Poet in Our Time
Unlike life, a work of art never gets taken for granted: it is always viewed against its precursors and predecessors. The ghosts of the great are especially visible in poetry, since their words are less mutable than the concepts they represent.
A significant part, therefore, of every poet’s endeavor involves polemics with these ghosts whose hot or cold breath he senses on his neck, or is led to sense by the industry of literary criticism. “Classics” exert such tremendous pressure that at times verbal paralysis is the result. And since the mind is more able to produce a negative view of the future than to handle such a prospect, the tendency is to perceive the situation as terminal. In such cases natural ignorance or even bogus innocence seems blessed, because it permits one to dismiss all such ghosts as nonexistent, and to “sing” (in vers libre, preferably) merely out of a sense of one’s own physical stage presence.
To consider any such situation terminal, however, usually reveals not so much lack of courage as poverty of imagination. If a poet lives long enough, he learns how to handle such dry spells (regardless of their origins), for his own ends. The unbearableness of the future is easier to face than that of the present if only because human foresight is much more destructive than anything that the future can bring about.
Eugenio Montale is now eighty-one years old and has left behind many futures—his own as well as others’. Only two things in his biography could be considered spectacular: one is that he served as an infantry officer in the Italian army during World War I. The second is that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975. Between these events one might have found him studying to become an opera singer (he had a promising bel canto), opposing the Fascist regime—which he did from the start, and which eventually cost him his post as curator in the Vieusseux Library in Florence—writing articles, editing little magazines, covering musical and other cultural events for about three decades for the “third page” of Il Corriere della Sera, and, for sixty years, writing poetry. Thank God that his life has been so uneventful.
Ever since the Romantics, we have been accustomed to the biographies of poets whose startling careers were sometimes as short as their contributions; in this context, Montale is a kind of anachronism, and the extent of his contribution to poetry has been anachronistically great. A contemporary of Apollinaire, T.S. Eliot, Mandelstam, and Hart Crane, he belongs more than chronologically to that generation. Each of these writers wrought a qualitative change in his respective literature, as did Montale, whose task was much the hardest.
While it is usually chance that brings the English-speaking poet to read a French poet (Laforgue, say), an Italian does so out of a geographical imperative. The Alps, which are now a two-way route for all sorts of “isms,” used to be a one-way route going north. For any Italian poet to take a new step, he must lift up the load amassed by the traffic of the past and the present. The load of the present was, perhaps, the lighter for Montale to handle.
During the first two decades of this century the situation in Italian poetry was not much different from that of other European literature. By that I mean that there was an aesthetic inflation caused by the absolute domination of the poetics of Romanticism (whether in its naturalistic or symbolist version). The two principal figures on the Italian poetic scene at that time—the “prepotenti” Gabriele D’Annunzio and Marinetti—did little more than manifest that inflation, each in his own way. While D’Annunzio carried inflated harmony to its extreme (and supreme) conclusion, Marinetti and the other Futurists were striving for the opposite, to disintegrate that harmony. In both cases it was a war of means against means; i.e., a conditioned reaction which marked a captive sensibility. It now seems clear that it required three poets from the next generation, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Umberto Saba, and Eugenio Montale, to make the Italian language yield a modern lyric.
In a spiritual odyssey there is no Ithaca, and even speech is but a means of transportation. A stern metaphysical realist with an evident taste for extremely condensed imagery, Montale managed to create his own poetic idiom through the juxtaposition of what he called “the aulic”—the courtly—and the “prosaic”; an idiom which as well could be defined as “amaro stile nuovo” (the bitter new style), in contrast to Dante’s formula which reigned in Italian poetry for more than six centuries. The most remarkable aspect of Montale’s achievement is that he managed to push forward despite the grip of the dolce stile nuovo. In fact, far from trying to loosen this grip, Montale constantly refers to or paraphrases the great Florentine both in imagery and vocabulary. His allusiveness is partially responsible for the charges of obscurity that critics occasionally level against him. But references and paraphrases are the natural elements of any civilized discourse (free—or “freed”—of them, discourse is but gesticulation), especially within the Italian cultural tradition: Michelangelo and Raphael, to cite only two instances, were both avid interpreters of La Divina Commedia; one of the purposes of a work of art is to create dependents; the paradox is the more enslaved the artist, the freer he is.
The maturity that Montale displayed in his very first book—Ossi di Seppia, published in 1925—makes it more difficult to account for his development. Already here he has subverted the ubiquitous music of the Italian hendecasyllabics, assuming a deliberately monotonous intonation that is occasionally made shrill by the addition of feet or is muted by their omission—one of the many techniques he employs in order to avoid prosodic inertia. If one recalls Montale’s immediate predecessors (and the flashiest figure among them is certainly D’Annunzio), it becomes clear that stylistically Montale is indebted to nobody—or to everybody he bounces up against in his verse, for polemic is one form of inheritance.
This continuity through rejection is evident in Montale’s use of rhyme. Apart from its function as a kind of linguistic echo, a sort of homage to the language, a rhyme lends a sense of inevitability to the poet’s statement. Advantageous as it is, the repetitive nature of a rhyme scheme (or for that matter, of any scheme) creates the danger of overstatement. To prevent this, Montale often shifts from rhymed to unrhymed verse within the same poem. His objection to overstatement is clearly an ethical as well as an aesthetic one—proving that a poem is a form of the closest possible interplay between ethics and aesthetics.
This interplay, lamentably, is precisely what tends to vanish in translation. Still, despite the loss of his “vertebrate compactness” (in the words of his most perceptive critic, Glauco Cambon), Montale survives translation well. By lapsing inevitably into a different tonality, translation—because of its explanatory, nature—somehow catches up with the original by clarifying those things which could be regarded by the author as self-evident and thus elude the native reader. Though much of the subtle, discrete music is lost, the American reader has an advantage in understanding the meaning, and would be less likely to repeat in English an Italian’s charges of obscurity. Speaking of the present collection, one only regrets that the footnotes do not include indications of the rhyme scheme and metric patterns of the poems. After all, a footnote is where civilization survives.
Perhaps the term “development” is not applicable to a poet of Montale’s sensitivity, if only because it implies a linear process; poetic thinking always has a synthetic quality and employs—as Montale himself expresses it in one of his poems—a kind of “bat-radar” technique, i.e., thought operates in a 360 degree range. Also, at any given time a poet is in possession of an entire language and his preference for an archaic word is dictated by his subject matter or his nerves rather than by a preconceived stylistic program. The same is true of syntax, stanzaic design, and the like. For sixty years Montale has managed to sustain his poetry on a stylistic plateau, the altitude of which one senses even in translation.
New Poems is, I believe, Montale’s sixth book to appear in English. But unlike previous editions which aspired to give a comprehensive idea of the poet’s entire career, this volume contains only poems written during the last decade, coinciding thus with Montale’s most recent (1971) collection—Satura. And though it would be senseless to view them as the ultimate word of the poet, still—because of their author’s age and their unifying theme, the death of his wife—each conveys to some extent an air of finality. For death as a theme always produces a self-portrait.
In poetry, as in any other form of discourse, the addressee matters no less than the speaker. The protagonist of the New Poems is preoccupied with the attempt to estimate the distance between himself and his interlocutor and then to figure out the response “she” would have made had she been present. The silence into which his speech necessarily has been directed harbors, by implication, more in the way of answers than human imagination can afford, a fact which endows Montale’s “her” with undoubted superiority. In this respect Montale resembles neither T.S. Eliot nor Thomas Hardy, with whom he has been frequently compared, but rather Robert Frost of the “New Hampshire period,” with his idea that woman was created out of man’s rib (a nickname for heart) neither to be loved nor to be loving, nor to be judged, but to be “a judge of thee.” Unlike Frost, however, Montale is dealing with a form of superiority that is a fait accompli—superiority in absentia—and this stirs in him not so much a sense of guilt as a feeling of disjunction: his persona in these poems has been exiled into “outer time.”
This is, therefore, love poetry in which death plays approximately the same role as it does in La Divina Commedia or in Petrarch’s sonnets to Madonna Laura: the role of a guide. But here quite a different person is moving along familiar lines; his speech has nothing to do with sacred anticipation. What Montale displays in New Poems is that tenaciousness of imagination, that urge to outflank death, which might enable a person, upon arriving and finding “Kilroy was here,” to recognize his own handwriting.
But there is no morbid fascination with death, no falsetto in these poems; what the poet is talking about here is the absence which lets itself be felt in exactly the same nuances of language and feeling as those which “she” once used to manifest “her” presence—the language of intimacy. Hence the extremely private tone of the poems in their technique and in their close detail. This voice of a man speaking—often muttering—to himself is generally the most conspicuous characteristic of Montale’s poetry, but this time the personal note is enforced by the fact that the poet’s persona is talking about things only he and she had knowledge of—shoehorns, suitcases, the names of hotels where they used to stay, mutual acquaintances, books they had both read. Out of this sort of realia, and out of the inertia of intimate speech, emerges a private mythology which gradually acquires all the traits appropriate to any mythology, including surrealistic visions, metamorphoses, and the like. In this mythology, instead of some female-breasted sphinx, there is the image of “her,” minus her glasses: this is the surrealism of subtraction, and this subtraction, affecting either subject matter or tonality, is what gives unity to this collection. (See the accompanying selection.)
Death is always a song of “innocence,” never of experience. And from the beginning of his career Montale shows his preference for song over confession. Although less explicit than confession, a song is less repeatable; as is loss. Over the course of a lifetime psychological acquisitions become more real than real estate. There is nothing more moving than an alienated man resorting to elegy:
With my arm in yours I have de- scended at least a million stairs,
and now that you aren’t here, a void opens at each step.
Even so our long journey has been brief.
Mine continues still, though I’ve no more use
for connections, bookings, traps,
and the disenchantment of him who believes
that the real is what one sees.
I have descended millions of stairs with my arm in yours,
not, of course, that with four eyes one might see better.
I descended them because I knew
that even though so bedimmed
yours were the only true eyes.
Other considerations aside, this reference to a continuing solitary descent of stairs echoes something in La Divina Commedia. “Xenia I” and “Xenia II,” as well as “Diary of 71” and “Diary of 72,” the poems that make up the present volume, are full of reference to Dante. Sometimes a reference consists of a single word, sometimes an entire poem is an echo—like No. 13 of “Xenia I” which echoes the conclusion of the twenty-first Song in the Purgatorio, the most stunning scene in the whole Cantica. But what marks Montale’s poetic and human wisdom is his rather bleak, almost exhausted, falling intonation. After all, he is speaking to a woman with whom he has spent many years: he knows her well enough to realize that she would not appreciate a tragic tremolo. He knows, certainly, that he is speaking into silence; the pauses that punctuate his lines suggest the closeness of that void which is made somewhat familiar—if not inhabited—because of his belief that “she” might be there. And it is the sense of her presence that keeps him from resorting to expressionistic devices, elaborate imagery, catch-phrases, and the like. She who died would resent verbal flamboyance as well. Montale is old enough to know that the classically “great” line, however immaculate its conception, flatters the audience and is a kind of shortcut to self-deception. He is perfectly aware of where his speech is directed.
In such an absence, Art grows humble. For all our cerebral progress, we are still greatly subject to relapse into the Romantic (and, hence, Realistic as well) notion that “Art imitates life.” If Art does anything of this kind, it undertakes to reflect those few elements of existence which transcend “life,” extend it beyond its terminal point—an undertaking which is frequently mistaken for Art’s or the artist’s own gropings after immortality. In other words, Art “imitates” death rather than life; i.e., it imitates that realm of which life supplies no notion: realizing its own brevity, Art tries to domesticate the longest possible version of Time. After all, what distinguishes Art from life is the ability of the former to produce a higher—if not absolute—degree of lyricism than is possible within human experience.
New Poems provides an idiom which is clearly new. It is largely Montale’s own idiom, but some of it derives from the act of translation, whose limited means only increase the original austerity. The cumulative effect of this book is startling, not so much because the psyche portrayed in New Poems has no previous record in world literature, as because it makes it clear that such a mentality could not be expressed in English as its original language. The question “why” may only obscure the reason; because even in Montale’s native Italian such a mentality is strange enough to earn him the reputation of an exceptional poet.
Poetry in itself is a translation; or, to put it another way, poetry is one of the faculties of the psyche translated into language. It is not so much that poetry is a form of Art as that Art is a form to which poetry often resorts. Essentially, poetry is a verbalization of perception, the translation of that perception into a full harmony (or disharmony) of language—language is, after all, the best available tool. But for all the value of this tool in ramifying and deepening perceptions—revealing sometimes more than was originally intended, which, in the happiest cases, merges with the perceptions—every more or less experienced poet knows how much is left out or has suffered because of it.
This suggests that poetry is somehow also alien or resistant to language, be it Italian, English, or Swahili, and that the human psyche because of its synthesizing nature is infinitely superior to any language we are bound to use (having somewhat better chances with inflected languages). To say the least, if the psyche had its own tongue, the distance between it and the language of poetry would be approximately the same as the distance between the latter and conversational Italian. Montale’s idiom shortens both trips.
New Poems ought to be read and reread a number of times, if not for the sake of analysis, the function of which is to return a poem to its stereoscopic state—the way it existed in the poet’s mind—then for the fugitive beauty of this subtle, muttering, and yet firm stoic voice, which tells us that the world ends with neither a bang nor a whimper but with a man talking, pausing, and then talking again. When you have had such a long life, anticlimax ceases to be just another device.
The book is certainly a monologue; it couldn’t be otherwise when the interlocutor is absent, as is nearly always the case in poetry. Partly, however, the idea of monologue as a principal device springs from the “poetry of absence,” another name for the greatest literary movement since Symbolism—a movement which came into existence in Europe, and especially in Italy, in the Twenties and Thirties—“Hermeticism.” The following poem, which opens the present collection, is testimony to the main postulates of the movement and is itself its triumph. (Tu in Italian is the familiar form of “you.”)
The Use of “Tu”
Misled by me
the critics assert that my “tu”
is an institution, that were it not
for this fault of mine, they’d have known
that the many in me are one,
even though multiplied by the mirrors.
The trouble is that once caught in the net
the bird doesn’t know if he is himself
or one of his too many duplicates.
Montale joined the Hermetic movement in the late Thirties while living in Florence, where he moved in 1927 from his native Genoa. The principal figure in “Hermeticism” at that time was Giuseppe Ungaretti, who took the aesthetics of Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés” perhaps too much to heart. However, in order to comprehend the nature of Hermeticism fully it is worthwhile to take into account not only those who ran this movement, but also who ran the whole Italian show—and that was Il Duce. To a large degree, Hermeticism was a reaction of the Italian intelligentsia to the political situation in Italy in the second and third decades of this century and could be viewed as an act of cultural self-defense—linguistic self-defense, in the case of poetry—against Fascism. At least, to overlook this aspect of Hermeticism would be as much a simplification as stressing it would be.
Although the Italian regime was far less carnivorous toward Art than were its Russian and German counterparts, the sense of its inconsistency with the traditions of Italian culture was much more apparent and intolerable than in those countries. It is almost a rule that in order to survive under totalitarian pressure Art should possess density in direct proportion to the magnitude of that pressure. The whole history of Italian culture supplied part of the necessary density; the rest of the job fell to the Hermeticists, little though their name implied it. What could be more odious for those who stressed literary asceticism, compactness of language, emphasis on the word and its alliterative powers, sound versus—or rather, over—meaning, and the like, than the propaganda verbosities and state-sponsored versions of futurism?
Montale has the reputation of being the most difficult poet of this school and he is certainly more difficult—in the sense of being more complex—than Ungaretti or Salvatore Quasimodo. But for all the overtones, reticence, merging of associations or hints of associations in his work, its hidden references, substitutions of general statements for microscopic detail, elliptical speech, etc., it was he who wrote “la primavera Hitleriana” (“The Hitler Spring”), which begins:
The dense white cloud of the mayflies crazily
whirls around the pallid street lamps and over the parapets
spread on the ground a blanket on which the foot
grates as on sprinkled sugar;…
This image of the foot grating on the dead mayflies as on sprinkled sugar conveys such a toneless, deadpan unease and horror that when some fourteen lines below he says:
…and the water continues to eat at the
shoreline, and no one is any more blameless
(translated by Maurice English)
it sounds like lyricism. Little in these lines recalls Hermeticism, that ascetic variant of Symbolism. Reality was calling for a more substantial response, and World War II brought with it a “dehermetization.” Still, the “hermeticist” label became glued to Montale’s back, and he has, ever since, been considered an “obscure” poet. But whenever one hears of obscurity, it is time to stop and ponder one’s notion of clarity, for it usually rests on what is already known or preferred, or, in the worst cases, remembered. In this sense, the more obscure, the better. In this sense, too, the obscure poetry of Montale still carries on a defense of culture, this time against a much more ubiquitous enemy:
The man of today has inherited a nervous system which cannot withstand the present conditions of life. While waiting for the man of tomorrow to be born, the man of today reacts to the altered conditions not by standing up to them or by endeavoring to resist their blows, but by turning into a mass.
This passage is taken from Poet in Our Time, a collection of Montale’s prose pieces which he himself calls a “collage of notes.” The pieces are excerpted from essays, reviews, interviews, etc., published at different times and in different places. The importance of this book goes far beyond the sidelights it casts on the poet’s own progress, if it does that at all. Montale seems to be the last person to disclose his inner processes of thought, let alone the “secrets of his craft.” A private man, he prefers to make the public life the subject of his scrutiny, rather than the reverse. Poet in Our Time is a book concerned precisely with the results of such scrutiny, and its emphasis falls on “Our Time” rather than on “Poet.”
Both the lack of chronology and the harsh lucidity of language in these pieces supply this book with an air of diagnosis or of verdict. The patient or the accused is the civilization which “believes it is walking while in fact it is being carried along by a conveyor belt,” but since the poet realizes that he is himself the flesh of this civilization’s flesh, neither cure nor rehabilitation is implied. Poet in Our Time is, in fact, the disheartened, slightly fastidious testament of a man who doesn’t seem to have inheritors other than the “hypothetical stereophonic man of the future incapable even of thinking his own destiny.” This particular vision surely sounds backward in our track-taped present, and it betrays the fact that a European is speaking. It is hard, however, to decide which one of Montale’s visions is more frightening—this one or the following, from his “Piccolo Testamento,” a poem which easily matches Yeats’s “Second Coming”:
…only this iris can I
leave you as testimony
of a faith that was much disputed
of a hope that burned more slowly
than a hard log in the fireplace.
Conserve its powder in your compact
when every lamplight spent
the sardana becomes infernal
and a shadowy Lucifer descends on a prow
of the Thames or Hudson or Seine
thrashing bituminous wings half-
shorn from the effort to tell you: It’s time.
(translated by Cid Corman)
Still a good thing about testaments is that they imply a future. Unlike philosophers or social thinkers, a poet ponders the future out of professional concern for his audience or awareness of Art’s mortality. The second reason plays a bigger part in Poet in Our Time because “the content of Art is diminishing, just as the difference between individuals is diminishing.” The pages in this collection that do not sound either sarcastic or elegiac are those that deal with the art of letters:
There remains the hope that the art of the word, an incurably semantic art, will sooner or later make its repercussions felt even in those arts which claim to have freed themselves from every obligation toward the identification and representation of truth.
This is about as affirmative as Montale can be with respect to the art of letters, which he does not spare, however, the following comment:
To belong to a generation which can no longer believe in anything may be a cause of pride for anyone convinced of the ultimate nobility of this emptiness or of some mysterious need for it, but it does not excuse anyone who wants to transform this emptiness into a paradoxical affirmation of life simply in order to give himself a style….
It is a tempting and dangerous thing to quote Montale because it easily turns into a full-time occupation. Italians have their way with the future, from Leonardo to Marinetti. Still, this temptation is due not so much to the aphoristic quality of Montale’s statements or even to their prophetic quality, as to the tone of his voice, which alone makes one trust what he is saying because it is so free of anxiety. There is a certain air or recurrence to it, kindred to water coming ashore or the invariable refraction of light in a lens. When one lives as long as he has, “the provisional encounters between the real and the ideal” become frequent enough for the poet both to develop a certain familiarity with the ideal and to be able to foretell the possible changes of its features. For the artist, these changes are perhaps the only sensible measurements of Time.
There is something remarkable about the almost simultaneous appearance of these two books; they seem to merge. In the end, Poet in Our Time makes the most appropriate illustration of the “outer time” inhabited by the persona of the New Poems. Again, this is a reversal of La Divina Commedia where this world was understood as “that realm.” “Her” absence for Montale’s persona is as palpable as “her” presence was for Dante’s. The repetitive nature of existence in this after-life-now is, in its turn, kindred to Dante’s circling among those “who died as men before their bodies died.” Poet in Our Time supplies us with a sketch—and sketches are always somewhat more convincing than oils—of that rather overpopulated spiral landscape of such dying yet living beings.
This book doesn’t sound very “Italian,” although the old civilization contributes a great deal to the accomplishment of this old man of letters. The words “European” and “International” when applied to Montale also look like tired euphemisms for “universal.” Montale is one writer whose mastery of language stems from his spiritual autonomy; thus, both New Poems and Poet in Our Time are what books used to be before they became mere books: chronicles of souls. Not that they need any. The last of the New Poems goes as follows:
I charge my descendants (if I have
any) on the literary plane
which is rather improbable, to make
a big bonfire of all that concerns
my life, my actions, my non- actions.
I’m no Leopardi, I leave
little behind me to be burnt,
and it’s already too much to live
by percentages. I lived at the rate
of five per cent; don’t increase
the dose. And yet
it never rains but it pours.