Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The dominant theme of “City Without a Name” is self-definition. This questioning of identity, which has been paramount in all of Miosz’s work since his relocation to the West, is strongly linked to the inward musings of a man in the twilight of his years. However, “City Without a Name” is not an egocentric poem. In fact, if the poet can affirm anything, it is that individuality is, paradoxically, communal. One must be defined by the past and, above all, by the people who share that past. In his book Radzinna Europa (1958; Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, 1968), Miosz speaks of a “world defined by memory” in which “each experience branches into a series of associations, demands to be given permanency, to be linked up with the whole.”

Nevertheless, the admission of such a perspective does not automatically bring acceptance. At times the poet gratefully relives the past or grudgingly perceives its importance, but, in other, blacker moments, he rails against the fact that he may only be the medium through which other experiences are filtered. He is afraid that the past may overwhelm the present, and, when past images begin to dominate, when he loses the present and only gains the past, he strikes out with anger and sarcasm. He cannot reconcile what is with what was. This striving for reconciliation is the corollary to the main theme of self-definition as the poem charts the poet’s struggle to find the meaning...

(The entire section is 430 words.)