Narcissist and civic poet: the Pasolini variations
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