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 …