The lyric and the antilyric

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Thomas J. Harrison


  © Shearsmen of Sorts:   Italian Poetry 1975-1993 (Forum Italicum , Italian Poetry Supplement, 1992), pp. 109-130



One of many ways in which Italian poetry of recent decades can be characterized is in terms of two opposing camps: lyricists and antilyricists.   In the first stand Mario Luzi, Dario Bellezza, Valerio Magrelli, and the poetic "trans-avantgarde" of the eighties. [i]   In the second, the allies of the neo-avantgarde, including Edoardo Cacciatore, Nanni Cagnone, Luigi Ballerini and in part the visual poetry of the sixties and seventies. [ii]   It is in the lyric mode that Amelia Rosselli is most often read, in the antilyric one that the second Zanzotto is.   To some extent the battle amounts to a contest between the defenders of the I and the impersonalists, between a poetics of presence and a poetics of absence, between "comic" and "tragic" uses of language.   In the pages that follow I propose to examine some of the terms of this debate, one which has been waged so explicitly in recent years that it calls for studied attention. [iii]   After describing the two paradigms of poetic practice I will conclude by asking whether any reconciliation is possible between them.   Could there be, in other words, a third and ineluctable responsibility to which both the lyric and the antilyric must answer?  

But first some preliminary definitions.   By now we are familiar with the conception of the lyric as a "personal utterance" seemingly overheard by a reader. [iv]   Linked to song, the lyric seems to have originated as an intellectualization of passion, a verbal elaboration of a musical feeling.   However pointed the words in which a singing or speaking I articulated its feeling in this genre, these words succeeded in speaking on behalf of numerous selves.   Yet, even so, there is more to the lyric than this universal expression of subjectivity.   As evident in poems where the subject is missing altogether (such as Rilke's "object poems" and many haikus), the I of the lyric is generally subordinate to the it :   the historical or imagined situation that the poem portrays.   It is this objective situation which divulges a subjective condition, evoking the "feeling" so often associated with the lyric genre.   Otherwise put, the lyric aspires to the condition of painting as much as to that of music.   Whether in Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" or in a Sapphic confession, the lyric offers a crystalized insight or "epiphany," a configuration of significance not apprehensible in any other form.  

The antilyric, by contrast, is a poem contesting its traditional purpose, whether this be conceived as the union of sound and sense, the representation of an experience or mood, or the aesthetics of expression at large.   While poetry has experienced antilyrical currents throughout the ages, the antilyric becomes a programmatic ambition only in the twentieth century, particularly after Mallarmé's efforts to purify les mots de la tribu and the Futurists' attempts to place parole in libertà .   To liberate words means first to shatter their function as vehicles of idea, memory, hope, or regret.   In turn, this also means frequently relinquishing the idea of the poem as a decodifiable system of reference.   If the lyric is "symbolic" (aiming to fuse signifier and signified), the antilyric is "allegorical" (speaking "otherwise," putting its signifiers to not immediately decipherable uses).   Aiming neither at a rhetorical enhancement of the communicative game nor at an aesthetic remodeling of actual experience, the antilyric adopts that polemical stance towards ordinary language which distinguishes much art of this century.



An exemplary lyric is Eugenio Montale's "La casa dei doganieri."   Offering (in that pithiest definition of the lyric we have) "sounds in which suffering and dream are wed," Montale's poem articulates the terse and impassioned efforts of an I to convey a message to a you . [v]   Yet even here the communicative overture is only a means to an end.   What end?   The memorialization of experience.   To memorialize an experience or an object is to lift it out of the undifferentiated flow of the everyday and endow it with meaning and value.   It is to claim that the object in question transcends its objecthood, its undistinguished place in the order of things.   Memorialization is not merely remembrance or commemoration; it is an excavation of the deep structure of experience.   And this is what Montale does with his customs-house, presenting as a unique symbolic complex, a mental ideogram, a conceptual and imagistic package.   If there is a trope governing this poem it is metaphor, that transference from A to B by which an image can disclose a meaning, a fact a value, and a fate a destiny.   The theoretical significance of "La casa dei doganieri" can only be sought in the unity established among the images composing the text:   the house and its precarious position on the crag, the south-westerly wind pitilessly lashing its walls, its ceaselessly whirling flag, and the maddened compass.   If the ultimate concern of Montale's poem is lack of remembrance on the part of the you to which the statement is addressed, this lyric rectifies the void of which it speaks, memorializing those conditions that would have otherwise gone both unrecalled and unexpressed.

In recent decades this symbolic or metaphorical lyric has given way to one which leans toward metonymy.   Unlike metaphor, metonymy does not try to fuse images together.   It offers parts of a whole still missing, parts related only by contiguity (cf. Cendrars' "Les Pâques a New York" or Emilio Villa's "Da 'tre ideologie'").   Metonymic compositions combine heterogeneous levels of discourse, resisting the construction of an intensive symbolic complex.   Why this change from the vertical memorializations of metaphor to the horizontal relations of metonymy?   It has something to do with the fact that at the time of "La casa dei doganieri" (1939) writing was still the predominant medium of historical interpretation.   Metaphorization was a by-product of the very semantics of writing, which simultaneously gives a meaning along with a representation.   Writing brings transcendence with it, the transcendence of both the subject and the object of its representation (the sense that here, in its topic of concern, there is more than meets the eye).   Today, however, the communicative-interpretive burden no longer falls primarily on writing.   The essence of the customs-house might just as easily captured on film.   Instantaneously abreast of historical events, contemporary mass media tend to erase both the need for lyrical memorialization and the distinctions on which this activity was based (significance and insignificance, presence and absence, public and private, even real and unreal).   To single out an event for notice today it suffices to carry a bag inscribed with a name and date ("Sixth International Conference on AIDS, San Francisco 1990").   In an age where history is recorded on T-shirts, the very notion of dwelling on the deep structure of an experience has come to appear both arcane and archaic.   Nor is there time for such dwelling.   A jacket commemorating the Germans as champions of the 1990 World Cup is out of date two weeks after the event has passed.   Experience has ceded to a series of happenings, about which the most we can expect is information. [vi]   The aesthetics of the mass media replaces the lyric thing-symbol with a new type of conjunction of reality and image, with something no doubt more hollow but also more immediately comprehensible.   The real "unreality" of lyric topics turns into the unreal reality of mass media events.   

In the face of this cultural privatization of the public and publicization of the private--in the face, that is, of a different experience or loss of experience--the lyric becomes obliged to carve out a new space for itself.   One dimension of this space is that of a singular, local, and humble occurence which resists the very process of symbolization.   In this particular strand of post-Montalian verse, reality is reassessed as being precisely what meets the eye, the referent of the image instead of the word.   The lyric thus finds itself rebelling against the thing-symbols of both the memorial lyric as well as the mass media, aiming instead to envision the pure empirical datum, the pre-rhetorical objective fact, to rescue and celebrate the non-universalizable significance of an isolated happening: [vii]


E' sempre imparazzante per un tedesco chiedere 
zwei dry martini 
potrebbe chiedere 
zwei martini dry 
ma se chiede 
zwei martini dry 
gli danno i martini senza il gin. 


This is Giulia Niccolai's "Harry's bar ballad." [viii]   In a "mere acceptance of the existent" (Lunetta, Contradizione 18), poetry offers singable epiphanies of the miniature and sublime, of the everyday and non-pareil:    


Oggi ora in questo momento il mondo mi vola addosso, 
Non ho fatto, nei giorni passati, 
che guardare paesaggi 
lagune isole moriture colline ... 
(Rossana Ombres, "Notturno," Settanta 280)


Rather than transcribing general metaphors, the lyric begins to celebrate the tiny quotidian event.

Another dimension of this new poetic space is constituted by the opposite of literal representation, namely, the freedom of linguistic choice.   "Henry's bar ballad" does also this, thematizing, through its inability to hit on the "proper word," the semantic ambiguities underlying all thing-symbolization.   Relinquishing the task of divulging the nature of "authentic experience," this other lyrical dimension examines the strategies of surface significance passed over in silence by mass media culture.   Here the referent of the poem is not really a thing, an event, or a thought at all, but a "field of interpretation" out of which an earlier poet might have selected definitive images.   As Lawrence Smith notes, even the stylistic transformations of post-war Italian poetry can be read in the key of Charles Olson's concept of "projective verse" and Robert Creeley's idea of the poem as "process." [ix]   Here the metonymic lyric articulates not an object of the imaginary so much as the imaginary's ramifications.

Whatever the case, the new object of the lyric comes equipped with a new type of subject.   In recent years, notes Viviani in 1978, the "space, the force, the physiognomy, the movement of the subject have changed."   "The 'I' lives and perceives itself in a new manner, it recalls and acts, believes and predicts in a new manner.   It reads and writes, realizes its fantasies and establishes relationships in a new manner" ( Movimento 11).   What kind of new manner?   Viviani characterizes it in terms of a "decentering of the 'I,'" a lessening of scriptorial egocentricity.   The subject relinquishes its centrality as would-be interpreter of experience, ostensibly regaining its innocence and ubiquitous marginality in relation to the forces of history:  


The I ... no longer fears others and the other, it has become a mobile point, a movement, a contact.   Thus we have passed from an egocentrism to a polycentrism where the poles are many and mobile, much more numerous than the subjects, and where the subject no longer possesses the old problems of identity.   (Viviani, Percorsi 3)


The I of the memorial lyric was monolithic and transcendent, bent on discovering its metaphysical coordinates in a fallen world; the subjective correlative of the new lyric, to the contrary, is immanent and dispersed:   Immanent means inseparable from the flow of historical happening; dispersed means lacking an essence of its own (however "empty" or "unmentionable" this essence, as it was in the hermetics).  

And yet, on closer examination, the poetry of this dispersive subjectivity proves to be anything but unegocentric.   In truth Viviani's manifesto claims that the new lyric succeeds precisely where the old one failed (and admitted its failure)--namely, in representing the subject as it is, in voicing every fragment of its own disorientation or smarrimento .   Paradoxically, the shattering of the monodic, egocentric lyric occurs under the aegis of a new economy of subjective expression.   Viviani's polycentric and pluralistic poetics bears witness to a "renewal of the 'subject'" (Viviani, Movimento 11).   Only now, this subject is the "little me" instead of the "Big Me," insisting on its own right to literary expression. [x]   As in the literature of New Subjectivity in Germany, the cry "I have something to say!" rings out against the repressively political and philosophical discourse de rigueur in the sixties. [xi]   No longer bent on metaphysical justification, the I is now free to explore its "tiny emotion" (Bonito Oliva 30 and 67), celebrating immediate feeling as the very essence of experience.

This, in fact, is one of the commonplaces about Italian poetry in recent decades:   that it has moved increasingly towards the articulation of private languages and personal mythologies.   A "fundamental characteristic of recent poetry," writes Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo, is  


a very frequent abandon to "informal writing," not pursued through an experimental calculus and a desire to interrupt the normal communicative circuits, but rather produced by free psychological fluctuation and immersion in the undifferentiated flow of the vital and quotidian.   Daring a formula, one could speak of a potentially absolute tendency to identify poetic language with the private register , the register of personal daily experience [ del vissuto-quotidiano personale ]. [xii]   


The most successful example of this new lyricism is the informal "speaking-writing" of Amelia Rosselli, a perfect realization of "that thrust towards the absolute reduction of the language of poetry to private language which is then found in not a few poets of the post-sixty-eight generation" (Mengaldo 995).  

Accompanying this move to recuperate the lyrical flow of intimate experience comes renewed interest in musical composition and incantation--in that "D'Annunzian" function of the lyric which Montale and Ungaretti had already contested.   This reprisal of sheer pleasure in sound and verbal design (Culler's "babble" and "doodle," Lyric 40) is exemplified again by Niccolai, but also by Marica Larocchi and Michelangelo Coviello:

Braccio tondo bel labbra belli i denti 
gote rosse pelle bruna e poi

                                                  begli occhietti vivacetti 
                                                  bel bocchino vivacino 
                                                  bella bocca bella cocca 
                                                  mia speranze mio tesoro 
                                                  tira molla duro duro 
                                                  tira indietro caro caro 
                                                  molla tira mamma mia 
(Coviello, "Dei miei bollenti spiriti," Settanta 387-88)


Less sympathetic to these developments of the new lyric than even Mengaldo are critics who see them as symptoms of a quixotic endeavor to capture the immediate in writing.   With its recent turn towards quotidian and idiosyncratic subjectivity, writes Giulio Ferroni, poetry


cancels itself out in lived experience, superimposing and confusing itself with the latter:   it transmits dreams, needs and desires, conceived of as already amenable to poetry by their very nature, shaped at their very birth as "creative," alternative, explosive, charged with revolutionary power, and so on. ( Movimento 184)   


With this new spontaneity, poetry borders on "the Babel of a totalizing language of needs, of the body, of desire" ( Movimento 186).  

The risk of this totalization is perhaps at its greatest when poetry becomes the vehicle of libidinal ecstasy.   The strongest apologists of this program are Giuseppe Conte and the editors of La parola innamorata .   Holding up "the form of fire" as a paradigm for lyric composition, Conte sees intoxication as the basis for awareness and vision.   Poetry, he writes, must reject the guidance of structuring consciousness and return to its Dionysian origin, one which


brings to fruition, by unimaginable paths, in the dazzle of its vision and knowledge, the desire that breaks the meshes of civilization and restores the inebriation of living energy, of diffused bodily love, of the dream of a continuous rebirth from out of oneself, of polytheism. ( Percorsi 32)   


Similarly, invoking Rimbaud and Orpheus, Pontiggia and Di Mauro invite readers of their rapturous verse to


step into the fire of madness with no return ... to abandon themselves to the dreams and the desire which agitate the page reduced to zero... [where] one is in the depth of an expanse without mooring, one is in the verticality of an enormous horizon, in the measurelessness [ dismisura ] of a space that has no reason . ( Innamorata 13) [xiii]  


The most acclaimed practioner of this visionary, metamorphic, and conflagrationary lyric is probably Milo De Angelis.




I have suggested that the metonymized privatization of the lyric in recent decades can be explained partially as a reaction to the production of thing-symbols effected by the mass media, as though poetry had to seek its own space away from all vulgar and "unmotivated" inscriptions.   And yet, the new forms of the lyric can be understood just as well in terms of a non -adversarial relation to the same phenomena.   In the face of an undoubtedly dwindling readership of lyric poetry, the increase in Italian poets in the seventies and eighties reveals an effort to capitalize on the "infinite semiosis" characteristic of mass media culture.   Today "we like the poetic, we like the figure of the poet; once again it irradiates and confers prestige" (Giancarlo Majorino; qtd. in Contradizione 17).   The renewed interest in verbal construction is largely a consequence of the postmodern "society of communication," one in which, in Vattimo's words, "radio, television, and newspapers have [caused] a general explosion and multiplication of Weltanschauungen , of visions of the world." [xiv]   Thanks to ethical and discursive liberation, aesthetic minorities of every type can now finally "seize the word,"


no longer silenced and repressed by the idea that there is only a single true form of human being to be realized at the expense of all particularities and all limited, ephemeral, contingent individualities.


The global diffusion of tele-information allows ethnic, religious, and sexual subcultures to appear "at the footlights of public opinion," causing an unprecedented "liberation of differences, of local elements, of what one might generally term dialect."

The return of Italian dialect poetry in the eighties arrives as a compelling confirmation of Vattimo's hypothesis. [xv]   Dialect, after all, is the "mother tongue," the constitutive discourse of the Italian self, the language, according to Ballerini, in which one would have to be psychoanalyzed.   The linguistic medium most receptive to the conveyance of personal messages, dialect formalizes inalienably local subjectivity.   The revival of dialect poetry in the eighties thus takes its place alongside the aestheticization of African-American rap and the marketing of autobiography (the "private stories" of every public figure from Donald Trump to Quincy Jones).   And this suggests another, less optimistic assessment of the discursive situation of postmodern society.  

The mass proliferation of the word among contemporary individuals and groups, writes Milan Kundera, is a symptom of graphomania.   "Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one's immediate family); it is a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers)." [xvi]   It is a compulsion "to express oneself," regardless of whether this expression serves any practical function.   When does graphomania reach the proportions of a mass epidemic?   When a society develops to the point where it can provide three basic conditions:   "1. a high enough degree of general well-being to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities; 2. an advanced state of social atomization and the resultant general feeling of the isolation of the individual; 3. a radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation."   Symptomatic of this last condition, Kundera adds, is the fact "that in France, where nothing really happens, the percentage of writers is twenty-one times higher than in Israel."   Once again, the scriptorial compulsion is fueled by the insignificance of external events.   "It is this absence of content, this void, that powers the motor driving [the graphomaniac] to write."   (And, while general isolation causes graphomania, this graphomania only reinforces and aggravates the original feeling:   "everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without."   The cry "Hear Me!   I have something to say!" rings out against a destiny that declares the opposite.)  

Whether an opportunity or a pathology culturally speaking, this global profusion of discourse is one in which local language-games develop their own rules aside from the guiding conventions of any "master-language."   In The Postmodern Condition Lyotard interpreted the situation as uniquely promising for aesthetic invention.   And yet, it was not long before he reconsidered.   In truth, the dissemination of mutually incommensurable language-games produced more of a lessening than a heightening of expressive tension, more of a pre-modern than postmodern usage of form.   This is the context in which Lyotard refers slightingly to Bonito Oliva's trans-avantgarde.   In Lyotard's critique (note 1), this trans-avantgarde not only traverses but preempts the entire problematic of the avant-garde, namely, the project to make language say what it has never been able to say.   If the avant-garde attempted to rethink the possibilities of form, the trans-avantgarde returns to its tested idioms.   No longer straining against the conventions of language, it is happy to speak through and by means of them, in the most naive and "most cynical" ways ( Postmodernisme 18).   No doubt, this is also what Lunetta has in mind when he refers to postmodern verse as a neutral-qualunquistico "leveling of certain radically innovative formal solutions of the historical avant-gardes" ( Contradizione 18).   While appropriating the stylistic lessons of the avant-garde, the trans-avantgarde rejects its predecessor's semantic ambitions.  

It is largely in the key of this trans-avantgardist turn that the new poetry of detail, of the event, and of "communication" demands to be read.   In the words of Antonio Porta, once one of the most vocal apologists of the avant -garde, we have reached the point where "the 'things one needs to say' are stronger than the need for purely aesthetic research, and demand to be said , as part of an enormous wager which is that of the possibility of communication " ("Nove poeti," Alfabeta , 81 [Dec. 1985], p. 23).   The colloquial and the everyday, the visionary and the ecstatic, the revival of dialect in the metonymic unfolding of interpreting consciousness--these are some features of the new Italian lyric of recent years.   They mark a return to expressive and commemorative subjectivity, rejecting not only the transcendent subjectivity of earlier times but also the opportunity that arises from that same rejection--namely, the "purely aesthetic research" of the antilyric.




The most dramatic declaration of antilyricism comes early in the century, with the Futurist turn away from all poetic voicings of nostalgia and yearning, from all idioms of the soul and of subjective desire, from all symbolic sublimations of quotidian experience towards a poetics of radical linguistic invention.   This turn finds additional elaboration in the rebellions of expressionism, dadaism, and surrealism against the "verities" of normal perception.   The antilyrical polemic recurs once again in the Novissimi of the sixties and in the conceptual or grammatological poetry characteristic of Andrea Zanzotto and others in the seventies and eighties.

Rejecting the idea that the "subject matter" of the lyric is feeling and experience, antilyricism coincides with a twentieth century critique of what has come to be called the metaphysics of subjectivity.   Variously embodied in the fateful glory of the Greek individual, the Christian communion of the soul and God, the Renaissance rise of genius, and the Romantic cult of inwardness, this metaphysics of subjectivity conceives of human nature as endowed with an essence and a dignity of its own.   By the twentieth century this essence comes to appear as only an epiphenomenon, a secondary function of another, more primary process.   Measured by this primary process (Skinner's "conditioning" as much as Heidegger's "history of being"), the assertions and feelings of the subject can in no way be taken as fundamental, original, or even credible.   As Robert Musil was early to recognize, responsibility's point of gravity lies no longer in the individual but in the relations between things.   "Has one not noticed that experiences have made themselves independent of man?   . . .    There has arisen a world of qualities without a man to them, of experiences without anyone to experience them." [xvii]   Here, already in the twenties, we stand at the beginning of a structuralist reversal of anthropocentrism that threatens the personality itself.   In T.W. Adorno, Musil's dissolution of the subject turns into the manipulation of desire by culture (or, more properly speaking, the culture industry).   To insist on expressing this desire as though nothing had happened--to write poetry after Auschwitz, as the saying goes--is nothing less than barbaric. [xviii]   The critique of subjectivity receives even greater impetus in recent decades.   Subjects are no more than the inside of the outside (Deleuze), prostheses of their own prostheses (Baudrillard).   The technological circuits once devised for subjective self-enhancement have become "life-support systems" from which subjects do not have the right to detach themselves. [xix]  

These various meditations on the derivative nature of subjectivity severely curtail both the aesthetic dignity and the philosophical warrant of the lyric enterprise.   It is perhaps with the publication of the I Novissimi anthology in 1961 that Italian poets first take stock of this situation.   Regardless of the differences that were later to develop between them, here the five poets included in this anthology were united in their attack.   If there is a chance for an aesthetic revival, writes Antonio Porta, it is to be sought in the "negative basis" of an "aversion for the I-poet , the one who recounts his own story," who finds "what happens to him, precisely insofar as it is happening to him, extremely interesting." [xx]   It is time to send back these garnished "ostentations of the I , continually recooked and served up as first-rate dishes even while being instinctively rejected" ( Novissimi 193).   Intent though a lyricist of the fifties may have been on philosophical or political statement, comments Alfredo Giuliani, he or she inevitably relied on


the blanched and lamenting tones of autobiography.   He was even good in describing the suburban landscapes in which he lived, the winters of his heart, the buses he boarded in the morning, his mother dusting his desk.... ( Novissimi 4)  


His poetic practice was governed by the traditional conception of lyrical content as "an ensemble of thoughts, visions, and feelings that are valid in themselves ... and that need only be metrically fixed to be rendered 'poetic'" ( Novissimi 4).   Giuliani proposed a "reduction" of this content and of the I in which it originates, a recognition of the fact that this conscious, authorial "producer of meanings" is neither "himself" nor "herself" but an tself incapable of true experience. [xxi]   From Giuliani's phenomenology of lived experience it follows that poetic representation "is useless, insofar as life already writes itself by itself, precisely by living" ( Novissimi 11).   

The sixties and seventies were also the age of the structural sciences, accompanied by the ubiquitous declaration of the autonomy of writing.   For the editors of Il Verri as well as Tel Quel the task of poetry was no longer to transcribe an objective message but to restructure the very means of message-conveyance.   The locus of sense was not authorial intent but language in its vastest sense, a flexible and aleatory system of syntactic, phonemic, and graphemic relations.   Poetry offered the occasion for a preter-subjective venture.   One of the most interesting instances of this venture lies in the poetry of Andrea Zanzotto, moving irresistibly from the parameters of evocative representation (the "first" Zanzotto) towards unrestrainably polysemous constructions (the "second"). [xxii]   As with the historical avant-garde, here too poetic articulation is concerned less with objective memorialization than with graphic possibility.  

By the mid to late seventies this desire to explore the possibilities of form led to even more deliberate grammatological ventures than those of Zanzotto.   We get a sense of these new poetic ambitions from Nanni Cagnone's announcement of his position as "outsider" at the conference on poetry at the Club Turati in 1978.   To his dismay, he notes the revival among his fellow poets of  


something whose decease we had precociously celebrated.   It concerns something that I would unkindly sum up with:   
"the world the world, reality life history the subject, exhortation melancholy the whole."  


In this reprisal of expressive-mimetic verse, poetry again


recognizes its own motivations, is complimented for its sincerity ... insomnia is overcome, biography is appreciated, intentions are adulated, one knows what one is speaking about, or--opposite type of coquetry--one celebrates ineffability, believes in the immediate, sighs for the authentic.   ( Movimento 157-60)  


In short, Cagnone notices the trans-avantgarde encroaching on the territory recently staked out for research.  

Against the immediatists, subjectivists, and ineffabilists, Cagnone advances the idea of poetry as a pre-referential field between ourselves and things, an arena of sense-construction underlying and even belying both the "subject" and the "object" of everyday language.   Poetry thus articulates not a realized vision but an "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" ("Reply to Time," Malice 60).    What results is only virtual significance, which can be gauged as well by the poem "Nel guasto sigillo di un anno" by a composition of a fellow grammatologist, Raffaele Perrotta:


arpe arpie ondate rivelatrici fluttuosissime 

il giaciglio 
ramo ricurvo 
                                  il chiasmo uno spasmo 
una grande coda attorta 
a lume di comparazione    


("Ragguagli," Malice 258-59)


Another of these antilyricists is Angelo Lumelli, who conceives of poetry as inherently antagonistic to discursive continuity and avid of a goal it can never hope to attain:   "Writing which is sure of its border is the other side of the glorious and supplicating writing that walks because it has conceived a place ahead of itself and, obliging and reassured, travels it" ("The Trap of Time," Malice 180).   Accordingly, Lumelli's poetry offers itself as a meditation not on particulars but their itinerarium in mentem .   Still another grammatologist is Luigi Ballerini.   From the radical collages of Eccetera.   E (1972) to the alchemies of Che figurato muore (1988), his poetry deliberately eludes the normative conventions of an I in a recognizable world.   Here is the first half of a late poem in his last, ten-year collection:


si ma non galoppa, è solamente 
un cespuglio che rotola e sgomenta 
la clausola ignara, lo sfogo e la ragione 
del vicino a sciogliersi, o il grano duro 
dell'insaputa, del mettersi alle corde 
per non lasciare nulla d'intentato: 
..... [xxiii]


Could it be, Ballerini wonders at the end of this volume, that "poetry is an oxymoronic act, in which the insistence on writing removes writing from the literalness of that which is written?" (169).

From the Futurists to the grammatologists, the antilyric vindicates the poetic project as an investigation and not embellishment of communicative strategies, a search for modes of significance as yet unenvisioned by conventional structures of sense.   And yet, for all its differences from the new lyric, the antilyric still shares some features--metonymic modes of composition, the abolition of the transcendent subject, the rejection of "exemplary experience," and even the compulsion to write.   Could it be that the two are not as antithetical as they seem?  




The lyric and the antilyric can be fully distinguished only in their theoretical ambitions.   In practice and style they are unable to maintain their independence.   Both, moreover, remain tied to a poetic responsibility which overreaches their conscious intent.  

In the thirty years that followed the publication of I Novissimi , it became clear that Giuliani, Porta, and the other Novissimi elude neither the subjectivity of the empirical I nor its expressive poetics.   Like Husserl's epoche , Giuliani's reduction of the I aims ultimately to discover a deeper and more transcendent self than the normal producer of meanings (to wit, the primordial and abnormal "producer of images"). [xxiv]   Similarly, the "objective poetry" ( in re not ante rem ) promised by Porta was never to materialize without the filter of the earnest and passionate io-poeta .   In none of the Novissimi is there an escaping the I and its means of self-understanding.   There is just its repositioning in the circuit of significance.

In fact, it was precisely for this closet lyricism that the Novissimi were taken to task by the grammatological generation.   Their I was not all that reduced, inciting Cagnone and others to keep mimetic and personal discourse entirely at bay.   By the eighties, however, things change even for this new generation.   The defenses drop.   No longer something to be feared, personal discourse begins to permeate the grammatological poem in subtle and fragmentary form.   Here, for example, is how Ballerini's "si ma non galoppa" continues:


avrei fatto di te una condizione, un tappeto 
persiano, avrei detto che la tua dissepoltura 
era un pretesto, un'ingordigia, un modo 
impertinente di attenuare, avrei avuto il torto 
di osservare nel mio dissepolto la bianca 
cicala del tuo sogno, la goccia che trattiene 
nella sua curvatura la caduta


Starting in a resolute play of non-referentiality, the poem comes to disclose its motivation in a communicative overture from I to you .   If this species of articulation is more difficult to decode than that of Montale, it is still of the same genus, one finding its voice towards the end of Ballerini's collection, visible, for example, in the incipit s--"ma poi se muoio che cosa gli racconto/ al notturno animale che mi esclude"--as well as the endings--"io, se ti assaggio, sarà per dimostrare/ che non ho perdonato per amarti?" ( CFM 142, 120).   However enigmatic their strategies of objectification, still other poems make use of a predicative semantics:   "metà del mondo è sapone, metà una collana di perle" ( CFM 153).   Finally, like Zanzotto, Ballerini too has recently moved in the direction of that most local, most autobiographical, and most personal idiom of expression which is dialect.

Nevertheless, in the context of this lyrical-antilyrical debate, dialect proves irreducibly ambiguous.   With Filò (1976; Milan:   Mondadori, 1988), Idioma (1986) and Mistieroi (1979; 1984) Zanzotto, the poet who had done more to shatter the traditional forms of the lyric than any other, made an unlikely turn towards the lyrical resources of dialect (regional folklore, nursery rhymes, lullaby, the "natural" forms of local consciousness).   Here we seem to have witnessed a trans-avantgardist move.   But for Zanzotto dialect is also more than this.   It is a metaphor for the "surging superabundance or ambiguous stagnation of the linguistic fact in its deepest nature."   Filò , the title of one of these collections, means not only "vigil of peasants" (an expression of provincial consciousness) but also "interminable discourse."   Dialect is the place "where langue and parole tend to merge," or where the opposition between personal and impersonal becomes irrelevant ( Filò 77, 50, and 78).   The same ambiguity holds for Ballerini's poems in dialect, where, losing its transparency, the medium becomes an enigmatic, self-framing idiolect.   The abiding concern of these dialect and grammatological ventures alike remains the subject--its place in the world, its concrete and theoretical means of significance, its "auto-bio-graphical" options (Zanzotto, "Ontology?   Reference?" Malice 133-136).   

Similar ambiguities can be located in the work of Lumelli and Cagnone.   Where can we find a more singable tribute to the very topic of lyrical memorialization--namely, unique historical presence--than in Lumelli's Cosa bella cosa (Milan:   Guanda, 1977)?   If Lumelli inveighs against lyric cliché, it is only because he wishes to serve more thoroughly the epiphany at which the lyric aims:  


in assenza del fatto 
fare un altro fatto 
al posto del fatto 
un rimedio un baratto 
il pensiero da sotto 
la notte del gatto 
era il mio era il tuo 
era il nostro era il suo 
se è detto è già fatto 
non fare lo stronzo 
dimmi la verità 
dimmela dimmela (p. 83)


Even the more difficult transformations of Lumelli's recent poetry are motivated by the same ambition to dramatize the ineffable transcendence of the lyrical moment:   "necessario è oscurare da vicino singolo è il/ tempo del particolare" ( oh voi dormienti angeli in this volume).  

Likewise, though averse to mimesis, Cagnone's poetry is irresistably drawn to another ingredient of conventional lyric composition:   sententia , epigramatic formulations of conceptual wisdom.   On this level, his Vaticinio is distinguished from, say, the intimate reflections of Valerio Magrelli only by the more elevated, more ambitious, and more rarified nature of its rhetoric.   The goal--intellectual enlightment--remains the same.   Dramatize though they may the adventures of semainein , some of Cagnone's enigmas may only be the effect of hyperbaton. [xxv]




Does a deconstruction work also for the other side of the debate, namely, the objective-subjective lyric?   This may depend on no more than the degree to which it resists standard conventions of thought.   When it does, the poem outstrips both its "content" and "intent."   This is occasionally the case with those lyricists whose delight in verbality takes their writing so far beyond the limits of any commemorated event or vouloir dire that it becomes indistinguishable from antilyricism. [xxvi]   In short, the descent, in the seventies and eighties, from the heights of politically and metaphysically engaged lyricism to the lowlands of linguistic play turns out to reveal that very antilyricism which Porta had in mind with his "purely aesthetic research."   As Paul de Man observes, when the poetic voice is finally reduced "to a mere figure of speech or play of the letter," it becomes deprived of that very "attribute of aesthetic presence" grounding lyric hermeneutics ( Lyric 55).   In its intransitivity, the new lyric of trans-avantgardist pastiche can be distinguished from the antilyric only by its collaborationist (rather than polemical) position with regard to the forms of saying.

It is also to be expected that the poems of the intimists should pose similar resistance to their lyrical surface.   The work of Rosselli, for example, demands to be read not merely as a musical objectification of subjective recollection but also as active attempts at semantic invention.   Giudici and Porta have both called attention to the interaction of "series" and "constructive principles" in her poetry, especially that "creative error" of lapsus which is produced when, freed from its normative use through a "positive form of alienation," a word is restored to "an autonomous, self-creative condition." [xxvii]   Even metaphorical and symbolically unified lyrics like those of Sebastiana Command achieve that linguistic responsibility enjoined by the antilyric when they reject the temptation of typifying figures of thought.   Just as the antilyric aspires to an epiphany of historical-intellectual presence which it consciously discounts, so that every great lyric may transcend the lyrical impulse in which it originates.   And it is with an elaboration of this claim that I would like to close.




One of the truisms of modern political, psychological, and philosophical theory alike--that the subject is structured by language--explains why the antilyricists want nothing to do with the subject and the lyricists everything to do with language.   Language appeals to the lyricists insofar as it promises to reveal the subject; it appeals to the antilyricists insofar as it promises to help us transcend that subject.   The thought that lies beyond the truism in question is that beneath the structure given it by language, in the depths of the soul, so to speak, subjectivity has no voice of its own.   Whether lyrical or antilyrical, the paradox of poetic significance is that it voices this voiceless subjectivity.   Certainly the desires, fears, and hopes of the empirical self, which make up the material of conventional subjective expression, are not altogether unrelated to the fundamental fact of being "subjected," or determined in one's innermost being; yet they probably reflect no more than this subjectivity's self-conscious beliefs and perceptions.   And one hardly needs poetry for the expression of these.   On the contrary, it is precisely this ball of constructed subjectivity that is transcended by poetic form, making of poetry something that is achieved only through a leap beyond the everyday formulations of self-and-world-interpretation.   Only in the measure to which an image, a syntagm, or an articulated I makes this impersonal and implicitly antilyrical leap beyond its ordinary referent does it achieve some degree of semantic and formal autonomy.   Still the question remains of what actually speaks in a poem, if not subjectivity as historically constructed.   What speaks, when a poem is successful, is subjectivity stripped of its form, of its habits of thought, of its linguistic props and self-conceptions.   The poem reveals subjectivity as an "improper" ontological condition, a phenomenology of featureless existence.   What speaks is an emptiness of voice expressed in a voice, which is to say language itself as a strange vehicle of figures, expression, and meaning, as the storehouse of not only realized forms of historical subjectivity but also unrealized ones.

This would constitute the "feeling" conveyed by a well-recited poem, forcing the listener's attention on the contrast between word and silence; on the nature of hanging on meaning; on the very ability of discourse to create sense out of nowhere.   Even as it says something, the poem has precisely this effect, one that increases in the degree to which its saying is unusual, opaque, and conceptually unaccountable.   Deeper than the something that the poem says or seems to say is the fact that saying occurs here and now in an unprecedented way, in its literal originality. [xxviii]   A poem conveys not a message so much as the provenance of a message, an advent of sense.

No art form points like poetry to this originality of language as to its essential and abiding concern.   This distinguishes it over and beyond all differences between its lyrical and antilyrical modes.   The lyric achieves this distinction when it resists the instrumentalization of language, the antilyric when it acknowledges language's historicity.   With the question of the effect of a poem, the topic of investigation shifts from that of textual autonomy to textual reception--to the issue of what we actually look for or find in reading a poem.   Even here there have traditionally been lyricists and antilyricists (the latter often avoiding poetry altogether).   The question left over is whether their interests can be directed to a new level, where what is at stake are neither the pleasures of mimetic expression nor the fascinating complexities of signification, but rather the question directed by poetry to the conventions of discursive understanding.



[i] This use of the term trans-avantgarde is adopted from Jean François Lyotard.   Coined by Achille Bonito Oliva to refer to a wave of Italian postmodern painting, the trans-avantgarde becomes in Lyotard's rereading an attempt to suppress the driving ambition of the avant-garde.   My own extension of this term refers to the particularly lyrical forms of such suppression.   On the trans-avantgarde, see Bonito Oliva, The Italian Trans-avantgarde/ La transavanguardia italiana (Milan:   Giancarlo Politi, 1983), and Lyotard, Le Postmodernisme expliqué aux enfants , hereafter Postmodernisme (Paris:   Galilée, 1986), pp. 13 and 18, and his interview with L'Espresso of 27 July 1986 (pp. 84-92), "1986:   E' finito il postmodern."  

[ii] On visual poetry and its links to a problematic that this essay will treat only in its verbal manifestations, see Antologia della poesia visiva , ed. Lamberto Pignotti (Bologna:   Sampietro, 1965); Scrittura visuale in Italia 1912-1972 , ed. Luigi Ballerini (Turin:   Galleria civica d'arte moderna, 1973); Raccolta italiana di nuova scrittura , ed. Vittorio Fagone (Milan:   Edizioni del Mercato del sale, 1977); and Verso la poesia totale , ed. Adriano Spatola (Milan:   Paravia, 1978).

[iii] Much of this debate has taken place in the form of selective and polemical manifesto-anthologies:   Il pubblico della poesia , ed. Franco Cordelli and Alfonso Berardinelli (Cosenza:   Lerici, 1975); Poesia e realtà, 1945-1975 , ed. Giancarlo Majorino (Rome:   Savelli, 1977); La parola innamorata.   I poeti nuovi, 1976-1978 (hereafter Innamorata ), ed. Giancarlo Pontiggia e Enzo Di Mauro (Milan:   Feltrinelli, 1978); The Favorite Malice:   Ontology and Reference in Contemporary Italian Poetry (hereafter Malice ), ed. and trans. Thomas Harrison (New York and Milan:   Out of London Press, 1983); Poesia italiana della contradizione (herafter Contradizione ), ed. Franco Cavallo and Mario Lunetta (Rome:   Newton Compton, 1989).   Needless to say, the selections made by these anthologies are not always self-consistent or mutually exclusive, authorizing sometimes the inclusion of the same poets (Angelo Lumelli, Nanni Cagnone, Giulia Niccolai are just three poets who tend to recur).   In addition to positions taken in individual essays, the controversies have been voiced in conferences on poetry and theory. I will cite from two in the pages to come:   Il movimento della poesia italiana (hereafter Movimento ), ed. Tomaso Kemeny and Cesare Viviani (Bari:   Dedalo Libri, 1979) and, by the same editors, I percorsi della nuova poesia italiana , hereafter Percorsi (Naples:   Guida Editori, 1980).

[iv] For elaborations and critiques of this Romantic-New Critical conception of the lyric see, the contributions in Lyric Poetry:   Beyond New Criticism (hereafter Lyric ), ed. Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker (Ithaca and London:   Cornell University Press, 1985).

[v] Theodor W. Adorno, "Lyric and Society," in Critical Theory and Society:   A Reader , ed. Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Mackay Kellner (New York and London:   Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1989), pp. 162-63.

[vi] On some differences between a happening and an experience, see Walter Benjamin, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," in Illuminations , ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York:   Schoken Books, 1969), pp. 155-200, and Jean François Lyotard, A Lyotard Reader , ed. Andrew Benjamin (Cambridge, Mass.:   Basil Blackwell, 1989), pp. 191-92.

[vii] This move is in many ways preceded by the concrete and anti-rhetorical strain of American poetry, exemplified by William Carlos Williams and elaborated by A. R. Ammons as much as by "talk poets" like David Antin, who indicts symbolic, metaphorical writing by invoking Cendrars:   "blaise cendrars was not a metaphorical writer in the / way that robert frost is a metaphorical writer / blaise cendrars could once in a while be accused of lying honestly       telling a story the way it / should be told to make it luminously clear ... in this sense he was far superior to robert frost / who apparently had the problem of trying to make / the truth poetical...."   David Antin, "the death of the hired man," Siah Armajani, a Poetry Lounge , catalogue of the exhibition, March 3 - April 25, 1982 (Pasadena:   Baxter Art Gallery of California Institute of Technology, 1982), p. 38.

[viii] In Poesia degli anni settanta (hereafter Settanta ), ed. Antonio Porta (Milan:   Feltrinelli, 1979), pp. 501-502.

[ix] Lawrence R. Smith, "Introduction," The New Italian Poetry, 1945 to the Present:   A Bilingual Anthology , ed. and trans. Lawrence R. Smith (Berkeley and Los Angeles:   University of California Press, 1981), pp. 4-5 and 29.

[x] Luigi Pirandello, "Dialoghi tra il Gran Me e il piccolo me," Amori senza amore , ed. Giovanni Macchia (Milan:   Mondadori, 1989), pp. 153-171.

[xi] On the New Subjectivity of the seventies, see West German Poetry in the Eighties , a special issue of The Literary Review 33 (Fall 1989), ed. John Linthicum, pp. 5-8.   Bonito Oliva detects an analogous development in trans-avantgardist painting.   In the seventies, he writes, the "unexpected landslides of the individual imaginary preside over the artistic creativity previously mortified by impersonality, synchronic to the political climate of the sixties, which preached depersonalization in the name of the supremacy of politics.   Now instead art tries to repossess itself of the artist's subjectivity....   The personal acquires an anthropological valence insofar as it participates in recalling the individual, in this case the artist, to a reprisal of a feeling which is that of self " (p. 10 and 51 of this trilingual edition.   The original Italian is not always duplicated in the English translation, which here has been accordingly revised).  

[xii] Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo, "Introduzione," Poeti italiani del novecento , ed. Mengaldo (Milan:   Oscar Mondadori, 1990), p. LXI.

[xiii] Again, a comparison with Bonito Oliva's theory of contemporary painting (whose references, not surprisingly, are Nietzsche, Musil, and a general "philosophy of difference") proves revealing.   The blending of "private and mythic images" and of "personal signs tied to the individual's story" in the work of such artists as Cucchi, Chia, Clemente, and Paladino serves "the nomadism of a non-stop imaginary without anchorage or reference points" ( Trans-avantgarde 18 and 57).   "The idea propelling this new work is drifting " (19 and 58).   "The artist has become both maniac and mannerist of his own mania" (29 and 66).

[xiv]   Gianni Vattimo, La società trasparente (Milan:   Garzanti, I Coriandoli, 1989).   All citations are from pp. 17 and 13.

[xv] On the recent revival of dialect poetry see Mengaldo LXVII-LXXVII.   It may be more than incidental that Lunetta, too, draws a tie between Italian poetry of the last fifteen years (called "neomoderate," "neoconservative," "neoromantic," "neosentimental," "neopathetic") and Vattimo's pensiero debole   [ Contradizione 13-14].

[xvi] Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting , trans. Michael Henry Heim (New York:   Alfred A. Knopf, 1981).   All citations in this paragraph are from pp. 91-92.

[xvii] Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities , vol. I, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (London:   Secker & Warburg, 1966), p. 39.

[xviii] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics , trans. E. B. Ashton (New York:   The Seabury Press, 1973), pp. 361-408; "Commitment," Aesthetics and Politics , ed. Rodney Livingstone, Perry Anderson and Francis Mulhern (London and New York:   Verso, 1988), p. 188; "Cultural Criticism and Society," in Prisms , trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Mass.:   The MIT Press, 1983), p. 34.

[xix] Jean Baudrillard, "Videosfera e soggetto frattale," in Videoculture di fine secolo , ed. Alberto Abruzzese (Napoli:   Liguori Editori, 1989), pp. 29-39.   On why art can no longer exist in such a situation, see Baudrillard's La sparizione dell'arte , trans. Elio Grazioli (Milan:   Giancarlo Politi Editore, 1988).

[xx] "Poesia e poetica," I Novissimi.   Poesie per gli anni '60 (hereafter Novissimi ), ed. Alfredo Giuliani (1961; Milan:   Einaudi, 1965), pp. 193-194.

[xxi] On the "producer of meanings" see Alfredo Giuliani, "La poesia, che cosa si può dire," Immagini e maniere , herafter Immagini (Milan:   Feltrinelli, 1965), p. 147.

[xxii] This reading is developed more extensively in my "Andrea Zanzotto:   From the Language of the World to the World of Language," Poesis 5 (1984):   68-85; reprinted in The Empty Set , ed. Maurizio Godorecci (New York:   Queens College Press, 1984), pp. 66-78.   See also Gino Rizzo, "Zanzotto, 'fabbro del parlar materno,'" Selected Poetry of Andrea Zanzotto , ed. and trans. Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann (Princeton:   Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 307-327; John P. Welle, The Poetry of Andrea Zanzotto:   A Critical Study of Il Galateo in bosco (Rome:   Bulzoni Editore, 1987).

[xxiii]   Che figurato muore , trans. Thomas Harrison, hereafter CFM (Milan:   Vanni Scheiwiller, 1988), p. 124.

[xxiv] On Giuliani's quest for an impossible immediacy of significance see Giulio Ferroni, "La poesia di Alfredo Giuliani o l'impossibilità dell'avanguardia," La Rassegna della letteratura italiani 74 (1970):   90-111.   On Giuliani's reduction of the producer of meanings to the producer of images see Lucio Vetri, "Saggio d'antologia.   Alfredo Giuliani e la poesia come 'scoglilingua della tensione vitale e dell'ironia,'" Il Verri 9-10 (1986):   103-125.

[xxv] The lines, "e ingiusto del tiranno è il desiderio/ che a noi prevede l'esistenza," would thus be a disguise for "la volontà capricciosa del tiranno, che è prevista per noi dall'esistenza, è inguista."   Fredi Chiappelli, "Introduzione," Nanni Cagnone, Vaticinio (Ercolano:   Società Editrice Napoletana, 1984), p.   20.   On the sententiousness of Cagnone's verse see also Porta's comments in Settanta 71-72.

[xxvi] This applies to a good number of the poets included under the rubric of "I veleni del giocoso" in Mario Lunetta's Poesia italiana oggi (Rome:   Newton Compton, 1981).

[xxvii] Giovanni Giudici, "Per Amelia Rosselli," Amelia Rosselli, Antologia poetica (Milan:   Garzanti, 1987), p. 7.

[xxviii] Lyotard makes similar observations in The Lyotard Reader 196-199

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