Opinion column by Joe Mathews:
Want to become a signature voice of your nation? Try a decades-long exile in California.
It worked for Czeslaw Milosz, who entered the pantheon of Polish poets thanks to works he wrote mostly in Berkeley.
The poet’s story — told by scholar Cynthia L. Haven in a thought-provoking book, “Czeslaw Milosz: A California Life” — demonstrates how our state allows people to move both further from and closer to home, often at the same time.
Milosz, while famous in Poland and among poets (Joseph Brodsky called him the greatest poet of our times), is unfamiliar to most Californians. But he remains the only faculty member of the University of California to win a Nobel Prize in literature.
“The irony,” writes Haven, “is that the greatest California poet — and certainly one of America’s greatest poets too — could well be a Pole who wrote a single poem in English.”
Born in Lithuania in 1911 to Polish-speaking gentry, Milosz pursued a literary career in Warsaw — and witnessed its World War II destruction. He served as a diplomat for Poland’s Stalinist government, before defecting to Paris in 1951.
In 1960, he accepted a teaching post at Berkeley. He stayed 40 years, living in and writing from a cottage on Grizzly Peak.
At first, California seemed irrelevant to his life and work. “If California is not a separate planet, it is at least a separate colony of planet Earth,” Milosz’ friend recalls him saying, according to Haven.
But in the 1960s, social turmoil soon arrived in California, and Milosz engaged it in Berkeley. He also saw firsthand the development of Silicon Valley.
The state seeped into his work. His 1969 poem, “Reading the Japanese Poet Issa (1762-1826),” moves in just a few lines from the West Coast to southern Poland.
The invisible ocean,
fog until noon
dripping in a heavy rain from the boughs of the redwoods,
sirens droning below on the bay.
…whether this is the village of Szlembark
above which we used to find salamanders,
garishly colored like the dresses of Teresa Roszkowska
California, Haven shows, broadened the poet’s perspective, and allowed him to put the horrors of his earlier life in Lithuania and Poland in a global context. His experiences here, she writes, “transfigured him from a poet writing from one corner of the world to a poet who could speak for all if it, from a poet focused on history to a poet concerned with modernity and who always had his eyes fixed on forever.”
Haven recounts that Bells in Winter, the collection of poems that effectively earned Milosz the Nobel in 1980, was originally supposed to be called “Berkeley Poems.”
In that book, he imagines his spinster sisters visiting him amidst the Joshua trees of the Sonoran desert. “The majestic expanse of the Pacific Seacoast has imperceptibly worked its way into my dreams, remaking me, stripping me down, and perhaps thereby liberating me,” Milosz would write.
Milosz never would have become a great poet of Poland if he hadn’t come to California. If he had stayed in Soviet Poland, he might have been censored or persecuted. Without exile in such a faraway and thought-provoking place, could he have “explored the margins of loneliness, alienation and abandonment?” Haven asks.
Milosz eventually did return to Poland, with his second wife. He died in Krakow in 2004.
His work remains relevant today, in a time of catastrophes, political and environmental. Haven suggests that Californians in particular have much to learn from Milosz, through his “twinning of vision and historical consciousness.”
In “Bells in Winter,” Milosz wrote:
For me, therefore, everything has a double existence
Both in time and when time shall be no more.
Milosz was both European and Californian. He was both a man of the past and the future. Like so many Californians, he struggled with the dualities of place and identity and home.
In his one English poem, “To Raja Rao,” Milosz wrote:
For years I could not accept
the place I was in.
I learned at last to say: this is my home
Before the glowing coal of ocean sunsets
On the shore which faces the shores of your Asia,
In a great republic, moderately corrupt
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.