Elio Pagliarani lives in Rome, in an apartment block not far from the Vatican City, both a modern and a popular area.
He welcomes me in his sitting room, on our right a bookshelf which climbs up to the ceiling. After a long introduction on what I do, where I come from and so forth, Mr. Pagliarani begins speaking about himself, or rather about poetry. It is a strange interview, with few questions coming from me; the hoarse, lion-like voice of the poet and the smell of his pipe merge to create a unreal atmosphere, full of suspense. Outside the Roman traffic.
“Palazzeschi, yes . . . I have to say that Palezzeschi is one of my favourite poets. He was one of the first to realise that poetry was changing its role, he used to call it ‘the jester of my soul’. The function of art had changed, the sense of fun, besides even Picasso . . . “
Mr. Pagliarani hints, he doesn’t state, he sketches a speech which has to be guessed, almost imagined by the listener. I have a small pad to take notes.
” I believe that poetry is a testimony. In the twentieth century, the national poet, like Foscolo and Carducci, for instance, disappeared. However the function of testimony remains even if the vision changes. The vision of La ragazza Carla has changed its vision compared with, for example, La Ballata di Rudi. My first poem is airy, ironic and optimistic, whereas in La ballata di Rudi there is pessimism, there are no colours, and not only because I was getting older. My way of looking at the world has changed. “
He takes from the bookshelf a volume of the Novissimi with a parallel text in English.
“The book is edited by Paul Ballerini. There is an extract of La ragazza Carla, unfortunately not all of it. I started writing the little poem in Milan in the autumn of ’54 and I finished it on 15th August ’57. The research came from the necessity of broadening poetic language or rather language in general.”
This last observation allows me to move the discussion onto the Gruppo ’63, that enigma of Italian culture of the second half of the twentieth century. Has it ever existed? Was it a compact ideological movement?
“There has never been a compact ideological movement in the Gruppo ’63; rather there existed two main lines: the language issue, and objectivity instead of subjectivity. In La ragazza Carla I looked for the objective eye. Balestrini goes even further using the “cut and paste” technique. We were fed up with lyric poetry, we wanted something that was non-lyrical and anti-academic. The Gruppo ’63 was born as an anti-establishment movement. Giuliani’s two translations, the young Eco who gave substance to our theoretical positions in Opera aperta and my article published in Nuova Corrente under the title For a new definition of the Neoavanguardia, all contributed to the diffusion of these ideas. Language was at the centre of our discussions. We had rebelled against stagnant language. I think that with Futurism, the Neoavanguardia was the only big movement in Italy against academia.”
But doesn’t the obsession with language, with style become pure formalism itself, a sort of Arcadia? Don’t you run the risk of wallowing in the pure linguistic form, creating perfect style without content?
“It is partly true that some of the members of the Gruppo ’63 indulged in formalism, but it is also true that movements like Arcadia or Vincenzo Monti contributed in an essential way in preparing Leopardi’s language. The language of this poet is already in Monti even if Leopardi then re-elaborated it in a very personal fashion.”
What strikes me in Pagliarani is his overall vision of the history of Italian poetry, the continual reference to structure as a technique. Even on Montale, for instance, he has a very precise opinion.
“Montale was good, yes, but also cunning. I’m thinking of the articles he signed but didn’t write. They don’t publish his letters because they are an infinite litany of complaints and requests. However, he had a modicum of self-irony. Ossi di seppia is an important book, with La bufera e altro which is, in my opinion, his highest point. Then after the ‘70’s he didn’t write anything significant.”
Meanwhile, between us two glasses and a bottle of whisky.
“My daughter forgot to put the white wine to chill. I can only offer you a whisky. “
Do you like Zanzotto?
“Zanzotto is a great poet, a man of culture, a navigator. He has a strong lyrical tension which has been with him since his first collection, Elegia e altri versi. Of course there has also been a certain confusion. It was said for instance that his poetry was pre-Lacanian or absurd things like that . . . He speaks with his ideas, however he is a poet who doesn’t have his own language, rather he borrows from other languages.”
Two hours have already passed since we met. It is dinner time. There will be a presentation of the last book by Tommaso Ottonieri in a bookshop at Trastevere to which I am kindly invited. Mr. Pagliarani shows me to the front door and points me toward the underground station.