The Poet Meets The Pacific

Cynthia L. Haven explores how Polish-born poet Czesław Miłosz’s appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, and four subsequent decades living in the state, influenced his writing:

With its dramatic coastline and deserts, [California] anticipates a landscape that will endure beyond the last breath of the last man, the endpoint where American energy and aspirations are as negligible as a candle raised against the relentless California sun. As Irena Grudzinska Gross put it, “Here, in California, space is the greatest enemy: too much space imprisons as much as too little of it.” Miłosz responded this way:

I did not choose California. It was given to me.
What can the wet north say to this scorched emptiness?
Grayish clay, dried-up creek beds,
Hills the color of straw, and the rocks assembled
Like Jurassic reptiles: for me this is
The Spirit of the Place.

California gave him space, and a vantage-point from the end of the world. The passionate poet who longed for detachment, a more objective place from which to see himself, found it on the Pacific coast. Distance, emotional or geographic, is hard to come by in Poland, where he was an insider. No one is an insider in California.