Other differences between Italian and American poetry have deeper historical roots. Modern Italian poetry was preceded by a more-than-seven-hundred-year tradition so luminous that poets in the early twentieth century felt that their own day was, by comparison, twilit. Americans, as inhabitants of a young nation bent on distinguishing its still-nascent tradition from its English ancestry, felt in some ways freer of their past, or at least less reverential toward it. Pound may have felt Whitman as a burden, for example, but he never doubted he was strong enough to carry him—or toss him aside. Italians by contrast struggled to bear the past's weight. Some, like the so-called "crepuscular" poets, bore it by speaking in muted, weary, melancholy tones, refusing to make great claims for themselves or their work. Others, most notably the Futurists, reacted in just the opposite fashion, violently rejecting what they considered Italy's passatismo—its tendency to fetishize its past—and exalting themselves and all aspects of modernity.
Futurism per se produced better paintings than poems. Though a number of important poets (particularly those associated with the exciting Florentine literary magazine Lacerba: Aldo Palazzeschi, Corrado Govoni, Ardengo Soffici, et al) were initially caught up in the excitement F.T. Marinetti so masterfully orchestrated, nearly all soon distanced themselves from the founder of Futurism. And it is striking how little Futurism seems to have influenced the poetry of Italy's three major Modernists: Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Umberto Saba. Though all three (even Saba, I would argue) were formally innovative in various ways, and though early Ungaretti (unlike late Ungaretti) was positively revolutionary, none defined himself against the poetic forms of the past to the degree that Pound and Williams did in our tradition. Indeed my sense is that for Italian Modernists the revolution was more tonal than formal. I don't want to overstate this difference, because it's clear that both American and Italian brands of Modernism sought to "make it new" both tonally and formally. But the contrast between Pound's and Montale's retrospective descriptions of their early intentions is suggestive: Pound's "first heave" was "to break the pentameter," while Montale's was "to wring the neck of the eloquence of our old courtly language."
That tradition of eloquence stretched from the thirteenth-century dolce stil novo to the threshold of the twentieth century, where it was embodied by the stodgy neoclassicist Giosuè Carducci, who received the Nobel Prize in 1906, and the flamboyant young Gabriele D'Annunzio, a wildly popular Bard-Superman figure (on whom Mussolini, in many respects, sought to model himself). This tradition weighed far more heavily on Montale, and I believe on most modern Italian poets, than the hendecasyllable (the Italian line that corresponds to our iambic pentameter) or the sonnet. Indeed none of the three major Italian Modernists I mentioned above had the sort of hostile relationship to received forms that Pound and Williams did, and all produced (like Eliot and Stevens) important work both in metrical and in free verse. Two poets of a later generation, Allen Ginsberg and Pier Paolo Pasolini, also make for an interesting juxtaposition in this regard: committed leftists of roughly the same age whose celebrity would soon go far beyond the poetry world, they published their most important poems within a year of each other (Howl in 1956 and Gramsci's Ashes in 1957). While Howl was a masterpiece of manic free verse, Gramsci's Ashes was written in, of all things, terza rima—Dante's form. Pasolini clearly didn't feel that the form had any objectionable ideological content; he had no qualms about delivering his radical message in a traditional envelope. (Indeed I imagine Williams's description of the sonnet as "a fascist form" would have seemed to Pasolini as naïve politically as it was poetically.)
In short, it seems to me that one way in which contemporary Italian poetry has been differently shaped is that poetic form was never quite the bogey that it was (and still often is) for American poetry. The degree to which rejection of traditional forms was a part of the renewal of poetry of the twentieth century varied, of course, from country to country. In England it was never as pronounced as in the United States. And Reginald Gibbons once observed that "the modern avant-garde in Spain," by comparison with their American counterparts, "felt little need to rebel against the traditions of poetic form." In Italy, the various avant-gardes of the twentieth century, from the futuristi to the novissimi and beyond, certainly did rebel against Italian formal traditions. But it seems to me that they somehow managed to open up new rhetorical and prosodic possibilities without causing Italian poetry to develop as many neuroses about form as American poetry has—a nice trick.
Italy, like the US, has seen something of a resurgence in metrical writing over the past quarter century, but there, from what I can tell, it has occurred across a broader aesthetic spectrum and, perhaps consequently, with less internecine rhetoric. I sometimes feel (though I can think of several cheering exceptions) that American poets who write in traditional forms too often come from the same aesthetic neighborhoods, whereas in Italy one more often finds poets with little in common except their use of traditional forms. Raffaello Baldini's expansive, hendecasyllabic monologues, for example, are worlds away from Patrizia Valduga's distilled, often claustrophobic quatrains—yet they seem birds of a feather when compared to the "perforated, cranky/mind" of Gabriele Frasca. Here's the octave of one of Frasca's untitled sonnets:
of all this nothing. all this nothing one
wears. like a body. this garment that fades.
that frays. that ravels under the abrading
fingernails of years. lights that have gone
inexorably out. this perforated, cranky
mind. of all these hours one chases after
to turn them into mirrors heads in order
to pass them to immerse them. nothing remains.
All that said, most contemporary Italian poets, like their American counterparts, write mostly in free verse.
All the poems in this mini-anthology were written in the last two decades. Franco Fortini was one of postwar Italy's leading intellectuals, and over the course of a fifty-year career he was influential as a poet, critic, translator, and activist. The writer he felt closest to, and whom he translated throughout his life, was Brecht. Though drafted into the Italian army in 1941, Fortini eventually escaped to join the partisans, and his experiences in World War II made him feel, he later wrote, like "a component part of world history." The two short poems included here are part of a late sequence called "Sette canzonette del Golfo" (Seven gulf ditties), from his final volume, Composita solvantur (1994). What's moving to me about these "ditties," written in response to the first Gulf War—so far removed in so many senses from the war of Fortini's youth—is the way the mask of satire can't quite hide his feeling of helplessness at no longer being a "component part of history." It's both an old man's helplessness and, more generally, the helplessness felt, or so I imagine, by many contemporary poets in the face of world events we feel powerless to influence.
Raffaello Baldini—the other dead poet in this group—is a so-called "dialect poet." Baldini wrote in Romagnolo, a dialect not of Italian but of Emiliano-Romagnolo, which, though often called a dialect of Italian even by those who speak it, is considered by linguists a Romance language in its own right. He was arguably his generation's greatest exponent of Italy's illustrious and resurgent tradition of dialect poetry, a tradition that includes the Romanesco poets G.G. Belli and Trilussa, the Neapolitan Salvatore di Giacomo, the Venetian Biagio Marin, and many others past and present. The term "dialect," of course, is a tricky one, for both linguists and poets. Belli, as imagined by Anthony Burgess in his novel ABBA ABBA, puts it well: "Dialect, dialect, dialect. What in God's name is the difference between a language and a dialect? I'll tell you. A language waves flags and is blown up by politicians. A dialect keeps to things, things, things, street smells and street noises, life." While this generalization doesn't always hold, it is apt in Baldini's case, though his focus on the physical should not suggest a lack of metaphysical depth, just as his regionalism is by no means provincialism. According to the great Italian critic Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo, "if the lazy prejudice were not still alive according to which a dialect poet must be 'minor' even when he is major, everybody would see Raffaello Baldini for what he is: one of the three or four most important Italian poets." The late poem "Hygiene," included here, shows off many of his virtues: his sense of humor, his mastery of the dramatic monologue (I love that "sssh!"), his canny ability to steer us toward a surprising destination while seeming to wander haphazardly.
The eldest of the living poets here, Alda Merini, was born in Milan in 1931. By the age of twenty her work had appeared in a pair of important anthologies and attracted the interest of poets including Montale and Quasimodo, and in 1954 she was included in the seminal Quarta generazione anthology. Following that meteoric rise, however, the middle decades of her career were punctuated by long stretches of silence and bouts with mental illness. (She spent a great deal of time—including much of the sixties—in psychiatric hospitals.) Over the past two decades, however, Merini has became extraordinarily prolific and increasingly celebrated. Her poetry is often born from the union of, as one critic puts it, "religious and erotic, Christian and pagan" impulses, as can be seen in the aphorisms included here, which are selected from two volumes, Aforismi (Aphorisms, 1993) and Aforismi e magie (Aphorisms and Spells, 1999).
The other poets here, all born in the decade or so following WWII, are part of what might be called the middle generation of contemporary Italian poets. Milo de Angelis and Valerio Magrelli are the best known, but they are all prolific, widely-anthologized members of the generation that came of age poetically after the avant-garde movements and political turmoil of the sixties. It's a generation about which I find it very difficult to generalize, except to say that—like our contemporary scene—it's characterized by a high degree of fragmentation. But despite or because of that, Italian poetry is thriving; a great deal of it is being written and published, and a considerable portion is exciting. Whether or not it is widely read is another matter. In Italy, as here, it is often said that there are more poets than readers of poetry, and though that may be a slight exaggeration, it's clear, in both countries, that contemporary poets ("like shortwave radio hobbyists," as Brian Phillips recently remarked in these pages) are talking mainly to themselves.
Finally, I'd like to preface this taste of contemporary Italian poetry with a disclaimer, one implied by my title: these poems are not offered as a representative slice of the contemporary Italian poetry scene, which is so polymorphous (especially if one takes into account the various "dialect" poetries) that no selection this slender could adequately represent its range. In fact I'm not even sure that all the poets I've included can be counted as "contemporary." What does that word mean, anyway? Contemporary with what? (Do the living automatically qualify? Even the extremely old? And what about the recently deceased?) I last recall puzzling over this question when the two-volume Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry came out in 2003. The "contemporary" volume begins with Charles Olson (1910-1970) and includes poets who had been dead for four (Sylvia Plath) or five (Dylan Thomas) decades, while Richard Eberhart and Stanley Kunitz, though both alive when the anthology appeared, are found in the "modern" volume—apparently too old to be contemporary. Alfredo Giuliani, in the preface to his important 1961 anthology I novissimi, asked the same question—contemporary with what?—and this was his answer: "with our sense of reality, or rather with the language that that reality speaks within us." It's a good answer, though no more codifiable than Justice Stewart's definition ("I know it when I see it") of pornography. And so I've simply chosen to present a group of recent Italian poems that, for one reason or another, I admire. Though two of the poets are no longer living, the poems, for me at least, all meet the Giuliani test. But it is admittedly a personal selection, and on the whole I don't want to apologize for that.