What the Swedes Read: Salvatore Quasimodo

What the Swedes Read: Salvatore Quasimodo

Daniel Handler
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  • LAUREATE: Salvatore Quasimodo (Italy, 1959)
  • BOOK READ: The Selected Writings, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

My copy of The Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo doesn’t exactly make a case for reading him. For one thing, there’s the hideous cover design—come on, Minerva Press—with a drawing of Quasimodo in the style of a courtroom sketch artist, his polka-dot tie extending down between “Translated by” and “Allen Mandelbaum.”[*] Then there’s the fact that the book was withdrawn by the Long Island University Library, no doubt due to the fact, attested to by some paperwork pasted on the inside back cover, that no one ever checked it out. And then there’s Quasimodo’s reputation in America, which more or less guarantees his place in the pages of an ugly, ignored edition. Everything I encounter about him tells me he should most certainly be read, assuming you’ve already digested the two other great Italian poets of the era. I try to imagine a student at Long Island University browsing the stacks, already familiar with Eugenio Montale and Giuseppe Ungaretti. How many people could fit that description?

As it happens, I do—except for the Long Island University part. Italian literature has long moved me, and the poets in particular often achieve a balance between passion and precision that’s hard to find in verse. The language of modern Italian poetry is rarely obscure, but the poems are rarely obvious, which is a pretty good recipe for engaging the reader. For a while I fell into Cesare Pavese, whose work feels reckless but never uncontrolled, like those Italian films where everyone is hopping in and out of bed that still feel arty rather than trashy, and before long I found Montale, another Nobel winner (watch this space!) beloved of many American poets, and then Ungaretti, who’s a little wilder and weirder.

All I knew of Quasimodo was that he had a hunchback name and that he was a big deal in the hermeticism movement, and there’s nothing to make your eyes roll into the back of your head like trying to grasp the defining characteristics of certain schools of poetry. It’s usually critics who come up with these categories, and then the poets start bickering over who’s in and who’s out and whether anybody should be in and what do words mean, anyway, and you know you’re in trouble when Wikipedia helps you out by saying that the name “recalls a mystic conception of the poetic word because it makes reference to the legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus.” (Thanks a lot, buddy.)

Eventually I grasped that hermeticism exhibits obscure and allegorical properties, an approach that is not likely to put you in wide circulation at the Long Island University Library or anywhere else—and indeed Quasimodo changed his tune about halfway through his career, in favor of a belief that he should be more connected to the world, the better to find more readers in it. This is a fairly common transformation in the arts—the arty band goes pop, the indie director makes an action movie—and you never know how that’s going to go. Here’s how it worked for Quasimodo in his first phase, sometime around 1936:

Birds far-off and open in the evening
tremble on the river. And the rain insists
and the hissing of the poplars illumined
by the wind. Like everything remote
do you return to mind. The light green
of your dress is here among the plants
burnt by lightning flashes where the gentle
hill of Ardenno rises and one hears
the kite hawk on the fans of broomcorn.

I couldn’t find Ardenno without a map, but I don’t see a lot of obscurity here, just the slightly off-kilter simplicity of Italian poetry that charms me. Look at that word open in the first line, for instance—it’s just floating there plain as day, but what is it attached to? The balance in “Like everything remote / do you return to mind” couldn’t be more taut, and yet it follows “And the rain insists / and the hissing of poplars / illumined by the wind,” which is so fragmentary it makes the whole stanza a little short of breath. By the time the later lines push us into the lightning and take us out into the hills, I’m entirely under its spell, however hermetic it supposedly is.

But of course the notion of keeping one’s distance from the everyday world has a particular set of baggage in late-’30s Europe, and while Quasimodo gazing at nature and thinking of a girl seems like a perfectly solid poetic approach in the abstract, I felt differently when I read that his hermeticism led to a refusal to join the resistance to the German occupation, devoting himself instead to new translations of ancient texts. Admittedly, as someone whose father was fleeing Nazis while Quasimodo was translating Catullus, I can’t call myself objective here, but it’s heartening that Quasimodo began to think he should get in the trenches, as it were. “War summons up,” he says, in a “Discourse on Poetry” that describes his change of heart, “with violence, a hidden order in the thought of man, a greater grasp of the truth,” and the poems he wrote following the war are the ones the Nobel people seem most excited about. “The bitter experiences of war,” the Swedes said in their presentation speech, “made him an interpreter of the moral life.” This seems like a nobler errand than the early poetry, perhaps—until you read the results. Here’s the end of his “Auschwitz”:

Upon the plains, where love and lamentation
rotted and piety, beneath the rain,
there, a no within us beat, a no
to death, at Auschwitz dead, that from that pit
of ash, death not repeat.

“Death not repeat.” Or, in other words, “never again”—a post-Holocaust slogan that while still effective is not really still striking. So much art has raked over the Holocaust, and so much of it lousy, that I get exhausted just at the idea of a poem called “Auschwitz,” and while there are some interesting bits here—the tiny startles when you try to parse “where love and lamentation / rotted and piety”—for the most part this poem, in this day and age, is just another bit of mawkishness in a genre full of it.

It’s a curious puzzle: Quasimodo’s elegiac postwar work won him the Nobel Prize, which raised his profile enough that a Selected Writings was shelved in libraries thousands of miles from his homeland. But I can’t help thinking that those are the same poems that left him unread and eventually withdrawn from the same libraries. Quasimodo’s poetry most engages me when it’s the most disengaged—when it leaves his times behind and heads to the hills. It’d be nice to see him taken down from the shelf and read for the work that floated above the fray, rather than ignored for the work that got him onto those shelves in the first place.

  • Bonus trivia and design note: my copy of The Selected Writings was presented to the Long Island University Library by Mrs. Fairfield Porter, wife of the noted American painter whose striking portraits adorn books by poets like James Schuyler and John Ashbery. That’s how to do it, Minerva Press.
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