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Polish Poet Czeslaw Milosz, 93, Dies

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page C09

Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, 93, one of the major poets of the violent 20th century whose unflinching view of man's inhumanity was tempered by his love of the world's beauty, died Aug. 14 at his home in Krakow, Poland.

No exact cause of death was reported. His assistant told the Associated Press: "It's death, simply death. It was his time -- he was 93."

Czeslaw Milosz, censored in Poland, won the 1980 Nobel Prize.

An obituary in the Aug. 15 paper was unclear; Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz's book "The Captive Mind" was published in English in 1953. His poetry was not translated to English until 1973.

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His life, forged from the start in the crucible of Russia and Eastern Europe, straddled the chaos and the cataclysms of the century. He spent 30 years in self-imposed exile in France and the United States but returned to Poland in 1989 after the overthrow of Communist rule. His poetry inspired his countrymen for decades before he won the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature, which made him one of the best-read poets in the United States.

"He is without question one of the heroic figures of 20th-century poetry, although 'heroic' was a mantle he shunned," said Robert Faggen, a literature professor at Claremont McKenna College who interviewed, studied and wrote about the poet. "At the [Solidarity] monument in Gdansk, you have icons of three figures: Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II and Milosz."

His work grappled ceaselessly with the religious and metaphysical paradox of how to live, and maintain one's faith, in a world of mass-scale suffering. He insisted on detachment and irony. "There is a very dark vision of the world in my work," he once told a Washington Post reporter, but he added that he was "a great partisan of human hope" due to his religious convictions. He believed, he said, in "the passionate pursuit of the real."

Mr. Milosz was born in what is now Lithuania and raised on the battle lines of Russia during World War I. His father built roads for the czarist army. After the war, the family returned to its home town, which had become part of the Polish state. Mr. Milosz fought in the Resistance in World War II, living in occupied Warsaw and publishing anti-Nazi poetry in underground journals. He entered the diplomatic corps of the fledgling Polish republic after the war, serving for a time as cultural attache in Washington.

Disillusioned with Stalinism, Mr. Milosz left Poland, finding political asylum in France, where he published "The Captive Mind" (1953), a widely influential attack on the manner in which the Polish Communist Party destroyed the independence of the intelligentsia. His work was censored in Poland but circulated underground. It was not translated into English until 1973.

He took a job as a professor of literature at the University of California at Berkeley in 1960 and became a U.S. citizen in 1970.

Mr. Milosz cut an imposing figure, a barrel-chested and vigorous man whose most memorable characteristic was his wild, dark eyebrows. A translator of Shakespeare, Milton, Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot into his native tongue, a scholar who commanded Russian, Polish, English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, Mr. Milosz radiated a demanding intellectual style, colleagues said. He became an extremely popular lecturer on campus, even before the 1980 Nobel Prize catapulted his popularity.

Mr. Milosz wrote his poems in Polish, then translated them. He turned to Robert L. Hass, later the American poet laureate, and others to refine the English. This co-translation resulted in a second translation of the beautifully accessible language, with deeply thought-out meanings.

His work was read not just by students and Polish partisans (his name, entered in the online Google search engine, returns 33,900 results), but fellow Pole Karol Józef Wojtyla, now known as Pope John Paul II.

Faggen said the pope and the poet began corresponding over Mr. Milosz's treatise on theology and its justifications of evil.

"One of the things the pope said to him was, 'In your poetry, you take two steps forward and one step back.' Czeslaw replied, 'Holy father, how in this century can I do otherwise?' " Faggen said.

He is survived by two sons. His first wife, Janina, died in 1986. His second wife, Carol, died in 2003.

Mr. Milosz would have been impatient with attempts to understand him through a recitation of biography. "Biographies are like seashells; not much can be learned from them about the mollusk that once lived inside them," he wrote in "Milosz's ABCs" (2001).

Although he was ill, he was writing until recently. He pursued meaning until the end of his life, asserting, in a poem called "Meaning" (1991):

When I die, I will see the lining of the world

The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset

The true meaning, ready to be decoded.

And if there is no meaning, what remains, he said, is a word, a tireless messenger who "calls out, protests, screams."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company