Italian Poetry Today: New Ways to Break the Line
Over the past twenty years, the decline of poetry has been a leitmotif among leading Italian critics. At its most banal, it's a commonplace based on the mistaken notion that the diminished prominence of the lyric poem and the decreasing intellectual prestige accorded poets—two undeniable phenomena not limited to Italy but linked rather to a broader phase of Western culture—necessarily signify the end of poetry and the death of the poet. But despite the hand-wringing, worthy poets and successful poems still exist and will go on existing. Our time may be better spent in examining the effects that this perceived marginalization has had, over the past two or three decades, on poetic style in Italy. I'm referring to the weakening or deflation (to use Enrico Testa's word) of the "I," a process generally considered a hallmark of much recent Italian poetry—in stark contrast to the dominance of the lyric subject that has marked our tradition for centuries.
It must be said that the weakening or waning or disintegration of the lyric voice found in many leading contemporary poets is not in itself a shortcoming. For example, in Mario Benedetti's recent book, Umana gloria (Human glory), there is a fragility, a helplessness, a difficulty in focusing, and these qualities are more than simply emblematic of the tendency of contemporary Italian poets to locate themselves "off to one side," psychologically and stylistically ("I who am something else: distance from life"). Benedetti also manages to exact from his expressive hindrances—his linguistic modesty, his vocal stammers, his rhythmic hesitations—an intense beauty:
I brought some old things with me to look at the trees:
a winter, the few leaves on the branches, an empty
I'm cold, but as if I weren't me.
I brought a book, I tell myself I've imagined myself in
as a man with a book, naively.
Today seemed a far-off day, a thoughtful day.
It seemed to me that everyone had seen the park in
Christmas in stories,
the images stamped on this park as part of its thickness.
What is solitude.
The woman laid the blanket down to keep the floor
laid herself down with scissors for stabbing her chest,
a hammer because she lacked the strength, a great
I read it on one of the pages of the newspaper.
I ask everyone's pardon.
The frequency of "weak" tones across the spectrum of recent Italian poetry goes beyond individual preference or literary fashion; it can be seen as a symptom of a condition that affects all writers of verse, even those who continue to value clearly delineated subjects and more complex styles. Aesthetic judgments aside, a basic question arises: why continue to bet on poetry in the very moment when its flagging status and its difficulty in possessing reality are most glaringly obvious? If what was once the authoritative and defining perspective of the lyric "I" now shows signs of aphasia, if the formal choices of even the best poets tell us that the guarantees of knowledge offered by the genre have diminished, then, as Walter Siti puts it, "the question that genuinely arises is: why break the line?" What does it mean, today, to entrust one's discourse to verse? It's a question worth taking seriously, especially when one considers the increasing frequency, in Italian poetry collections, of passages in prose, sometimes extending over entire sections.
In the past couple of decades the various phenomena associated with the "deflation of the I" have again highlighted a crisis in poetic language, a crisis that previously manifested itself in the sixties and seventies. The solution at that time seemed to involve a dramatic stylistic downshifting, achieved primarily through recourse to the demotic, on a lexical level, and through multiplication of characters and points of view, on a structural level. Nearly all the best poets of the period—including the neoavanguardia and the experimentalists—were exploring various notions of plurilingualism and plurivocality that permanently altered the physiognomy of Italian poetic language, drawing on the language of conversation, the novel, theatre, and even mass media. The result was a new mixture of high and low, a kind of "shabby sublime" that applied the ambition and grandiloquence of the great modern lyric to the reality of mass society. We are still measuring the significance of that turning point and the value—and limitations—of the poetic achievements of that period.
In the state of uncertainty and pluralism that followed, the recourse of poets to a fragile "I" and a radically unpoetic language constituted an almost spontaneous gesture, and for some an obligatory one. Not everyone, however, resigned themselves to this, or agreed that the strong poetic subject born of Romanticism was essentially dead. So, for those who refused to recognize themselves in a stammering, fragmentary voice (for those, in other words, who remained proud of breaking the line, and who continued to believe in the possibilities of the lyric "I"), two primary paths, it seems to me, remained open. Not two poetics—since in fact the forms deployed were many and not reducible to a single school—but two distinct psychological reactions to the weakening and stiffening of the lyric voice.
The first reaction, which might be called euphoric, consisted in the restoration under a new name of the myth of poetry as emotional emergency, as irrepressible, spontaneous communication that precedes any stylization. According to this idea, poetry can—indeed must—always start from scratch. It's a position that underlines the narcissistic dimension typical of romantic lyricism and frees it from all ironic self-defense. Initially this retrieval "of the origins," from Milo De Angelis to Patrizia Cavalli, produced (especially in the late seventies) poetic practices that were simple, direct, energetic, and sometimes wild. One thinks of Sylvia Plath, perhaps, or Anne Sexton: a poetry far from the great events, founded on the candor of individual confession and the intensification of the everyday, often stylistically stingy (conversational, paratactical, metrically lax), as in these lines by Patrizia Cavalli:
If you were to knock now on my door
and if you took your glasses off
and I took off mine which are just like yours
and if you then entered into my mouth
unafraid of kisses that are not alike
and said to me: "My love,
what has happened?"—it would be
a successful bit of theater.
—From My Very Own Singular "I"
In the same direction, but more anachronistically, others began once more to see the writing of poetry in absolute terms, as a priestly or Orphic act. A poetry took shape (again) that aimed directly at ecstasy (and in some cases at eloquence): an ambitious attempt to escape doubt and self-criticism through an act of faith in occult, mytho-magical reasons for breaking the line. The poetry of De Angelis is a good example:
What a strange smile
lives to be here and not to be right
in this square
he who confides and he who consoles are suddenly
it's June, in broad daylight the embrace comes
not tomorrow, now
the afternoon, the reflections
on the restaurant tables
near the red fingernails
give no explanations
they match the talk
this is the caress
that forgets and dedicates
while he looks inside the coffee cup
at the remaining drops and thinks of the time
and his only word of love: "now."
—From Resemblances, tr. by Lawrence Venuti
The second reaction, which I'll call dysphoric, made its mark in the early eighties, with certain poets assuming a "belated" attitude and style. Here we might speak metaphorically of a neurosis of the end (the end of poetry, yes, but also the end of humanism, tradition, even of Western culture itself), one that took on mannered and culturally oversaturated shapes. These poets don't claim or aspire to immediacy, but on the contrary they privilege, in order to estrange, elements of craft with increased metrical and rhetorical activity, appealing (in postmodern fashion) to the tradition that preceded modernity:
If I tried to make these paltry words line up again
across this paper (this paper that can feel no pain),
the pain that already sews my bones with stitches
would become too piercing, too much like the
of the birds that in the mute, closed-off morning vie
among the towering magnolia's branches.
Here I am, writing, dear little ones. Each tendon
keeps telling me in a piercing tone: "I can't go on."
O great imperial phosphorus, leave only ashes.
—From If I tried to make . . .
It's a space dominated by melancholy and often senescent tones, though it is inhabited not only by poets of the older generation such as Franco Fortini, who wrote the lines above, but also by a younger crowd, ranging from Patrizia Valduga, Gabriele Frasca, Aldo Nove, and the neometrical Gruppo 93 to Andrea Temporelli and Italo Testa.
Myth of origins and neurosis of the end: these have been the driving forces in Italian poetry in the last thirty years, in response to the choices of those who staked their claims on the contradictions of a weak subjectivity. A glance at the last few years, or months even, reveals flashes of a new tendency, perhaps a synthesis: a dialectic between mannerist procedures and a desire for readability. A poetry that speaks of shared themes, but that at the same time is recognizable as poetry. There's no clear path, since in the Italian poetry scene, as Alfonso Berardinelli remarks, "everybody these days seems to be standing on the margins making their own way." But there are certainly areas of common interest, involving both the need to communicate, reflect, and tell stories (leading to a more comforting relation to the public) as well as the need for strong, well-defined literary structures. The desire is to find a way around the dominance of the traditional lyric "I" without weakening it a priori, to find a way of transcending, in diverse ways, the subjective dimension itself.
This is how Italian poets are continuing, despite everything, to break the line: to the substance of prose they attempt to add the emotional intensity of rhythm and white space (with the always-present risk of lapsing into a kind of studied profundity). They're starting over with both a new relation to the reader and old, time-tested formal schemes, in part out of fidelity to the past, in part out of a fear of missteps, and in part, no doubt, out of necessity—the necessity, as Fabio Pusterla puts it, "of reinventing a voice, the possibility of a voice, beginning with one's own solitude, one's own isolation, one's own difficulty. And with marginality, too: one's own and that of poetry and poetic language."
Gianluigi Simonetti is assistant professor of contemporary Italian literature at the University of L'Aquila, Italy. His research focuses mainly on the history of twentienth-century Italian poetry. He has written books, essays, articles, and papers on poets such as Montale, Sereni, Fortini, Zanzotto, and many others.