The Century of Milosz

Polish Poet Csesław Miłosz Was Born 106 Years Ago Today

Was he really a Polish poet, or did he just write in Polish? He regards himself neither as a Polish national, nor a Lithuanian, though he was born in Szetejnie in what is now Lithuania. In the same way, my father was born in what is now the Slovak Republic, though he was most comfortable with Hungarian. And I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Although I write today in English, my first language was Hungarian—and my deepest feelings all have Magyar correlatives.

Here is a poem from Miłosz entitled “Incantation”:

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

The poet spent many years in California teaching at Berkeley. I loved what he had to say about the United States: “What splendor! What poverty! What humanity! What inhumanity! What mutual good will! What individual isolation! What loyalty to the ideal! What hypocrisy! What a triumph of conscience! What perversity!”