Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1975
Is Poetry Still Possible?
The Nobel Prize has been awarded this year for the seventy-fifth time, if I am not misinformed. And if there are many scientists and writers who have earned this prestigious recognition, the number of those who are living and still working is much smaller. Some of them are present here and I extend my greetings and best wishes to them. According to widespread opinion, the work of soothsayers who are not always reliable, this year or in the years which can be considered imminent, the entire world (or at least that part of the world which can be said to be civilized) will experience a historical turning of colossal proportions. It is obviously not a question of an eschatological turning, of the end of man himself, but of the advent of a new social harmony of which there are presentiments only in the vast domains of Utopia. At the date of the event the Nobel Prize will be one hundred years old and only then will it be possible to make a complete balance sheet of what the Nobel Foundation and the connected prize have contributed to the formation of a new system of community life, be it that of universal well-being or malaise, but of such an extent as to put an end, at least for many centuries, to the centuries-long diatribe on the meaning of life. I refer to human life and not to the appearance of the amino-acids which dates back several thousand million years, substances which made possible the apparition of man and perhaps already contained the project of him. In this case how long the step of the deus absconditus is! But I do not intend to stray from my subject and I wonder if the conviction on which the statute of the Nobel Prize is based is justified: and that is that sciences, not all on the same level, and literary works have contributed to the spread and defence of new values in a broad “humanistic” sense. The response is certainly affirmative. The register of the names of those who, having given something to humanity, have received the coveted recognition of the Nobel Prize would be long. But infinitely more numerous and practically impossible to identify would be the legion, the army of those who work for humanity in infinite ways even without realizing it and who never aspire to any possible prize because they have not written works, acts or academic treatises and have never thought of “making the presses groan”, as the Italian expression says. There certainly exists an army of pure, immaculate souls, and they are an obstacle (certainly insufficient) to the spread of that utilitarian spirit which in various degrees is pushed to the point of corruption, crime and every form of violence and intolerance. The academicians of Stockholm have often said no to intolerance, cruel fanaticism and that persecuting spirit which turns the strong against the weak, oppressors against the oppressed. This is true particularly in their choice of literary works, works which can sometimes be murderous, but never like that atomic bomb which is the most mature fruit of the eternal tree of evil.
I will not insist on this point because I am neither a philosopher, sociologist nor moralist.
I have written poems and for this I have been awarded a prize. But I have also been a librarian, translator, literary and musical critic and even unemployed because of recognized insufficiency of loyalty to a regime which I could not love. A few days ago a foreign journalist came to visit me and she asked me, “How did you distribute so many different activities? So many hours for poetry, so many hours for translation, so many for clerical activity and so many for life?” I tried to explain to her that it is to plan a lifetime as one plans an industrial project. In the world there is a large space for the useless, and indeed one of the dangers of our time is that mechandizing of the useless to which the very young are particularly sensitive.
At any rate I am here because I have written poems. A completely useless product, but hardly ever harmful and this is one of its characteristics of nobility. But it is not the only one, since poetry is a creation or a sickness which is absolutely endemic and incurable.
I am here because I have written poems: six volumes, in addition to innumerable translations and critical essays. They have said that it is a small production, perhaps supposing that the poet is a producer of merchandise; the machines must be utilized to the full extent. Fortunately, poetry is not merchandise. It is a phenomenon of which we know very little, so much so that two philosophers as different as Croce, a historicist and idealist, and Gilson, a Catholic, are in agreement in considering it impossible to write a history of poetry. For my part, if I consider poetry as an object, I maintain that it is born of the necessity of adding a vocal sound (speech) to the hammering of the first tribal music. Only much later could speech and music be written in some way and differentiated. Written poetry appears, but the relationship in common with music makes itself felt. Poetry tends to open in architectonic forms, there arise the meters, the strophes, the so-called fixed forms. Already in the Nibelungenlied and then in Romance epic cycles, the true material of poetry is sound. But a poem which also addresses itself to the eye will not be long in appearing with the Provencal poets. Slowly poetry becomes visual because it paints images, but it is also musical: it unites two arts into one. Naturally the formal structures made up a large part of poetic visibility. After the invention of printing, poetry becomes vertical, does not fill the white space completely, it is rich in new paragraphs and repetitions. Even certain empty spaces have a value. Prose, which occupies all the space and does not give indications of its pronounceability, is very different. And at this point the metrical structures can be an ideal instrument for the art of narration, that is for the novel. This is the case for that narrative instrument which is the eight-line stanza, a form which was already a fossile in the early Nineteenth Century in spite of the success of Byron’s Don Juan (a poem which remained half-finished).
But towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, the fixed forms of poetry no longer satisfied the eye or the ear. An analogous observation can be made for English blank verse and for the corresponding verse form, endecasillabo sciolto. And in the meantime painting was making great strides towards the dissolution of naturalism, and the repercussion was immediate in pictorial art. Thus with a long process, which would require too much time to describe here, one arrived at the conclusion that it was impossible to reproduce reality, real objects, thus creating useless duplicates: but there are displayed in vitro or even life-size the objects or figures of which Caravaggio or Rembrandt would have presented a facsimile, a masterpiece. At the great exhibition in Venice years ago the portrait of a mongoloid was displayed: the subject was très déutant, but why not? Art can justify everything. Expect that upon approaching it, one discovered that it was not a portrait but the unfortunate himself, in flesh and blood. The experiment was then interrupted manu militari, but in a strictly theoretical context it was completely justified. For many years critics with university chairs had preached the absolute necessity of the death of art, waiting for who knows what palingenesis or resurrection, of which the signs could not be glimpsed.
What conclusion can be drawn from such facts? Evidently the arts, all the visual arts, are becoming more democratic in the worst sense of the word. Art is the production of objects for consumption, to be used and discarded while waiting for a new world in which man will have succeeded in freeing himself of everything, even of his own consciousness. The example I cite could be extended to the exclusively noisy and undifferentiated music listened to in those places where millions of young people gather to exorcize the horror of their solitude. But why more than ever has civilized man reached the point of having horror of himself?
Obviously I foresee the objections. We must not bring in the illnesses of society, which have perhaps always existed, but were little known because the former means of communication did not permit us to know and diagnose the illness. It alarms me that a sort of general Doomsday atmosphere accompanies an ever more wide-spread comfort, that well-being (there where it exists, that is in limited areas of the world) has the livid features of desperation. Against the dark background of this contemporary civilization of well-being, even the arts tend to mingle, to lose their identity. Mass communication, radio, and especially television, have attempted, not without success, to annihilate every possibility of solitude and reflection. Time becomes more rapid, works of a few years ago seem “dated” and the need the artist has to be listened to sooner or later becomes a spasmodic need of the topical, of the immediate. Whence the new art of our time which is the spectacle, a not necessarily theatrical exhibition in which the rudiments of every art are present and which effects a kind of psychic massage on the spectator or listener or reader as the case may be. The deus ex machina of this new heap is the director. His purpose is not only to co-ordinate scenic arrangements, but to give intentions to works which have none or have had other ones. There is a great sterility in all this, an immense lack of confidence in life. In such a landscape of hysterical exhibitionism what can be place of poetry, the most discrete of arts, be? So-called lyrical poetry is work, the fruit of solitude and accumulated impressions. This is still true today but in rather limited cases. We have however more numerous cases in which the self-proclaimed poet falls into step with new times. Poetry then becomes acoustic and visual. The words splash in all directions, like the explosion of a grenade, there is no true meaning, but a verbal earthquake with many epicenters. Decipherment is not necessary, in many cases the aid of the psychoanalyst may help. Since the visual aspect prevails, the poem becomes translatable, and this is a new phenomenon in the history of esthetics. This does not mean that the new poets are schizoid. Some of them can write classically traditional verse and pseudo-verses devoid of any sense. There is also poetry written to be shouted in a square in front of an enthusiastic crowd. This occurs especially in countries where authoritarian regimes are in power. And such athletes of poetic vocalism are not always devoid of talent. I will cite such a case and I beg your pardon if it is also a case which concerns me personally. But the fact, if it is true, demonstrates that by now there exist two types of poetry in cohabitation, one of which is for immediate consumption and dies as soon as it is expressed, while the other can sleep quietly. One day it will awaken, if it has the strength to do so.
True poetry is similar to certain pictures whose owner is unknown and which only a few initiated people know. However, poetry does not live solely in books or in school anthologies. The poet does not know and often will never know his true receiver. I will give you a personal example. In the archives of Italian newspapers there are the obituary articles for men who are still alive and active. These articles are called “crocodiles”. A few years ago at the Corriere della Sera I discovered my “crocodile”, signed by Taulero Zulberti, critic, translator and polyglot. He states that the great poet Majakovsky, having read one or more of my poems translated into Russian, said: “Here is a poet I like. I would like to be able to read him in Italian.” The episode is not improbable. My first verses began to circulate in 1925 and Majakovsky (who travelled in the United States and elsewhere as well) committed suicide in 1930.
Majakovsky was a poet with a pantograph, with a megaphone. If he said such words I can say that my poems had found, by crooked and unforeseeable paths, their receiver.
Do not believe, however, that I have a solipsistic idea of poetry. The idea of writing for the so-called happy few was never mine. In reality art is always for everyone and for no one. But what remains unforeseeable is its true begetter, its receiver. Spectacle-art, mass art, art which wants to produce a sort of physical-psychical message on a hypothetical user, has infinite roads in front of it because the population of the world is in continuous growth. But its limit is absolute void. It is possible to frame and exhibit a pair of slippers (I myself have seen mine in that condition), but a landscape, a lake or any great natural spectacle cannot be displayed under glass.
Lyrical poetry has certainly broken its barriers. There is poetry even in prose, in all the great prose which is not merely utilitarian or didactic: there exist poets who write in prose or at least in more or less apparent prose; millions of poets write verses which have no connection with poetry. But this signifies little or nothing. The world is growing, no one can say what its future will be. But it is not credible that mass culture, with its ephemeral and brittle character, will not produce, through necessary repercussions, a culture which is both defense and reflection. We can all collaborate in this future. But man’s life is short and the life of the world can be almost infinitely long.
I had thought of giving this title to my short speech: “Will poetry be able to survive in the universe of mass communication?” That is what many people wonder, but upon thinking closely, the answer can only be affirmative. If by poetry one means belletristic poetry it is clear that the world production will continue to grow excessively. If instead we limit ourselves to that poetry which refuses with horror the description of production, that which arises almost through a miracle and seems to embalm an entire epoch and a whole linguistic and cultural situation, then it is necessary to say that there is no death possible for poetry.
It has often been observed that the repercussion of poetic language on prose language can be considered a decisive cut of a whip. Strangely, Dante’s Divine Comedy did not produce a prose of that creative height or it did so after centuries. But if you study French prose before and after the school of Ronsard, the Pléiade, you will observe that French prose has lost that softness for which it was judged to be so inferior to the classical languages and has taken a veritable leap towards maturity. The effect has been curious. The Pléiade does not produce collections of homogeneous poems like those of the Italian dolce stil nuovo (which is certainly one of its sources), but it gives us from time to time true “antique pieces” which could be put in a possible imaginary museum of poetry. It is a question of a taste which could be defined as Neo-Greek and which centuries later the Parnasse will attempt in vain to equal. This proves that great lyric poetry can die, be reborn, die again, but will always remain one of the most outstanding creations of the human soul. Let us reread together a poem by Joachim Du Bellay. This poet, born in 1522 and who died at the age of thirty-three, was the nephew of a Cardinal with whom he lived in Rome for several years, bringing back a profound disgust for the corruption of the papal court. Du Bellay wrote a great deal, imitating with greater or lesser success the poets of the Petrarchan tradition. But the poem (perhaps written in Rome), inspired by Latin verses by Navagero, which confirms his fame, is the fruit of a painful nostalgia for the country-side of the sweet Loire which he had abandoned. From Sainte-Beuve up to Walter Pater, who dedicated Joachim a memorable profile, the sort Odelette read it if this is possible, because it is a question of a poem in which the eye des vanneurs de blé has entered the repertory of world poetry. Let us try to reread it if this is possible, because it is a question of a poem in which the eye has its role.
A vous troppe legere,
qui d’aele passagere
par le monde volez
et d’un sifflant murmure
j’offre ces violettes,
ces lis et ces fleurettes,
et ces roses icy,
ces vermeillettes roses,
tout freschement écloses ,
et ces oeilletz aussi.
De vostre doulce halaine
eventez ceste plaine,
eventez ce sejour,
ce pendant que j’ahanne
a mon blé, que je vanne
a la chaleur du jour.
I do not if this Odelette was written in Rome as an interlude in the dispatch of boring office matters. It owes its current survival to Pater. At a distance of centuries a poem can find its interpreter.
But now in order to conclude, I should reply to the question which gave a title to this brief speech. In the current consumistic civilization which sees new nations and new languages appear in history, in the civilization of robotman, what can the destiny of poetry be? There could be many answers. Poetry is the art which is technically within the grasp of everyone: a piece of paper and a pencil and one is ready. Only at a second moment do the problems of publishing and distribution arise. The fire of the library of Alexandria destroyed three fourths of Greek literature.
Today not even a universal fire could make the torrential poetic production of our time disappear. But it is exactly a question of production, that is, of hand-made products which are subject to the laws of taste and fashion. That the garden of the Muses can be devastated by great tempests is, more than probable, certain. But it seems to me just as certain that a great deal of printed paper and many books of poetry must resist time.
The question is different if one refers to the spiritual revival of an old poetic text, its contemporary restoration, its opening to new interpretations. And finally it always remains doubtful within which limits one moves when speaking of poetry. Much of today’s poetry is expressed in prose. Many of today’s verses are prose and bad prose. Narrative art, the novel, from Murasaki to Proust, has produced great works of poetry. And the theater? Many literary histories do not even discuss it, taking up instead several geniuses who are treated separately. In addition how can one explain the fact that ancient Chinese poetry survives all translations while European poetry is chained to its original language? Perhaps the phenomenon can be explained by the fact that we believe we are reading Po Chü-i and instead we are reading the wonderful counterfeiter Arthur Waly? One could multiply the questions with the sole result that not only poetry, but all the world of artistic expression or that which proclaims itself to be such, has entered into a crisis which is strictly tied to the human condition, to our existence as human beings, to our certainty or illusion of believing ourselves to be privileged beings, the only ones who believe they are the masters of their destiny and the depositaries of a destiny which no other creature can lay claim to. It is useless then to wonder what the destiny of the arts will be. It is like asking oneself if the man of tomorrow, perhaps of a very distant tomorrow, will be able to resolve the tragic contradictions in which he has been floundering since the first day of Creation (and if it is still possible to speak of such a day, which can be an endless epoch).