Czeslaw Milosz

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Czeslaw Milosz was born June 30, 1911, in Szetejnie, Lithuania, the son of Aleksander (a civil engineer) and Weronika (Kunat) Milosz. By the time Milosz became a high school student in Wilno (Vilnius), Lithuania had become incorporated into Poland. In 1929, Milosz enrolled in the University of Wilno and studied law. He also became known as a member of a literary group known as the Catastrophic School, and he published his first volume of poetry, Poem on Time Frozen (1933). Milosz graduated with a master of law degree in 1934, after which he studied in Paris. Returning to Poland, he published his second book of poems, Three Winters (1936), and worked for a radio station in Wilno and later in Warsaw. He was in Warsaw when Poland was invaded by German and Soviet forces in 1939, beginning World War II. Milosz remained in Warsaw throughout the German occupation, writing for the underground resistance. After the war, Rescue (1945) was published in communist Poland. This third collection of poetry established his reputation as one of Poland’s important writers.

Milosz served as second secretary at the Polish embassy in Washington, D.C., for over four years and was then transferred to Paris, where he defected to the West. He lived in Paris until 1960, publishing frequently. His books included a nonfiction work, The Captive Mind (1953); two novels, The Seizure of Power (1955), which drew on his experiences in Poland during World War II, and The Issa Valley (1955); A Treatise on Poetry (1957), and an autobiography, Native Realm (1958). He received the Prix Littéraire Européen for The Seizure of Power.

In 1960, Milosz moved to the United States, and, in 1961, he became professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Between 1962 and 1974, he published four volumes of poetry in Polish: King Popiel and Other Poems (1962), Bobo’s Metamorphosis (1965), City Without a Name (1969), and From Where the Sun Rises to Where It Sets (1974). With the appearance of his Selected Poems in 1973, many of his poems were made available in English for the first time. Another collection in English, Bells in Winter, appeared in 1978.

Milosz also worked to make Polish literature more available to English speakers, publishing translations of Polish poetry and nonfiction works such as The History of Polish Literature (1970). He also translated into Polish many writers in English, including Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot, and Whitman.

In 1980, Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, and, in that year, his books of poetry were published for the first time in Poland. In 1981, he visited Poland for the first time in thirty years, and the following year he published his tenth book of poetry, Hymn to a Pearl. In 1988, The Collected Poems was published in English.

In 1990, Milosz received the U.S. National Medal of Arts and was admitted to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was presented with the Order of the White Eagle by the president of Poland in 1994.

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