With its unkempt garden, its vast rooms, its fine
seventeenth-century balconies decked with greenery,
the villa seems cribbed from certain verses of mine,
a model villa, a piece of postcard scenery ...
It thinks of its past to ease its present gloom,
of jolly gatherings under ancient oaks,
of legendary feasts in the dining room,
and dances in the great hall, now stripped of antiques.
For where, in better times, the Ansaldos called,
or the d'Azelglios, or this or that contessa,
some motorcar now jerks up, its tires bald,
and hirsute foreigners batter the Medusa,
First comes a bark, then footsteps, then the lazy
creak of the door ... In that hush (think cloister or tomb)
lives Toto Merumeni with his ailing mum,
a grizzled great-aunt and an uncle who's crazy.
excerpt from "Toto Merumeni" by Guido Gozzano, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock, from The FSG Book Of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux: 2012.
"Toto Merumeni", taken from his second collection I colloqui (The Talks, 1911), looks in the rear view mirror like a precursor of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." (I should point out that although T. S. Eliot was working on his "Prufrock" at the same time, it did not appear in print until 1915.) Whereas Guido Gozzano (1883-1916) spent most of his life in his native Turin, tried to study law at the university but dropped out, more attracted by evening literature lessons (Crepusculari Torinesi), There he found an alternative to the pervasive and baneful influence of conservative poet Gabriel D'Annunzio through immersion in Dante, Petrach, and Leopardi. From these illustrious examples he crafted a pessimistic but spiritual vision of a vaguely socialist future. He died at age thirty-two from tuberculosis.
T.S. Eliot called "Prufrock" (1911) his first perfect poem; leaving aside any quibbles about that definition, it is still a poem most poets would be happy to claim as one of theirs. It was "Prufrock" that attracted the attention of another - already successful - American expat - Ezra Pound.
My favorite catch-all definition of free verse has been attributed to the Englishman Richard Aldington (1916) who described it a based on cadence, that is "(I)t is the sense of perfect balance of flow and rhythm. Not only must the syllables so fall as to increase and continue the movement, but the whole poem must be as rounded and recurring as the circular swing of a balanced pendulum." That last bit really ups the ante on a poet. While Eliot admired, with some reservations, Walt Whitman's versification, he was deeply moved by the example of Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), a short-lived poet (Laforgue was born in Uruguay to French expatriates but moved to France as a child). Laforgue was the first French translator of Walt Whitman so there is simpatico at work here. Both the Symbolists and the Impressionist schools of French poetry have argued over custody pf Laforgue for several times longer than Laforgue's own life.
As for our two imaginary gentlemen, they appear like the Roman god Janus, fated to look both ways, to the future and the past.
1. Fortunato Depero - Cavalcata Fantastica, 1920, prate collection - Geneva, courtesy Musee d'Orsay, Paris.