Italian poetry today: a brief overview
Author of the Week: Italy
The splendors and miseries of a rapidly evolving tradition
Despite the Cassandres who like to raise their empty voice prophesying something very similar to the end of poetry, Italian poetry is alive and well. Perhaps it could even be said that it has never been so alive and well as in these first two decades of the 21st century.
Almost twenty years ago, Marco Merlin and Andrea Temporelli in their book Poeti nel limbo (Poets in limbo) (Interlinea, 2004) undertook to read, re-read and critically cross the generation of poets that came after the one authoritatively classified by Giovanni Raboni as the ‘generation of ’68’. The overall picture and many of the textual cores present in that tantalising work are perspicuous and still current. I’m not here to quibble, in general and in particular, about the concept of ‘generation’, which should be picked up with pliers and handled with care. Playing the game, so to speak, and getting my hands dirty, I say that it is now evident that the generation of poets born in the late 1950s has imprinted on the history of Italian poetry a very different pace from that of the generation immediately preceding it – the generation of Giuseppe Conte, Maurizio Cucchi, Cesare Viviani, up to the younger Milo De Angelis, Roberto Mussapi and Giancarlo Pontiggia. If it is obvious to point out that criticism – all criticism – has temporal limits, and cannot establish reliable values in (almost) real time, nevertheless it is possible to state that at least the first books of Antonella Anedda, Alessandro Ceni, Claudio Damiani and Fabio Pusterla heralded a change of pace that has now taken place.
I try to bring the game of generational observations to a provocative hyperbole, and I assume that it would be possible to speak of a ‘generation of ’57’. The year of the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community, that saw the Fiat 500 appearing on the market, must have been a particularly propitious year for the Italian goddess of poetic fecundity, who in a short time span, in a geographical arc between San Giovanni Rotondo in Puglia, and Mendrisio in Italian Switzerland, gave birth to three generationally ‘central’ authors such as Ceni Damiani and Pusterla, Gabriele Frasca, Gian Ruggero Manzoni, Mario Mesa and Valerio Magrelli.
There has been talk about the poets born in the 1960s in Italy, of a middle generation, a ‘submerged generation’ the last of the twentieth century, who would have found themselves writing and working in a sort of unfortunate epochal fault, from which it would have been difficult for almost anyone to rise to the Empyrean of the new Goddess Visibility.
It is a historical interpretation that is not wrong but is incomplete. If one fails to think that being ‘submerged’ and (almost) ‘invisible’ is not a real problem for authentic poets, one must remember the very useful distinction between the poetry and the poet.
The poetry of the so-called major poets is appreciated and studied above all by inertia, and not for its objective quality. The entire historiography, and in any case the entire pre-historiographic sampling taking place in the poetry of the last thirty years, is dominated by a tautological principle. According to this principle, speaking often of an almost-nothing passed off as something, and an almost-no one passed off as someone, we almost always end up talking about that something and that someone. From a critical point of view, this is a classic example of the exercise of entropy in an isolated system.
The need of the academia for serial scientific production, and the opportunistic presenteeism of many insiders who study, review, anthologise and celebrate the usual suspects to the detriment of the very good margin-dwellers distorts the real picture and limits the equanimity of historical judgment. It is a fact that would seem obvious, but it is worth emphasising. Excellent or otherwise, the usual suspects acquire influence that, little by little, promotes them to the rank of masters of reference. The attention focused on their work modifies the attitude of the younger generations.
The centrality of the figure of the Nobel Prize winner Eugenio Montale in the last thirty years of the 20th century was simultaneously the cause and effect of the revolution (to me, of the involution) in the meta-artistic key of the poetry that came after Montale’s work from the 60s and 70s, which attempts to flatten each hierarchy of value to the same plane focused on immanence. With the quiet, inflexible skill of a seasoned clerk, historiography certifies the stories that the magazines or departments (years ago) or of zines and blogs (nowadays) are responsible for bringing to the fore. The experience of the bard who decides to invent from scratch a new way of writing poetry (such, in very broad terms, is the legendary narrative that is served up to us), has influenced nearly everyone, not only the mediocre poets or PhD students and their mentors who hastened to revise the tone and intent of their writing in line with such an illustrious anti-ideal provocation.
Similarly, the study of the language of poetry, or the study of the language of paradox (in Cleanth Brooks’s sense), is today increasingly transforming itself into the study of the poetics of the obvious, which reduces poetry to metaphorical recording of surface phenomena, the lyrical backdrop to a sort of neo-spiritualistic Eden, and reading itself a waste of mental energy. It tends, with few exceptions, to get stuck in the comfort zone of energy-saving self-referentiality.
In the last forty years, many in Italy have tried to make an overview of contemporary poetry by compiling personal anthologies. The efforts of Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo, Maurizio Cucchi, Stefano Giovanardi, Cesare Segre and Carlo Ossola embodied in their ‘classic’ anthologies for big publishers such as Mondadori (Mengaldo 1978; Cucchi and Giovanardi 1996) and Einaudi (Segre and Ossola, 1999) should at least be contrasted to the irreverent Gli Invisibili by Marco Albertazzi and Marzio Pieri (La Finestra, 2008), the first intelligent overview of the voices of a completely different 20th century, irreducible to what the book’s editors defined as a ‘regime’ of ‘clerical-mafia dictatorship’, because it was ‘not “leftist” and not Catholic’, but human.
In its keenness on historiographic arrangement, the new century has seen the growth of this phenomenon. In less than a decade, some massive critically acclaimed anthologies were published, and a couple of not entirely useless ‘militant’ ones. Among the many, La poesia italiana di oggi (Italian Poetry Today) by Giorgio Manacorda (Castelvecchi, 2004), La poesia italiana dal 1960 a oggi (Italian Poetry From 1960 to Today) by Daniele Piccini (Rizzoli, 2005), Dopo la lirica (After the Lyric) by Enrico Testa (Einaudi, 2005), Parola plurale (Plural Word) edited by eight (then) young critics (Sossella, 2005), Poesia italiana dal 1980 a oggi (Italian Poetry From 1980 to Today) by Andrea Afribo (Carocci, 2007), Poesia presente (Present Poetry) (Raffaelli, 2011) by Francesco Napoli and, now that the revisionist impulse petered out, the very recent Poesia italiana dal ventesimo secolo a oggi (Italian Poetry From the 20th Century to Today) by Alberto Bertoni (Marietti, 2019) and Braci (Embers. Contemporary Italian Poetry) of Arnaldo Colasanti (Bompiani, 2021) stand out for their ambition, competence and market (academic and general) penetration. Among the works also inspired by culturally antagonistic pathos, Oltre il tempo (Beyond the Time) edited by Gian Ruggero Manzoni (Diabasis, 2007) has a prominent place.
The first new authors of the new Millennium belong to the generation of the 1960s. If I were to commit myself to compiling an anthology of the best post-twentieth-century poetry, I would probably title it The Fabulous Sixties, after the decade of birth of today’s fifty- or sixty-year-olds, figures such as Francesco Benozzo, Laura Liberale and Riccardo Olivieri, who have managed to sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules of the 20th century and not end up in the shallows of anti-traditional carelessness.
Perhaps there is, at the present time, hardly anything ‘interesting’ in poetry, but if something appeared, not many would notice. Obviously, I don’t mean the odd high-quality collection, or the poetic temperaments of some genuine authors. There are indeed poets who conduct interesting experiments, such as Paolo Valesio, who splits language and vision in a witty pastiche of mysticism and irony, or Bruno Galluccio, who tries to mix lyrical tension and knowledge in an unexpectedly scientific language. There is almost no one, however, to notice what the two of them, and a few others, are doing.
I could hardly imagine the current poetry scene as the right context for the outliers capable of injecting enough personality into poetry and rejuvenating its mystery. But there are nonetheless figures such as Filippo Davoli, Gabriel Del Sarto, Gianfranco Lauretano and Marco Marangoni, whose work represents an almost irrelevant yet very vital force acting in the here and now, in an era in which the widespread inclination for more or less metaphorically garlanded psychologisms gives rise to false sublimity.
Alessandro Ceni’s deep, perceptive, linguistically bold work carried out with indomitable perseverance denounces as obscure simplicity the damage, guilt and historical defect inherent in what our poetry community cherishes nowadays. Beyond the dead-end streets of the 20th century, his work reminds us that it is not at all necessary to de-sublimate the tone and lexicon in order to welcome without reservations the sacrosanct dynamics of the narrative passage in a textual body devoted to smooth, paradoxical autarchy.
Giuseppe Conte admirably reminded the Italians of the importance of myth for poetry – but if the critics were grateful to him for the inspiration, his followers hurried to board the boat, illorum causa all too slippery, of myth-modernism. This is a pity, because the subtle idea that moves Conte’s fiercely archaicising proposal is to return to the language of perception that intuits the transcendent in the sensible.
Roberto Mussapi’s work remains one of the last authoritative examples of the grand style of lyric poetry post-twentieth century. He proposes a heroically ultra-semantic model of poetry, and offers it as a contemptuous (even if tonally risky) antidote to the defiant anti-lyricism. At the turn of the century, with his long poem Antartide (Antarctica) Mussapi dragged the lyric into the narrative, and eventually pushed it towards the epic. He hybridised genres, but was generous and offered Italian poetry the gift a new mode (in the musical sense of the word), and of emblematic transvaluation of lived historical experience.
What is it that makes Mussapi’s lesson ‘fruitful’ at a higher level, instead, in a strictly poetic sense? He does not limit himself to telling a story, but tries to discover myths previously unknown to him. When one sets out to write poetry, shouldn’t one get lost in the vision he is creating, instead of simulating it, or simply telling it? The difference between poetry and prose lies in this question.
Audacity and simplicity can be a regenerating force for us who live in the 21st century, an era in which post-experimental mentalisms are hopefully destined to be forgotten per omnia saecula saeculorum. This is exemplified by the work of poets such as Sauro Albisani, Umberto Fiori, Francesco Tomada and a handful of others who insist on the grace of simple style in an authoritative manner, whether they express themselves in a sort of chronicle and psychological sketching with metaphysical streaks, or in an exercise of moralizing narrativity which is the most congenial way for them to catalyse the meditative elements into figures of speech.
A conscious heir to a tradition of radial lyricism that is anything but à la page, Giancarlo Pontiggia has been carrying out the patient work of ploughing and sowing in the autumn of the language of Italian poetics for over thirty years. In an attempt to give expression to a consonant human response to the mystery of time, Pontiggia does not back down from anything or anyone. He doesn’t listen to the sirens of the contemporary era and doesn’t care about the exhausting call of its sad egophiles. So much so that he doesn’t hesitate to assume the role of the augur called to interpret the signs of an invisible inner communion. But the priest, however, is also the sacrifice that is offered.
Massimo Morasso (Genoa 1964) wrote the vast poetic cycle of Il portavoce (The spokesperson, 1997–2010) and three other books of verse: Le poesie di Vivien Leigh (Marietti, 2005), L'opera in rosso (Passigli, 2017), American Dreams (Interno Poesia, 2019). He is co-director of the magazine «AV». He is the author of the Charter for the Earth and for Man (2001), an environmental ethics manifesto also signed by 5 Nobel Prizes for Literature and 7 Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. As a scholar he has published books on Cristina Campo, William Congdon, Walter Benjamin and Rainer Maria Rilke.
He has won important prizes, such as the Gozzano (2017) and the Catullo (2018) of the UNESCO World Academy of Poetry. Of note is his translation work, from German and English, which includes, among others, W. B. Yeats, Ernst Meister and Yvan Goll.