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.