Poetry: the antidote to degradation?
Author of the Week: Italy
How good cultural promotion can bring out good poetry
The last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st are difficult to classify into organised and explicitly elaborated poetic trends and currents. In Italy, we are presently suffering from a lack of artistic movements, groups that gather around literary magazines and large presses publishing poetry. The panorama appears somewhat fluid, fragmented, with the most interesting voices often hidden and difficult to identify. This, along with the crisis of criticism which began around the 1980s, is the backdrop against which various anthologies have tried to collect the Italian poetic production of recent years, with often incomprehensible and inconsistent choices.
After a wave of great 20th-century Italian poetry represented by poets such as Montale, Ungaretti, Caproni, as well as by important intellectual figures such as Pasolini and Pavese – curiously considered poets abroad but not in Italy, where the former is recognised mainly as a filmmaker and essayist and the latter as a narrator and translator – various more or less significant currents appeared one after another. Especially notable is the strand of militant poetry of the late 50s and 60s, which largely merged into the neo-avant-garde (Group 63 and neo-futurists), embraced a more intimate poetics and finally birthed the three main authors of reference for contemporary Italian poetry, namely Edoardo Sanguineti, Andrea Zanzotto and Mario Luzi. With their death, the figure of the great poet definitively disappeared. There have been other authors, unanimously considered relevant by contemporary critics, but the bigger picture has become fragmented and hard to understand.
The advent of the internet has helped shuffle the cards even more. On the one hand, academic criticism has been depedestalised, putting the author in direct contact with the reader and facilitating the emergence of new voices; on the other hand, the absence of gate-keeping has turned the poetry scene into a free-for-all and introduced into the system a great deal of poor-quality material, although quality poetry and honest critical debate can be found online, whereas they have become rare in other places, such as the cultural pages of newspapers.
This is illustrated by the phenomenon of the so-called ‘Instagram poets’, such as Rupi Kaur and the Italians Francesco Sole, Giò Evan or Franco Arminio, who, with an endless stream of fifth-grade-level sentences passed off as poetry, have conquered a large audience of the simple-minded. Unfortunately, the connivance of the mass media promotes the legitimation of these self-styled poets with the sad consequence that they achieve high sales figures. Poetry thus joins most other sectors of arts and culture which in our century measure their success in quantity rather than quality.
This disturbing scenario arises from a few factors, such as the lack of authoritative literary critics, and the deterioration of education, which gradually leads to the inability of the audience to appraise the quality of the offer. Finally, the view of art and culture as by-products useful only in the marketing of tourism has taken root and exacerbates the situation.
As already mentioned, the mass media also contribute to this negative trend, with some rare exceptions. On the few occasions in which the press, radio and television pay attention to poetry (perhaps to celebrate the World Poetry Day on 21 March), we find them following and highlighting the latest fads, or the currents that address a wider audience. If they dare to name someone, they refer to the few poets who are already part of the mainstream, and those are often ones who write banal and easily understandable poetry, far removed from true sparks of talent and creativity.
In this less than idyllic panorama, however, some examples of quality and competence do exist and persist. One of them is the Genoa International Poetry Festival Parole spalancate (Wide open words), the largest poetry event in Italy, which will be held in the prestigious Palazzo Ducale 8–18 June. Now in its 29th edition, this festival continues to be a precious catalyst for both great authors and new Italian and international voices.
Parole spalancate, born in 1995 of an idea of the poet and writer Claudio Pozzani, who is still its artistic director, has as its primary mission the promotion of contemporary poetry in all its forms, with particular attention to the relationship between poetry and arts (music, cinema, theatre, painting, photography, plastic and visual arts) and with the important practice of translation.
It is no coincidence that the Genoa International Poetry Festival was one of the founders of the Versopolis platform, a valuable European project which today includes over 30 poetry festivals from just as many European countries.
In today’s context, characterises by fragmentation and lack of quality, Pozzani’s festival gathers a large number of poets who have been taking turns for 29 years on the stage of the Cortile Maggiore of Palazzo Ducale in a kaleidoscope of idioms, poetics and visions. It has created and consolidated a substantial network which brings together important cultural realities of the city of Genoa, the nation of Italy and the rest of the world every year. This remarkable resonance has increased the prestige of the event over time, and has helped spread the contemporary Poetic Word.
When considering poetry at an international level, translation is something that cannot be ignored. I think translating poetry is one of the hardest tasks there is, but on the other hand, it is also the only way to access the knowledge from the cultures surrounding us, hence its extreme importance. Probably, only a poet is able to render a good translation of poetry, on account of his sensitivity and rhetorical wisdom; only a poet can reconstitute the nuances, the rhythm, the musicality of the verses of others in a language that is not his own; only a poet, master in the art of using the word, can recreate poetry from poetry. The most popular translators of poetry have always been poets themselves (Giuseppe Ungaretti, Angelo Maria Ripellino, Vittorio Sereni, etc.).
A fair amount of humility is also needed to work on the work of others, a humility that is difficult to find in the narcissism that permeates the world of poetry. Along with the humility, deep knowledge of the work of the author to be translated is also essential, as well as the knowledge of the cultural, artistic and human universe the work comes from.
Another area we must look at carefully when we talk about contemporary poetry is publishing. Nowadays, the poetry publisher who is not limited to being a mere printer has become an almost heroic figure. Unfortunately, it is known that poetry does not sell and, in the face of the ever-increasing number of verse-dispensers with ambitions to publish, the numbers of copies actually sold are laughable. Obviously, this causes an almost total disregard of the Italian State for the sector, which translates into a lack of available grants.
In many other European countries, for example France, there are entities whose mandate is to support the most fragile supply chain in the culture sector, i.e. that of small publishing houses, independent bookshops, literary magazines, translation and promotional cultural events. Unfortunately, in Italy all this is utopia. In almost all cases it is necessary to rely on volunteering in order to be able to organise even important events offered to the public free of charge. Part of the responsibility lies in the Italian mindset, for which culture is not paid for unless it is cinema, theatre or concerts. Indeed, it is rare for the audience at a book presentation to buy the book being presented. Therefore, a certain sense of discouragement among those who firmly believe in the promotion and diffusion of the poetic word is understandable.
Just to stand by the indomitable dreamers, three years ago the Genoa International Poetry Festival launched the Salone dei Resilienti, a book fair dedicated exclusively to publishing houses and magazines that focus on poetry. During the three days of the Salone, in the splendid Palazzo Ducale, readings and presentations follow one another without interruption, attracting authors from all over Italy and creating a happy and stimulating opportunity for discussion. Far from being exhaustive, the ever-growing participation of small and medium-sized publishers and the quality of the editorial proposals demonstrate the vitality and commitment of the players who continue to operate in this important sector, despite the difficulties.
The work of a serious editor, especially in the field of poetry, can help the public in the selection of poets to read. Unfortunately, not all publishers act with courage in their choices and we often witness the indiscriminate publication of rubbish poetry which generates large profits. Furthermore, in these times of obscurantism, we are witnessing a proliferation of online on-demand presses which contribute to even greater confusion among those who do not have adequate judgment tools. In short, ‘tell me with whom you publish and I’ll tell you who you are’ could be a good rule of thumb both for emerging poets who want to attain some visibility, and inexperienced readers who want to approach poetry. I am also aware that for a small publishing house dedicated exclusively or mainly to the publication of poetry, it is very risky to invest in unknown authors. Add to this that even the terminals of the supply chain such as distributors and bookshops give less and less space to poetry, and the position of a book of poetry can come to resemble that of a small vessel in a storm, with few sailors willing to shoulder the burden of steering.
How could it be possible to reverse these trends, assuming that the situation is not irreversible by now? I think that the first soil in which the passion for poetry should grow is school. With a more conscious and creative teaching, poetry could be brought to the fore not only for its intrinsic value, but also for its representing the highest form of expression and the use of the Word. The history of Italian poetry is full of great names that have no peers in fiction. We could mention Dante, Petrarca, Ariosto, Tasso, to name a few, and move on to the 20th century where we find D’Annunzio, the Futurists, Ungaretti, Saba, Caproni, Montale, Sereni, Luzi, and many others. In short, a true poetic Eden!
Poetry is often omitted from syllabi and curricula, as if it were an unnecessary ballast, only to be taken out now and again, like a rabbit from the magician’s hat for the purpose of questionable creative writing workshops. Perhaps of the rationale here is that it would be easier to tick it off with the drafting of short poems formulated as quips. It would be much more useful to replace the numerous writing workshops with as many reading workshops, where appropriate amount of time would be dedicated to learning the definition of the word ‘read’.
It is often said that Italy (but not only Italy) has more writers than readers among its population. This is also evident from the poverty of the language of many authors. Some studies have shown that the average Italian (but this is common in many other Western countries) uses only 400 words during his lifetime. A limited lexicon leads to limited thinking – those who speak badly think badly. Another study carried out across social strata and education levels showed that 61% of the can hardly understand a written text. These findings are grounds for serious social alarm, since history teaches that economic crises are always the result of cultural and ethical crises.
I want to continue to believe that poetry, literature and adequate cultural preparation can be an antidote to the degradation we are witnessing. May they be a shield against the arrogance of the ignorant who run their mouths about the ‘politics of making’, ‘studying for a purpose’ or ‘going to school to learn a job’. Time was school had the fundamental task to transmit wisdom and values to edify and educate Man, to provide every human being with the tools necessary to face life in its complicated entirety, to understand the world and recognise beauty.
But perhaps, as our own ruling class too often reminds us, the only possible goal for the Italian people is to continue to create replicants who are slaves to the Net and are able to work a job to pay for old people’s pensions. This, while waiting for Artificial Intelligence to take over and usher in the era of its ‘enlightened’ government.
Barbara Garassino is writer and former tennis champion, she is responsible for the events of the Stanza della Poesia of Palazzo Ducale (the ‘House of Culture’ of Genoa, Italy). In 2011 she wrote the collection of short stories Passi fra le ombre (Internos). Her other short stories have been published in anthologies and magazines. In 2018 she founded the cultural association ‘Contatti’ with Massimo Morasso, with which she organizes literary festivals (Hemingway Days; GENOVAnarra and others) and promotes publishing activities.