As a writer and as a man, Pier Paolo Pasolini was one of the most complex figures of twentieth century literature, and his life and work are replete with paradoxes. Despite his belief that his leftist poetry was different from all other poetry being written, he employed the hendecasyllable, the most widely used meter in all Italian verse in all periods, and the terza rima of Dante. He rebelled against Italy’s long-entrenched cultural traditionalism yet declared himself a lover of tradition whom it pained to witness the disappearance of Italian peasant culture. He was a Marxist and at the same time did not abandon the Catholic Church; he condemned abortion and called on the Church to lead the fight away from the materialism that was gaining such a stranglehold on capitalistic societies everywhere. With his romantic spirit of identifying with the outcasts of the earth, Marxism came easily to him, but as an active, rather than a sublimated, homosexual, his Marxism demanded a morality that allowed for the individual. His religion was the liberation of the masses, yet he chose to focus not upon their struggle but rather upon their vindicated joy; and although he professed to love the common people, such people as individuals figure little in his poetry. His style in both his poetry and his films was stark and unsentimental, yet he could wax fulsome and self-indulgent when writing on the subject of his mother.
Poesie a Casarsa
To some extent, these contradictions were apparent in Pasolini’s earliest, dialect poems. As a result of the breakup of the Roman Empire and the late emergence of Italy as a political entity, Italy inherited a multiplicity of dialects, substantially more varied than the dialects of most other Western European nations. Pasolini by nature felt attracted by the sound of his mother’s dialect, Friulian, and, impressed by Paul Valéry’s “hésitation prolongée entre le sens et le son,” he opted for the sound element. He wrote his first volume of poetry, Poesie a Casarsa (poetry to Casarsa), in Friulian, publishing it privately in Bologna in 1942 and dedicating it to his father. When the slim volume of forty-six pages was reviewed, the review had to be printed in Switzerland, for dialect literature was very much anathema to the Fascist regime. In addition to the scandal implicit in using an Italian dialect for a literary endeavor, Pasolini’s medium was a special, less recognized dialect within Friulian, distinct from the standardized jargon used by Friulian poets Ermes de Colloredo in the seventeenth century and Pietro Zorutti in the nineteenth century.
Pasolini consolidated Poesie a Casarsa with a group of Resistance poems known as “Il testamento Coran” (the Koran testament) and with several others written in Friulian, and published La meglio gioventù (the finest youth) in 1954. In all of these poems, the poet yearns for a recovery of moral health to be achieved through a reacquaintance with the peasant’s world, and he treats the themes of nature, a boy’s happiness with his mother, and the exhilaration of the company of beautiful young men. In “Il dí la me muàrt” (the day of my death), for example, the poet tells of one who loved boys and “wrote/ poems of holiness/ believing that in this way/ his heart would become larger.” In 1975, Pasolini made another consolidation and published La nuova gioventù (the new youth), in which he combined the poetry of La meglio gioventù with a reworked version of two parts of that book and with some new Italo-Friulian pieces composed in 1973-1974.
Le ceneri di Gramsci
Le ceneri di Gramsci contains poems, dated carefully but not arranged in chronological order, that probe the poet’s difficulties with a Marxism that in actual practice seeks to limit the expression of the individual spirit. The title poem, “Le ceneri di Gramsci” (Gramsci’s ashes), takes its name from the words on Antonio Gramsci’s grave in the English cemetery in Rome, not far from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s. Gramsci, the Italian Marxist political philosopher whose works were written while he was imprisoned by the Fascists, had made loud charges that Italian literature was run by elitists more interested in eloquence and style than in people.
The first poems in Le ceneri di Gramsci, “L’Appennino” (Apennine) and “Il canto popolare” (the popular song), written during the poet’s early days of residence in Rome, compare the grand Italy of the past with present conditions, in which major cities are besieged by hordes of impoverished immigrants from the poorer southern regions. It is in these poor people, however, living in pigsty encampments “between the shining modern churches and skyscrapers,” that the poet’s hope resides. In “Picasso,” the poet focuses on the committed and socially responsive artist amid a decaying society, decreeing that “The way out/ . . . is by remaining/ inside the inferno with the cold/ determination to understand it,” and not in Picasso’s “idyll of...
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