“What occurred in Poland was an encounter of a European poet with the hell of the twentieth century, not hell’s first circle, but a much deeper one,” the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz declared in his 1983 collection of lectures, The Witness of Poetry. “This situation is something of a laboratory, in other words: It allows us to examine what happens to modern poetry in certain historical conditions.” What Milosz meant by “historical conditions” was the complete disintegration of European culture—“the sudden crumbling of all current notions and criteria”—between 1939 and 1945. Like other Polish poets, Milosz felt the need to respond in a radical way to the disgrace of Europe—its sinking into inhumanity, its complicity in genocide—by trying to remake poetry from the ground up. It was starting over again after what seemed like the end of the world.
The poet in Poland, Milosz argued, experienced history on his pulse. By writing his own experiences he was also writing the experiences of others, speaking the unspeakable. “What can poetry be in the twentieth century?” he wondered. “It seems to me there is a search for the line beyond which only a zone of silence exists, and that on the borderline we encounter Polish poetry. In it a peculiar fusion of the individual and the historical took place, which means the events burdening a whole community are perceived by a poet as touching him in a most personal manner. Then poetry is no longer alienated.” Part of Milosz’s lifelong project was to write as if poetry “is no longer a foreigner in society,” to make a poetic model out of shared trauma.
Times of upheaval also enable us to examine what happens to certain poets. The conditions Milosz experienced and eventually fled were for him a source of contradictions that would play out in the rest of his life and work. As he lived through periods of war, totalitarianism, and exile, he became a political thinker who didn’t like politics, a memoirist who distrusted confessional literature, a poet of witness who believed that the task of poetry surpassed being a witness. His 1953 exposé of totalitarianism, The Captive Mind, has often been compared to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s 1984, which is probably why its sales once again spiked after Trump won the election in November. Yet Milosz shrank from didacticism in literature. He believed that history held many lessons for us, but also viewed it as a backdrop of eternity.
We can now trace these tensions through his extraordinary life in Milosz, the excellent full-length biography by the Polish critic Andrzej Franaszek. Capably edited and translated by Alexsandra and Michael Parker from the significantly longer Polish edition, Franaszek’s work moves gracefully between the events in Milosz’s life and his obsessive writing about it. Along with historical maps, its chronology enables us to pinpoint the fateful intersection between Milosz’s experience and historic events, showing a poet who was determined both to embody and to transcend his own historical circumstances, who longed to liberate himself from the times that entangled him.
Milosz was born on June 30, 1911, in Szetejnie, Lithuania, on the impoverished estate of his mother’s family, who were minor Polish gentry. His family spoke Polish, which is how he became a Polish poet, but he always felt the pull of the “red soil” of Lithuania, which he called “a country of myths and poetry.”
His first memories came with war. His father, a civil engineer, was mobilized to build roads and bridges for the Russian army, and his mother followed, dragging her son along, traveling behind the battle zone, living nomadically, never staying anywhere more than a few months. It gave him a lifelong feeling that nothing is stable, everything is temporary, even governments and political systems. When he returned to Lithuania in 1918, the European hell was replaced by a calm idyll in the countryside, a respite from history, childhood regained. But the mark of war was lasting: He would become a writer of dislocation and exile.
Milosz spent his high school and university years in Vilnius, the capital of Polish Lithuania, a baroque city of Roman Catholic churches and many synagogues, the Jerusalem of the North. He learned the Latin liturgy, Catholic dogmatics, Roman law, the history of old Poland. It was there that he began writing poetry. He co-founded Zagary, a group of pessimistic young poets who later would be deemed catastrophists due to their apocalyptic view of history. There would always be in his work an element of catastrophism, a doomed sense of the horrors to come. With the rise of Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia, he felt special kinship with T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which he translated, and its vision of ruined cities and a collapsing European civilization.
Milosz worried that there was something icy, calculating, and even remote in his temperament. He gestured toward this in the titles of his first two books of poetry, A Poem on Frozen Time (1933) and Three Winters (1936). Though he matured in some of the most blood-soaked precincts of Europe, he was by temperament a robust and maybe even hopeful catastrophist, who figured out how to survive and was dogged by guilt over his own wily capabilities. “A sly and angry poet / With malevolently squinted eyes,” he called himself in his enraged 1944 poem, “The Poor Poet,” but one to whom “a cynical hope is given.” As he told an interviewer nearly 40 years later, “It’s difficult to be a poet only of despair, only of sadness. An element of joy, located somewhere in an imaginary future, is the other side of catastrophism.”
Milosz received a law degree and then spent a year on a scholarship in Paris. (“I had left the cloudy provinces behind,” he would remember in his poem “Bypassing Rue Descartes”: “I entered the universal, dazzled and desiring.”) There, he apprenticed himself to his older cousin, the French-Lithuanian symbolist poet Oskar Milosz. He was especially influenced by his cousin’s philosophical writings about time: Even before Einstein, Milosz observed, Oskar Milosz had intuitively conceived “a cosmology of relativity—a moment when there is no space, no matter, no time; all three are united in his imagination with movement.” Milosz had always harbored a strong antipathy to the Catholic Church, which in Poland had been closely aligned with rabid right-wing and anti-Semitic nationalists, but Oskar Milosz presented him with a new kind of spiritual thinking. Poetry must be aware of its “terrible responsibilities”—it is not purely an individual game—but it could also blend historical with mystical concerns. Milosz’s poetry would seek an “eternal moment” lifted from the river of time. It would try to understand our human relationship to the divine.
In 1937, Milosz moved to Warsaw, where he worked for Polish Radio and began his relationship with Janina (Janka) Cekalska, whom he eventually married in a Parisian church. During the perilous war years, he joined the socialist resistance and was often on the move, evading both the Nazis and the Soviets. His poems and sequences from this time, such as “The World: A Naïve Poem,” and “Voices of Poor People,” have a deceptive simplicity, akin to that of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He was translating into his own Central European terms the mythic states that Blake had reformulated from Milton: first the eternal wonder of Paradise, the protected innocence of childhood, and then the horror of the Fall, the brutality that comes afterwards, the corruptions of history.
Milosz’s early- and post-war poems are haunted by survivor’s guilt, the poignancy of living after what was, for so many others, the world’s end. “Of those at the table in the café / where on winter noons a garden of frost glittered on windowpanes / I alone survived,” he writes in his poem “Café,” which describes returning to a café where he once met with friends, all of whom are now dead. His book Rescue (1945) contains his most iconic early poems, such as “Campo dei Fiori,” a civic-minded poem about people’s indifference to the deaths of others, and “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” part of a six-poem sequence of moral outrage and mortal loss. Devastated by guilt, he concludes the book with “Dedication”—which explains why he is writing in the plain style.
“Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another,” he avows. “I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.”
They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
Poetry served as an offering to the dead, a form of expiation, a hope for redemption. Stylistically, Milosz distrusted verbal excess, high Romanticism, pure poetry, which was cut off from life. Rather, he sought verbal precision and clarity, a humane art.
Milosz never placed much faith in the utopian promise of communism, especially under the Soviet occupation. But the state of things in Poland, the country he identified as “the most agonizing spot in the whole of terrorized Europe,” inclined him toward the political left. After the war he made what he would call a “pact with the devil” and entered the Polish diplomatic service, posted first to New York, then to Washington and Paris. When he was recalled to Europe, Janka stayed in the United States, afraid that they would be permanently trapped in Poland. His dissident thinking, meanwhile, aroused suspicion. While he was on a short visit to Warsaw, the authorities temporarily confiscated his passport. Finally, he was posted back to Paris and, in 1951, he broke for good with the Polish Communist regime, seeking political asylum in France.
Lonely and unmoored in Paris, Milosz kept himself from succumbing to despair by writing about his experiences in Poland. He sought to understand what had happened to his generation. In 1953, he published The Captive Mind, his most famous book, a study of the allure of communism and the dangerous appeal of totalitarian thought. Written out of great inner turmoil, it is in part a portrait of friends seduced by authoritarianism. The four central chapters each portray a talented writer who capitulated to the State. They are not named but identified as archetypes: Alpha, the Moralist; Beta, the Disappointed Lover; Gamma, the Slave of History; and Delta, the Troubadour. In the English edition of Franaszek’s biography, the editors do not provide us with the names of the real-life models for these figures—Jerzy Andrzejewski, Tadeusz Borowski, Jerzy Putrament, and Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski—authors well-known enough in Poland to be easily identified by readers there.
The Captive Mind was a devastating blow to the communist mentality. Its success brought Milosz international acclaim, but also condemnation from many leftist poets and intellectuals, such as Pablo Neruda and Jean-Paul Sartre, who naïvely continued to embrace Soviet communism. Milosz considered his own book a struggle with the demon of the twentieth century, which he called “the Hegelian belief in historical necessity, that history develops along preordained lines.” Milosz never considered himself a political writer. The Captive Mind was a bid to liberate himself—and us—from that kind of thinking. He held that history is not preordained, as Hegel and Marx believed. Rather, it is a result of human errors and choices. It is shaped by fallible human beings.
In 1960, after nine difficult years as an émigré in Paris, Milosz returned to the United States at the age of 50. Now famous in Europe, he found himself isolated and unrecognized in his new country. Having accepted a position in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley, he was for many years primarily known in America as the editor of the anthology Postwar Polish Poetry, and the co-translator of Zbigniew Herbert’s poems. His Selected Poems was published in 1973, but it wasn’t until the 1980s, when he had already retired from teaching, and after he won the Nobel Prize, that he came to wider notice.
A clear-eyed opponent of two totalitarian governments, Milosz articulated a determined embrace of freedom that resonated during the cultural cold war. In essay collections such as Visions from San Francisco Bay (1969) and The Emperor of the Earth (1977), he warned Americans about our painful indifference to European experience. He wanted us to consider historical categories—not the idea of history reduced by Marxism to economic phases, but something deeper and more complex, more sustaining; the feeling that mankind is memory, historical memory. He was obsessed with the idea of our collective human destiny, with what he called “the riddle of Evil active in History.” He was considered a “witness,” a historical truth-teller. But he was also much more than that.
Milosz showed genuine ambivalence about the notion of a poet as a witness to history. He called his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard The Witness of Poetry, but he also wrote a letter to The New York Review of Books objecting to a positive review by A. Alvarez that was titled “WITNESS.” In Milosz’s view, the label narrowed the meaning of his poetry and implied that his poems were a kind of journalistic response to events. He was keenly interested in exploring the nature of reality beyond the dictates of history. He aimed “to move constantly between a poetry of social and historical reality, and the purer reaches,” he told an interviewer in 1983. What he meant by “the purer reaches” was ethereal questions about time and eternity, the nature of morality, the essence of religion. In an age of profound relativism, he pursued an ongoing search for immutable values.
Toward the end of his life, something else began to enter Milosz’s work: a sense of survivor’s wonder. His poetry showed moments of unexpected happiness. He understood the cruelty of nature and yet remembered that the earth merits our affection. He thought about the rise and fall of civilizations, and yet praised the marvels of the earth, the sky, the sea. “There is so much death,” he wrote in his poem “Counsels,” “and that is why affection / for pigtails, bright-colored skirts in the wind, / for paper boats no more durable than we are....” His work is filled with radiant moments of wonder and being, a deep tenderness toward the human, as in his 1971 poem “Gift”:
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.
Milosz had established a solid life in America. He had a strong connection to younger American poets and cosmopolitan translators (Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Leonard Nathan, Lillian Vallee, Renata Gorczynski, and Richard Lourie, among others), which is how I came to know him. But he continued to long for Poland, and moved back to Krakow for good in the early 1990s with his second wife, the American historian Carol Thigpen. He died in 2004.
One comes away from this biography with a fuller sense of Milosz’s struggles and his complexity. He was a seeker, a sensual mystic, a fierce moralist who didn’t want to be known as a moralist, a partly historical, partly metaphysical poet. He felt fragmented and longed to be whole. He loved nature and quarreled with its ruthless indifference. He was a philosophical poet who insisted that his poetry was dictated by a daimonion, an occult power. Milosz wrote, “Human reason is beautiful and invincible,” and called the poem “Incantation.” He asked, “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?” and insisted on the social and historical relevance of literature. And yet he also believed that the deepest work of poetry is “the passionate pursuit of the real,” by which he meant the ongoing quest for God, who is unfathomable.