Friday, October 19, 2007

Pasolini's Poetry

Feeling a little impudent in commenting about Pasolini's poetry but then what else is a blog for? I don't know anything about Italian tradition in poetry. I have read Inferno (in a very literal way) and have heard of Eugenio Montale but that's it. (With prose the situation is a little better. I am familiar with at least the representative works of Svevo, Levi, Moravia and Calvino.) So this will probably just be a shout out for the fans of Pasolini's films (which I have become recently). I haven't stopped thinking about Mamma Roma and Accattone ever since I saw them a couple of weeks back. I had the same reaction to his Teorema and Gospel According to St. Matthew which I saw early this year. Before everything else, his films work as an embodiment and expression of a unique and rare sensibility. Having read his poems and understood whatever I could, I think the same is applicable to his poems too. (In a way isn't all poetry about encapsulating an attitude towards the world and the self?)

The volume I have is a bilingual edition containing selections from five of his published poetry collections. Most of the poems are quite long - on an average around 20 pages (more than 500 lines). So reading these poems it feels like you are following a sustained trajectory of a thought and actually the interest of the poem lies in the nature of that trajectory itself. Most of these poems can fit into standard genre of confessional poetry, or at least they start like that, in the first person, with lamentations and self-reproachments, but just a few pages after you find him talking about Italian society, Marxist history, the hopelessness of the bourgeoisie, finally ending in exhortations of a bloody revolution! One of the poems in the book titled "Reality", that I liked particularly, starts with these lines:

Oh practical end of my poetry!
Because of you I can't overcome
the naivete that shrivels my prestige;

because of you, my tongue cracks with
anxiety, which I have to smother with talk.
I search my heart only for what's there.

And in the end after calling for a bloodbath of a revolution...

This is what a prophet would shout who doesn't have
the strength to kill a fly - whose strength
lies in his degrading difference.

Only when this has been said, or shouted,
will my fate be able to free itself,
and begin my discourse on reality.

"Tears of an Excavator" is another poem that resonated with me. The way he writes about the sights and sounds of a poor shantytown where he lived when he was a schoolteacher is very evocative in the same way as are the similar scenes in his films. He also writes about his homosexual experiences in a very frank manner. It is very close in tone to his initial films which had similar background - Accattone and Mamma Roma. Another noticeable and very interesting thing is that unlike many modern poets, writers and intellectuals writing about the modern life he doesn't write about the problem of alienation, the isolation of consciousness from the outside world. His subject is the exact opposite -- too much openness, a willingness to let the self completely disappear in the world, a radical immersion in the world. He writes about his sexual encounters with the young boys in the same mystical vein. There is another long poem titled "The Ashes of Gramsci" which moves in similar confessional territory despite its title. (Gramsci was an influential Marxist philosopher and a co-founder of the Italian communist party.) It didn't really make much sense to me though. There is another rather simple and moving poem addressed to his mother ("Prayer to My Mother") in which he prays to his mother not to die. There is another poem titled "A Desperate Vitality" starts with the line, "As in a film by Godard--rediscovery/of romanticism in the seat of/neocapitalistic cynicism and cruelty--. It didn't make much sense to me either. Another poem "The Beautiful Banners" is similar and somewhat shortened version of "Tears of an Excavator" and readily recognizable for someone coming to it after his films.

Most of these longer poems are written in unrhymed tercets which actually makes them a little easier to read. These tercets often (but not always) end in one line conclusion which probably makes it something else that I don't know about. The introduction to the book (translated from the Italian too) is pretty disappointing and not very helpful for the beginners. The book does contain some short notes in the end though which explain Italian specific phrases and words. I couldn't find anything of much help on the internet either.

An interesting exchange in the latest NYRB about Pasolini's poetry. The original essay in question is more about Pasolini's death than about his works.

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