During my solitary nomadic travels around the world; despite my strong inclination against sharing my thoughts with any inhabitant of this planet and, more importantly, against listening to the opinions of others – which, although never requested, for some divine reasons are always unwantedly passed on – amidst a series of surprises about my nationality (Italians are not famous as backpackers), I found myself talking about poetry.
I was in Indonesia, in the westernmost point of the island of Java, in the natural park of UjungKulon, and after a day spent crossing swampy lands and making my way through a jungle with a machete, exhausted by fatigue and humidity, thanks to the previous night spent sleeping in the company of some crocodiles, I arrived at the designated place, after a short rest, about a hundred meters away from me I saw two white men.
Astonished by their presence – I was many kilometres away from any possible residential area – I stopped to observe them, and, probably out of good manners, they beckoned me to come closer.
We sat down on the ground, on which I could still see the traces of a rhinoceros that had passed about ten days before, and I took a kretek out of a luxury packet and offered it to them with a nod.
They said no, they had recently stopped smoking. So, I silently lit mine and listened to the distinctive crackle.
My brother, an Indonesian boy with whom I had spent a year, like any good Asian did not accept the refusal and tried to persuade the two poor souls who irremovably managed to withstand him.
The subject of the conversation changed, it made a few twists and turns, and then the fateful question was posed to me: “So, what do you do for a living?
The opportunity to end the conversation had presented itself, and the temptation to answer “nothing” was quite tempting. But, from personal experience, I knew that by giving that answer, there would have been an attempt to unravel the mystery; after all, no one can actually “do nothing”, everyone surely must do something.
At the time, I was a naive literature student dedicated to the exercise of reading, writing and achieving the perfect hangover, so I answered truthfully:
“You write? What do you write?”
They then enthusiastically asked me for my opinions on the subject, gave me theirs, and when I replied that I was not sure if my art had a future – now, all doubts are certain – they told me that in their state poetry is loved, poems are read, and poets admired.
It seemed incredible to me. I remembered a conversation I had had with an Italian poetess who, while at dinner, asked me if I wrote. I looked at her awkwardly and she answered for me, she said: ‘you have the likes of someone who writes poetry when someone asks them if they do, I know’; and she didn’t add anything else.
For years I wondered, driven by readings, thoughts, swearing and the occasional accidental discussion on the streets of the world, what poetry really was and whether it was disappearing.
poetry ▶ noun [mass noun] literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensely by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature.
▪ a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems: poetry and fire are nicely balanced in the music.
▪ something regarded as comparable to poetry in its beauty: the music department is housed in a building which is pure poetry.
– ORIGIN late Middle English: from medieval Latin poetria, from Latin poeta ‘poet’.
In early use the word sometimes referred to creative literature in general.
In the beginning, poetry was a form of creativity. It was considered a sacred gesture, it then became rigid in static forms and contents over the centuries – neglecting its ‘popular’ dimension, unknown to most – and it lost more and more importance till it was marginalised or contaminated with contents that have nothing to do with poetry: even with involution, we would never call poetry what poetry is considered today.
How did this happen, I wondered despondently as I looked at the new Italian and world’s bestsellers in this genre – yet the answer had always been right in front of me. Printed on the no longer unblemished cover was a word or phrase, which always recommended how successful the book was. The fault, I realised, lay on the shoulders of Caishen who had lent his face, against his own will, to the collective image of the God of the cult of money. As I watched authors disappear from the shelves to make room for mass poetry or at least, poetry that sells, I was so discouraged.
Then social media came along where competent people, to a certain extent, rebelled against ‘bestseller’ poetry and decided to publish contemporary ‘talents’ without any criteria, or with little criteria to say the least. Needless to say, these publishing houses, which quickly became very popular, soon endorsed the same ideas they had previously rebelled against.
Hypocrites, some would say, opportunists would be more accurate: even if they had maintained their original ideals, they would not have been able to change things in the face of people’s widespread poetic bad taste.
Hence, if in my overwhelming passion for Calliope, I initially tried to involve other people, I soon later realised that elitism poetry has and, how this attempt to involve others had brought poetry to the threshold of its own death. I have, therefore, stopped involving people who, when I read one of my poems or others’, looked at me with eyes veiled by the worry of being forced to say something.
Poetry is not easy to write nor to understand, and yet they have simplified it to a ‘#Iloveyou’. In this game of cultural massacre, understanding poetry as an elitist practice becomes a necessity in order to protect and preserve its true essence. After all, it ensues from the muses, the elitist divinities par excellence.
«The Muses have an elevated, and indeed unique, place in the deity hierarchy. They are known as daughters of Zeus, born from Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory; however, this is not their entire story, for they and they alone, bear, like the father of the gods, the title of Olympians. This same title was used to honour the gods at large, but – originally at least – no god apart from Zeus and the Muses.»
One evening a few years ago, as I was begging for food in a place where hippies stuck in the ‘60s hung out, a tipsy Australian man laid his head on my shoulder and began to tell me his life story; he drank some very bad whisky from a flask he was carrying as he slurred his words.
He had studied literature, and after having confessed to him that I too had a background in literature, he jumped up on a chair and started reciting a poem.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
He then came down, sat in his chair, put his head back onto my shoulder, took a big swig of his whiskey and started to cry.
I found myself alone, in an Asian country, with a drunken Australian crying over me after reciting a poem by one of my favourite poets. I silently handed him a cigarette, after smoking it I moved my head, looked at him and said, ‘I know’ – soon thereafter I walked away without looking back.
No other words were needed, poetry had introduced us, united us for a moment and then abandoned us, just as we abandoned ourselves to it.
As I think back to that episode, I automatically associate it with the Genji monogatari; in the Japanese court poetry was used to express certain feelings or was the language of specific situations.
The same thing, unintentionally, had happened to us.
I wondered if poetry could be saved, I then had discovered that there are still people who read it, who write it. These people stay hidden, afraid to give their opinions; in safe places and by chance they meet along the way and immediately recognise each other.
Poetry, rejoice – you are neither dead nor dying. They have only stolen your name, but someone will always defend you as you have defended them, you will never be alone as we never truly were.
And now ambiguously, in the most beautiful greeting among the languages known to me, I – who am not alone – take leave from you who languish amidst lovers’ mouths.