The Poet of Our City

26 June 2024

Joanna Zach

This year marks twenty years since the passing of Czesław Miłosz – the poet who lived and worked among us here in Kraków.

His presence in our city was important: he was visited by notable personages from all over the world, including poets, authors, scholars and students. He once even received a delegation from Mittelbergheim bringing a demijohn of local wine as a thanks for including the Alsatian village in one of his most beautiful poems. His flat at Bogusławskiego Street frequently hosted discussions focusing on important matters of mind and spirit and making the human world more rational. Adam Zagajewski was wont to say that Miłosz lived in Kraków like Goethe lived in Weimar; that the “city became wiser” because of his presence.

Why did he choose to move to Kraków after decades in the US? After all, this Nobel laureate and professor emeritus could have chosen to live literally anywhere. Why not Warsaw, where he spent the Second World War and where he met his first wife? Why not Vilnius, the city of his youth, which regained its status as a capital of an independent state after the collapse of the USSR? Yet he chose Kraków – home to some of his oldest friends, including Jerzy Turowicz and the circles of the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly. He knew that he would find an atmosphere supporting his creativity. He chose this city of young people and ancient buildings because its walls contained the memory of a “native realm” – a homeland of free minds which had to be rebuilt from scratch. Not only that, but he chose it twice: first when he and his second wife Carol Thigpen decided to move here in the 1990s, and then again after her death in San Francisco when he defied his doctors and flew back to Kraków. He was over 90 years old; he knew it would be the last journey he’d ever take and that he was returning to the city where his life will come to an end.

He worked right up until the end, even when he was urgently hospitalised at the clinic of Prof. Szczeklik. If it is true that poetry is usually written in one’s youth and it is substituted by other forms in later years, then it could be said that Miłosz never grew old as a poet and never lost his youthful vigour. He never stopped composing poems and always sought the truth about the world: “Approaching ninety, and still with a hope / That I could tell it, say it, blurt it out”, he wrote in Prayer. He didn’t lose his Daimonion – the gift of intense concentration allowing him to make dazzling connections and compose brilliant verses – until shortly before his passing. Even then he found moments to dictate sentences, fragments, pieces of future poems. He truly believed and he truly doubted. He knew the depths of darkness and suffering, “…having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness” (Orpheus and Eurydice).


During his late years in Kraków, Miłosz continued to write reams of poetry. He published several volumes in the final decade of his life: collections of poetry including  Facing the River (1994), This Only (2000), Orpheus and Eurydice (2002) and Second Space (2002), essays Legends of Modernity (1996), and a collection of essays, poems and “topics to avoid” Road-Side Dog (1997). He also published memoirs Miłosz’s ABC (1997), a book about Anna Świrszczyńska Talking to My Body (1996), the anthology An Excursion Through the Twenties (1999), an extensive volume of correspondence, and the posthumous collection Last Poems (2006). But he didn’t just write and dictate; he was a focal point of literary and intellectual life of the city, he took part in discussions on some of the most important issues affecting us all, and he simply wanted to be useful until the very end.

Czesław Miłosz is always present in Kraków. His apartment and his tomb at the Pauline church where his body is interred remain an indelible part of Kraków’s material heritage. The city hosts the Miłosz Festival – one of the most important international events dedicated to poetry in Poland and Central Europe. The event has origins in the Meetings of Poets of the East and West which Miłosz co-founded with fellow Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska in the late 20th century. The monumental edition of his Collected Works was published in Kraków by the Znak Social Publishing Institute and Wydawnictwo Literackie Publishers. The Jagiellonian University awarded the poet an honorary doctorate in 1989; the university is now home to the Czesław Miłosz Centre with a reach far beyond academic walls: its mission is to cherish the poet’s legacy in collaboration with the Kraków UNESCO City of Literature Foundation and the Krakow Festival Office.

Yes, Miłosz is present in Kraków, but do we appreciate it? Do we truly understand what kind of a man lived here? We are far too quick to consign masterpieces to the scrapheap and sanctify living words. One of the most moving images in the poet’s works is the vision of a family of refugees sitting on the floor at the Kyiv railway station in his Captivated Mind. Although taking place in 1940, the scene could have happen yesterday and may yet happen tomorrow: a hand pouring tea, gently handing the mug to a child, tender words read on the lips among the roar of propaganda. This vision of ordinary humanity, captured from within the chaos of history, says more than we really want to hear: it tells us how fragile order is, it tells us about the folly of humankind, it tells us about the grain of truth we all have within ourselves and the compassion which keeps our world together. This compassion, present throughout his work, is perhaps the most prominent in poems written in our city: “Here I came to understand / Something of the habits of my brothers and sisters,” he wrote in his poem titled In Kraków. This period of his life also featured something incredibly important: Miłosz became closer to his readers, shifting the mood of his poetry. His works still intertwine elated praises of being and bitter existential truths; they are still rigorously disciplined, and while many young poets regard discipline as an anachronism, it is the condition of precision of words, imbuing them with the power of bullets. And yet what really stands out from this poetry is wisdom rooted in experience and the power of having overcome despair.

Joanna Zach
Scholar of literature, director of the Czesław Miłosz Centre. Graduate in Polish studies at the Jagiellonian University, specialising in theatre studies. She is an expert on poetry of broadly-understood modernism, from precursory writings to modernism of the 20th century and its late variants in the latest literature. She focuses on works by Cyprian Norwid and Czesław Miłosz, studying the links between poetic arts and philosophical and anthropological reflections.

Article published in 1/2024 issue of Kraków Culture quarterly.
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