93.


To read a fascinating overview of Milosz’s life, check out the recent article by Adam Kirsch in The New Yorker (“Pole Apart: The struggles of Czeslaw Milosz,” May 29, 2017 issue).




An image of Czeslaw Milosz’s refugee passport from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.





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