NOBEL Prize-winning poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz has lived in the United States for 36 years and speaks English fluently, but he still writes poetry in Polish.
Speaking to students at Washington University last Friday, he expressed his firm belief that poetry should be written only "in the language of one's childhood."
Milosz (his full name is pronounced Chess-lav Mee-losh) came to St. Louis to attend a spring concert of the Washington University Chamber Choir that featured five of his poems set to music by composer Carl Smith, instructor in organ at the university. Milosz read from his works and spoke to students in Graham Chapel on the campus several hours before the concert. In an interview, Milosz said that he translates his works into English in collaboration with several other translators and finds that the two languages are compatible. "There is a difference, of course," he added, "but I feel that English suits me better for translation than other languages." He speaks several languages, including Russian and French. Born in 1911 in Lithuania to a Polish family of landed gentry, Milosz lived in Russia as a child while his father was serving as a civil engineer with the czarist army; he was in Poland during World War II. He worked in the underground resistance and edited anti-Nazi poetry during the war; then he worked for a time for the post-war Communist government of Poland. "I have seen the rise and fall of two totalitarian systems in Europe," Milosz said, "and I lived under both." While he always hated fascism, he was attracted to leftist politics as a young man, something that was "natural for a poet in that part of the 20th century," he said. However, he became disillusioned working under a Communist regime and, since he spoke Russian, was aware of what was really happening in the Soviet Union, Milosz said. His writing reflected his strong opinions, so it soon was banned in Communist countries and he became an exile, living for 10 years in France and then coming to the United States in 1960 with his wife and two sons. He took a position teaching Slavic languages at the University of California at Berkeley. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. Now retired from teaching, he continues to live in the Berkeley hills above San Francisco Bay with his second wife, an American historian, Carol Thigpen-Milosz. …