Writing in 1930 with Baudelaire and, subsequently, Goethe on his mind, T.S. Eliot took up the question of what it means for a poet to possess “the sense of his own age.” While it may be true, he noted, that Goethe was the representative Enlightenment dilettante, pursuing his scattered scientific and aesthetic “hobbies,” and Baudelaire a “theological innocent,” writing as if the problem of evil had never occurred to anyone before, Eliot nevertheless concluded that “they are both…men with restless, critical, curious minds and the ‘sense of the age’: both men who understood and foresaw a great deal.”
Is there any poet in the postwar period who was driven by a sense of the age—its archaisms and barbarisms, its new looks and new media, its corollary fears and hopes—more intensely than Pier Paolo Pasolini? Born in 1922—the same year as the American poet Jackson MacLow, a year younger than the Italian poets Andrea Zanzotto and Maria Luisa Spaziani, a year older than the French poet Yves Bonnefoy—Pasolini seems of an entirely different era from his long-lived contemporaries. He is fixed in the amber of the 1960s and ’70s—not only because of his early death (murdered on the beach at Ostia on November 2, 1975, at the age of 53), but also because in his poems, films, novels, plays, journalism, criticism, drawings and paintings, he continually took the measure of his time.
Best known today in the English-speaking world as a director, Pasolini considered himself to be above all a poet, and described his work in film as a “cinema di poesia.” In a 1970 essay “To the New Reader,” he explained that “a certain way of feeling something is repeated exactly when reading some of my verses and viewing some of my cinematic shots,” emphasizing that there were formal—and not merely thematic—connections between his work in the two mediums. As the film critic P. Adams Sitney has explored at length, Pasolini’s films have linguistic as well as musical soundtracks: they feature imitations of animal cries and birdsong, insults and cursing, proverbs and recitations, nicknames and diminutives, laughter and weeping. At the start of Uccellacci e uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows), the pop crooner Domenico Modugno even sings the credits as a raucous ditty in rhyming couplets. Mamma Roma begins with a scene of verbal dueling at a wedding feast; and as the prostitute’s son lies dying in prison, a Sardinian convict recites the first glimpses of Hell from Canto IV of Dante’s Inferno. Accatone begins with a Dantean epigraph from Purgatorio, Canto V—the Devil’s complaint when deprived of the redeemed soul of Buonconte da Montefeltro: “Tu te ne porti di costui l’etterno / per una lagrimetta che ‘l mi toglie” (You carry off with you this man’s eternal part / For a little tear he’s taken from me).
Whether he was describing ancient rural Easter traditions in his early poems, written in the Friulian dialect, or revealing the logic of human sacrifice at the origins of Western ritual (including Easter), as he did in his 1969 film Medea, Pasolini made his work an ambivalent register, a “tape recorder,” of contemporary life as it flowed from the past. He moved constantly between a poetry of private emotion and a “poesia civile,” or civic poetry. His last, unfinished book of poems, Trasumanar e organizzar (Transcend and Organize), takes its title from Dante’s paradoxical account of the majesty he’s encountered in Paradise: “Trasumanar significar per verba / non si poria” (“To pass beyond the human cannot be put into words”; Paradiso, I:70-71). The verb trasumanar is, in fact, a neologism that Dante invented precisely because there is no word to describe what he has seen and done. In turn, the brilliance of Pasolini’s title lies in the juxtaposition of these two imperatives: an intuition of the ineffable spiritual existence to come versus the “down-to-earth” necessity of organizing. An accused blasphemer deeply devoted to Franciscan Catholicism, a Gramscian communist permanently expelled from the party, an avowed homosexual dedicated to the consensual sexual freedom of everyone, a champion of the local on a global scale, a neorealist of the imagination, and a radically innovative poet alienated from the existing practices of the avant-garde: Pasolini is not so much a figure of contradictions as he is a force against the incoherence hiding in every hypocrisy.
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With the publication of the seventy-plus pieces in The Selected Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini, edited and translated by Stephen Sartarelli, we have the first extensive Italian/English edition of Pasolini’s poetry since Norman MacAfee’s distinguished (but far briefer) 1982 selection. Sartarelli’s full introduction outlines the centrality of poetry to everything Pasolini did, and English readers can now follow the trajectory of his career from juvenilia to late work. Augmenting Walter Siti’s annotations for the monumental three-volume, 5,708-page Mondadori edition of the complete poems, which appeared in Italy a decade ago, Sartarelli provides a perceptive set of notes and includes reproductions of three autograph manuscript pages and six of Pasolini’s sure-handed and inventive drawings.
Born in Bologna in the period that Mussolini came to power, Pasolini was the son of Carlo Alberto Pasolini, a Bolognese military officer and Fascist, and Susanna Colussi, a Friulian schoolteacher. The family moved from town to town because of the father’s postings; during the war, Carlo Alberto was stationed in East Africa, where he was a prisoner of war for a time before returning, in his son’s words, “a sick veteran, poisoned by the defeat of fascism in his country and the defeat of the Italian language in his home—a ferocious wreck, a tyrant with no remaining power, crazed even more by too much bad wine, more than ever in love with my mother who had never truly reciprocated in her love for him.” In the years before his death in 1958, Carlo Alberto served as his son’s secretary.
Pasolini entered the University of Bologna in 1939, where he studied philology, literature and art history. Roberto Longhi’s lectures on Renaissance painting, with their emphasis on close attention to form and detail, inspired him, and he was eventually mentored by the great philologist Gianfranco Contini as well. In “La Ricchezza” (“Riches”), Pasolini writes of this period:
Being poor was only an accident…
Whereas I possessed libraries, museums,
tools of every sort of study. Born
to the passions, my soul already
housed Saint Francis, whole, in bright
reproductions, and the frescoes of San
Sepolcro and Monterchi; all of Piero
as the symbol of ideal possession,
object of love of my teachers—
of a naïve and thus exquisite
The poem turns on the realization that the poet can never lose this wealth, which he will always possess internally: “Oh, to withdraw into oneself and think!” he exclaims.
In 1942, Susanna, accompanied by Paolo and his younger brother Guido, fled Bologna and returned to a village near her native town of Casarsa della Delizia. There Pasolini produced his first book of poems, Poesia a Casarsa (Poems of Casarsa). On September 1, 1943, he was drafted into the Italian army. On September 8, the day of the armistice, his regiment was captured by the Germans, but he escaped dressed as a peasant and made his way back to Casarsa. Guido joined the local partisans, who supported the eventual unification of Friuli with Italy. He was killed in an internecine massacre in 1945, murdered by communist partisans who supported a Friulian alliance with Yugoslavia.
Only a few weeks after Guido’s death, Pasolini and his Friulian-speaking friends founded the Academiuta di Lenga Furlana, or the Little Friulian Language Academy. Pasolini’s passion for the dialect was driven by more than nostalgia for his mother’s world. (In fact, Susanna apparently spoke Venetian as much as Friulian at home, while the father’s bourgeois Bolognese family spoke standard Italian.) Instead, he and the other young local writers believed that speaking and writing this isolated dialect was a blow against fascism. Pasolini later explained how totalitarians objected to his Casarsa dialect poems: “fascism—to my great surprise—did not concede the existence of local particularisms in Italy,” he wrote. These were “thought to be idioms of some obstinate idlers…my ‘pure language of poetry’ had been mistaken for a realistic document that proved the existence of shoddy eccentric peasants, or at least of peasants ignorant of the idealistic guidelines of the central Authority.” The young Friulian academicians also dreamed of joining forces with other Mediterranean dialect communities, especially those in Spain and Provence. Pasolini translated the poems of Antonio Machado, Pedro Salinas, Federico García Lorca, Jorge Guillén and Juan Ramón Jimenez into Friulian, and in 1946 published more of his original dialect poems through the school.
Yet during this period, Pasolini also began to write the works in standard Italian that would make his reputation when they were finally published in 1957: Le ceneri di Gramsci (The Ashes of Gramsci) and L’Usignolo della chiesa cattolica (The Nightingale of the Catholic Church). He stood at a linguistic crossroads: the poems that he and his friends were writing as the war ended were the first works ever published in Friulian; at the same time, he was one of the first well-known Italian writers brought up in a household that used standard Italian on an everyday basis. Outside of Tuscany and Rome, a domestic standard Italian appeared only in itinerant households like the Pasolinis’, where the parents came from different regions. Italian was the language of academic discourse, the radio and newspapers, a formal “lingua” that Pasolini often found “sterile,” but that enabled him to develop a national audience.
Despite the murder of his brother by Tito’s partisans, Pasolini became a member of the Italian Communist Party after the war. Working fervently as an organizer, he supported farmworkers in their struggles with estate owners. By 1948, he would suffer persecution himself at the hands of his fellow communists. Following an incident at a rural fair where he was accused of having a sexual encounter with several teenage boys, he was fired from his teaching job. The local authorities—beholden to Christian Democrats and former Fascists—filed charges against him for “corrupting minors,” even though no complaints were registered by the youths themselves. Never concealing or denying his sexual preference for men, Pasolini was accused of “indegnità morale” by his comrades and expelled from the party. Over the course of his lifetime, the state would bring him to trial for obscenity or indecency thirty-three times. In every case, Pasolini was eventually acquitted.
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In 1950, Pasolini and his mother moved to Rome, though the charges against him were not settled until 1953. The two lived in poverty in the bleak neighborhood of the Rebibbia prison. Pasolini secured a teaching job and began to build friendships with contemporary writers—Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Giorgio Bassani and Attilio Bertolucci, the father of Bernardo (who, in the early years of his career, would serve as an assistant director to Pasolini). Bassani introduced him to the nascent Italian film world, and in 1957, Pasolini served as a dialect coach for the actors playing prostitutes and pimps in Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria. Within a few years, he had launched his own career as a director with his Roman-dialect films set in the new suburban slums, the borgate.
Pasolini embodied the cliché of the Italian mammone, or “mama’s boy,” at an existential level: his love for his mother was the wellspring of his world. He often told an origin story about his work as a poet, recounting how, when he was 7, his mother had given him a sonnet she had written expressing her love for him; the next day, he composed his own first verses. At 21, sending thanks to Contini for his favorable review of Poesia a Casarsa, Pasolini wrote: “I must thank you too on behalf of my mother who is certainly more ambitious and desirous of recognition—for me—than I am myself.” His youthful poems in Friulian and Italian are peopled with boys and their mothers, figures sometimes drawn from his own childhood and images of the “ragazzi” of Casarsa, and at other times representing a young Christ and the Virgin Mary. Returning to the medieval origins of rhymed poetry, he imitates the troubadour literature of Provençal and the Spanish romancero tradition—writing, for example, his “Narcissus Pastourelle” in an Occitan form—yet he replaces the tradition’s themes of adulterous heterosexual love with classical and religious imagery. A homegrown Mariolatry runs throughout Pasolini’s work, even in the longing for the mother repeatedly expressed by the tortured victims depicted in his last film, his Sadean allegory Salò. In The Gospel According to Matthew of 1964, he cast his mother as the aged Virgin Mary herself.
Pasolini remained a perpetual boy among boys. In a 1950 poem, he declares, like a 28-year-old Peter Pan: “Adult? Never—never, like life itself, / which never matures, forever green / from splendid day to splendid day….” The root of this sensibility lies in the poems of Giovanni Pascoli, the subject of his University of Bologna undergraduate thesis. Pascoli celebrated, in a turn-of-the-century essay, his poetica del fanciullino, an aesthetics of the little boy, suggesting that the poet should be a figure of perpetual innocence and wonder. Pasolini was drawn as well to Pascoli’s form, the poemetto—a mid-length meditative form that stood between the epic ambition of the poema, or long narrative poem, and the short lyric, the poesia. The length and shape of the poemetto, like the greater Romantic lyric of English poetry, lends itself to retrospection and commentary.
Nevertheless, in the harsher light of the postwar period, Pasolini recognized that a total victory in the Oedipal struggle could be a defeat. He described his work in Italian as “O ivory hendecasyllable, / O violet madrigal, O statue / of poetics…eternally adult.” In his “Plea to My Mother,” from his 1964 book Poem in the Shape of a Rose, he wrote:
You alone in all the world know what love
has always come first in my heart.
This is why there’s something terrible you should know:
it’s from your grace that springs my sorrow…
For the soul is in you, it is you, but you are
my mother, and in your love are my fetters.
The poems in this volume continue the emotional narration of his homosexuality begun in the long poems of L’Usignolo—“admitting the longings for men, / the love for my mother.” Yet Pasolini, without the support of any movement for gay rights, expressed his desires straightforwardly and placed them in a political frame. By 1974, in an essay on Constantine Cavafy, he could wryly survey the many euphemisms that the Alexandrian poet’s editor had used for homosexuality: “these ambiguous utterances between the masculine and the feminine” made out of a “puritan, maybe even Victorian” prudery. He writes that Cavafy “practically had sex as often and as much as he wanted: homosexual love was accepted in his world. In a certain way it was indeed honored…he wasn’t tolerated, he was free.” Pasolini seemed to pursue his own version of William James’s will to believe: whether or not he was in fact free, he would act with freedom.
* * *
The poemetti of Le ceneri di Gramsci were a breakthrough for Pasolini. He worked throughout the eleven-poem sequence in a fluent terza rima, broken by interludes in longer stanza forms of nine or ten lines and a “recit” in couplets. He created a sweeping order for the book as a whole that English readers can now grasp more clearly, for Sartarelli translates all three of the book’s longer pieces: “The Apennines,” “Gramsci’s Ashes” and “The Cry of the Excavator.” “The Apennines” opens the volume as a tribute to the geology and history of the long chain of mountains uniting all of peninsular Italy, and hence connecting the territories Garibaldi had dreamed of uniting politically. The “red tatter of hope” of the camicie rosse is woven through the work, eventually appearing as a geranium, a scrap of cloth hung from a trestle at a work site, and a battered Communist flag. The bird’s-eye view of “The Apennines” takes in the ancient and the contemporary at once. The omniscient speaker touches down to pay tribute to the art and architecture of Orvieto; glimpses a shepherd asleep on the rocks; travels through Tuscany and along the Tiber to Rome (where the night has “a powerful smell of urine”); and sees the “dead-end villages between bright / twentieth-century churches and highrises” where immigrants from the South live in destitution. From there, he follows the mountains to Gaeta, Sperlonga and on to Naples, ending in an evocation of those who speak their dialects in “some bedeviled hillside or district,” “making Italy a thing of their own.”
This vast panorama, with its view unfolding southward toward Gramsci’s native Sardinia, is composed in a standard Italian that incorporates Greek, Latin and Etruscan place names, high diction (“nel ventre della nazione”: “in the womb of a nation”), and vistas of “mud-covered tables in pigsties.” Its motion makes all the more vivid the still, meditative intensity of the title poem. The speaker is reflecting upon Gramsci’s grave, near the tombs of Shelley and Keats, in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. He provides an inventory of the sounds that can be heard from this “lonely, noble garden” with its gray tombstones as he considers the central problem he has inherited from Gramsci: how to reconcile a Crocean idealism, which views the intuitive and expressive powers of art as continuous with spiritual life, and a Marxist materialism. Although Gramsci found the traditions of classical literature and philosophy to be relevant to liberal political structures more than Pasolini seems to acknowledge, the poet struggles to find common ground. He believes that the postwar economic “boom” has brought a soul-crushing pursuit of vulgar materialism to Italy, transforming the lives of workers so drastically that Gramsci’s future-oriented ideas of social change no longer seem relevant. Pasolini is driven to recuperate the past, including a primitive Catholicism:
The scandal of self-contradiction—of being
with you and against you; with you in my heart,
in the light, against you in the dark of my gut…
I take for religion
its joyousness, not its millennial
struggle—its nature, not its
consciousness. It is man’s primordial
strength, having been lost in the act,
that gives this faith the joy of nostalgia,
the glow of poetry.
Although Sartarelli does not attempt to carry over the terza rima, his choices are exact and vivid throughout the sequence, and especially in this passage near the close of the poem:
kids light as rags play in a spring breeze
no longer cold. Burning with youthful
brashness on their Roman evening
in May, dark adolescents
whistle down the sidewalks in the twilight
celebration; the rolling shutters of garages
crash and thunder suddenly, joyously,
after darkness has quieted the night
That individual, familiar clashing sound of closing up shop, which marks the workday’s end in any Roman alleyway, here evokes the notion that “our history has ended.” In the third long poem of the work, “The Cry of the Excavator,” Pasolini draws (as he did in his cinematic masterpiece Teorema) on a vision of the ubiquitous postwar construction site as a scene of apocalyptic change. Through a dreamlike night walk charged with memories, he excavates his own political and poetic history. At dawn, he sees a backhoe and hears a plaintive, inhuman cry—the cry of “the excavator” and of the earth itself.
Throughout the 1960s, Pasolini traveled to India, Africa and the Middle East. He was drawn to the continuity of peasant culture in the Third World at a time when he found Italy enveloped in both consumerism and civil unrest. He condemned the student protesters as “anthropologically middle class” and, during the clashes of 1968, sympathized with the police as “children of the poor.” He charged that this “unlucky generation” had neglected its “true task”—to be intellectuals—and he despaired that the world of genuine readers had vanished. Here is a passage that Sartarelli translates from a late “interview” poem:
“Verse! I write verse! Verse!”
verse you would never understand, since
you know nothing about metrics! Verse!)
verse no longer in tercets!
That’s the important part: no longer in tercets!
I’ve gone straight back to the magma!
Neocapitalism has won, and I’m
out on the street
as poet, ah [sob]
and as citizen [another sob].”
In this half-comic vein, he goes on to describe “lyric poems whose arrangement / of time and place / derives—how strange!—from a ride in a car… / meditations at forty to seventy miles per hour… / with quick pans and tracking shots.”
In contrast to such parody, between 1971 and ‘73 Pasolini wrote a remarkable series of 112 sonnets, published posthumously under the title The Sonnet Hobby. Sartarelli includes seven of these works. Composed in variations of the Petrarchan form, the series is also indebted to Shakespeare’s sonnet themes, as an older man addresses a younger man who has been his lover. Pasolini’s interlocutor is his own great love—Ninetto Davoli, the radiant boy who had been his companion since 1963 and acted in so many of his films. In 1971, Davoli had fallen in love with a woman and decided to marry her. The series begins with one of Pasolini’s most original and striking poems—a work that plays radically on the idea of the sonnet’s volta, or turn, as the speaker awakens in great happiness from a dream of riding horses, only to have a “miraculous” thought of how he might hang himself from a tree in the garden. One of the last sonnets describes a night of cruising in which Pasolini glimpses Ninetto in another car with an “orribile” thief, and finds himself in his own car with a boy who is a “fascista, poverino“—a circumstance that strangely anticipates the night of his death.
In 1975, in his last remarks in his final interview only hours before his death, Pasolini warned: “Everyone knows that I pay for my experiences in person. But there are also my books and my films. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ll keep on saying that we’re all in danger.” His murder remains under-investigated and unsolved. Perhaps this welcome new edition of Pasolini’s poems will lead eventually to an English edition of the complete poems—and to the justice, poetic and otherwise, he surely deserves.