The book I want to talk about this month opens with a very specific anecdote, setting the scene, the tone, and the content of the entire text that follows (my translation):
It’s summer, it’s hot, I am in Rome. The most transient of spaces there is, Termini station. I’m running, fast, trying to catch my train – which I miss.
I am angry and hot, as I’m waiting for the next train, I go to the bathroom. As I’m drying my hands under one of those loud things that spit out warm air, I read through the wall graffiti. Phone numbers, offers of various sex acts, obscene cartoons, and among all the scribbles, this vertically beautiful couplet:
Forse la giovinezza è solo questo
perenne amare i sensi e non pentirsi
[Maybe youth is only this
perennial love of senses with no regret]
The graffiti author has not included the name of the actual author, but I know the verses are by Sandro Penna. I know that because I read and learned them several thousand times; but even if I had not read that specific poem, I would know that it is his voice, I recognise it, just like you recognise a friend’s voice as you pick up the phone.
From the afterlife, Sandro has lifted the receiver of his grey SIP telephone, the one I saw in Umano non umano, the documentary about him by Mario Schifano, and gave me a quick call, a nod, a wink.
Yes, because that’s what poetry is: a personal interview, a private conversation.
Between you and me. A phone call, with the living and with the dead.
The book is La poesia è un unicorno (quando arriva spacca) (‘Poetry is a unicorn – when it arrives it rocks’) by contemporary poet and discerning publisher Francesca Genti, serendipitously part of the same writing circles as Francesca Matteoni, the author of last month’s Italianist book. It is a work of non-fiction from 2018, a general introduction to poetry as a mode of writing, discussing its intentions, its audiences, its influences and its effects, while also deconstructing many of the stereotypes and assumptions made about it in Italy’s literary scenes. Several of those assumptions can easily be tracked down in some circles in the anglophone world too, especially when it comes to the reverence towards the classics, the idea of canon, and the ‘right way of writing and reading poems’.
The book also serves pretty well for a general audience dipping their toes into contemporary Italian poetry, as the author provides a substantial bibliography (four pages long), containing all the references to the poems she cites throughout the book; poems which range from Italian classics such as Dante, Angiolieri, and Boccaccio, via modern classics such as Montale, Maraini, Rodari, and Rosselli, to contemporary writers such as Catalano, Gualtieri, and Lamarque. And the way in which Genti uses them between the lines of the text, juxtaposing them with her very direct, straightforward, anecdotal prose, is a beauty to behold. There are a few Instagram accounts that keep making the rounds among people aged 25 and older, with the explicit intention of showing how poetry is and should be accessible to all – that is precisely what Genti does with this book, repeatedly, intentionally, and masterfully. The second anecdote that opens the book, after the extract above, is an example of a real life ‘settling scores at dawn’ clash of those two ideologies. The whole seventh chapter, titled ‘Seven ways to use poetry (vices and virtues)’, actively deconstructs many axioms about poetry as an art form; Genti even uses more tonal juxtaposition to clarify her stance with each subtitle, starting low register and using the ‘technical term’ in brackets, as subservient to its actual meaning: Wooing your loved one (love poetry), Protesting against the powerful (engaged poetry), Celebrating your own navel (lyric), Making a child happy (nursery rhyme), Resisting conformism (dialect poetry), Cursing your enemy (invective), Inventing a new language (avant-garde poetry). In an earlier chapter, the author uses a contemporary, incredibly popular poet like Guido Catalano to further highlight her point (my translation):
Guido Catalano, for example, has succeeded in the forbidden, removed and (self)censored dream of every poet: become a mainstream phenomenon. His poetry is comedic, aggressive and fun, and he started performing it wherever someone would allow him to set up a reading of his lines, and within about ten years, his readings have become actual events, crowded and busy, the adoring public “even” willing to pay a ticket to listen to poetry.
His roaring success has caught several colleagues by surprise, especially the ones who had cosied up to the idea that poetry is ontologically of interest to the few and, as is often the case with fame, several critiques were brought up: easy poems, repetitive poems, poems that always use the same structure and mechanics, and too many references. But oral poetry has always worked like this, following established techniques to grab the audience’s attention. And all Catalano does is retrieve and present in a modern key the same modes that have characterised the oral nature of poetry since its inception.
Many might object (and they do) that the text is overly prosaic, which makes it not poetry; but the rules for writing good oral poetry are different and more strict than for those who write with the almost infinite horizon of the page. The most important part is, once you have chosen your camp, you get comfy and “write a pretty one”.
Francesca Genti makes exceptional and poignant use of the poems she chooses from across Italian and international poetry scenes (Bishop, Parker, Plath, Rilke are but some of her examples) to illustrate how poetry is not the remit of the academic, of the page or the stage alone, but rather a place for everyone to read, to write, to recite, to perform, to listen. She is also skilled in analysing, glossing, and picking apart why a poem can work for some and not for others, while illustrating the process of the craft going into its creation. This is not a manual on how to write poetry, it is a book on how poetry can be enjoyed from any side of the poem, be it creator or audience. It is also an elegy to poetry, and how it can be and has been found in many places throughout various canons, how all one needs to create something new is to, in the words of her concluding poem (my translation): …throw it back into the wave of Idea, // allow the undertow to pull you to sea. // Pick up seashells, make them poetry.
By Alex Valente
LA POESIA È UN UNICORNO (‘Poetry is a unicorn’)
by Francesca Genti
Published in Italian by Mondadori (2018)
Translations from Italian by Alex Valente
Francesca Genti was born in Turin and lives in Milan. She has published several poetry collections, including Poesie d’amore per ragazze kamikaze (‘Love poems for kamikaze girls’) and Anche la sofferenza ha la sua data di scadenza (‘Even suffering has an expiry date’). She is a Tagesmutter and co-runs an independent publishing house called Sartoria Utopia, which focuses on limited edition, hand bound books.
Alex Valente (he/him) is a white European currently living on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlilwətaɬ land. He is a literary translator from Italian into English, though he also dabbles with French and RPGs, and is co-editor of The Norwich Radical. His work has been published in NYT Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, The Short Story Project, and PEN Transmissions.
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