Thomas J. Harrison nietzsche, heidegger, and the language of contemporary italian poetry I. The Language of Philomela

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V. The Favorite Malice

      If there is to be a radically different language, one which might escape the referential captivity of the signifier/ signified distinction, it must transform the very procedures of linguistic sense. Ecart must be applied not to elements within a grammar but to the very notion of grammar. Here it would be less a matter of what Stefano Agosti calls "verbal experimentation," by which one stretches the given language, than a matter of constructing it anew. The vision of contemporary language as the "site where a rupture is apparent (marked)" (p. 297 of this volume)--the Derridian and Lacanian heritage of poets--must be enlarged to accommodate attempts to reconstitute language from within rupture. By and large, the poets we shall presently consider do not want to signify in a post- Novissimi poetics of rupture. They want to discover new modes of significance. " La poesia è il segno che si cerca " (poetry is the sign that seeks itself), say the editors of La parola innamo­rata (p. 15). The announcement is propaedeutic. Poetry is a revolution which cannot foresee its end. It is a venture not out of the code (as expressed by Aristotle's metaphor through Valéry's écart ) but into language. The poem seeks what is to be said, that is, what it does not yet know. Though this is true of all poetry, when taken as a point of departure it tends to entail a deliberate rejection of discourse as a convention and a willful endeavor to say the unsayable. Poetry begins to search for language.

      Each poet in this volume has his own method of seeking language. The Favorite Malice , in fact, does not present a school of poetry but rather a collection of individual procedures. Two of them, [end p.41]

Antonio Porta and Alfredo Giuliani, began their careers with the Novissimi and are now in dialogue with the younger poets. Andrea Zanzotto has been writing for over forty years and is considered by many to be the most original poet in Italy, if not in all of Europe. The remaining four--Nanni Cagnone, Angelo Lumelli, Luigi Ballerini and Raffaele Perrotta (the first two included in La parola innamorata )--form a circle which does indeed revolve around principles very similar to those we have examined. We might begin by considering Nanni Cagnone, whose What's Hecuba to Him or He to Hecuba (New York-Norristown-Milan: Out of London Press, 1975) marks a watershed in the procedures of contemporary poetry.

      The poems in this volume are pithy and enigmatic declarations spoken almost as if from an "elsewhere," from a beyond of which the poet receives some glimmer. Here there are no problematized confessions of a lyrical I, no interpretive rearrangements of things, no narrative accounts of experience and of "meaningful" events. Reference is resisted; the referent of these poems is rather a "meaning," or rather the basis for meaning, a conceptual inkling which can never be represented by the signs it offers. Figuration serves as a pointer to an ultimately inexpressible truth:

quando egli dorme la sua vista,

sconfinato o inconoscibile



when he sleeps his sight,

unbounded or unknowable



That these poems are more than maxims suggests that the type of knowledge to which they aspire necessarily elicits a linguistic somersault. Positive declarations, predications, translucent meanings will not do. Here the aletheia involves the emergence of a region of visibility, a hazy coming into view in which the particulars are not yet identifiable. The said is tied to its provenance in the [end p.42] unsaid, and the "ontological difference" of this junction is what suggests the originary occurence of meaning. Poetry is "this interval between ourselves and things, this interrupted feeling in which one sees without seeing an object, one says without saying this , one speaks without protection, one writes what cannot be thought" (p. 60). And thus it is that "the text is undecidable" ( What's Hecuba , p. 2).

      Through omissions of the subject, infinitive uses of the verb, conceptual abstractions and semantic revaluations of parts of speech and punctuation, Cagnone aims to posit rather than to pin down:

contiguità è la morte può darsi


invece di toccare sapere che

essere spinti dalla vicinanza

a tenere inutili le mani

contiguity is death perhaps


instead of touching to know that

being pushed by nearness

to hold hands useless

Here the associations are clear (and Fredi Chiappelli's essay will prove that Cagnone can be tackled by traditional analysis, even if never held fast by it): contiguity and nearness; touching, being pushed and holding; uselessness and death. Even the comma signals separation and conjunction. (58) What these poems intend to posit is those "quiddities" which are given prior to all particular reference (the essence of truth is the truth of essence, says Heidegger). Ultimately beyond reach, their object, as another poem puts it, is "the immediate, its unsaid."

      Cagnone's second volume, Andatura (1979), marks a transition from the condensed announcements of What's Hecuba to the circa 2000-line Vaticinio he is currently writing. Positing yields ground to the hesitant beginnings of thematization, as the lyrics become [end p.43] longer and more representational. As it would seem from the excerpt included herein, with Vaticinio the poet's breadth has expanded to the proportions of a narrative. While the enigmas remain, there is a new use of symbolic evocation and the elegiac continuity of a Hölderlin hymn.

      The word as a poetic pointer is cultivated in his own way by Luigi Ballerini. Ballerini distinguishes between language as an instrument and the autonomy of Saying. It is the difference between a name and the act of naming: "This naming is a going where we already are (Heidegger), a where which cannot be the place or the competence of a name as much as the event of its absence (baptism as the rite of exclusion). The presence of naming and the absence of the name gives birth to the notion that poetry cannot really be written, except in that moment when it is implicitly read." (59) In practice, the wish to explore the ontology of naming involves a drastic revaluation of structures of significance. By constructing frameworks in which the ordinary functions of words are arrested or transmuted, Ballerini projects each word into strangeness:

amara e respinta nell'intorno

ingiuria il sottolineare (lo consente

il va piano della coppia, la fedeltà ordinata)

a mezza strada il recinto ti schiaffeggia

il dove andando ti allatta

bitter and repelled in the surrounding

insults the underlining (consented by

the go slow of the couple, ordained fidelity)

midway the enclosure smacks you

the where going suckles you


nell'arco dei senza contro

enigma il senza dopo

[end p.44]

un colpito da lontano

rema nell'affidamento

in the arc of without against

enigma the without after

a struck from afar

rows in entrustment

The surprise here consists in attempting new syntactic arrangements in which to eventually house the name. The substantiation of relations of adversity and difference--without, against, towards, instead, almost, barely--indicates a concern with that joining of sense, that legein , which underlies all unities. Language "approximates" tensions such as those that Heidegger thematizes as the foundations of Being: being-there, over-againstness, ec-stasis, in-der-Welt-sein , and so on.

      Ballerini's most recent poetry, represented in this volume, shows a shift away from grammatical transformations towards a poetry of referential exasperation. It would seem that the poet felt that to problematize syntagmatic ties were in and of itself too abstract a procedure and would be better exemplified by placing things themselves in opposition. Now we have catalogues of the most obdurate nouns, problematic already in their whatness, but rendered even more so by the howness in which they are joined. From the simplest possessive phrase ("the cheerful part of the fish") to self-analytic hypotactic sequences ("the mongrel/ discolored in gauze, in the din of a furtive/ crowd, of a wolf with nerves on edge"), his poetry represents an immanent critique both of reference and also of "frames of reference."

      Raffaele Perrotta is the most theoretical and fragmentary of these poets. For him, poetry and thought are essentially indistinguishable: "Metalanguage is language.... 'Poetics' is no less language than 'poetry'" (p. 239). Perrotta is here alluding to the tenet inspired by Heidegger and emphasized especially by Hans-Georg Gadamer: namely, that all events are linguistic and that poetry, as a consequence, is merely a matter of intensity of saying. His identification of Being and language is total--so much so that [end p.45] language becomes the privileged term: "The World-of-Language opens into the Language-of -the World" (would Heidegger have reversed the order?). And: "Ontology and Rhetoric.... Not a conflict, a necessity. The wanderer and his shadow." It follows that "to write is to re-write writing.... 'I' is a librarian." (60)

      Perrotta's re-writing of writing attests to a profound mistrust of syntax. Short strings of phrases which never get fully underway or completed, elliptical fragments which rarely reveal the whole to which they belong, his poems suggest that relations are better left unspecified than fixed and (as it would seem) false. In this respect, Agosti's remarks about "poetry of the imminence of a significance which is never produced" (p. 305) suit Perrotta better than they do Cagnone (see also the note preceding Perrotta's poems). This imminence seems to be tied to a vision of language as temporally incomplete, as suggested even by Alfredo Giuliani (pp. 76-9). Perrotta demands that we perform the legein ourselves, that we blend his fragments within our minds, sometimes over great distances, to generate the meaning to which they tend. Occasionally the solution is quick, as in this Nietzschean vision of moral hindsight:

moralmente seme

che si aggiunge a quercia

morally seed

joined to oak

Generally the aletheia is more refractory:

atavico che si confessa

(a costo di apparirti in un turbine)

nel cambio dell'azione

effetuazioni imparentate

atavist that confesses

(at the price of appearing in a whirlwind before you)

in exchange for action

related accomplishments

[end p.46]

      "To dam up discourse a poem must include time as a unique and true defense in its calculations," writes Angelo Lumelli. "Will it therefore use time to defeat duration? It seems that this is what happens" (p. 180). Time is what discourse attempts to overcome through the smooth passages of speech. By treating things as paradigmatic states in a system, this "rhetoric of continuation" harbors a lethe of finitude. The poetic moment is what shatters this lethe . Defending the unique event, it interrupts the stale and repetitive nature of discourse. Rejecting the fixity of forms, it flows in an innocence of becoming: "Forgetful and without comparison, without tracing figures that forebode and account for it, this motion advances in the extense. (61) In language man plays out his existence as what in Heideggerian terms one might call a thrown project. While Ballerini's poems are compactly self-analytic, Lumelli's are sweepingly progressive unfurlings:

anche ciò che accompagna a qualcosa un racconto

strade così larghe d'aria al mattino, città,

un dolce rossore è pensare

piccole rincorse sono sentimenti

cosa ci vuole per andare fino a Delphi

il tempo scaricato in atti che puliscono

il corpo che avanza aiutato dal linguaggio

non vegliare così a lungo su di te

ma se tu avessi gratitudine

un piccolo tempo a portata di mano


even what a tale accompanies toward something

roads so broad with air in the morning, city,

thinking is a sweet flush

feelings are short running-starts

what does it take to get to Delphi

time unloaded in acts that clean

the body that advances aided by language

[end p.47]

don't keep watch on yourself so long

      yet if you had some gratitude

      a short spell within arm's reach


This poetic "purgation" consists in unlearning what one thinks one knows, in desisting from endless self-consciousness and the tales that accompany it. In truth, the Delphic "know thyself" requires an awareness of the short spell, of the self's incomplete motions within language. Here each new verse is a divagation, turning the poem into a wavering freedom of indeterminacy. If the grammar occasionally breaks down it is not as a consequence of willful transformations of syntax, as in Ballerini and Cagnone, but rather as an effect of Gelassenheit , of the dissolution of discursive ties. Lumelli's poems are a speaking in progress. Every utterance is an approximation, a simile ( così, come ), a reservation or a choice among options ( ma, o ). The poem is an "emergence," a "towards" which does not foresee its destination.

      Alfredo Giuliani and Antonio Porta are of another school, long since disbanded, which originated with I novissimi (1961). In the preface to the second edition of that volume Giuliani explains that they conceived of poetry as a "critical mimesis of universal schizophrenia, a mirroring and contesting of a disjointed social and imaginative situation" (p. 7). Porta confirms the idea of the Novissimi as "objective poets"--for they "serve the real , seeking it in objects and events.... So they complicate language, especially syntax, which is like the net which captures and defines them, in the effort to adhere to the truth; not an ingenuous dive ... into the sea of objectivity, but an articulation of consciousness, in our now " ( I novissimi , pp. 194-95). Porta's approach has essentially remained unchanged (cf. his remarks in the appendix of this volume, p. 324). In contrast to the positions of the four poets already considered, here poetry is seen in terms of mimesis. Giuliani and Porta endeavor to reflect a state of the world (even if it is a world of fragmented consciousness) by the most adequate means: polyvalent, deviant language.

      When Porta advanced the idea of a "poetry in re , not ante rem "

[end p.48]

( I novissimi , p. 194), he did not imagine people would soon be writing post rem . Most of the poetry in La parola inamorata (far more traditional that its Dionysian manifesto leads us to expect) actually still refers to a world, even if it is a merely apparent world which continually crumbles in the poets' hands. When it comes to Cagnone, Lumelli, Ballerini, and Perrotta, however, the very notion of reality--as the actual--is abandoned in the quest for an ontological Sagen that originates it. The circumference or unsaid ground of the spoken word, such Sagen can only be hearkened to, only silently marked by poetry freed from all "ontic" responsibilities.

      Porta and Giuliani would seem to contest the viability of such an approach. They would question, for instance, whether the linguistic distance of these poets does not impede them from tracing the contours of what actually lies open before us. By aspiring to "language," they refrain from the only language a poet can engage in, namely that of poetic reference: of creatively envisioning the world, however polyvalent it may turn out to be. The question of the ontological status of language, of the hypothetical "horizon" of significance, should not interfere with the production of poetry. Poetry speaks its sense despite such issues.

      Porta adduces Aristotle to qualify his position: "I believe in the making. I believe in language [in the strictest sense]" (p. 277). Being is not "to be sought"; it already is, "born from a voice,/ its existence entrusted to pure oral tradition" (p. 289). "But look at me/ closely as I talk from the mirror," he continues (he is now the conscience), "Being is hunger immediately following birth" ( ibid. ). Thus Porta's poetry relives the "hunger" or "real life": the existential and political dilemmas, the moral unjustnesses, the stages for human decision and emotional response. Just as his collected poems bear the title Quanto ho da dirvi ("as much as I have to tell you," if not "how much do I have to tell you!"--which could be contrasted with Giuliani's title, Chi l'avrebbe mai detto , or "who would have ever said so"), his poems in The Favorite Malice , too, are expressions of the "knowledge" of the speaker: his visions, reflections, speculations, [end p.49] and interpretations. The voice is loud and clear (thus Arias-­Misson's defense of the "impossibly authentic voice" of Porta, "bitterly reproached" at the symposium for being "himself," p. 348). A reconstitution of his New York experience, "Whales Dolphins Children" is discourse, in the literal sense of the term, "elevated" into metaphor. Ordinary occurences and conversations are mingled with fantasy, symbolic suggestions, a moral purpose, and a narrative persona that in its fiction is sometimes ingenuous, sometimes condescending:

siamo scesi insieme al Chelsea Bar (18a angolo 7a, adesso ricordo bene)

non so come ci siamo riusciti, forse con delle funi di canapa

sistemi molto rari, ormai, non c'è più canapa? no, nessuno vuole

intrecciarla!, mani solide, piedi in gara con quelli delle scimmie;

con che aria di digusto ci hanno offerto bistecche di balena,

filetti di delfino e abbiamo risposto insieme, cantando in coro:

vorrei mangiare i tuoi lombi, piccolo maiale!, ma non c'era niente

da fare, bere e stare ziti, al tavolo dell'inevitabile Giona

inchiodato alla sedia, imbalsamato lì da secoli


we went down together to the Chelsea Bar (18th corner of 7th, now I 
    remember well)

I wonder how we managed, perhaps with ropes of hemp, methods pretty rare nowadays, there's no more hemp? no, nobody is willing

to plait it! Solid hands, feet competing with those of monkeys;

with what seeming disgust they served us whale steak

dolphin filet and we replied together in chorus:

I'd like to eat your loins, you filthy pig! but nothing

to be done, drink and keep quiet, at the table of the inevitable Jonah

nailed to a chair, embalmed and stuck there for centuries


[end p.50]

Porta's aesthetics is one of shifting levels of discourse in service of the "real."

      Alfredo Giuliani's poems are also "about" some recognizable reality--psychoanalytic patients, symbolic birds, madwomen, mental landscapes, and the poet's fray with words--though he preserves more distance from the "what" that the poem is trying to say.

      Vivid and ironic, his language evokes the struggles of a consciousness prey to the confusions of the intellect and the snarl of the affections. At times, however, Giuliani's concern with problems of language makes him enter into poetic transformations remarkably akin to those we have already considered. To begin with, he concedes to Augustine that our language is fallen (p. 77), that it defers all presence. "The sequence of words hinders the comprehension of a sentence," as another poem puts it (p. 79). Temporality defeats the objectifying aims of language. Yet for all that, "damnation has not been thrust/ so far as to forbid us poetry" (p. 77). We might even say that poetry originates in rupture, but then turns rupture on its head by exploiting the semantic resources inherent in linguistic defects.

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