Florence’s La Nazione, a sober conservative daily with a national circulation and founded at the time of the American Civil War, stated on November 2, 1991, that more than 10 percent of Italians today are fully occupied in “organized crime” (not counting politicians and the legal profession). “Organized crime,” in Italy, doesn’t mean independent “self-employed” criminals, but is a term for the now dominant force in Italian society—the Mafia, the ‘ndrangheta, and the camorra. Only a year or so ago, the same newspaper published a statement by a leading judge who said the Mafia, etc., did not exist. Ten percent seems a modest proportion and surprises nobody. Are not 10 percent of the population bank workers, 10 percent accountants, 10 percent journalists or communications workers, or factory workers, and so on? All of this is quite normal and calls for no comment. But over the past thirty years a new profession has risen to prominence. At least 20 percent of Italians are poets. In Stefano Lanuzza’s Guida ai poeti italiani degli anni ottanta, more than a thousand renowned poets are discussed, and that is only the crème de la crème. For years now people have been saying that, in Italy, there is a “boom” in poetry. The snag, as Lanuzza says, is that there are no readers. If you go into a bookstore and ask for poetry they will refer you to the schoolbook section, where you will find Dante (but rarely Petrarch), Leopardi, and—if you are lucky—Montale, but little else. Maybe too, an anthology of three hundred pages that will be used for the next sixty years to represent the whole of Italian literature.
But poetry is in the news. Poets are exhibited on the popular television programs, and every small town has its poetry festivals with prizes. The fact, of course, is that in a postindustrial, consumer age, anyone who has the will, the energy, the egoism, or simply the money to pay for a book to be printed, is a poet. Now, while I believe with all my heart that in every human being a poet is latent, I do not think that the mechanical process of reproduction is the thing that makes a poet. It is one thing to have poetic feelings, another to write a successful poem. It is one thing to imagine a comfortable pair of shoes, another to be able to make one. Poetry is a skill, a technique.
Dana Gioia’s new and valuable anthology does not fall into any of these pitfalls. Mr. Gioia is one of America’s most accomplished critics as well as an outstanding younger poet, and, as a good business executive, he knows just what he is doing. Out of a few hundred possible names he has chosen ten- wellknown ones, essentially “Establishment” figures. This book is worth its value in good old greenbacks for just Dana Gioia’s introduction, let alone for the three hundred pages of contemporary poetry up to now not known in the United States. Anyone who has lived in Italy for nearly half a century, as I have, may raise his eyebrows at the inclusion of Maria Luisa Spaziani among “New Italian Poets” (she’s almost as old as I!), but in fact Gioia’s selection of her is justified, for she is not as well-known as she ought to be. She is “new,” not only to the American audience, but even to the general Italian public.
Gioia’s introduction is especially valuable for its discussion of the difference between the Anglo-Saxon and Italian conceptions of poetry. English and Italian are two distinct languages, and the dictionary translations of the words are not sufficient to make the one intelligible to the other. The American (not to say the Briton) feels one way, the Italian quite differently. If the words correspond in the dictionary, this tells us little. Either you feel what they feel, or you don’t. The words can come later; what is important is a prelinguistic experience.
Mr. Gioia lays great emphasis on “modernism” and is at pains to point out that in Italy, from 1908 and Marinetti until the Second World War, modernism held up as a vital movement. Where I would perhaps part company with Gioia is in feeling that modernism continued to be a dynamic enterprise after the war. Italians today still seem to be rehashing the earlier poetry of T. S. Eliot. But perhaps it is in the eschewing of genre, above all, that modernism manifests its essential weakness. “Genre,” however old-fashioned a concept it may be, establishes a context. In many of the poems in this book it is exceedingly difficult to find a context, and the poems (and the readers) suffer as a consequence.
That these poems are precise and honest reactions to the conditions of modern life I do not dispute, but that they are effective as poems I altogether doubt. The poets of today seem to be puppets acted on by the adverse and negative conditions of a technological society and the heavy demands it makes on the individual. They all seem conscious of a hostile destiny, even of ruin. Their poetry seems limited to what Aristotle called phantasia and Pliny and Tacitus imaginatio, that is, merely the perception and reproduction of images, whether of things real or of mere fancies. There is nothing “creative” about the microcosms they present. Many of them are like short nondramatic sequences from some slightly pretentious film, rather than attempts to project an alternative macrocosm. The generations after 1963, when Italy entered the prosperity race, seem to be dedicated to denigration of the world their fathers (and mothers) have left them, without the smallest attempt to contribute anything positive to contemporary life. Mi illudo / d’immenso . . . In poetry I look for vision, creativity, myth, not little black boxes with cameras attached.
Certainly in the work of Maria Luisa Spaziani (born 1924) and in that of Umberto Piersanti (born 1941) there is a rich linguistic and metrical texture that is “poetic” in the traditional sense, but Spaziani often spoils the effect by a sort of verbal grinding of gears, and Piersanti, for all the fine flow of his diction, which is closer to D’Annunzio’s or Swinburne’s than to any living poet’s, pays tribute to fashion by omitting all punctuation, so that it is impossible to construe the syntax of his long periods or even to distinguish one period from another. As for the other poets in this anthology, to quote Fabio Doplicher, “verse-builders / orient their radar in the bog of the ordinary.” The language is ordinary and discursive, closer to prose than verse, referential rather than evocative. But then, that is what goes over today, whether in Italy, France, England, or the United States. Poetry has been semioticized and in the process has been virtually emptied of symbolism. But what I find most symptomatic not only in these ten very respectable poets, but in almost all contemporary poetry, is the deliberate shrinking of the context. One poem takes place entirely inside the shower bath, nothing outside the plastic curtain is even referred to. This is a praxis of exclusion. Poetry is an art of inclusion. There is (for me) neither pain nor joy in these not-so-new poets.
The translations are by a team of ten American Italianists. They are adequate and generally verbally close to the original texts, and so should be useful for students who already know some, but not enough, Italian. The diction, and the rhythm especially, are rarely of any distinction, and after all, it is rhythm more than anything else that communicates poetry and its inherent emotions. However, in one poem alone there are two howlers: in Spaziani’s “White on White,” “le mie remote nebulose” is translated “my remote nebulosities.” This simply is wrong. It should be “my remote nebulas.” The translator had no business attributing “remote nebulosities” to a distinguished intellectual such as Signora Spaziani. Equally reprehensible is “and you leave footprints on my heart lighter than a doe’s,” where “doe” is used for the Italian “faina,” which unequivocally means a tree-martin. I often watch the seemingly weightless bounding of the faina from my bedroom window, but I would not like my heart to be trampled by a doe! Milo de Angelis’s “il riso in bianco” (which as every Italian child knows means plain “boiled rice”) becomes Lawrence Venuti’s “laughter in white.” I wonder how this translator would render Dante’s “Il dolce riso della mia donna“? “My Lady’s sweet risotto,” perhaps? There are other dubious interpretations of the Italian, and the reader, unlike the translator in this case, should arm himself with a large dictionary.
As for the quality of the individual poets and their poems, to make brief judgments on them in a short review would be quite unfair and misleading. Readers may well judge them more favorably than I do.
[New Italian Poets, Edited by Dana Gioia and Michael Falma (Brownsville, Oregon: Story Line Press) 336 pp., $16.95]
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