Nar­cis­sist and civic poet: the Pa­solini vari­a­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Si­mon West

The Se­lected Po­etry of Pier Paolo Pa­solini, A Bilin­gual Edi­tion Edited and trans­lated by Stephen Sartarelli Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 456pp, $71 (HB) PIER Paolo Pa­solini is best known to the English-speak­ing world as the au­teur of icon­o­clas­tic 1960s and 70s films such as The Gospel Ac­cord­ing to Matthew, Medea and The 120 Days of Sodom (and if we needed re­mind­ing, this pub­li­ca­tion comes with a fore­word by Amer­i­can film­maker James Ivory, whose foun­da­tion fi­nanced the project).

But by the time Pa­solini made his first film, Ac­cat­tone in 1961, he was al­ready fa­mous in his na­tive Italy as a poet who had shaken up the sta­tus quo of her­meti­cism’s in­tro­spec­tive and ar­cane lyrics, and as the key ne­o­re­al­ist nov­el­ist of his gen­er­a­tion, whose first novel, Rigazzi di vita (1955), re­sulted in ob­scen­ity charges.

In­deed, one of the dif­fi­cul­ties of talk­ing about Pa­solini, and the prin­ci­pal rea­son for his con­tin­u­ing mys­tique, is the range of his ge­nius, as Amer­i­can poet and trans­la­tor Stephen Sartarelli notes in a use­ful in­tro­duc­tion to this book. Was he a film­maker or poet? A tra­di­tional for­mal­ist or rad­i­cal ex­per­i­men­tal­ist? A Marx­ist or a Catholic? Elit­ist aes­thete or ex­hi­bi­tion­ist? Artist or one-man po­lit­i­cal move­ment?

Pa­solini, who be­lieved in the eter­nal co­ex­is­tence of op­po­sites, prob­a­bly would have said all of the above. No fig­ure em­bod­ies the po­larised po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion and com­plex so­cial ten­sions of Italy in this pe­riod so well. At the same time he is the most unique and nar­cis­sis­tic of artists, and his po­etry man­i­fests th­ese con­tra­dic­tions. Here the in­ward-look­ing lyric urge wres­tles with the de­sire to give voice to the demos, to be­come a civic poet in a tra­di­tion stretch­ing back to Leop­ardi and Dante.

Gram­sci’s Ashes (1957) brought Pa­solini’s po­etry to wider pub­lic at­ten­tion and re­mains his most im­por­tant vol­ume. He termed th­ese longish pieces po­emetti, or mini epics, and their form res­ur­rected Dante’s terza rima. This shape al­lowed Pa­solini to be ar­gu­men­ta­tive and take in gar­gan­tuan swathes of con­tem­po­rary life, a fash­ion rem­i­nis­cent of Allen Gins­berg. Pa­solini’s style in this pe­riod is one of con­tam­i­na­tion: baroque florid­ness in­ter­rupts pro­saic sprawl, ide­o­log­i­cal ex­po­si­tions sit be­side per­sonal re­flec­tions, Shel­ley is in­voked along­side Marx. Done well such plurilin­gual­ism is ex­hil­a­rat­ing. How­ever, it is resistant to trans­la­tion, and my only reser­va­tion with this oth­er­wise fine edi­tion is the flat­ter lin­guis­tic patina in English.

If the ide­o­log­i­cal re­galia of th­ese po­ems have dated this is be­cause there are now no al­ter­na­tives to our all-per­va­sive lib­eral con­sumer so­ci­ety. But as Pa­solini, whose vi­sion grew in­creas­ingly pes­simistic to­wards the end of his life, was at pains to point out, the demise of class di­ver­sity was ac­com­pa­nied by a much greater loss. The an­cient belief sys­tems sus­tain­ing Italy’s agrar­ian so­ci­ety were sud­denly van­ish­ing. The tra­di­tions of the orig­i­nal Ro­man lower classes, who had been pushed to slums on the out­skirts of the city un­der Mussolini, and which Pa­solini cel­e­brated in his early films and fic­tion, were be­ing re­placed by a cul­ture of amoral in­di­vid­u­al­ism. For po­ets such changes meant (and still mean) an ero­sion of the re­al­ity on which the sym­bols and myths of our so­ci­ety are nur­tured. We lose a liv­ing con­nec­tion with our cul­tural pat­ri­mony. In a fa­mous es­say con­cern­ing the van­ish­ing fire­flies from the Ital­ian coun­try­side Pa­solini de­scribed this process with char­ac­ter­is­tic polemic as an­thro­po­log­i­cal geno­cide.

As a tes­ta­ment to such is­sues and the heady po­lit­i­cal pe­riod in which he lived, how­ever, I can’t help feel­ing that his prose and films will be of more last­ing value. Po­etry and ac­tivism rarely sit well to­gether. Au­den, who fa­mously said po­etry makes noth­ing hap­pen, was wary of l’art en­gage. It may cre­ate that il­lu­sion of so­cial rel­e­vance ev­ery artist han­kers after, but the con­se­quence is shal­low roots and a tree that withers quickly. Who still re­mem­bers Wordsworth’s son­nets in praise of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment? In a dif­fer­ent way Au­den him­self was a civic poet, for his work gave ex­pres­sion to our strug­gle to

Pier Paolo Pa­solini

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