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The Singular Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini
In the new summer issue of Bookforum, Adam Thirwell reviews The Selected Poems of Pier Paolo Pasolini (forthcoming in August from University of Chicago Press). “And so he had really made his films, he argued, ‘as a poet.’ Not that a film and a poem were exactly equivalent, but still: ‘I think one can’t deny that a certain way of feeling something occurs in the same identical way when one is faced with some of my lines and some of my shots.'” More:
Everything Pasolini did, he did as a poet. But what was it, precisely, that Pasolini did? Born in 1922, he began his career writing poetry in Friulian, his native language. Then he moved to Rome, where he wrote novels, this time exploring a dense Roman argot. And then came the movies of the ’60s and ’70s, including Mamma Roma, Teorema, and the trilogy of adaptations from Boccaccio, Chaucer, and the Arabian Nights, ending in his masterpiece of degradation, Salo. His atmosphere was constant scandal, and he added to that scandal with his essays in the high-end newspapers: small doses of acerbic thinking. But although he might have enjoyed using crazily various modes, he also had a certain style. In his movies, he loved fusing the hieratic with the everyday. And in his writing, too, he liked combining two things that don’t usually go together: a classical form or tone that could absorb its squalid subjects. His best poetry is a kind of diary written in long slabs and sequences—he called these poems poemetti, longer than a poesia, shorter than a poema—meditations on whatever he was thinking about, where the syntax is strung out along the terza-rima form (Dante’s meter!) in a papery festoon of thinking.
What Pasolini was thinking about, perhaps, is what now makes him seem—like so many products of the radical ’60s and ’70s—slightly dusty, as if from a time capsule. The deep aim of all his writing was as messy and outdated as utopia. In that preface to his selected poems, he noted his strange, lopsided triangle of concerns: “sensual joy” and “civil idealism,” which were both obscured by a constant sense of “being unhappy.” He was a disappointed, nostalgic utopian, always faithful to the radical idealism of his politics and, simultaneously, to the omnivorous observations of his attention.
But that constant contradiction is why, I think, Pasolini could be a useful historical model for future productions. His restlessness is exemplary—and that restlessness was symbolized by his brilliance in so many media. Not only were his poems as good as his movies, or his essays as good as his novels, but they are each independent elements of the giant Pasolini system. You need to examine them all, which is why it’s so useful for the sadly Anglophonic reader to possess this new Selected Poetry, translated by Stephen Sartarelli. True, there’s another selection by Norman MacAfee, from FSG, and one by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, put out by City Lights. But this new translation is, I think, the most comprehensive and the most attentive to Pasolini’s strangely melancholic style.
Read the rest of the review at Bookforum.