Introduction

By Harrison, Robert Pogue; Stewart, Susan | TriQuarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Introduction


Harrison, Robert Pogue, Stewart, Susan, TriQuarterly


If, like the editors of this volume, you are an American professor of literature with reading knowledge of Italian, and if you have any contact at all with Italy's intelligentsia, it is impossible to spend a few weeks in Italy without accumulating an assorted stack of poetry books, either donated to you directly by their authors, or through the intermediary of a friend. It seems as if every third person in this nation writes, and every fourth person publishes, poetry. Professors, housewives, politicians, journalists, shopkeepers, tavern keepers, schoolteachers, fishermen, accountants, clergymen, actresses, seamstresses, cooks, even prostitutes and gigolos--the vast flock of contemporary Italian poets is made up variously from these ranks, and from many others besides. Why this profusion? Why this widespread, irrepressible need to write poetry? From what national, cultural or socio-existential sources does that need derive? These are questions to which there are no obvious answers, and we are not about to attempt to provide one here. Let it merely be stated as a matter of record that, from the Dolomites to the Straits of Messina, the Italian peninsula today is abuzz with song.

Not that you can hear its resonance in the public squares or even major bookstores of Italy. The poetry scene in Italy these days is paradoxical, to say the least. This is a country that offers a record number of literary prizes sponsored by financial institutions, academies, cultural associations, provincial and regional municipalities, publishing houses--many of them awarded to poeti dilettanti--yet only a tiny minority of contemporary Italian poetry books ever finds its way into the big bookstores. The rest circulate for the most part privately. Their printing is often subsided either entirely or partially at the authors' expense. The big distributors that now run Italy's main bookstores believe (rightly or wrongly, but no doubt rightly) that poetry does not sell, hence they refuse to stock their shelves with contemporary poets. When they do, it's usually one or two copies, which, if they go unsold, they return to the publisher after a few months. In the "Poetry" section of Italian bookstores one typically finds only the international classics, as well as a few canonized modern Italian poets--Montale, Ungaretti and Quasimodo--and perhaps a few other twentieth-century figures (Zanzotto, for example, or Alda Merini, who has become an unlikely commercial success).

There is hardly any commercial demand for poetry among the Italian reading public, and even the multitudes who write poetry do not seem to read each other's work. Yet one should not conclude from this that Italians don't read poetry. On the contrary, there is considerable interest in poetry. The older generation reads the classics, both foreign and Italian. The younger generations read less, yet--and this is another paradox--they often show up en masse to public events, such as readings of Dante, or seminars on poetry, or poetry book presentations. When it comes to such events, Italians in fact respond in numbers that would be inconceivable in the United States. Thus, a few years ago, when Roberto Benigni read and commented on Dante's Paradiso 33 on Rai television, he attracted the biggest television audience in Italy's history.

Not that this does any good to the many people writing poetry in Italy today. Such events do not bring much attention to them. Unfortunately (and this is yet another paradox), there is no tradition in Italy of the "poetry reading," as we have here in the United States. In the seventies, when poetry readings in the United States and Europe combined some of the cache of rock concerts and political protest, an international poetry festival on the beaches of Ostia attracted tens of thousands of people, and this event (Castelporziano) is looked upon by poets today with nostalgia. Occasional readings still do take place, to be sure, but for every poet who has read his or her poems in public there are countless others who have not. …

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