Italian Poetry in an Age of Spectacle

By Stewart, Susan | Parnassus : Poetry in Review, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Italian Poetry in an Age of Spectacle

Stewart, Susan, Parnassus : Poetry in Review

For anyone interested in the place of poetry in public life, the situation of Italian poetry today presents a compelling story. Poets and readers in many countries may wonder abstractly what role lyric plays in contemporary culture and where poetry finds its concerns and authence amid the burgeoning technologies of entertainment and information, but the Italians are facing such issues under particularly pressing circumstances. In a culture where visual artists are constantly shadowed by the unparalleled achievements of their ancestors and at the same time find themselves at the margins of an art scene that jets more or less between Berlin, London, and New York, poets, even beneath the comparably looming shadows of Dante, Petrarch, and Leopardi, continue to write and publish, with energy and freshness, out of an Italian tradition and for an Italian authence; they build their art on native ground.

Part of this persistence is due to the fact that the seventy million Italian speakers who are their readers are almost entirely concentrated within Italy. This national readership, however, is largely hypothetical. Volumes published by Einaudi, with its famous white-cover "I Meridiani" editions of major poets, and by Arnaldo Mondadori Editore, with its celebrated series "Lo specchio: i poeti del nostro tempo," sell briskly enough, and new literary print journals - some of deep seriousness and ambition, such as Gabriele Pedullà's recently launched II Caffè Illustrato - continue to appear. Yet the larger bookstores carry less and less new poetry, which is increasingly produced and read locally. Poets publish with small regional presses, such as Quadernetto in Milan and La Camera Verde in Rome. Small circles of poets gather in cafes, neighborhood bookstores, and public exhibition and reading spaces like Turin's Salone Internazionale del Libro and Milanos Casa della Cultura. And many literary prizes remain attached to the culture of individual cities: the Premio Viareggio, the Rapallo Carige Premio, the Premio Campiello of the Veneto, the Premio Napoli, and the Premio Bagutta, named after the Milanese restaurant where it was founded.

An American poet, with her own provincial oudook, finds that the most striking difference die Italian literary scene presents is its almost total lack of academic support. A few poets hold teaching jobs at universities, but there are no creative writing programs, and most writers make their living by patching together work as editors, translators, journalists, or freelancers. Academic presses publish scholarly monographs, not poetry, and poets rarely are invited to speak in academic settings about their work. Both within and outside the academy, the poetry reading as practiced in North America and elsewhere is unknown. Instead, the prevailing means of drawing attention to poetry is the book presentation, where three or four respondents comment on the newly-issued book and copies are placed on display. Recently, perhaps due to foreign influences, such presentations have sometimes come to include a brief reading by the poet, but the poetry reading per se is a phenomenon found almost solely at the largest literary festivals, such as those held annually in Bologna and Rome. At these events, the readings are often theatrical to a degree that American authences would probably consider melodramatic.

Even so, the level of discourse at local book presentations is far higher than in the question-and-answer sessions that frequendy follow American poetry readings, including those in academic settings. One respondent might emphasize the poetry's formal innovations, another its connections to adjacent work in philosophy, and a third its relation to other new developments in literature or music. By means of such discussions, the practice of reading closely and seriously is modeled and sustained. The discussion period also involves considered questions from the authence and intense debate among the respondents. …

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