Czesław Miłosz (pronouced Cheswav Meewosh), who died in 2004, was perhaps the best known of Polish literary men in the U.S., thanks to his 20-year tenure as a professor of Slavic languages at the University of California at Berkeley, where he carried on his work as an essayist, poet, fiction writer, and translator. While he could communicate and occasionally write in English, his poetry became familiar to American readers through translations published in magazines like The New Yorker and in The New York Review of Books. He became widely recognized as an ambassador from the land of exile, continually bearing the cross of his numerous emigrations. A Lithuanian Pole, he left for Warsaw under the German occupation. He received his education in Wilno (Vilnius), a city which was long a part of Poland, with many Polish associations, above all literary, since the two great nineteenth century poets, Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki, like Miłosz, spent their formative years there. A diplomat of Communist Poland in the U.S. and France, he sought political asylum in 1951 and lived as an expatriate intellectual in Paris until 1960, when he emigrated to the United States and claimed citizenship in the great everywhere and nowhere of academia. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. After 1989 he divided his time between Berkeley and Kraków. For a brief, but fuller biography, see the Miłosz Year site, where you will find further texts and bibliography.
Miłosz was born in 1911. Hence 2011 marked his centenary, which was actively promoted on an international scale with events commemorating him through his varied literary interests.
The Miłosz Year was celebrated at Williams College in December 2011 under the tutelage of the distinguished Polish actor, director, and writer, Omar Sangare, who guided a large group of students through a performance, in which each participant recited a different text by Miłosz, as they moved through different regions of the performance space. In this way the students had an exceptional opportunity to learn about the Polish littérateur, study a single text in depth, and make it their own in performance. Translation, an endangered species, above all in the U.S. was an important part of Miłosz’s life work, and he surely would have been delighted to see his work disseminated in his primary second language to young Americans. This is a significant event in a world where few people learn Polish, and Polish literature is studied primarily in graduate programs at universities.
“Inspired by Milosz”
directed by Omar Sangare
video by Justyna Augustynska
voice over by Glen Williamson
The show was attended by theatergoers, Williams community and two special guests: Consul General of the Republic of Poland Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka and Deputy Consul General Przemyslaw Balcerzyk. The production was accompanied by music by Frederic Chopin and a contemporary composition by Joanna Gabler.
For those unfamiliar with the man, two poems may serve as an introduction. The second is followed by the Polish original.
To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.
Berkeley—Paris—Cambridge, Massachusetts (1981-83).
My Faithful Mother Tongue
Faithful mother tongue,
I have been serving you.
Every night, I used to set before you little bowls of colors
so you could have your birch, your cricket, your finch
as preserved in my memory.
This lasted many years.
You were my native land; I lacked any other.
I believed that you would also be a messenger
between me and some good people
even if they were few, twenty, ten
or not born, as yet.
Now, I confess my doubt.
There are moments when it seems to me I have squandered my life.
For you are a tongue of the debased,
of the unreasonable, hating themselves
even more than they hate other nations,
a tongue of informers,
a tongue of the confused,
ill with their own innocence.
But without you, who am I?
Only a scholar in a distant country,
a success, without fears and humiliations.
Yes, who am I without you?
Just a philosopher, like everyone else.
I understand, this is meant as my education:
the glory of individuality is taken away,
Fortune spreads a red carpet
before the sinner in a morality play
while on the linen backdrop a magic lantern throws
images of human and divine torture.
Faithful mother tongue,
perhaps after all it’s I who must try to save you.
So I will continue to set before you little bowls of colors
bright and pure if possible,
for what is needed in misfortune is a little order and beauty.
Moja wierna mowo
Moja wierna mowo,
Co noc stawiałem przed tobą miseczki z kolorami,
żebyś miała i brzozę i konika polnego i gila
zachowanych w mojej pamięci.
Trwało to dużo lat.
Byłaś moją ojczyzną bo zabrakło innej.
Myślałem że będziesz także pośredniczką
pomiędzy mną i dobrymi ludźmi,
choćby ich było dwudziestu, dziesięciu,
albo nie urodzili się jeszcze.
Teraz przyznaję się do zwątpienia.
Są chwile kiedy wydaje się, że zmarnowałem życie.
Bo ty jesteś mową upodlonych,
mową nierozumnych i nienawidzących
siebie bardziej może od innych narodów,
chorych na własną niewinność.
Ale bez ciebie kim jestem.
Tylko szkolarzem gdzieś w odległym kraju,
a success, bez lęku i poniżeń.
No tak, kim jestem bez ciebie.
Filozofem takim jak każdy.
Rozumiem, to ma być moje wychowanie:
gloria indywidualności odjęta,
Grzesznikowi z moralitetu
czerwony dywan podścieła Wielki Chwał,
a w tym samym czasie latarnia magiczna
rzuca na płótno obrazy ludzkiej i boskiej udręki.
Moja wierna mowo,
może to jednak ja muszę ciebie ratować.
Więc będę dalej stawiać przed tobą miseczki z kolorami
jasnymi i czystymi jeżeli to możliwe,
bo w nieszczęściu potrzebny jakiś ład czy piękno.