It’s April and I’m back home for Passover and Easter and my brother’s birthday. I’m wandering my parents’ farm. The air is cold and I expected warm, the trees are sparse and I expected leaves. Yesterday it rained and rained. This is rural Kansas, where I grew up. The nearest town is Moundridge, population 1500. My flight from where I live now, San Francisco, was delayed hours, hours I spent reading an Italian poet named Leonardo Sinisgalli whose sense of place was split a bit like mine, the city on one hand, the countryside on the other. Sinisgalli was from Montemurro, a tiny village a hundred miles southeast of Naples, but he lived and worked in Rome most of his life.
I’m far from the elegance of Rome, but there’s a structural grace to the building I’m approaching as I pass a scruffy windrow of cedars, my boots sinking into the wet ground. In a few steps I will be looking at the barn—red and silver, boxy, and huge as the unbridled agricultural fantasies of the settlers who settled Kansas. It is elegant in its functionality, alien in its imposing quadrangles of tin. Inside, a dank smell hangs, and cobwebs garnish doorframes, and these remind me of a prose poem by Sinisgalli: “The industrious artificer carries his raw materials in his stomach. To build his webs he always begins at the beginning, always spitting out equal angles and parallel segments.” Sinisgalli’s use of geometric language here is not surprising. He was trained as an engineer but he gave it up in his early twenties to write poetry. Though the pictures in his head were from the rural south of Italy where he grew up, poetic form (friends called him “the engineer poet”) is what preoccupied him.
Sinisgalli is defined by this preoccupation — obsession, even — with form. The poet turned 28 in 1936, the year Benito Mussolini assumed the title “His Excellency, Head of Government, Duce of Fascism, and Founder of the Empire.” Sinisgalli passed 30 and then 35 as World War II bled Italy barren. He was in mid-career and 37 when Il Duce hung from a lamppost. It is remarkable that Sinisgalli, who died in 1981 at 73, never directly converted any of his country’s tribulations into subject matter. Meanwhile, he criticized critics for missing the point, for paying too much attention to what a poet says instead of how he’s saying it. “The critic,” Sinisgalli writes in a prose poem called “Presuppositions,” “is often a kind of small animal that can crawl all over the surface of a sphere but never know how to reach its center because he’s not familiar with its formula, its form.” For Sinisgalli, form grew content. Via form, he thought—via the alchemical combination of sentence structure, linguistic device, words matched and bonded—language leads us to its implications. The contents of a barn, if you will, mattered less to Sinisgalli than how it was built. Questions of subject matter became subservient to questions of form. Which is why Sinisgalli, though he lived in Italy through the catastrophe of two world wars, never wrote about any of it.
W.S. Di Piero years ago gathered and brought into English a selection of Sinisgalli’s poems called The Ellipse, published in 1982 by Princeton.[i] It covers poetry written from 1927 to 1979, and outside scattered surfacings in anthologies, Di Piero’s translations are among the only versions of Sinisgalli’s poems in English.[ii] In “Lucania,” Sinisgalli probes the reunion of one self with another, adulthood with childhood, filling the poem’s final stanza with confidence and lamentation:
I’ll come back, alive, under your red rain,
I’ll come back, guiltless, to beat the drum,
to tie my mule to the gate,
to catch snails in the garden.
Will I see the smoking stubble, the brushwood,
the ditches? Will I hear the blackbird singing
under the beds, and the cat
singing on the graves?
I’m reading The Ellipse in the loft of my parents’ barn, which they had converted into a game room with overstuffed chairs, and foosball, and a cheap pool table, and an adjustable basketball goal for shooting hoops. The loft is a cavernous room with a slanting ceiling and rafters. Reading Sinisgalli reminds me that stanza is a word that’s come to English-speakers from Italian, and in Italian it means room. And Sinisgalli’s sense of the stanza is so purified, so contained, so room-like, and this reminds me that he studied math, that he was practiced in precision. He knew how to build rooms, and from rooms, buildings. Each stanza he pens presents itself as a well-crafted shell, a container that’s singular, a container whose function nullifies any need of decoration, or whose decoration is functional. The edges of his stanzas—defined by where he breaks lines, places periods, or how he makes phrases—are like the spare, essential lines in an architect’s drawings, lines that give structure to whatever he’s trying to preserve the way walls give structure to a room.[iii]
Consider this, the second-to-last stanza of “Lucania” (which, my apologies, we are now reading backwards):
In volcanic tinderbox air
the trees weirdly throb and breathe,
oak trunks fatten with the essence of heaven.
Heaps of rubble lie untouched for centuries:
nobody dares turn over a stone, afraid of the horror.
I know hell’s navel lies under every stone.
Only a boy can lean over the edge
of the abyss and scoop nectar
from shoot-clusters swarming with mosquitos
Sinisgalli turns the key on his stanzas with periods at the end, locking them. That is, he rarely breaks lines across stanzas. For Sinisgalli, the stanza is one thought, and a pause is required before the next. Within them, there’s a plodding rhythm made by a mind that seems to know and love the walls that define it. This is true even when the line pushes at those walls. “Only the boy can lean over the edge,” and then the line itself—it does the same in Italian (“Solo un ragazzo può sporgersi agli orli,” orli can mean “edges,” or “hems,” as in sewing)—enacts this, takes us to that edge, hurls us into blank space, into the abyss of a well-timed enjambment. Sinisgalli is fond of enjambment, and good at it, but there are few frayed edges in his poetry. He shares with William Carlos Williams an obsession with antieloquent language[iv] (they were alive at the same time) but Sinisgalli’s poems have none of Williams’s jitteryness. Rather, the poet houses the roughshod subject matter of country living in elegant forms.
Robert Hass has written about how to define form, I think instructively: “We speak of the sonnet as ‘a form,’ when no two sonnets, however similar their structures, have the same form,” he says in Twentieth Century Pleasures. Form, he suggests, dwells at once everywhere and at the center of the poem, in the unity of the poem’s music and its vision. He goes on: “Form is not the number or kind of restrictions, conscious or unconscious, many or few, with which a piece of writing begins. A sonnet imposes one set of restrictions and a poem by Robert Creeley with relatively short lines and three- or four-line stanzas imposes another. There are always restrictions…” Hass quotes Creeley quoting Pound: “Verse consists of a constant and a variant.” It’s more than restrictions, but still, what is a form? In 1957 painter Ben Shahn wrote “The Shape of Content,” an essay that’s as valuable now as the day it was published. “Form,” said Shahn, “is the abolishing of excessive materials, whatever material is extraneous to inner harmony, to the order of shapes now established. Form is thus a discipline, an ordering, according to the needs of content.”[v] It’s more than a structure, a lens, a rhyme scheme, or a number of lines.[vi] Form is all these in concert. But form most of all is shape: imaginative, emotional, metrical, typographical, and musical shape. And a poem’s shape is born in the echo chamber of the self in which an artist makes mechanical decisions, one after another, while constantly negotiating the repercussions of those decisions.
In my apartment in San Francisco I have a drawing the size of an unfolded city map of a fleshy nude woman lounging, half looking away. It was made by filmmaker Jean Negulesco in 1960, black ink on now yellowing paper. It’s done with one line and the line never breaks, all the curves and bulges and smooth edges of the woman rendered, it appears, in one breathless stroke. The impact of the drawing is immense; its starkness levels. The line tells me how to look. It creates a boundary. It creates in light a set of parameters. The eye cannot argue. The impact of the drawing is even more immense because of the affect of the line’s lineness. That is, the line may have taken hours to draw, but its smooth, unshakeable motion suggests it happened in a flash. It is illusion masquerading as epitome, and it is the genius of form. In this case, a woman sitting on a wall takes the form of a single line.
I am going to translate this further. Say there is a lovely woman sleeping in a nearby room at this moment. Her physicality, her shape, the way her body was ordered is marvelously pleasing to my eye. Say the beauty of the container is matched by the beauty of what is contained, by the beauty of who is contained. Say that when she wakes, she’ll drift in with puffy, slight-smiling lips and speak wondrous strings of words only she can speak, in cadences only she knows. These are the forms of her mind made manifest in the beats of language.
I’m going to say she is an utterly elegant lady because I want to think, while I’m fumbling with the definitions of words, about elegant, which I have used to describe the results of Sinisgalli’s formal decisions. Elegant originated in the 1400s, it came from Latin, and it can mean according to OED, “graceful in form or movement” or “tastefully fine; luxurious in dress, style, and design.” I’m interested more in grace than luxury, and I’m even more interested in the Latin root—ēlegāre—which is a variant of an older word, ēligere, meaning to select or elect or choose. And there’s a whiff of geometry buried in the lineage of elegant: think of good, functional design. A shaker rocking chair.[vii]
Seemingly related, but in the case of Sinisgalli crucially distinct, is the word eloquent. Sinisgalli was not interested in eloquence. To be eloquent is “to have the power of fluent, forceful, and appropriate speech,” and the word arose into English the same time elegant did, coming also from Latin. Eloquēns, the Latin root, means “to speak out.” Rhetoric is in the DNA of this family of words. Smooth speechifying is absent from—if not opposite—Sinisgalli’s project.
Sinisgalli’s poetry is elegant but rarely eloquent, and only then in spite of itself, and the further into Sinisgalli I read, the more important this distinction becomes. If elegance, personified, is the quiet choosy type, eloquence is the famous toastmaster. Sinisgalli is a choosy poet. His congress is with elegance. The forms his words take are honed and polished, images and enjambments alike selected in the service of precision. Consider the fourth, third, and second stanzas[viii] of “Lucania,” the molten core of the poem, and a path straight through the poet’s sensibility:
Land of huge mamas, of fathers dark
and radiant as skeletons, overrun by roosters
and dogs, woods and limestone, lean
land where the grain toils miserably
(wheat, corn, semolina)
and the wine is dark and chewy (mint
from the Agri, basil from the Basento!)
and olives taste of oblivion,
flavor of sorrow.
The translation captures well the quiet power of the repeated preposition in the first line: “Terra di mamme grasse, di padri scuri.” The stanza has a stately, incantatory ring, like names being read off a roll call at a nightmarish graduation. And this coming before it:
The sun slanting on laurel, the good
bighorned sun, tongue of sweet light,
sun greedy for children, here in the piazzas!
It trudges like an ox, and on the grass
and stones it leaves enormous stains
swarming with ghosts.
…preceded by Sinisgalli’s insistence in the second stanza that the spirit of silence—the spirit that inhabits corners and shadows (which is to Sinisgalli the spirit of the poet)—springs from things most primal:
The spirit of silence is everywhere
in my grieving province. From Elea to Metaponto,
sophistical and golden, baffling and sly,
it drinks the holy oil in churches, goes hooded
in houses, dresses as a monk in caves, grows
with the grass on the outskirts of old crumbling villages.
Lower Order is no insult to Sinisgalli. It is the position, he says, from which the modern poet works. Sinisgalli writes: “And the scorpion and toad? They and the Poet are of the same race; the Poet belongs to the lower orders.”[ix] And this is where elegant versus eloquent becomes most directly relevant. For Sinisgalli there is room in the lower orders for elegance, but not eloquence: “What are Eulogies, Hymns, Orations? Nothing but magnificent Rhetoric,” he complains in the same essay.
Which returns me to Kansas in April, to the stagnant pools of water that form in the weedy grass around the barn after a torrential rain. In a few weeks it will be May, and warmer. The ditches filled with water, the mini-lakes on the fields, all now filling with mosquito larvae, will soon be steamy breeding pits for hordes. They will be infested, unpleasant places to be. But at the same time undeniably fertile. When I read “with the grass on the outskirts of old crumbling villages” I think of these stagnant pools, and I think of Czeslaw Milosz writing that “man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins.” Milosz and Sinisgalli—one in Poland, one in Italy—lived through and well beyond World War II. Ruin and rot are places of breaking down, of returning to parts. Old becomes fodder for new. What seems inert spawns. And I should note, too, that the structure of Sinisgalli’s stanzas is what leads my eye to this line and its “crumbling villages.” It is the final line before the stanza ends, it is itself on the outskirts, the last thing I think about before I pause. It’s what hits my brain in the silence. And it’s where the poet lives, at the edge, amid decay. The poet, to Sinisgalli, is the boy who might “scoop nectar / from shoot-clusters swarming with mosquitos.” The spirit that “dresses as a monk in caves, grows / with the grass on the outskirts of old crumbling villages.”
There is no place in Sinisgalli for overblown rhetoric, for eloquence for its own sake. He was philosophically liberal—he would “sooner live backstairs than in a sumptuous tower” and, he believed, the poet “confides not in princes but in janitors, mailmen, pensioners.” Still, Sinisgalli did not spend his poems lambasting Mussolini or his regime as they clogged the land. He did not make war-torn Italy his material. Rather, he attacked fascism by not attacking it, at least not head-on. His poems stood against the forms of fascism by countering its use of language and therefore its thinking. Language was the front, form the weapon. Putting it this way, I suppose, makes it sound more intentional and polemical than it probably was on Sinisgalli’s part. We’re talking about a process inside the man, one that operated below the fleeting fashions of conscious decision-making. This is to say, I don’t mean to canonize Sinisgalli, or conjure up motivations in the man that weren’t there. Sinisgalli wrote the way he wrote not to make a point or start a revolution. He wrote the way he wrote because it was the way he liked to write.
By the time he was born, Italian poetry was already in revolt against a marvelous but formally conservative (Petrarch) and powerful (Dante) literary tradition.[x] The tradition had hit a classic (but not golden) age[xi], a period filled with imitators, and a poetry stuffed with flowery subject matter, shackled in iron-firm metric restrictions (the hendecasyllable was the great engine of Italian poetry, like the iambic pentameter in English) and gliding on rhetoric and fluffy narrative.[xii] Gabriele D’Annunzio was an orating[xiii] fiction-writing[xiv] politician[xv] journalist[xvi] showman[xvii] poet, and a fascist before fascism. He was the rooster of Italian literature for a time, and like a weathervane draws lightning, D’Annunzio drew readers. He wrote bestselling books of verse, was called “the Genius of the Race” in the press, and when he was old he campaigned with Mussolini. His often rhetorically-bloated, nationalistic verse (“I search with open mouth and burning breath / A little coolness on the shadowed sward, / Beyond, the Adriatic, still as death, / Shows dreadful dazzlings like an unsheathed sword”) epitomized the stagnation permeating Italian letters. In 1920 D’Annunzio wrote the Charter of Carnaro—a pre-fascist manifesto with lines like “Fiume is warden of the Italian marches, the furthest stronghold of Italian culture, the most distant land that bears the imprint of Dante.” A year later, perhaps not even noticed by D’Annunzio, a young poet called Eugenio Montale launched a volley at literary and intellectual pomposity (to him the source of stagnation) in Italy, writing, “But I love streets that spill into grass / ditches, where kids scramble after skinny eels / in half-baked puddles.”
Volley is too strong a word until you drop these lines into the early twentieth-century milieu of Italian writing. To shift the focus to the fringes, to tone down the rhetoric in favor of descriptive precision, was groundbreaking. These lines from Montale sound a little like Sinisgalli (really, it’s the other way around) with their orientation toward the periphery of things, but Sinisgalli, whose poems first appeared in the late 1920s, found even Montale and his contemporaries (Salvatore Quasimodo, Giuseppe Ungaretti[xviii]) overblown and bedizened.[xix] Think of Sinisgalli’s straightforward, nearly adjective-less take on the sun: “It trudges like an ox, and on the grass / and stones it leaves enormous stains.” Sinisgalli made his frames precise and his boxes plain, zeroing in on the small rather than the grandiose, the elegant rather than the eloquent, the must of hay-filled stalls rather than the majesty of swards. “The significance of subject matter (and of the poet’s relation to it) has been calibrated according to a different measure,” writes Di Piero with a sniff in the introduction to The Ellipse. Di Piero is absolutely right. An ellipse is a geometric form, and this title is an apt one for a poet—”the engineer poet”—whose subject matter was calibrated primarily in terms of form. And so we come to an answer to the question of how it was that Sinisgalli lived through World War II and never seemed to write about it. Sinisgalli responded to his times not by putting energy into describing how bad things were, but by putting energy into making sound formal decisions[xx] when all around him the structures (forms) of civil society were disintegrating.
I keep saying phrases like “formal decisions” so I had better say what his decisions were. Sinisgalli distinguished himself in engineering, math, and physics, but he refused a spot at the Istituto di Fisica in 1929, saying later, “Although I could have joined the young men who were ushering in the atomic age, I preferred to follow the painters and poets. ” Romantic, yes, but with “Cartesian precision” (Di Piero’s words), Sinisgalli waged his own assault on empty rhetoric in the privacy of his study. He decried poetry by “Rhetoricians and Sophists.” He strips down his poems to clean, exact stanzas that are at first blush devoid of emotion; the speaker of these poems sometimes seems dead as a camera. His forms reveal an obsession with both precision and accuracy, simplicity and mystery. Whether or not Sinisgalli conceived of his work in polemical terms—my guess is he did not—the poet’s choices within his poems stand in opposition to the rhetorically swollen, euphemistic language of fascism. Here’s Mussolini speaking to thousands in Rome, 1941 (Sinisgalli was living there at the time):
The hardships, suffering and sacrifices that are faced with exemplary courage and dignity by the Italian people will have their day of compensation when all the enemy forces are crushed on the battlefields by the heroism of our soldiers and a triple, immense cry will cross the mountains and oceans like lightning and light new hopes and give new certainties to the spirits of multitudes.
Mussolini’s literary corollary is his friend D’Annunzio. Both sought to unleash the same formal gush of stadium-sized speech every time they spoke or wrote. Both sought to convince, to quicken pulses in the service of national pride. Historian Robert Paxton has described fascism as “more nakedly dependent on charisma” than any other kind of rule. “Fascism’s main attraction,” agrees R.J.B. Bosworth in his book Mussolini’s Italy, “was the intensity of its message.” I would extrapolate further: the intensity of its forms—massive gatherings of chanting people, speeches shouted from stages by gesticulating strongmen, proclamations, decrees—is foundational to the “intensity of its message.” Sinisgalli’s insistence on making accurate, truthfully-observed, un-grandiose poems seems radical.[xxi] Here at last is the first stanza of “Lucania”:
To the pilgrim crossing its frontiers,
moving down through the Alburni pass
or following the sheep-track on the slopes of the Serra,
to the kite snapping the horizon line
with a snake in its claws, to the emigrant, to the soldier,
whoever comes back from refuge or exile, whoever sleeps
in sheep pens, to the shepherd, sharecropper, and salesman
Lucania opens its barren plains,
its valleys where rivers crawl
like rivers of dust.
One shouldn’t mistake Sinisgalli’s astonishing embrace of broken-down returners here with grandiosity. This stanza ends in dust. Sinisgalli, writing in war’s wake in “On The Figure of the Poet,” unpacks what it means to write antieloquence[xxii]:
The Poet… has had to draw from the wells of instinct, from his animal tenderness. He has had to trust in his sense of smell more than in his learning, in his native dialect more than in official culture. Let us not accuse him of giving us tubers instead of jewels.
Sinisgalli is proud of his “tubers,” his elegant un-jewels.[xxiii] In Germany, fascism lit a pastoralist fire and rural men and women could be counted on for patriotism. In Italy, however, fascism caught on slowly in the villages of the south; it competed for power with the mafioso, winning much earlier the urban centers of the north.[xxiv] In any case, in images of the countryside, Sinisgalli found something uninflated, something that didn’t pretend or posture. There is starkness to the grind and repetition—the chores, the demands of crop and livestock, season and weather—of rural life. While Mussolini was shouting “Victory Italy!” in the great metropolis of Western civilization, Sinisgalli was writing poems made from a childhood lived in that land’s barren south-country, poems like “Lucania,” or, later, poems like this one from the early 1950s—so hard and tight and sure of itself I want to compare it to a weather-beaten pebble; it’s as if Sinisgalli designed the poem based on some corresponding physical object[xxv]—called “The Wind Has Stopped Blowing”:
The wind has stopped blowing through the valley,
the dogs are gone,
children fly past
with swallows in their hands.
A mole pokes its head
from a hole, an insect
rolls bits of dung,
the ant gathers grain,
winter isn’t far.
Conscious or unconscious, it’s a formal decision to let that first line billow out (“Nella valle non passa più il vento”—it’s the longest in the poem in Italian as well), or to revert immediately afterwards to short, three- and four-syllable lines, or to end on terse, prickly terms: “winter isn’t far” (“l’inverno non è lontano”). Sinisgalli knew personally—his day job for a while was with Olivetti as an advertising director[xxvi]—what Marshall McLuhan would articulate decades later: “The medium is the message.” The shell is the content. When I read Sinisgalli’s verse I think of William Carlos Williams writing in The Wedge (1944) that, “it isn’t what [the poet] says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes.”[xxvii]
George Orwell’s ominous communiqué in Nineteen Eighty-Four (first edition, 1949) was, in part, that honest language is the first casualty in a fascist state. Listen to Montale’s 1945 description of the writer’s allowance under Mussolini’s regime: “Basically one could put into prose or verse one’s nostalgia for adolescence or for grandfather’s carpet slippers, or could reel off a tale in a nineteenth century style.” Literary historian Joseph Cary confirms this. “What the regime wanted of writers,” he says, “was what it felt to be a healthy constructivity, happy hortatory songs about fecund mothers, beaming babies, teeming fields; positive thinking, in other words.” Frankly, this didn’t interest Sinisgalli. Take the last stanza of his elegy “September 16, 1943″:
Early in the morning my father
sits on the hearthstone.
People come and go with bottles
wrapped in shawls, asking for vinegar
to cure thrush.
The women talk to one another
about pigs, pigs clean as dogs,
living under their beds.
Epidemics among cows, sheep, chickens.
Signs that the end is near?
The women list them one by one
while they squat on bundled twigs
around the fire, remembering my mother.
It’s September, 1943 (in the title he’s explicitly called our attention to that), all of Europe is on fire, and in thirteen lines, Sinisgalli offers only a couplet of (vague) reference to worldly catastrophe (“Signs that the end is near? / The women list them one by one”). We have mainly Sinisgalli’s poems and the occasional essay to guide us, and he seems to have kept his public profile low during the war years, but I do not think Sinisgalli was a coward for his indirect modes of confrontation. In the face of manipulative use of language, he crafted sharp-edged poems that were as earnest as they were honest, poems that refused any official style or subject matter. This was his reply to his times.[xxviii]
Decades later and a continent away, Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan engaged in a furious debate about whether to explicitly write the Vietnam War (not to mention the Civil Rights and feminist movements) into their poems or not. Levertov thoughts poets could and should zero in on the images of, say, war and bring that content directly into poems. She was changed deeply by the Adolf Eichmann trial, and in response she penned her first overly political poem in 1961, later explaining that the poet’s job is to be a “proxy witness” to the events, terrible or otherwise, of his or her historical moment. In “Enquiry,” Levertov attacks the American war machine in verse: “You who go out on schedule / to kill, do you know / there are eyes that watch you, / eyes whose lids you burned off…” Duncan, on the other hand, thought poets ought to focus on constructing great art—even when that excluded writing about what, because of one’s political or moral positions, one thought one should be writing about. Both were great poets; the disagreement shattered the friendship. In one letter Duncan called Levertov’s work “moralizing.” In response she called his poems “sentimental.” Duncan wrote Levertov in 1971 that, “I am not talking about prisoners, blacks, children, and angry women in revolt—I am talking about those with work to do deserting their work. And our work is surely to get the words right…”
Unlike Czesław Miłosz, Sinisgalli seems to feel no guilt about having lived through Europe’s second great war. In “Dedication,” Miłosz addresses the dead of the Warsaw uprising: “You whom I could not save / Listen to me. / Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.”[xxix] Miłosz, to be sure, saw more carnage than Sinisgalli, and so perhaps the war entering his poems was unstoppable. It’s hard to say what Sinisgalli would have written had he endured more direct hardship. But even Milosz, who was able (I would say) to directly write about his war torn homeland, even he became convinced a poet’s developed sense of form was more important than whatever the poet was talking about. “The reality of the war years,” he writes in “Ruins and Poetry,” “is a great subject, but a great subject is not enough and it even makes inadequacies in workmanship all the more visible.”
It’s too extreme to say subject matter is irrelevant. Of course what you’re writing matters. But what’s most interesting about content is this: What formal moves does it trigger of you? Does the fact that you’re taking us into hell require a certain form? Dante said, yes, it requires a particular rhyme scheme—eventually called terza rima (ABA BCB CDC and so on), three lines per stanza, a pattern that theoretically never ends—to create a feeling of descent into oblivion in the reader. Does the fact that you’re trying to give us the stream of a man’s mind over the course of a single day require a certain form? Joyce said, yes, it requires a tome rich with nodes of personal dialect and brimming with sentences as endless as thought itself. This is why it’s such a relief for a poet when a poem finds its form, when a poet sees a shape in the block of granite. What’s more, I think Sinisgalli would say that subject matter is a given; it is all around all of us. To be alive is to be immersed in subject matter. Which is why artists must go in search of forms.
If anything, war and passage through fascism deepened Sinisgalli’s belief in a poet’s taking responsibility for his or her forms. The world had come undone. Official, inherited modes had become suspect. In “On The Figure of the Poet” (the word figure in this title is noteworthy: it’s a word that has to do with shape, and it’s another sign of where Sinisgalli’s priorities lie) he writes:
The extraordinary stability of ancient forms (comparable only to the stability of the pyramids and colossi, of columns and cupolas) has surrendered the field to less abstract structures that are more free and easy, more articulate, certainly more short-lived. The equippage of metaphoric language—the burden of symbols, figures of speech, ornaments, and emblems—does not incite the Poet to take risks [emphasis in the original].
What does incite the poet to take risks? Sinisgalli’s beef is with baggage, with weighty, muddling language. He wants forms conducive to the boiling down of things. “The Poet’s only standard or ambition,” he writes, “may finally be to document the possibility of his own existence.” Sinisgalli believes, if nothing else, in evidence, in proofs. He is a mumbling mechanic diagnosing reality. He is a fierce quiet scientist experimenting on time. He is a farmhand laboring in the chicken coop of literature.
So how consciously was Sinisgalli really pushing against fascism? I’ve circled this question throughout the essay, and I want to answer it with the old truth, ‘trust the art, not the artist.’ True, Leonardo Sinisgalli did not participate in the resistance. He did not protest or get arrested or throw tomatoes at government offices. He did not even state that his poems were an open challenge to Mussolini’s regime. But he wrote them, and so to me they are the main event.
And I’ll make one explicit comment on subject matter in Sinisgalli. The poet straddled two worlds in his lifetime. He lived in the city but it’s as if he felt in exile: his verse constantly recalls his home province. Why does he go to the city and then write so much village life into his poems? I think it’s because distance clarifies and sharpens vision. I left farms and dirt roads for a metropolis of towering buildings and crowded pavement. Living in San Francisco allows me to write honestly about Kansas. I see it better. It’s not so much that the grass is greener when you’re looking from afar. It’s that the grass is clearer. Clarity can be painful. But clarity, for Sinisgalli, is a precursor to precision. And my note on subject matter comes back around—I know, I know, the jig is up—to form. The mechanics of Sinisgalli’s poems—the contained, well-defined stanzas, for instance—spring from the same imperative within him that determined Sinisgalli’s choice of what to write about: the need to be utterly (coldly, even) precise. To be precise, he had to see clearly. To see clearly, he had to leave. Once I left Kansas I saw how well I could see it. It has become, paradoxically, what is right in front of my face—and what I have to write about—only when it’s two thousand miles and a cultural canyon away.[xxx]
Sinisgalli’s poems are not the cries of an evangelizer or syrup from a propaganda dealer. They are brief transmissions from an inward-turned journey. At my parents’ farm, there is a swing I love. It hangs from a Honey locust across the sewage pond from the barn. I am sitting there the day before I pole vault back across the Rockies to California when I read “Via Velasca,” written by Sinisgalli sometime in the 1950s. A long shiver begins in my heel and surfaces on the top of my skull. In Di Piero’s English translation, there are no words not necessary, no lazy lines:
It’s less likely than ever
that someone will clutch at you
and beg pity for his suffering.
The windows of the Verzee
are stuffed with rags.
Among the shops and signs
you look for a memory, odor,
in the blasted street.
Your pockets are filled with life.
Filthy with smoke, outcast, you slowly
bend over to tie your shoes.
Your pockets are filled with wind.
This is a crisp sound, a cessation of the static for a second. Unfurl the butterfly nets of memory and image and music, says Sinisgalli. Catch wind. Fill your pockets with it.
[i] Thanks to Ilya Kaminsky who, while we were standing in Moe’s Books in Berkeley, pulled The Ellipse off the shelf and said, “I think you might like this.”
[ii] A note on translation: It is exceedingly difficult to get a sense of a poet, to truly understand the poet’s place in the culture and idiom he springs from, when reading his work in a language other than that in which he wrote the poems. Nonetheless, Di Piero’s translations are excellent. He negotiates one of the roadblocks of moving from Italian to English, namely the problem of converting Italian, with its small pool of sounds, into English, a much vaster pool of sonic options. Where it’s easy for Italian to end-rhyme line after line, English strains to attempt the same feat in the same poem. Robert Pinksy, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s Inferno, notes the challenge to the translator presented by the “great sprawling matrix of sounds” that is English. Di Piero, throughout The Ellipse, is vigilant about approximating as close as possible the sonic qualities of the original when bundling a given poem across the borders of Italian into English.
[iii] Architecture presents a vivid metaphor because pieces of art, if they succeed, become fixed points in memory. They become buildings on the skyline of the past. A brilliant few weather all the storms of forgetting.
[iv] Actually, the history of Italian poetry is a march toward antieloquence. Sinisgalli would have distanced himself from Dante’s poetry, with its veering toward grandiosity. But in his day, Dante waged his own war on eloquence and the linguistic expectations of the day. He chose to write The Divine Comedy in Italian, which is to say, not in Latin. Which is why he never saw the epic poem published in his lifetime. His investment in Italian seemed a step toward permanent obscurity, except that—and it’s a testament to the strength of his poetry—it got noticed a couple hundred years after he wrote it by a group of Italian intellectuals who’d gotten together to handpick a common language. It’s a funny thing about Italian. Spanish, French, English, and most other languages became the dominant language in a particular region through a combination of inertia and war—that is, the economic and cultural power of Paris, for instance, made Parisian French basically the French spoken to this day all over France. Italian, on the other hand, was chosen by writers and thinkers and philosophers from Napoli and Roma and Milano who got together because they were tired of having no official common language. They picked one. The vernacular they picked was Dante’s, and they picked it primarily because it was so beautiful. Dante is to Italian what Shakespeare is to English. And over time, and in a way that never happened for Shakespearean English, Dante’s Italian became the new Latin (i.e. an institution), and Italian poetry grew stagnant. Eventually, as these things go, a new breed of antieloquent writers sprung up. One of them was Leonardo Sinisgalli.
[v] Ben Shahn’s thought in full: “For form is not just the intention of content; it is the embodiment of content. Form is based, first, upon a supposition, a theme. Form is, second, a marshaling of materials, the inert matter in which the theme is to be cast. Form is, third, a setting of boundaries, of limits, the whole extent of idea, but no more, an outer shape of idea. Form is, next, the relating of inner shapes to the outer limits, the initial establishing of harmonies. Form is, further, the abolishing of excessive content, of content that falls outside the true limits of the theme. It is the abolishing of excessive materials, whatever material is extraneous to inner harmony, to the order of shapes now established. Form is thus a discipline, an ordering, according to the needs of content.”
[vi] I would caution as well, for what it’s worth, against confusing a poet’s “style” with a poet’s “forms.” The forms are a product of, among other things, the poet’s style. Style has, in my mind, more to do with the tone, voice, and register that a poet strikes, rather than the mechanics and structures of the poem. It gets slippery. The concepts are interlarded but, to me, formal calculations—form—should be thought of as one specific (and disproportionately important) component of a poet’s style.
[vii] A shaker rocker!
[viii] The fact that we can read this poem backwards stanza by stanza and have it make a kind of sense is another proof of Sinisgalli’s ability to make little rooms within poems. Each stanza is almost a separate and individual poem. Each stanza is contained, pebble-like. This invites playful rearranging.
[ix] More from Sinisgalli on this subject (from “On The Figure of the Poet,” 1948): “Given the nature of his feelings—a heart disappointed, tender, frightened—he stands accused of aloofness, indifference, and egoism. Feeling hurt and betrayed, dissatisfied by the love and friendship of those close to him, and reluctant to hug a horse or rotting carcass, he seeks the friendship of cats and birds, then descends even lower, looking for compassion, anxious to believe he actually has something to offer—he’s so delicate! In the end he appeals to flies, snails, scorpions, toads.”
[x] Italian Modernism surely begins with Giacomo Leopardi. In an 1817 letter to a friend Leopardi attacked even the great Petrarch for his fluffiness: “I have always despised any suggestion of sentimentality, …nor do I find pleasure in reading love stories for… the emotions of other—even when described with sincerity—turn my stomach. I can’t even take Petrarch, who—I thought—would surely describe feelings very like mine.” Leopardi, however, had a conservative streak in him. Joseph Cary writes that “Leopardi’s notebooks were crammed with lists of ‘un-Italian’ words (recent coinages, barbarous compounds, gallicisms, words unsanctified by use in the superb past).” Leopardi harbored suspicions about the viability of new (at that time) Italian poetry. In 1820 he wrote, “The best generations are not those before us but those behind us; and it’s hardly likely that the world will change and go back instead of forward. And going forward obviously it can only get worse.” Yikes.
[xi] The poet Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, writing in 1911, judged Italian poetry at that moment to be “poesia crepuscolare”—poetry of the twilight. In Italy, the past casts a long, intimidating shadow. Borgese was born in 1882. To Borgese and his contemporaries (the generation just before Sinisgalli), writing poems meant shouldering the sad mantle of being, in Joseph Cary’s words, “poets of the dusk, a lume spento, the inheritors of aftermath.” The World Wars proved this sentiment premature. But these concerns were not limited to Italian letters. In 1908, the year Sinisgalli was born, Ezra Pound published “Revolt: Against the Crepuscular Spirit in Modern Poetry.” In it he writes: “I would shake off the lethargy of this our time, and give / For shadows—shapes of power, / For dreams—men…”
[xii] In the early part of the twentieth century the flashiest exceptions to this flowery poetry in Italian literature were the writings of the Futurists. The Futurists worshiped speed, technology, progress, and violence. They would have orgasmed over the internet. Whether they created lasting literature remains a question for further study. In any case, the polemics of the Futurists—down with the Uffizi! down with the Pope! down with the hendecasyllable!—did not pique Sinisgalli’s curiosity or imagination. The Futurists’ open embrace of chaos did not appeal to this orderly man. In 1948, albeit years after the Futurists’ brief flaring, Sinisgalli lamented in “On The Figure of the Poet,” that “Poets… seem now totally ruled by the demon du hasard, pure Chance.”
[xiii] He spent 1921 and 1922 giving political speeches with a fascist bent. In October 1922 the Genius of the Race was pushed out of a window. He never fully recovered from the fall. A doddering figurehead of a man, worshiped with nationalist fervor, he died of a stroke in 1938.
[xiv] The Child of Pleasure, Giovanni Episcopo, and The Intruder, for instance.
[xv] In 1897, by way of example, D’Annunzio was elected to the Chamber of Deputies.
[xvi] For years, he was on the staff of the Tribuna (Rome), writing under the pseudonym Duca Minimo.
[xvii] He was the commander of the 87th fighter squadron for a time, and on August 9, 1918 he led nine planes in a legendary propaganda drop on Vienna called “The Flight Over Vienna.” The leaflets that bombarded the city were courteously worded invitations to surrender.
[xviii] As it turns out, Ungaretti (who embraced Futurism briefly) eventually joined the National Fascist Party. He signed the pro-fascist Manifesto of the Italian Writers in 1925. Mussolini wrote a preface to Ungaretti’s The Buried Port in 1923.
[xix] Not only that, W.S. Di Piero told me in an email that by the 1970s the fact of Montale’s status as a national monument irked Sinisgalli, a recluse who preferred poets stay on the fringes. Montale’s fame must have added to Sinisgalli’s perception that Montale, a 1975 Nobel Laureate, wrote airy and overly finished verse. Too eloquent, in other words.
[xx] If the phrase “formal decisions” is confusing, let me clarify: I mean decisions about what forms his poems should take, not decisions dressed in tuxedos.
[xxi] This wasn’t a conversation limited to Italy. “One of the ways by which contemporary verse has tried to escape the rhetorical, the abstract, the moralizing, to recover (for that is its purpose) the accents of direct speech, is to concentrate its attention on trivial or accidental or commonplace objects.” This is T.S. Eliot writing on Georgian poets for The Egoist in 1917. He would publish The Waste Land five years later.
[xxii] And what would he have been reading? Sinisgalli was well versed in Rimbaud, Verlaine, Valéry, Descartes, Rousseau, Schopenhauer and the plain-spoken 19th century Italian poet Guido Gozzano. Dante, Petrarch, Leopardi, Foscolo, and Tasso would have been drilled into his and every other Italian student of his generation’s head.
[xxiii] A poet who shared Sinisgalli’s distaste for Montale, as well as his desire for small elegant poems, was Sandro Penna, born two years before Sinisgalli in 1906. Penna was also the first queer Italian poet to write openly and directly about his sexuality (from George Scrivani’s 1988 translation of Confused Dream: “Always boys in my poems! / Well, I don’t know / about anything else.”) His short, bursting, erotic lyrics made him less than iconic in the eyes of the fascists. Luckily for him, he too was a recluse. W.S. Di Piero, translator of Sinisgalli, is also one of Penna’s conduits into English. In 1982, in addition to Sinisgalli’s book The Ellipse, Di Piero published This Strange Joy, which includes the following four-line, untitled, sentence-long poem: “Maybe plain and easy poetry happens / unthinking as a traveler’s hand / inside an airless crowded train / falling on a boy’s shoulder.” Alda Merini, on the other hand, was “found” by Montale, but still, she’s a good example of the antieloquence that came after Sinisgalli and Penna (she was born in 1931). Her favorite is the aphorism, which she turns into a brutal barb. Examples: “Death is a perfect boundary” or “Superficiality / disturbs me / but profundity / murders me.” Montale endorsed and recommended her work widely. Susan Stewart and Carla Billitteri each have published solid approximations of Merini’s verse in English. Stewart’s was published by Princeton (2009) and is called Love Lessons. Billitteri’s chapbook of Merini poetry is called I am a furious little bee and it was published by Hooke Press (2008). The two aphorisms cited just now were from the Billitteri chapbook.
[xxiv] Christopher Duggan, on page 458 of The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796, describes the case of Sicily, explaining that through the 1930s “the peasantry in western and central Sicily continued to place more trust in mafiosi than in the representatives of the Italian state,” i.e. than in Mussolini’s regime.
[xxv] Good poetry exhibits a mastery of time. I’m occasionally envious of artists whose mediums—paint, canvass, clay, metal, video, photography, etc.—have a physical aspect that’s unavoidable, a tangibility that’s comforting. You can feel paint. You can knead clay. You can develop film. There’s nothing like that in writing, really, aside from a sheet of paper—and that’s only if you write by hand. In writing, time itself is the medium. Still, I appreciate that Sinisgalli pushes me to think of verse in physical terms by the sheer objectness of his poems.
[xxvii] Stephen Burt believes the pendulum in American poetry has swung again toward Williams’s sentiment. He points to a growing body of work by American poets who cast their music in the cardinal directions of precision, elegance, intelligence, and object obsession. As an example, he nods to Graham Foust (As In Every Deafness, 2003). Here’s “Managed Care”: “Flowers in a blue / glass, capable / as doors. / The sun erases / all the grass. / The yard is done for.” I read Burt’s piece while working on this essay and I couldn’t help but think of lines from Sinisgalli like “olives taste of oblivion, / flavor of sorrow” and “the ant gathers grain, / winter isn’t far.”
[xxviii] Even before fascism took hold in Italy, there were poets straining for the honesty Sinisgalli achieved in his airtight, descriptive poems. In 1911, Umberto Saba wrote “What Remains for Poets to Do,” an essay he submitted to a magazine called La Voce. The article was rejected. It sat in a box of Saba’s papers until the poet’s death in 1957. It influenced no one. But it’s noteworthy for its sensibility, a sensibility I think Sinisgalli—who was three when it was written—would come to share, though of course I don’t know if he ever had a conversation about it with Saba. Saba says: “Whoever does not write verse out of a sincere need to support the expression of his passion with rhythm, whoever has commercial or otherwise ambitious intentions—he for whom the publication of a book is like winning a medal or opening a shop—such a one cannot begin to imagine what stubborn force of intellect, what disinterested grandeur of soul, is needed to resist all the seduction and to keep oneself pure and honest in front of oneself.” These are stirring words and there’s a clear echo of this sentiment, an ocean and a century apart as they are, in Donald Hall’s call for writers in the United States to stare hard into themselves, to resist the urge to look elsewhere or to blink. Hall’s challenge remains radical decades later. Let no one claim poets living in the United States have nothing to write about. Subject matter is all around us. We walk inside it as in a fog. It’s what we do formally with this material that matters.
[xxix] Milosz, like Sinisgalli, craves simplicity and directness as a matter of function.
[xxx] Italy was a collection of city-states until it became a nation in 1861. The entrenched view, under the surface to this day, is that residents of the northern half (there are more cities in the north) are typically more urbane and sophisticated while residents of the rural south are more muscle than brain. This raises the stakes for Sinisgalli living in Rome and yet writing about the countryside. Di Piero said in an email that Sinisgalli “contained two cultures” in that he was “born in Lucania, pagan, Southern, of small means” but “lived his adult life in Milan and Rome, founded the most famous design magazine of its time, worked for Olivetti, etc.” Sinisgalli spent summers in his home village of Montemurro most of his life. In other words, he maintained an active connection to what he’d exiled himself from. This is why his poems don’t feel nostalgic; the past was animated by a regular stream of updates. In his poems, the past is golden and remembered but, when filtered through the present, filled with decay and decline. One more thing about “containing” multiple cultures (something that’s always been at the core of the American idea). Zadie Smith argued for a consciousness capable of containing many voices in a speech in December 2008 called “Speaking in Tongues” about Barack Obama and his half-white, half-black heritage. “Being many-voiced may be a complicated gift for a president,” she said, “but in poets it is a pure delight in need of neither defense nor explanation.” She quotes Frank O’Hara: “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.” O’Hara is light-hearted but Smith sees deeper, more urgent reasons to cultivate the many-voiced-ness one finds in a Sinisgalli or an Obama: “It’s my audacious hope that a man born and raised between opposing dogmas, between cultures, between voices, could not help but be aware of the extreme contingency of culture. I further audaciously hope that such a man will not mistake the happy accident of his own cultural sensibilities for a set of natural laws, suitable for general application.”
Original art for the rumpus by Ilyse Iris Magy