“In Milan,” which was written in France in 1955 but first published in his 1962 collection Król Popiel i inne wiersze (King Popiel, and other poems), expresses the conflict that Miosz faced as an artist throughout his career. As “Dedication” shows, he felt compelled to use his art to bear witness to his time. Yet he always felt an equally strong attraction to embracing the beauty of existence and the pleasures of the senses, to transcending his experience of history through mysticism, nature, and art. These two impulses are apparent in the mix of poems that he chose to include in each of his collections. Occasionally, as for “In Milan,” they become the subject of the poems themselves.
The poem begins with two brief stanzas. The first recalls a time, years ago, when the impulse to celebrate the beauty of life led the poet to write poems on Italy. The second recounts a charge made by a friend as they walked at night through a piazza: that Miosz’s art was “too politicized.” The third, longest stanza records Miosz’s reply—a response that is both deeply felt and tinged with regret.
He would love to write poems about the beauty of the world, Miosz says: “I am for the moon amid the vineyards . . . I am for the cypresses at dawn.” He could “compose, right now, a song/ on the taste of peaches, on September in Europe.” In fact, “I would like to gobble up/ All existing flowers, to eat all the colors./ I have been devouring this world in vain/ For forty years, a thousand would not be enough.” He would desperately like to be “a poet of the five senses”—because those senses are so powerful, because it would be easy to lose oneself in their pleasures—but “That’s why I don’t allow myself to become one.” Because “Thought has less weight than the word lemon,” it needs a poet to express it, to defend it, to insist on its importance.
In this poem, Miosz manages to have it both ways. In a poem of ideas, which regretfully insists on his commitment to ideas in poetry, he creates an occasion that allows him to write exactly the kind of poem that he claims he must not allow himself to write: a poem full of beauty, emotion, and sensuous imagery.