Territory and roots: a poetic homeland

Umberto Piersanti in conversation with Gabriella Papini

  • We’re with Umberto Piersanti, a major contemporary poet and Nobel Prize nominee for literature, to talk about the role of poetry today. The recent World Poetry Day on 21 March 2023, a day designed to promote a message of peace, intercultural exchange and dialogue between peoples, has prompted many of us to reflect. Does it inspire us to trace certain memories, certain affections, certain vestiges of what has been? What do you feel?

Poetry doesn’t make us any better or wiser. Sometimes it can send positive messages, but that’s not its job. The main task of poetry is to identify a word which touches the roots of being: it’s no accident that archetypes are often the founding themes of poetry. Archetypes such as love, memory, nature, the passage of time, fear of the last, and so on…In an age like ours, dominated by the need to make all things spectacular, words and images spread like wildfire and everything is so fast and transient. The word of poetry is a still word, it’s a word that endures. A final point: the value of poetry lies primarily, not in a sociological or civil dimension, but in an anthropological one. If mankind lacks poetry, it lacks something profound, and this lack renders it less human.

  • Numerous ventures have been launched with increasing success. Are they useful? What is really achieved? Do they inspire more people to read?

The scarcity of poetry readers is an old problem; any venture is welcome. This applies to public readings as well as to prizes. Poetry can never aspire to a mass readership but it must reach beyond the circle of the initiated; it mustn’t reduce itself to the rank of Assyrian archeology. Anything that can broaden that readership is good, it’s useful, not forgetting that for poetry to be understood the reading must be solitary and firsthand.

  • Do you feel that poetry – in addition to being read, heard on the radio and TV and at the theatre – can have a permanent role in museums, thanks to its specific charcteristics, as has already happened with music?

I believe that poetry has also a musical value. Giorgio Caproni used to claim that poetry isn’t musical, it’s music. Let’s take an example. If I write “sempre caro mi fu questo colle ermo”, I’ve only shifted the position of the adjective “ermo” but the “Infinite” has disappeared. So a museum or, if you like, a media library with the voices of the poets and performers is very important for understanding the poetry itself.

(Translator’s note: the first line of Leopardi’s “L’infinito” reads “sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle” – literally “always dear to me was this solitary hill”. Piersanti shifts the adjective “ermo”, or “solitary”, so that it follows the noun “colle”. This is grammatically possible in Italian but the result, he notes, is irreparable damage to the poem.)

  • The Montefeltro of your poems enchants and captivates, to the point of your being numbered among the pure ecologists, in the sense of loving what is certainly your territory, your poetical homeland. The strength of one’s roots seems to counteract globalisation, including cultural globalisation which is still ongoing. Can poetry be a means of resistance?

Yes, poetry can be a means of resistance, not just against globalisation but against the superficiality of the world, of life, and the impulse to reduce them to spectacle.

  • Various poets have made their land a “poetic homeland”: if I approach the Langhe, I can’t do so without remembering the poems of Pavese and his output in general. A poetic homeland means investing a land with a universal dimension. D’Annunzio’s Abruzzo and Versilia are valid for every people and clime, just as Fellini’s 1930s Rimini even manages to enthral a Japanese audience.

I don’t feel that I’m an ecological poet in the sense that I don’t intend to make a manifesto of my love of nature: this absolute, primordial love precedes any ideological dimension. Ecology is an ideology, important and proper, but nonetheless an ideology.

  • By remaining, on the whole, immersed in a kind of past, isn’t there a risk of removing onself from the present and becoming trapped in one’s memories? The meadow was greener because it’s further off in time?

It’s enough to read Leopardi to learn that what is removed in time, even a field or a meadow, becomes more important, more meaningful, and touches us more deeply if it is the stuff of memories.  Leopardi’s Zibaldone contains pages which are extremely clear on this point. More than building the future, poetry has the task of keeping our memory alive, of not allowing us to lose it. Not just the individual memory but the social and historical. I can understand more of the meaning of Greek and Latin civilization by reading Sappho and Virgil than I can by reading Herodotus and Tacitus.

  • The aims of World Poetry Day are bold. Are they illusory? What can we hope for?

World Poetry Day reminds everyone, even the most aloof and indifferent, that poetry is a fundamental value, necessary to man by virtue of his very nature.