Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Reading. Montale.

The Nobel Laureate Eugenio Montale is another poet I discovered by chance, from a passing mention by Primo Levi, when he named three of the great Italian poets - Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale, and Salvatore Quasimodo - of the twentieth century, in The Voice of Memory (I have, of course, already forgotten the context of that conversation). Naturally, I had to read him immediately. And there I found something different, not the slow fluid music that I loved so completely in the words of Giuseppe Ungaretti, those quietly roiling waters of his soul. Montale moves more swiftly across the page and through the mind; there is a certain quickness to him. It is extraordinary how the two poets use one language so differently - but then, that is the beauty of language, and therefore the beauty of poetry.

Where Ungaretti's words seem born out of a desire to remember his past, to remember how he felt at a certain place and time, a witness to the world around him (which he does with extraordinary beauty and simplicity), Montale's poetry seems to come out of the desire to let go of the past. There is a spareness and dryness to his words, a weightlessness that comes from the way he uses language, and a weightlessness in the way he casts off the notion of sentiment and memory - and yet there is a sense that poetry and memory are equals, that the lack of sentiment does not diminish the desire for memory.

When I published "Buffalo" and "Keepsake"
an eminent critic and friend
gave them thumbs down and decreed
that they were lacking in sentiment almost
as if sentiment and memory were incompatible.
In fact I have very few keepsakes
in the literal sense of the word.
I have no miniature leaning towers,
no mini-gondolas or other trifles;
but I have flashlights that light up and go out.
This is all the baggage I have.
The trouble is that memory is not hierarchical,
it ignores what precedes and follows
and obscures what's important, or
what seemed so to us. Memory
is a wick, the only one left to us.
It might possibly detach itself
and live on its own. What was not
illumined was corporeal, not living.
We have the Gods or even a god within reach
without knowing anything about it.
Only the insane snatch at some breeze.
It is a mistake to be on earth
and they pay for it.

Montale, Eugenio. It Depends: A Poet's Notebook. New Directions, 1980. p 75.

No comments: