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.)