Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) was one of the greats, and for years he taught right here in Zinzin’s backyard at the University of California, Berkeley. The Poetry Foundation writes,
Czeslaw Milosz ranks among the most respected figures in 20th-century Polish literature, as well as one of the most respected contemporary poets in the world: he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Born in Lithuania, where his parents moved temporarily to escape the political upheaval in their native Poland, he left Poland as an adult due to the oppressive Communist regime that came to power following World War II and lived in the United States from 1960 until his death in 2004. Milosz’s poems, novels, essays, and other works are written in his native Polish and translated by the author and others into English.
Milosz was a survivor several times over who also transcended survival. The Poetry Foundation continues,
Having lived under the two great totalitarian systems of modern history, national socialism and communism, Milosz wrote of the past in a tragic, ironic style that nonetheless affirmed the value of human life. While the faith of his Roman Catholic upbringing was severely tested, it remained intact. Terrence Des Pres, writing in the Nation, stated that “political catastrophe has defined the nature of our [age], and the result—the collision of personal and public realms—has produced a new kind of writer. Czeslaw Milosz is the perfect example. In exile from a world which no longer exists, a witness to the Nazi devastation of Poland and the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Milosz deals in his poetry with the central issues of our time: the impact of history upon moral being, the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world.”
This “search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world” reaches a climax, for me, in his poem “Gift.” Here is the complete poem, followed by a video of Milosz reading the poem, switching back and forth between English and Polish. Enjoy!
by Czeslaw Milosz
A day so happy.
Dzien taki szczesliwy.
Fog lifted early, I walked in the garden.
Mgla opadla wczesnie, pracowalein w ogrodzie.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
Kolibry przystawaly nad kwiatem kaprifolium.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
Nie bylo na ziemi rzeczy, która chcialbym miec.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Nie zualem nikogo, komu warto byloby zazdroscic.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
Co przydarzylo sie zlego, zapamnialem.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
Nie wstydzulem sie myslec, ze bylem kim jestem.
In my body I felt no pain.
Nie czulem w ciele zadnego bólu.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.
Prostujac sie widzialem niebieskie morze i zagle.
From The United States of Poetry episode “A Day in the Life.” Copyright Washington Square Arts, 1995.