The experienced critic, while striking down on his victim, also gives a hit to two or three other ones so they would not forget him until their turn comes. The short essay by Alfonso Berardinelli, a great old man of Italian literary criticism in the weekend issue of Corriere della Sera, quoted in pessima’s blog, could penetrate deeper, but even so it is worth to be translated, as perhaps some of his views will be valid not only for contemporary Italian culture.
The missing passion of being read
A few months ago, by talking with two especially intelligent and educated young poets, Carlo Carabba and Matteo Marchesini, we concluded that nowadays (and for a good while) Italian poetry has been mainly divided into two types: the incomprehensible on the one hand and the boring on the other, because there is missing, on the side of the authors, the passion of being read. It seems a cruel idea, nevertheless it has the advantage to explain why so much poetry is being produced and nobody notices it. The fact that the critics do not talk about it and that the newspapers avoid as much as possible to review poets, is only one of the consequences. Poetry remains both nominally and ideally a virtual value, a kind of an untouchable fetish, but if one realizes the amount of books of poetry that keep coming out and tries to read them, he will reach distressing conclusions.
To be sure, visual arts are also boring or incomprehensible nowadays, and I would reserve the top of the negative classification to the so-called “installations”. The best known installers (well-paid people) are extremely boring ones who are exalted and hyperinterpreted by the critics with arguments which fail to convince either the the naive public or the educated one. Much of this can be explained, both in the case of poetry and visual arts, by a vicious circle: the authors ignore the public and the public ignores them. However, the visual arts are dominated by the superpower of the critics. They are to decide what art is and, above all, what prices are.
I do not think that poetry in Italy today is better off than fiction. They are in opposite situations. Fiction has been corrupted by the market, by the mirage of the best-seller, by the editors, the prizes and the cultural poverty of the authors. But whoever writes a novel knows that he or she must confront a reality external to writing. Poetry, on the contrary, has been corrupted by itself, by the idea it has of itself: the escape from the communication and from the free expression of what is already known. Who writes poetry believes to be justified whatever he writes, by the mere fact that he writes it in the shelter of an untouchable value, the idea of poetry. If one got rid of this comforting idea, he would come to face the reality of the texts, and could easily see that 90% of what we read in the anthologies of poetry is to be forgotten.
Is it all? What remains, once we put aside incomprehensible and boring poetry? There remain a dozen or so of poets who know what they talk about and what a poem is. Who are they? For reasons of courtesy, the critics rarely decide to say it out, also because the non-poets would include many “names” who over the past twenty years have earned, who knows how, a certain prestige. A prestige which is conventional, and, let us also add, editorial, founded more on the obstinate autopromotion of the authors than on the quality of the texts. But even when the critics choose their poets, they never agree, or only in a couple of names.
We have thus come to the point. What makes the quality of a poetic text? Who can warrant this quality? The game is played between the readers who do not exist, are baffled or naive, and the critics whose “textual competence” has become rather doubtful and who usually do not dare to judge, keep a distance, do not offer lessons on contemporary poetry. I think that from the 90s to now the only publication that has encouraged criticism and dared to say “yes” and “no” (not without the risk of error), was the Annuario di poesia edited by Giorgio Manacorda, Paolo Febbraro e Matteo Marchesini. A publication on which little has been talked, although it contains several essays that should be published in a volume.
“Can poetry affect one?” was asked twenty years ago by an at that time young American poet and critic. A bad question that triggers bad answers. The Poetry, the Art, the Philosophy, the Novel… we always go round and round. The problem and the alienation of non-reading arise from the fact that we judge by genres and general categories, not by authors or, even better, by individual books and texts. When it comes to the quality of poetic texts, in order not to do harm, one must be ruthless: this stanza should be better removed, this ending is bad, why does this verse stop like this? Technique is everything, when one knows what to say and what not. As at the time of Umberto Saba, one must do “honest poetry”, also because there can be no other kind. In poetry, in any art, in any form of critical thought, honesty is just brilliant. The best readers of poetry, the most severe and wildest ones, are almost always the poets themselves. Those who are really that, I mean. In Italy, today as a half century ago, a dozen or so.