The Selected Writings PDF
by Salvatore Quasimodo
When I began reading Quasimodo's poems, I frequently thought of the rules we give young writers as they try their hand in poetry: Describe things so the reader experiences them vividly, and perhaps in a new way; emphasize the sensory over the intellectual; strive for universal truths. Quasimodo turns his back on rules like these, and so my question is, what makes it okay for him to do so? Wouldn't his poems be graded down for being too muddled, too vague?
The volume doesn't start with his poems, though. His essay, "Discourse on Poetry," is the introduction, and it plunges into a philosophical examination of the way Italian poetry evolved after World War II. Needless to say, my early impressions of this essay and these poems were rather disengaged, rather disaffected.
I hadn't encountered the hermetic school of poets before I picked up Salvatore Quasimodo - a tacit admission that I haven't read Ungaretti and Vittorini, I suppose. And It's essential to understand the poets of this school in the context of fascist Italy, a sociopolitical climate that prompted them to turn inward and attempt to restore purity to oppressively charged language through increasingly esoteric images and structures.
The result is an aesthetic that bears a strong affinity to that of the symbolists, though I would say the symbolists wield their subjectivity more aggressively. At any rate, the first half of Quasimodo's poetic work is quite opaque, reading like the melancholic daydreams of a disenchanted man who doesn't sketch in quite enough details for the eavesdropper to follow.
But to understand Quasimodo's earlier poems as small, carefully protected sanctuaries from the fascist world outside his window - it changes them almost completely. To understand his later poems as a kind of quiet, personal expurgation of those earlier times - it gives them a purpose, a value that isn't immediately apparent otherwise.
Poetry does not exist in a vacuum. Many poems can be enjoyed and appreciated without any knowledge of the author or the author's contextual experience. But almost any work of art takes on additional dimensions, additional richness when studied in context, and poetry is no exception. So Quasimodo's exegesis on the relationship between twentieth-century Italian history and its poetry is really important to his connecting with his work.
While after 1945, his style evolves into a much more meditative, even religious voice, the quasi-religious imagery can be detected here and there in his earlier work. The poem that struck me the most, "Of Young Woman Bent Back Among the Flowers" (written in the 1930-1933 range) contains a haunting image of a mother garlanding her dead son's head with a crown of white roses. But the final line, which gives the poem its title, conveys a religious experience much more ecstatic, practically free of dogma.
There is a fine line between artwork that can't stand on its own and must be explained (I consider such work to have failed), and artwork that reveals itself more completely to an informed audience. Quasimodo definitely lands in the second category, but his work makes it clear that without a solid foundation in liberal education - the kind of liberal education that is increasingly devalued in the United States - the twenty-first century reader may not connect with him, and that is quite unfortunate.
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Download PDF The Selected Writings