Salvatore Quasimodo

Nobel Lecture



Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1959

The Poet and the Politician

“The night is long that never finds the day”. These are Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth, and they help us to define the poet’s condition. At first, the reader appears to the poet in his solitude as an image with the face and the gestures of a childhood friend, perhaps of that more sensitive friend who is experienced in solitary readings but a bit diffident in evaluating a presumed representation, or misrepresentation, of the world. This representation is attempted with rigorous poetic measures extraneous to science and with words whose sounds are predetermined.

An exact poetic duplication of a man is for the poet a negation of the earth, an impossibility of being, even though his greatest desire is to speak to many men, to unite with them by means of harmonious verses about the truths of the mind or of things. Innocence is sometimes an acute quality which permits the greatest representation of the sensible. And the innocence of the poet’s friend, who requires, dialectically, that the first poetic rhythms have a logical form, will remain a fixed point of reference, a focus which will enable the poet to construct half of a parabola. The poet’s other readers are the ancient poets, who look upon the freshly written pages from an incorruptible distance. Their poetic forms are permanent, and it is difficult to create new forms which can approach them.

The writer of stories or of novels settles on men and imitates them; he exhausts the possibilities of his characters. The poet is alone with infinite objects in his own obscure sphere and does not know whether he should be indifferent or hopeful. Later that single face will multiply; those gestures will become approving or disapproving opinions. This happens at the publication of the first poems. As the poet has expected, the alarms now are sounded, for – and it must be said again – the birth of a poet is always a threat to the existing cultural order, because he attempts to break through the circle of literary castes to reach the center.

He has a strange public now, with whom he begins to have silent and hostile rapport: critics, provincial professors, men of letters. In the poet’s youth, the majority of these persons destroy his metaphysics, correct his images. They are abstract judges who revise “mistaken” poems according to an indifferent, poetic standard.

Poetry is also the physical self of the poet, and it is impossible to separate the poet from his poetry. However, I shall not indulge in autobiography by speaking of my own country, which, as everyone knows, has been filled in every century with Giovanni Della Casas, that is, with men of letters of metrical neatness and fully developed dexterity. These high priests of tradition have clairvoyance and imagination. Moreover, they are obsessed with allegories of the credible destruction of the world. They do not tolerate chronicles but only ideal figures and attitudes. For them the history of poetry is a gallery of ghosts. Even a polemic has some justification if one considers that my own first poetic experiments began during a dictatorship and mark the origin of the Hermetic movement.

From my first book, published in 1930, to the second and the third and the fourth (a translation of Greek lyrics published in 1940), I succeeded in seeing only a stratified public of humble or ambitious readers through the political haze and the academic aversion to harsh poetry that departed from the standard classical composition. The Lirici Greci (1940) [Greek Lyrics] entered fresh and new into the literary generation of the time; and they initiated a truer reading of the classics throughout Europe. I knew that young men quoted verses from my lyrics in their love letters; others were written on the walls of jails by political prisoners. What a time to be writing poetry! We wrote verses that condemned us, with no hope of pardon, to the most bitter solitude. Were such verses categories of the soul – great truths? Traditional European poetry, as yet unrestricted, was unaware of our presence: the Latin province, under the aegis of its Caesars, fostered bloodshed, not lessons in humanism.

My readers at that time were still men of letters; but there had to be other people waiting to read my poems. Students, white-collar workers, labourers? Had I sought only an abstract verisimilitude in my poetry? Or was I being overly presumptuous? On the contrary, I was an example of how solitude is broken. Solitude, Shakespeare’s “long night”, ill-borne by the politician – who wanted a poet such as Tyrtaeus during the African or Russian campaigns – became clearly poetic; taken to be a continuation of European decadence, it was rather the rough draft for neo-humanism. War, I have always said, forces men to change their standards, regardless of whether their country has won or lost. Poetics and philosophies disintegrate “when the trees fall and the walls collapse “. At the point when continuity was interrupted by the first nuclear explosion, it would have been too easy to recover the formal sediment which linked us with an age of poetic decorum, of a preoccupation with poetic sounds. After the turbulence of death, moral principles and even religious proofs are called into question. Men of letters who cling to the private successes of their petty aesthetics shut themselves off from poetry’s restless presence. From the night, his solitude, the poet finds day and starts a diary that is lethal to the inert. The dark landscape yields a dialogue. The politician and the mediocre poets with their armour of symbols and mystic purities pretend to ignore the real poet. It is a story which repeats itself like the cock’s crow; indeed, like the cock’s third crow.

The poet is a nonconformist and does not penetrate the shell of the false literary civilization, which is full of defensive turrets as in the time of the Communes. He may seem to destroy his forms, while instead he actually continues them. He passes from lyric to epic poetry in order to speak about the world and the torment in the world through man, rationally and emotionally. The poet then becomes a danger. The politician judges cultural freedom with suspicion, and by means of conformist criticism tries to render the very concept of poetry immobile. He sees the creative act as being both extratemporal and ineffectual within society, as if the poet, instead of being a man, were a mere abstraction.

The poet is the sum total of the diverse “experiences” of the man of his times. His language is no longer that of the avant-garde, but is rather concrete in the classical sense. Eliot has pointed out that the language of Dante is “the perfection of a common language … nevertheless the ‘simple style’ of which Dante is the greatest master, is a very difficult style”. The poet’s language must be given its proper emphasis. It is neither the language of the Parnassians, nor that of the linguistic revolutionaries, particularly in countries where contamination by dialects only produces additional doubts and literary hieroglyphs. Indeed, philologists will never revive a written language. This is a right which belongs exclusively to the poet. His language is difficult not because of philological reasons or spiritual obscurity, but because of its content. Poets can be translated; men of letters cannot, because they use intellectual skills to copy other poets’ techniques and support Symbolism or Decadence for their very lack of content, for their derivative thought, for the truths on which they have been theoretically nourished when they are found to resemble Goethe or the great nineteenth-century French poets. A poet clings to his own tradition and avoids internationalism. Men of letters think of Europe or even of the whole world in the light of a poetics that isolates itself, as if poetry were an identical “object” all over the world. Then, with this understanding of poetics, formalistic men of letters may prefer certain kinds of content and violently reject others. But the problem on either side of the barricade is always content. Thus, the poet’s word is beginning to strike forcefully upon the hearts of all men, while absolute men of letters think that they alone live in the real world. According to them, the poet is confined to the provinces with his mouth broken on his own syllabic trapeze. The politician takes advantage of the men of letters who do not assume a contemporary spiritual position, but rather one that has been outdated by at least two generations. Out of cultural unity he makes a game of sophisticated, turbulent decomposition wherein the religious forces can still press for the enslavement of man’s intelligence.

Religious poetry, civic poetry, lyric or dramatic poetry are all categories of man’s expression which are valid only if the endorsement of formal content is valid. It is a mistake to believe that a spiritual conquest, a particular emotional situation (a religious state) of the individual, can become “society” by extension. Pious abnegation, the renunciation of man by man, is nothing but a formula for death. The truly creative spirit always falls into the claws of wolves. The poet’s spoken discourse often depends on a mystique, on the spiritual freedom that finds itself enslaved on earth. He terrifies his interlocutor (his shadow, an object to be disciplined) with images of physical decomposition, with complacent analyses of the horrid. The poet does not fear death, not because he believes in the fantasy of heroes, but because death constantly visits his thoughts and is thus an image of a serene dialogue. In opposition to this detachment, he finds an image of man which contains within itself man’s dreams, man’s illness, man’s redemption from the misery of poverty – poverty which can no longer be for him a sign of the acceptance of life.

In order to assess the extent of the politician’s power – and here religious power is also included – one need only recall the silence which lasted for a millennium in the fields of poetry and the arts after the close of the classical epoch, or recall the great paintings of the fifteenth century, a period in which the Church commissioned the work and dictated its content.

Formalistic criticism attempts to strike at the concept of art by focusing its attack on forms. It expresses reservations on the consistency of content in order to infringe upon artistic autonomy in an absolute sense. In fact, poetry will not accept the politician’s “missionary” attempts, nor any other kind of critical interference, from whatever philosophy it may originate. The poet does not deviate from his moral or aesthetic path; hence his double solitude in the face of both the world and the literary militias.

But is there a contemporary aesthetics? And what philosophy offers truly significant suggestions? An existentialist or Marxist poetry has not yet appeared on the literary horizon; the philosophical dialogue or the chorus of new generations presupposes a crisis, even presupposes crises in man. The politician uses this confusion to give an air of illusory stability to fragmented poetry.

The antagonism between the poet and the politician has generally been evident in all cultures. Today the two blocs that govern the world are fashioning contradictory concepts of freedom, even though it is clear that for the politician there is but one sort of freedom, which leads in a single direction. It is difficult to break down this barrier which has stained the history of civilization with blood. There always exist at least two ways of regarding cultural freedom: the freedom found in those countries where a profound social revolution has occurred (the French Revolution, for example, or the October Revolution); and that found in other countries, which resist stubbornly before undergoing any change in their world view.

Can poet and politician cooperate? Perhaps they could in societies that are not yet fully developed, but never with complete freedom for both. In the contemporary world the politician may well take a variety of stands, but an accord between poet and politician will never be possible, because the one is concerned with the internal order of man, the other with the ordering of men. A quest for the internal order of man could, in a given epoch, coincide with the ordering and construction of a new society.

Religious power, which, as I have already said, frequently identifies itself with political power, has always been a protagonist of this bitter struggle, even when it seemingly was neutral. The reasons for which the poet, as moral barometer of his own people, becomes a danger to the politician are always those which Giovanni Villani cites in his Croniche Fiorentine. He says here that, for the benefit of his contemporaries, Dante “as a poet thoroughly enjoyed ranting and raving in his Commedia perhaps more than was proper; but possibly his exile was to blame”.

Unlike Villani, Dante does not write chronicles. To the excellent “hermetic” poetry of the dolce stil nuovo Dante later adds, without ever betraying his own moral integrity, the violence of human and political invective, not dictated by his aversions, but by his internal standard of justice which is religious in the universal sense. The aesthetes have gingerly placed these verses, which burn in eternity, into the limbo of non-poesia. Verses like “Trivia ride tra le ninfe eterne” (“Trivia smiles among the eternal nymphs”) have always seemed only if he remains the continuer of pseudo-existential enlightenment, the decorator of placid human sentiments, or if he does not penetrate too profoundly into the dialectic of his time, whether from political fear or simple inertia. For example, Angelo Poliziano in the fifteenth century showed his artistic freedom in one of the Stanze per lagiostra di Ginliano de’ Medici[Stanzas Written for the Medici Joust], where he cautiously speaks of a confused nymph who goes to mass with secular ladies. But Leonardo da Vinci, a writer of a different kind, was not free. Here liberty assumes its true meaning; it is nothing but a permission granted by the political powers which allows the poet to enter his society unarmed. Not even Ariosto and Tasso were free, nor the Abbot Parini, nor Alfieri, nor Foscolo: the rhetoric of these persecuted men places them in time among the propagators of the voice of man – a voice that seems to cry out in the wilderness and instead corrodes society’s untruths.

But is the politician free in his turn? No. In fact, the castes that besiege him determine a society’s fate and act even upon the dictator. Around these two protagonists of history, both adversaries and neither of them free – and by poets we mean all important writers of a given epoch – passions are stirred and conflict ensues. And there is peace only in time of war or revolution – revolution the bearer of order, and war the bearer of confusion.

The last war was a clash of systems, of politics, of civil orders, nation by nation. Its violence twisted even the smallest liberties. A sense of life reappeared in the very resistance to the inimical but familiar invader, a resistance by culture and by folk humanism which, in Vergil’s words, “raised its head in the bitter fields ” against the powerful.

In every country a cultural tradition remains detached from this military movement. This tradition is not merely provisional, although it is considered as such by the conservative bankers who finance construction on civilization’s “real estate”. I insist upon saying not merely provisional, because the nucleus of contemporary culture (including the philosophy of existence) is oriented not toward the disasters of the soul and the spirit, but toward an attempt to repair man’s broken bones. Neither fear, nor absence, nor indifference, nor impotence will ever allow the poet to communicate a non-metaphysical fate to others.

The poet can say that man begins today; the politician can say, and indeed does say, that man has been and always may be caught in the trap of his moral baseness, a baseness which is not congenital but rather implanted by a slow secular infection.

This truth, concealed among the unattainable attitudes of political wisdom, suggests as a first conclusion that the poet can speak only in periods of anarchy. The Resistance is a moral certainty, not a poetic one. The true poet never uses words in order to punish someone. His judgment belongs to a creative order; it is not formulated as a prophetic scripture.

Europeans know the importance of the Resistance; it has been the shining example of the modern conscience. The enemy of the Resistance, for all his shouting, is today only a shadow, without much strength. His voice is more impersonal than his proposals. The popular sensibility is not deceived about the condition of the poet or about that of his adversary. When the antagonism is increased, poetry replaces the subordinate thought of the politician who makes poetry into an idea that can be exploited or extinguished.

The Resistance is the perfect image of the conflict between the present and the past. The language of blood is not only a drama in the physical sense; it is the definitive expression of a continuous trial on man’s moral “technology”. Europe was born of the Resistance and of the admiration for the indeterminate figures who belong to that order which the war sought to establish. These figures have now been torn out by the roots. Death has an autonomous sleep, and any intervention to solicit this sleep either by logic or by skill of political intelligence is inhuman. Poetry’s loyalty lies beyond any consideration of injustice or the intentions of death. The politician wants men to know how to die courageously; the poet wants men to live courageously.

While the poet is conscious of the politician’s power, the politician notices the poet only when his voice reaches deep into the various social strata; that is, when lyrical or epic content is revealed as well as poetic form. At this moment, a subterranean struggle begins between the politician and the poet. In history the names of exiled poets are treated like human dice, while the politician claims to uphold culture but, in fact, tries only to reduce its power. His only purpose, as always, is to deprive man of three or four fundamental liberties, so that in his eternal cycle man continually retrieves what has been taken from him.

In our time the politician’s defence against culture and thus against the poet operates both surreptitiously and openly in manifold ways. His easiest defence is the degradation of the concept of culture. Mechanical and scientific means, radio and television, help to break the unity of the arts, to favour a poetics that will not even disturb shadows. His most favoured poetics is always that which allies itself with the memory of Arcadia for the artistic disparagement of its own epoch. This is the meaning of Aeschylus’ verse, “I maintain that the dead kill the living”, which I used as the epigraph to my latest work, La terra impareggiabile. In this book man is compared to the earth. If it is a sin to speak of man’s intelligence, we can also say that religious powers – and the adjective “lay” used to qualify intelligence is intended to indicate not an accidental quality but rather an intrinsic value – go beyond their bounds when they use their might to suppress the humble rather than to deal with the internal fire of the conscience.

The corruption of the concept of culture offered to the masses, who are led by it to believe that they are catching a glimpse of the paradise of knowledge, is not a modern political device; but the techniques used for this multiple dissipation of man’s meditative interests are new and effective. Optimism has become a tangible item; it is nothing but a memory game. Myths and stories (anxiety about supernatural events, let us say) not only sink to the level of murder mysteries, but even undergo visible metamorphoses in the cinema or in the epic tales of criminals and pioneers. Any choice between the poet and the politician is precluded. Elegant urbanity, which sometimes pretends to be indifferent, ironically confines culture to the darker corners of its history, affirming that the scene of strife has been dramatized, that man and his suffering always have been and always will be in their habitual confines, yesterday as well as today and tomorrow. Surely. The poet knows that drama is still possible today – a provocative kind of drama. He knows that the adulators of culture are also its pyromaniacs. The collage composed of writers in any regime corrupts the literary groups in the center as easily as on the periphery. The former groups pretend to immortality with a tawdry calligraphy of the soul which they decorate with the colours of their impossible mental lives. In certain moments of history, culture secretly unites its forces against the politician. But it is a temporary unity which serves as a battering ram to beat down the doors of dictatorship. This force establishes itself under every dictatorship when it coincides with a search for man’s fundamental liberties. When the dictator has been defeated, this unity disappears and factions again spring up. The poet is alone. Around him rises a wall of hate built with the stones thrown by literary mercenaries. The poet contemplates the world from the top of this wall, without ever descending either into the public places, like the wandering bards, or into the sophisticated circles, like the men of letters. From this very ivory tower, so dear to the corruptors of the romantic soul, he enters into the people’s midst, not only into their emotional needs, but even into their jealous political thoughts.

This is not mere rhetoric. The story of the poet subjected to the silent siege is found in all countries and all chronicles of mankind. But the men of letters who are on the side of the politician do not represent the whole nation; they serve only – I say “serve ” – to delay by a few moments the voice of the poet in the world. In time, according to Leonardo da Vinci, “every wrong is made right”.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1959

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