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Copyright © 2011 IPOC di Pietro Condemi Milan Italy
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher at the address below:
IPOC di Pietro Condemi
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I - 20090 Vimodrone MI
Translation copyright: Sheltered by Enchantments © Cristina Viti 2007; excerpts from Selected Works of Dino Campana © Cristina Viti 2006, courtesy of Survivors’ Press, Studio 11, Bickerton House, Bickerton Road, London N19 5TJ, www.survivorspoetry.com
Translation by Cristina Viti Introduction by Simon Jenner. The moral rights of the translator have been asserted
Original title: Difesi dagli incanti, Edition: 2006 Publisher: Il Filo Rome – Italy
Front cover: Marradi, photograph by Anna Piseri
“… from much love and much walking are books born.” P. Neruda
I owe the great pleasure of having been entrusted with this translation to the kind interest shown for my work by Carla Della Beffa and Paolo Pianigiani, both visual artists with a keen understanding of poetry (and in Paolo’s case, a specialized knowledge of Campana); I wholeheartedly thank them both, along with Simon Jenner and Ian Thomson, who have done much to rescue Campana from undeserved obscurity, and of course with Valeria Fraccari and our publisher, Pietro Condemi, who have given me the possibility to deepen my understanding of the original text.
As regards the translation itself, the very few clarifications I have found it necessary to include are either inserted within square brackets or marked with asterisks.
Anyone coming to this book in English is possibly at the advantage of two self-cancelling culture shocks. Dino Campana (1885-1932), though widely acknowledged – by Martin Seymour-Smith, amongst others – as one of the very greatest Italian poets, still reads unlike any other modernist. Until the recent and acclaimed translation by Cristina Viti (Survivors’ Press, 2006), he had no major representation in the UK bar a segment of the Penguin Book of Italian Verse. In any case even in Italy his visionary, uncompromising modernism proved uncomfortable in his life and, as is usual, canonical just after his death. Eugenio Montale was one of those who attended his funeral. It’s an irony that Campana is still less well-known than Montale (whom F. R. Leavis for instance championed), Giuseppe Ungaretti, Salvatore Quasimodo, and younger poets like Vittorio Sereni. Among significant voices, only Umberto Saba and Carlo Betocchi are less exposed in English.
As Viti put it, Campana’s work exudes ‘the unmistakable scent of an inner journey that walks the faultline between poetry and mysticism’. For poetry too, one can read modernism – something darkly impacted on by esotericism in its first thirty years, in ways only now being broached, let alone appraised.
For English language readers, generally grounded in empiricism, this is the first culture shock; Campana yields to a less exegetic approach beyond his own terms, but it would be a grave mistake to dismiss him as a magnificent by-product of European modernism. The syncretic perceptions suggest the kind of tenet held by philosophers like A. N. Whitehead or more precisely Maurice Merleau-Ponty: that ‘our experiences are interconnected and reveal to us real properties of the thing itself’ (The World of Perception, 1948, Routledge, Introduction); or at the other extreme, basic formulations of Gurdjieff and other esoteric denizens of Orage’s The New Age, whose influence on modernist writers, painters and musicians is still too often overlooked. Again, however, Campana is independent of system or reference, and his work has an impact and immediacy that register first. It’s only later that one also registers affinities with his contemporaries, and with other wide-flung poets pursuing a similar heady affirmation. Most of all in the English language, there is Hart Crane, writing a fantastic, would-be affirmative, modernist response to Eliot. He also, like Campana, took heavy manual jobs and identified with all classes, refusing to merely slum about when he felt like it. They would have discovered much in common; and as Robert Lowell said a generation later, Crane too somehow got it all in: the competing modernisms, the 1920’s, New York, flirtations with esotericists and industrialists, and his own visionary attempts swung back after equally heroic bouts of drinking and sex. He died just seven weeks after Campana, plunging over the side of a ship carrying him back to New York and what he feared was poetic failure.
For readers accustomed to equating scholarliness with an authoritarian manner, the other culture shock is embodied in the democratic, skilfully discursive form of this book which emerges from a tradition of Pavese, Calvino, and Eco.
Having discovered Campana’s poetry, Valeria Fraccari was not only moved by its power and beauty, but immediately aware of its importance in the landscape of European literature, where interconnectedness is not sliced in such a linear fashion as many studies of English language modernism suggest. Fraccari decided to give Campana a central role in the Italian Literature high school course she teaches – but to do so she needed to find a way to present his poetry to her students in a more immediate fashion than simply through class lessons. Taking inspiration from the deep connection between poetry and the body in Campana’s work, she devised annual ‘poetic retreats’ during which she travels with her students not only to the poet’s home town, but along the mountain paths that he walked and masterfully described. The students read Campana as they follow in his footsteps, and are encouraged to keep a diary of their journey – a journey that inevitably leads to self-discovery and the deepened reflection quickened by such a focus. Their observations and thoughts, now deeply felt and carefully crafted, now refreshingly humorous, form the basis of a diary they share with their teacher, whose voice is also allowed to speak in the first person; their entries are signed by their first names, hers remain anonymous – a subtle but strong, flexible thread.
Fraccari has entered into Campana’s world democratically and with a true sense of what affords the best purchase on his genius. Her reading party marks a living European variant on the English one memorialized in Clough’s The Bothie (1848), and something now more or less dead in English. Her sensitive editing and thematic acuity in threading together her students’ responses to Campana result in a kind of cubist patchwork evincing an underlying unity. Indeed, as the first student intuits, this is highly appropriate to someone watching Futurism and Cubism emerge around him.
Total immersion in the genius loci is usually heady, sometimes febrile, but often allows a greater absorption of the writer under study, and a mode of thinking influenced by him.
Certainly the travel lends an unfolding physical analogue to the intellectual and psychic exploration afforded here. The displacement of roles and the need to find a new tone to instate a dialogue that had previously remained confined to the classroom provides dynamic tension to a narrative whose every step, in accordance with Campana’s vision, is a physical step in space, outside time. The result is a neat counterpoint, and in the spirit of Campana’s overwhelming physicality. As the students climb, their reflections become leaner, more visceral, more snapshot out-takes from a gruelling hike, echoing the poet’s doubts, alienation, and sheer physical exhaustion. This is an extraordinarily quilted art emerging; but Campana has seeped into every narrative strand. And when Marradi is reached, Fraccari poignantly expresses the sorrow of the imminent separation from her class, but also reflects on the relationship between the poet and his surroundings in ways that Gilbert Highet, supremely erudite and evocative of Roman poets in situ (Poets in a Landscape, Pelican, 1957), would have recognized.
She pays tribute to one particular student, whose diary is quoted entire and gave the project particular impetus, but is otherwise rightly awed by the responses and insights of a group who will never meet again, but who perhaps don’t need to. Everything living in it, it seems, has been refracted with a particular intensity to those who sense they might not get another chance to experience things this way, and at the cusp of something greater or smaller in their lives, give of themselves in one of the most unusual – and least pretentious – communings with poetry I have ever read.
The excursion through Marradi’s range of flavours, exact and faded, unfolds like a kind of pilgrimage of perception, climaxing on the final day in a set of readings fully excerpted and quoted. Fraccari further enriches the diary with concise, scholarly notes that attest to her rigorous study and deep understanding of Campana’s poetics, and her spare, unadorned style does justice to a poet whose relentless search for poise and form still awaits full understanding and recognition.
The sympathetic resonance set up by the readers and their commentaries amplify the experience; the intensity, intelligence, humour, polyphony of uncompeting voices turn what could simply be the record of a first immersion in poetry by a group of young, talented literature students into an unequalled journey – a tiny classic.
Simon Jenner is a poet, essayist and music critic. He is the proprietor and director of Waterloo Press, has held the directorship of Survivors’ Press since 2003, and is actively involved in the teaching and mentoring activities of non-profit community publishers QueenSpark.
Milan, Central Station. I find them all already gathered in the station hall. Cheerful, but quieter than usual: it might be the early hour, or the fact that they don’t know what exactly we will be doing in Marradi.
Vaguely ill at ease finding myself with them outside class: I’m not accustomed to it, not in a place where so much humanity goes by in the flesh. The embarrassment might be shared, but is confined to the background: the departure is hurried.
Ticket, platform, train. We’re all here.
“Will we really read Campana aloud? While walking?” My reply is rather elusive.
For the moment we are all sitting down; I’m writing my travel journal. I’ve asked them to keep one too, like Dino Campana, who leaves Marradi on foot on a September day many years ago, and crosses over mountains and must climb, climb to look for poetry and find words.
He walks. He is alone, and sees and writes of mountains woods villages, of the climb to La Verna and the return, of more mountains and villages crossed by his step and his gaze. Pilgrim of poetry, poet errant.
We will travel and climb too, looking for the words of this journey.
“To answer your question, class, it will be a spiritual retreat – a poetic retreat, if you like”.
I savour the general disconcertment, ignoring the understanding, almost loving condescension in their eyes.
But what was the question?
Francesca is writing too; with slight furtiveness, Marta and Andrea have taken notebook and pen out of their rucksacks. They are looking out of the window and jotting down their first thoughts on the journey.
Travelling, I look at the landscape’s movement. The fields are an eyeshadow compact. Those who can see can wash their faces with water and discover their secret colours.
You had already understood, O divine primitive – or maybe not divine, maybe human instead.
It is hard for me to make your Orphic words mine.
My eyes can hardly see.
The mountains are just rocks and not enormous breakers. I understand but don’t comprehend: I’m left with nothing but disjointed words and sentences.
It is like this for me no matter what book or what poem: I make only a few sentences mine and understand them as a whole; with you, the outline eludes me (fugitive poetry).
Reading you doesn’t feel good to me; neither does it feel bad – there’s only the uneasiness of not being able to fit into the words’ dress. You are a cubist, I’m an impressionist.
You are geometric, I am wavy.