Poetry Doesn’t Exist

(Eugenio Montale — La Poesia non Esiste)

The curfew hour had struck and the two men who were sleeping at my house for reasons of safety had returned a few minutes earlier. These were two nocturnal visitors, two ‘flying guests’, of whom one, my friend Brunetto, a physicist and student of ultrasound as well as longstanding conspirator, represented the stable element, the permanent or semi-permanent occupancy of that clandestine accommodation; while the other was really a ‘flying ghost’ who changed every evening, a series of phantoms who made quite sure not to reveal their names.

The gloomy winter of ’44 was beginning, and the city was living through the nightmare of endless round-ups and reprisals. On that occasion, the ghost taking its turn was a certain Giovanni, a man with grey hair and of mild appearance, of whom it was said that he had compelling reasons for removing himself from his official address. It was cold, and the two guests were sitting next to the radio, stretching their fingers towards an electric fire, when we heard the buzzer of the intercom from the porter’s lodge.

‘There’s a German coming up, watch out,’ said the porter to the person who went to the speaking tube.

There was no time to lose. At a sign from me, Bruno and Giovanni disappeared into their little room where it was dark; and I, having twiddled the radio needle to the local station, moved towards the door, waiting for the ring. What would my friends do, and how would I get myself out of this difficulty? There were no emergency exits, and perhaps the German wasn’t alone… The bell rang softly, then rang again more insistently. I let a few seconds pass; then, pretending to come from the other end of the hallway, I pulled back the bolt on the door. There was the German in the recess: a young man a little older than twenty, nearly two metres tall, with a hooked nose like a bird of prey, and two eyes, partly shy partly crazy, beneath a flattop shock of hair like a scrubbing brush, which was not in conformity with military regulations. He doffed his beret and, having asked me in laboured Italian if I was indeed who I was, he produced a scroll of paper, a kind of gun barrel, and pointed it at me.

‘I am a literary,’ he said (of course he meant ‘a man of letters’), ‘and I bring you the poems you asked for. I am from Stuttgart and my name is Ulrich K.’

‘Ulrich K., your name is not unknown to me,’ I replied, giving every appearance of being deeply flattered, and accompanying the man (a sergeant) into the sitting room with the radio. ‘This is a great honour for me. How may I be of service to you?’

I was navigating in the dark, but after a few moments I managed to orient myself. This was a stranger who had written to me two years before, to do with some of his translations of Italian poets; I had asked whether he had, or whether he could procure, the collected edition of Hölderin’s lyrics, which couldn’t then be found in bookshops in Italy. He explained that the book was also out of print in Germany and that he had made from it a typewritten copy of about three hundred pages for me. He was sorry that he had had to transcribe the Zinkernagel text, not the Hellingrath, but I would be able to rearrange the material myself; it would require a couple of months’ work, nothing at all. How much did I owe him? Not a pfennig, he was glad to have been of service to sein gnädiger Kollege. Unless in turn I might be able to make copies for him of some of our most distinguished modern poets. (I broke out into a cold sweat, and not only at the thought of such a labour.) He hadn’t been in Italy for long; he was an accountant in a supply detachment based at Terranova Bracciolini. The detachment was small; to begin with they were afraid that the population might be hostile, but since then everything had turned out for the best, and despite the curfew they had managed to organise some concerts in the town square. In their group were three or four professional musicians — they were onto a cushy number — and he too played the flugelhorn or the flute, I can’t remember which. What was his profession, his calling in life? Originally, a student of philosophy. But he didn’t accept that philosophical speculation was a snake that bites its own tail, merely a pirouetting of thought around itself. It had a duty to explain the essence of Life, and it was failing to do this. He had fallen by chance into the hands of a teacher who was dismantling the other systems, revealing their difficulties, their internal contradictions. The ultimate certainty was that nothing remained except anguish, shipwreck, failure. He had asked whether it was worth the trouble of freeing oneself from the old metaphysics in order to achieve this certainty; and whether the Dasein, the existential ‘I’ in flesh and blood, wasn’t perhaps just as intellectualistic a hypothesis as Descartes’ cogitating ‘I’. His teacher, who had become weary of him, had gently accompanied him to the door. (A glass of wine? Why not, even more than one, but only after I had taken one, please, thank you, bitte, bitte schön.) Immediately after that he had turned to poetry, not to the belletristic vernacular, but here too things had become entangled rather quickly. Ancient poetry is virtually inaccessible. Homer is not a man, and everything which diverges from the human looks strange to humans; the Greek lyrics weren’t fragmented in the way they have come down to us, and we lack the proper perspective by which to judge them; and where shall we find the religious insight which could render the great tragedies comprehensible to us? Let us not speak of Pindar divorced from the mythic, athletic and musical world which had made him possible, and let us jump over all the speechifying and didacticism of the Latin writers. Dante? Very great, but reading him is like an imposition; Ptolemaic man lived inside a box of (spent) matches, and for us things are completely different. Shakespeare? Enormous, but limitless; he gives us too much of the feeling of nature. And Goethe is the opposite case; he makes his way via full-blown neoclassicism, and his naturalism is a polemical achievement.

‘And the moderns?’ I asked, draining him a last drop of Gallo Chianti.

‘Oh, the moderns, distinguished colleague…’ said Ulrich, bright-eyed, ‘we constitute the moderns, with our collaboration. The moderns never give an impression of stability; we’re still too much involved to be able to judge them. Believe me: poetry doesn’t exist; when it’s ancient we can’t identify with it; when it’s new it disgusts us, like everything new. It has no history, no face, no style. Besides, besides… a perfect poetry would be like a philosophical system that fitted, it would be the end of life, an explosion, a collapse; and an imperfect poetry isn’t poetry. We’re better off battling… with the girls. But they play hard to get in Terranova, you know? A shame! (And he repeated himself in French: ‘C’est dommage.’)

He stood up, shook the bottle to check that it really was empty and, bowing, wished me well in digesting his Hölderin. I didn’t have the courage to tell him that I had stopped studying German two years before. In the hallway he put his beret on sideways, from which a shock of bristly hair hung down, and bowed again. A moment later the lift swallowed him up.

I stopped at the room adjoining the hallway and quietly opened it. They were still in the dark.

‘Has he gone, your German?’ asked Bruno. ‘And what did he say to you?’

‘He says that poetry doesn’t exist.’

‘Ah!’

Giovanni turned on his shoulder and began to snore. The two of them were sleeping on a very narrow little bed.