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Literature: Nobel Intentions

by Paul Wilner

Photo courtesy of Margo Davis.
Photo courtesy of Margo Davis.

The Americanization of Czesław Miłosz

Berkeley in the ’60s may have been an unlikely environment for a Polish poet who fled Communist rule. Cynthia L. Haven’s new book, Czesław Miłosz: A California Life, however, draws connections between Miłosz’s West Coast sojourns that began in 1960 and his subsequent success: a body of work including poetry, essays, novels and translations. Not to mention the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature. He taught in UC Berkeley’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literature for four decades.

Was Miłosz ever really “Californian”?

“Not according to our stereotypes, certainly,’’ says Haven, the National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar who pens the Book Haven blog based at Stanford. She has written two previous books on Miłosz and the first-ever biography of the French theorist René Girard. “But California changed [Miłosz],” she continues. “Think of these words from [his 1969 book of essays] Visions from San Francisco Bay: ‘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.’ It’s not something he could have experienced in Poland.”

“He was against the Vietnam War, too, but he was also mindful of how few rights students had in the Eastern bloc. ‘They rage because they have too much,’ he once said.” — Cynthia L. Haven

Miłosz landed in Berkeley at a time of great social upheaval. He was “bemused, angered and sympathetic — sometimes all at once’’ with protesters, Haven says. “He was against the Vietnam War, too, but he was also mindful of how few rights students had in the Eastern bloc. ‘They rage because they have too much,’ he once said.”

Czesław Miłosz: A California Life
Haven examines the relationship between poet and place.

His views on American poets were also complex. “He admired Whitman for his omnivorous nature and humanistic vision,” Haven says. “He envied Allen Ginsberg’s audacious daring when he exposed the most humiliating details of his mother’s suffering — but deplored the indiscretion. He was intrigued by Robinson Jeffers’ willingness to envision the extinction of the human race, yet condemned it, too.” As he wrote:

Better to carve suns and moons on the joints of crosses

as was done in my district. To birches and firs

give feminine names. To implore protection

against the mute and treacherous might

than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.

Haven treasures the brief time she spent with Miłosz at his Berkeley Hills home before he passed away in 2004.

“His formidable wisdom would leave anyone in the dust, but he wore it lightly,” she recalls. “Yet his lifetime of suffering lent him gravity, too. His home life was agonizing, with his first wife, Janina, dying by inches, and a son who went mad. But the suffering kept him searching. He was a restless, relentless learner. He never stopped.’’

Miłosz returned to Poland in 2000, by then an American citizen with a “second, very American wife, Carol,” Haven says. “His Polish friends could see the Americanization — he got more from California than he knew. He must have been haunted by California in his dreams.”

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