UC Berkeley Press Release
Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz of Poland and Berkeley, one of the icons of the Solidarity movement, dies
BERKELEY – Czeslaw Milosz, Polish poet, Nobel laureate and UC Berkeley professor emeritus, died Saturday (Aug. 14) at his home in Krakow, Poland. He was 93.
The Associated Press reported that he died surrounded by his family. The cause of death was not immediately known.
"He was one of the towering poets of the 20th century," said UC Berkeley professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass on Saturday evening. Hass was a friend and the primary English translator of Milosz' powerful, often emotional works written in classical Polish.
Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1980. The prize coincided with the emergence of the Solidarity worker protest movement that undercut Communist rule in Poland.
In awarding him the prize, the Swedish Academy of Letters described him as a writer of "uncompromising clear-sightedness who voices man's exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts."
Robert Faggen, a literature professor at Claremont McKenna College who interviewed, studied and wrote about the poet, told the Washington Post that Milosz "is without question one of the heroic figures of 20th-century poetry, although 'heroic' was a mantle he shunned. At the [Solidarity] monument in Gdansk, you have icons of three figures: Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II and Milosz."
When Milosz received the Nobel Prize, he had been teaching in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at Berkeley for 20 years. Although he had retired as a professor in 1978, at the age of 67, he continued to teach and on the day of the Nobel announcement he cut short the celebration to attend to his undergraduate course on Dostoevsky.
In Berkeley, Milosz, who "was not an academic by background," found himself "a funny foreign language teacher in paradise," said Hass.
He had been lured to the campus in 1960 by Frank Whitfield, then chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature. In 1956, Milosz' work, "Captive Mind," had been published. It was written, at least in part, to explain his reluctant defection from Poland.
"People understood that he was the most important Polish writer then writing and he was in dire straits," said Hass. He was living in Paris trying to support himself, his wife and their two sons through freelance writing.
Hass said Milosz was supposed to teach the history of Polish literature, but there was no textbook about the subject in English. So, he hired a secretary "and dictated in English the history of Polish literature over the course of one summer."
Milosz was born in Lithuania in 1911 and studied law at the University in Vilnius. He lived through the horrors of the Nazi regime and Stalin's tyranny. His childhood, spent partly in Russia just before and after the Revolution, is described in his novel "The Valley of Issa," published in 1955, and in his autobiography "Native Realm," published in 1968.
In Berkeley, he lived in a house on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. When the Iron Curtain fell, he was able to return to Poland. Until the last few years he and his second wife, Carol, split their time between their apartment in Krakow and their home in Berkeley.
Hass said he last saw Milosz in Poland last summer. Over a period of 20 years, the two had met nearly every Monday morning working together to translate Milosz' poems.
In February 2000, at a noon-time event in the Morrison Reading Room on campus, Milosz read in both Polish and in English to an overflow crowd of admirers.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, he read a short piece called, "To Wash."
"At the end of his life a poet thinks: I have been plunging into so many of the obsessions and stupid ideas of my epoch! It would be necessary to put me in a bathtub and to scrub me till all that dirt was washed away. And yet only because of that dirt could I be a poet of the 20th century, and perhaps the Good Lord wanted it, so that I was of use to him."
The Associated Press reported that Milosz is survived by two sons. His first wife, Janina, died in 1986. His second wife, Carol, a U.S.-born historian, died in 2003. Funeral arrangements are pending.