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Czeslaw Milosz, 93; Nobel-Winning Poet Confronted Torments of His Era

August 15, 2004|Mary Rourke and Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writers

Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who gained international acclaim by conveying the great spiritual and political struggles in postwar Europe and beyond, died Saturday in Krakow, Poland. He was 93. Milosz, who suffered from cardiovascular problems, died at his home, the Polish news agency PAP reported

One of the most widely respected thinkers of the last half-century, Milosz was the model of the prolific writer engaged in wrestling with the major questions of his time. Best known as a poet, he also wrote novels and dozens of essays.

His translations of Polish writers are credited with giving Western readers a new sensibility about the literature of his adopted homeland. His poems were inspirational to members of the Solidarity trade union movement fighting the Communist regime in Poland in the 1970s and '80s.

"He inspired, encouraged and strengthened us," said Lech Walesa, the former Polish president and Solidarity leader, who himself is a Nobel laureate. "He belonged to the generation of princes, great personalities."

Born in what is now Lithuania to Polish parents, Milosz later settled in Poland, where he survived the Nazi occupation of World War II and the Soviet takeover that followed. In the process he took on the role of poet as witness, creating a literary record filled with anger and irony but not despair.

As a practicing Roman Catholic, Milosz was drawn to the Bible's Book of Job, in which suffering tests a man's faith in God but does not destroy it. Milosz translated many books of the Bible from Hebrew or Greek into Polish. His favorites were Psalms, Job and Revelation.

Faith infuses much of his writing.

"In all of his work he was preoccupied with theological problems," said Robert Faggen, a professor at Claremont McKenna College who edited "Striving Toward Being: The Letters of Merton and Milosz" (1997).

"He had a profound understanding of the history of religion and the Christian church," Faggen said. "One of the questions he would always be asking is: How could a just and good God have created a world so filled with cruelty and torture? "

Milosz credited the French philosopher Simone Weil for teaching him to live with the inherent contradictions. He wrote about this conflict in several poems, including "Helene's Religion," from a collection in the book "Road-Side Dog" (1998):

On Sunday I go to church and pray

with all the others.

Who am I to think that I am different?

Enough that I don't listen to what the

priests blabber in their sermons.

Otherwise, I would have to concede

that I reject common sense.

He explained his own rationale for the existence of God: "It's not up to me to know anything about heaven or hell. But in this world there is too much ugliness and horror. So there must be, somewhere, goodness and truth. And that means somewhere God must be."

For the depth of his honesty and his commitment to writing poetry about real life as he observed it, Milosz was revered among fellow poets and academics.

"Czeslaw Milosz has embodied the history and torments of the 20th century as no other poet has," Robert Hass, a former U.S. poet laureate, told The Times.

Haas, who translated many of Milosz's works, called it a "staggering achievement to have stayed engaged in the problems of existence" well into his 10th decade.

"In his later poetry of memory, Czeslaw tried to understand what can be redeemed from one, individual life. It is a passionate record," Haas said.

Faggen agreed.

"He was a heroic figure in poetry. He called poetry the passionate pursuit of the real, and he never rested from that pursuit. It was inspiring and thrilling to see him in that pursuit and to read his work. He never gave in to facile nihilism, despite his acute awareness of the threats to faith and meaning."


'A Great Storyteller'

Mark Danner, a writer, editor and friend of Milosz's who lives at the poet's former home in the Berkeley hills, noted that despite the gravity of his subject matter, Milosz "loved to laugh and eat and drink. He was a great storyteller.

"He lived through some of the 20th century's greatest horrors and found himself at the crossing point of the political struggles that left millions and millions dead," Danner said. "He witnessed unprecedented violence, but it never made him morbid or obsessed with death. It increased his desire to be human and try to understand what it was to be human and an artist."

Milosz wrote nearly 20 books of verse.

"His work is in the great visionary tradition of Blake and Whitman," Faggen said.

The earliest works were unsentimental reports about entire cultures being suppressed first by Nazis and later by Communists. He wrote in a voice that was direct, precise, stern at times, but also reflective. Upon the Nazis' demolition of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, he observed:

It has begun: the tearing, the

trampling on silks,

It has begun: the breaking of glass,

wood, copper, nickel,

silver, foam

... Poof! Phosphorescent fire from

yellow walls

engulfs animal and human hair.

("A Poor Christian Looks

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