Two Poems for T.
Two Poems for T.
"Two Poems for T." was written in Italian poet Cesare Pavese's notebook in 1946 and not published until after his death. It is assumed that the T. of the title was a woman with whom "Pavese had an affair several months earlier. Although his diaries contain little about the person who scholars think was T., it is clear from the poem that she was going through a difficult period in her life and that the poet is trying to offer her some greater perspective. The poem itself provides an excellent example of the kind of advice a fatalistic intellectual poet might offer to a distraught young person. It also provides readers with a good example of Pavese's technical skill.
Cesare Pavese is considered one of Italy's greatest twentieth-century writers. He is celebrated for his novels more than his poetry, but he was prolific in almost every aspect of literature: fiction, poetry, essays, and translation. He is highly regarded for his Italian translations of American literature, including works by Hawthorne and Melville, which he penned during Italy's fascist period, when the government tightly controlled what people could read. A generation of French intellectuals look to Pavese with a debt of gratitude for these translations, along with admiration for Pavese's own creative works.
"Two Poems for T." is available in the collection Disaffections: Complete Poems, 1930–1950, translated by Geoffrey Brock.
Cesare Pavese was born September 9, 1908, in Santo Stefano Belbo, Italy, a southern town where his family spent summer vacations. The family home was in Turin, in northern Italy. His father, Eugenio Pavese, worked for the court system. When Pavese was six, his father died of a brain tumor. His mother was a cold and distant woman, and Pavese grew up accustomed to spending time by himself and keeping himself amused.
Pavese started writing poetry while studying at the lyceum, or senior high school, in Turin, and had a few works published before he graduated. It was there that Pavese met Augusto Monti, a teacher who encouraged his writing and influenced his antifascist political stance. At the University of Turin, Pavese studied American literature and later became an important translator of seminal American works, introducing them to the Italian reading public. The thesis he wrote upon graduating in 1930 was on Walt Whitman.
After university, Pavese began a versatile career in letters, publishing criticism, poetry, fiction, and translations in magazines. He taught at the Liceo Massimo d'Azeglio in Turin and also briefly at a night school for adults. His 1932 translation of Melville's Moby Dick, which was one of his favorite American novels, was greatly influential at a time when Italian audiences were seldom exposed to American literature.
In 1935 Pavese became romantically involved with Tina Pizzardo, a communist. He agreed to allow letters to her to be mailed to his address, and as a result, the fascist government, which outlawed communism, had him arrested. Pavese was sent to the small town of Brandaleone, in the far south of Italy, and lived there until 1936 under police supervision. The day before Pavese returned to Turin, Pizzardo married another man.
In 1936 Pavese published his first collection of poems, Lavorare stanca (translated in 1976 as Hard Labor). He then went to work with Giulio Einaudi, a childhood friend who had opened a publishing house. For the rest of his life, Pavese's Italian publisher was Giulio Einaudi Editore. Pavese worked in other capacities for Einaudi as well. Although he continued to write, Pavese published nothing for several years because of pressures from the fascist government censors. During this non-publishing period, he kept active by bringing translations of American writers to Italy. He published two novels between 1941 and 1942, and upon Mussolini's demise and the end of World War II, he began publishing prolifically. His masterpiece is considered to be Dialoghi con Leuco (1947; translated in 1965 as Dialogues with Leuco).
In 1949 he began a love affair with Constance Dowling, an American actress. He was one of the most important writers in Italy at the time, and when she broke up with him he was devastated. In May 1950 he was awarded Italy's most coveted literary prize, the Premio Strega. On August 27, 1950, at age forty-one, Pavese was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills. He noted in his diary that his failed romance had convinced him he would never find true love.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
The first line of "Two Poems for T." begins with an unusual perspective: the "you" of the poem, the mysterious person known as T., has been observed by the plants that grow in the lake. Readers assume T. has been swimming in the lake, since many lake plants are beneath the water's surface. Using this unusual point of view, Pavese is able to accomplish two things at once. He is able to say something about the character of T., who is the type of person who would swim in a lake in the morning, while projecting his feelings about her onto nature, which, the poem implies, watched her with interest.
The natural setting of T.'s swim is further explained in these lines. It must be a rural setting, with goats around, and a difficult climate, since the poet mentions stones but not grass or trees or any other foliage. The sweat that is referred to in line 3 is presumably the sweat T. has generated through hard labor. It dissipates, just as the stones and goats are left behind, when she enters the lake, where the plants will continue observing her once she breaks the surface.
Having catalogued various elements that surround the lake, the poet tells readers in line 4 that these elements are timeless. There will always be goats there and stones and strenuous work. When Pavese says they "exist outside of days," he is pointing out how irrelevant the measurement of time is to these things. Time is an idea that humans have created to give a context to a situation like this one, but the scene that is set here would exist even without human consciousness of it. Specifying "the water of the lake" in line 5 is important because the stones, goat, and sweat are all part of T.'s difficult life, but the water that surrounds her, taking her in and cleansing her of the others, is also there forever.
"Pain and clamor" refer to events the poem does not specify, but which are related in mood to the stones, sweat, and goats. They are strong words, indicating that the person called T. has suffered recently. Drawing attention to the lake's unchanging character, its unawareness of human trauma, restates the point that the poet has already made about nature being too large to take note of human concerns.
The parallel structure of these two lines turns "morning" and "anguish" into related concepts. Usually morning has positive associations, implying hope and the start of a new day. By relating it to anguish, the poem turns expectations upside down. There is also an ominous implication that early anguish is just the start of things to come, like morning is the start of a new day. The poem's speaker reassures the reader the thing that unites anguish and morning is not that they both are beginnings, but that they both pass by: a reassurance that no agony is worth much worry.
The hope that the poem offers in line 9 that anguish will pass is dampened in lines 10 and 11, with the observation that there will be other sources of agony to replace it. T.'s future holds more work, more hard and unyielding nature like the stones, and more dumb animals like goats. All of these items will bother her, causing just as much anguish as that she has experienced this particular morning. The bite will be deeply felt, the speaker tells her, as if it were carried in her blood.
Several times, the speaker has threatened the poem's subject with the fear that the things which disturb her will continue forever, or will at least follow each other in an endless succession, each as disturbing as the last. However, in lines 12 and 13 the speaker assures T. that the anguish will in fact end someday. At first, it might seem like a contradiction to claim that other stones and sweat and goats will always be taking the place of earlier ones and yet also to claim that this cycle will end, but in line 13 the speaker offers an explanation: T., he says, will find something that will allow her to see things differently. It will not be a discovery but a "rediscovery," indicating the thing which will make all of the terrible things bearable is something she knew once before, but has forgotten.
The poem projects ahead to a time when all of the circumstances will be the same as they are now, but T. will be "beyond the clamor." Since line 7 mentioned the clamor that characterizes her existence, then it is clearly necessary for her to get beyond it if she is to lead a peaceful and happy life. After her rediscovery, the speaker predicts, she will be able to get beyond it. The first of the two poems ends with the calm assurance that, though the world will never change, T. will, and her new outlook will make the troubles of the world irrelevant.
The second poem in this sequence is linked to the first with the word "also," although there is no other indicator, except the title, that these two poems have any relation to one another. This first line tells readers that the second poem will address its subject in the more traditional format of a love poem.
Although the first line of this poem hints at the higher significance that is usually associated with a love poem, the poet wastes no time in bringing the situation back to a realistic perspective. T., the person being addressed, is made from "blood," an indication of basic human biology, and "earth," which serves as a reminder of the base, physical truth of being human. If love puts people above their physical nature, the poet makes sure T. will not forget that the physical nature still exists.
Line 19 makes a cryptic mention of "the others." This reference could be to other lovers the poet has had, but in this context it probably means the other people who live where T. lives, and who cope with similar circumstances. If "blood and earth" is meant to identify T.'s physical nature, then this reference is included to show her social position.
These lines, written in plain, direct language, show that the subject of the poem is not an adventuresome type. She stays close to home, indicating a fear of the world that lies beyond her comfortable barriers. These lines also help identify the speaker's place in relation to her: he has to draw conclusions about her personality from the way she walks, implying that he has no more concrete evidence with which to work. Whether the speaker knows her personally or not, he is telling her what her body conveys to others.
These three lines are about T.'s silence. The poem describes her anticipation, waiting for something, watching for it. The problem with her waiting is that she is not aware, so she will not see the thing that she is waiting for when it happens. In light of the first line of this second poem, it is safe to assume that the thing she is waiting for is love.
For a second time in this poem, the poet calls his subject "earth," in line 23. In this case, the reference to the way she relates to the natural world implies she is closer to the things of nature than to humans. She is unable to communicate what she knows or wants or what is bothering her. When she suffers, she holds it in, so that others do not know exactly what is on her mind.
The actions ascribed to T. here are not ones usually associated with a cultured individual. "Bursts" and "lapses" indicate to readers that T. does speak, but in wrong proportions: too much and too quickly sometimes, and too little at other times. Saying that she has "words," without any other description of what these words might be or what they are regarding, implies she does not use her words in any clever or memorable way, but is just barely competent with them. Her words exist, but they are almost meaningless.
In the end, the poem summarizes the aspects of T. that have been mentioned already. She performs simple tasks, such as walking, and she keeps quietly to herself, waiting. While the idea of her being "earth" has already been mentioned twice, the poem returns to using "blood" as a metaphor for the physical aspect of humanity, and joins this with the spiritual aspect by saying that T's blood and love are the same thing. This poem, which has stressed the simplicity of its subject's existence, ends with two simple, unpoetic, anti-climactic words: "that's all."
In the thirteenth line of the poem, Pavese says, "you'll rediscover something." The poem does not identify what T. is supposed to discover, but readers can tell that it will be a revelation that will change T.'s life. While she is described as being a part of the clamor earlier in the poem, in line 7 the speaker says that after this revelation she will be "beyond the clamor."
An epiphany is a moment when a character comes to a sudden understanding of the meaning or essence of things. In this case, the poet tells readers that the character being addressed, "you," will have an epiphany, but he does not go into any further detail about what will cause this epiphany, or why, or exactly what will be learned from it. The point of the epiphany, in this case, is to instill hope in the person who is being addressed. The poet cannot identify just what it is that is going to make T.'s life better, but he does express his confidence that something will, and that the change will be instantaneous. This hope for sudden revelation can help to make the current suffering bearable.
Language and Meaning
In the second poem of this sequence, much is made of the subject's inability to communicate clearly. "You are earth," the speaker says in lines 23 and 24," that aches and keeps silent." Just a few lines later the speaker states, somewhat blandly, "you have words." It is clear that this person T. does not know how to use words effectively, and therefore keeps silent, which gives her the stature of a natural element, much like the stones, the goat, and the sweat mentioned earlier. Like them, T. moves by instinct, if at all. She is more in tune with her own blood than with any other person with whom she might talk.
Yet, even though she does not communicate verbally, the speaker of the poem understands her. He knows enough to predict the epiphany she will have one day. He knows about her love, without her having to profess it. He sees in her motions that she is waiting and that she does not even know what she is waiting for. In words, Pavese has explored a world in which a person who does not use words well lives and communicates with her environment. The precise use of language in the poem indicates a great difference between the speaker, who is a master of language, and the subject, who hardly uses language at all, yet they manage to communicate with each other on a level that goes beyond language.
In this poem, "love" is not a thing people have or fall into or are captured by. Love is claimed to be the essence of T. Immediately after saying that T. will be alone on the lake, closing out the first poem, the second poem begins, "you are also love." With no one else around, it is clear the poet is not referring to romantic love, which is so often the subject of poetry. The poet goes on to give characteristics of this person who embodies love: she waits, silently watching, for something to come to her. With no other person involved, readers can assume that the quality of her love stems from what she projects to the world outside, and not what she takes from it or hopes to take.
The last sentence of the poem states that this person's blood is love. This cryptic message can be taken several ways, but the most obvious would be that love is more than the greatest thing in her mind, it is a necessary component of her life. This idea is fortified with the brief note, "that's all," that ends the poem. Although the concept of love in this poem is complex, Pavese insists it is really not that complex at all, but is in fact relatively simple. The connection between love and blood, love and existence, is a new one, but the poem insists on it as if it were obvious and there were nothing to doubt about it.
Unlike many poems written in the second person, which might conceivably be addressed to the person referred to as "you," "Two Poems for T." does not seem like it is really written to be spoken to its subject. T. is described as being distant and cautious, a person of action, close to the earth. One of the poem's main points is that T. is a simple country person who does not use words well.
Topics for Further Study
- Find two poems written by the same poet or by different poets that you think could be joined together as one. Explain your justification for linking them.
- This poem implies that T., the person being addressed, works with goats. Find out what you can about the kind of landscape where goats are tended and prepare a chart showing how that land differs from where you live.
- Identify the characteristics that make this poem uniquely Italian. Explain how it would have been different if it had been written by someone of a separate nationality (of your choosing).
- The second stanza emphasizes T.'s silence. Write the response you think T. would make to this explanation of her behavior, either in poetry or in prose.
A poem that is spoken to a person who will not hear it or to an inanimate object or an animal is called an "apostrophe." Often such poems are used to beg for grace from gods, or to show aspects of a natural object, such as a bird, by speaking to it as if it were human. Here, T. is treated like an object of nature that the poet views from afar. She is described in the poem, but she is also separated from humanity. The final line, in particular, reduces her to "love" alone—the kind of summary that can usually be given for a thing, not a person.
This poem incorporates several different styles at once. It calls itself two poems, and as such is a poetic sequence. Poets use sequences to return to a subject time after time, studying it from different angles. Some poetic sequences run the length of entire books, although it is possible for two poems to constitute a sequence.
On the other hand, the very fact that this piece is printed under one title indicates that it is one poem and that the designation "two poems" from the title is just an artistic ruse to urge readers to look at the differences between the two parts, even while they know the parts add up to a whole. Therefore, accepting its wholeness, the two parts are not really separate poems at all, but are instead stanzas of the same poem. A stanza is a break in a poem, usually occurring at regular intervals. For instance, many poems are written in quatrains, or four-line stanzas. However, there is no rule for how long a stanza should be, and no rule that says that the stanzas of a poem should be the same length. The two stanzas in "Two Poems for T." have similar patterns in the length and language of their lines, and they are both about the same person, which is a fact the reader knows only because the title says it is so. The differences between these two stanzas drive readers to think more carefully about the poem, in order to determine why the author thinks these two different works should be considered one.
Cesare Pavese lived and suffered under the fascist government that ruled Italy from 1922 until the end of World War II. Fascism was an ultra-nationalist movement that arose early in the twentieth century as a response to Marxism. Marxism predicted that the working class would one day rise up in social warfare, leading to the primacy of the individual and the eventual demise of government. On the other hand, fascism presented itself as a system dependant upon government to preserve the unity of the state.
In Italy, fascism was closely linked to the political rise of one man, Benito Mussolini. Mussolini started his career as a socialist but abandoned socialism in 1914, during World War I, because he foresaw the economic problems that the war would cause that would make life more difficult for the workers. When the war ended, Mussolini started several fascist parties, but he was hated by the socialists he had rejected and his intended audience eyed him with suspicion. In 1921 citizens were disturbed by Italy's economic problems and the social violence (much of it caused by fascists) that caused rioting in the streets. Fascist candidates swept into office, with Mussolini as their leader. The following year, Mussolini led a takeover of the government, establishing himself as Italy's dictator.
It was the fascist belief, as laid out in Mussolini's book The Fascist Doctrine, that all aspects of society could and should be controlled by the government, in order to control the natural human tendency toward chaos. The years of fascist control were difficult ones for artists in Italy. The totalitarian government controlled what was printed and not printed, censoring works deemed dangerous to the Italian way of life, which were actually just dangerous to the government's authority. Many writers, like Pavese, stopped working during these years, for fear of having their works interpreted as subversive and thereby facing jail time, or worse.
In 1936 Mussolini made a pact with Adolph Hitler, then chancellor of Germany. Germany was beginning its push toward world domination, which would lead to World War II. Italy, however, was a weak country under the fascist regime. When the war began in 1941, Mussolini sent troops to fight beside Germany in Europe and Africa, but the Italian troops were poorly equipped and armed and were frequently defeated. Mussolini's alliance with Hitler, with which he had hoped to create a greater power base as Italy gained from the nations that it conquered and controlled, ended up eroding his popular support. Mussolini began programs, like those in Nazi Germany, to suppress and eventually exterminate Jews in Italy, but the Italian people resented the violence that Mussolini brought to their home towns. This fact, in addition to the many military losses, led Mussolini to lose control of the country in 1943, the year that Italian forces surrendered to the Allies. King Victor Emmanuel called for Mussolini and most high-ranking fascists to resign, and a new government was established with broader democratic principles. Mussolini was executed by a military tribunal in 1945. In 1946, the year that Pavese wrote this poem, Victor Emmanuel abdicated his throne; the people of Italy, in a referendum, passed a new constitution establishing the country as a republic.
When his career is taken into perspective as a whole, Cesare Pavese's poetry has been accepted as the work of a gifted author, but it is often neglected by readers in favor of his fiction. His fiction, which was plain and cold, seemed more appropriate for the ideas he put forth, thus resonating with audiences more than his poetry. At the time when his novels were first translated into English and published in America, Pavese's poetry was still known only in Italy. His book of poems Hard Labor, for instance, first published in Italy in 1943, did not appear in an American edition until 1976. Many of his important poetic works, such as "Two Poems for T.," were not available in English until the 2002 collection Disaffections.
Another aspect that has clouded judgment of Pavese's poetry is the tendency by many critics to cling to the connection between the author's life and his work. Because of the vagaries of his personality, binding his life to his work often ends with the work suffering. As Àine O'Healy states in the conclusion of Cesare Pavese, "Pavese's artistic and intellectual pursuits became not a mere temporary repository for existential tensions, but threatened to become a substitute for life itself. It has been on this point that his critics have been most severe." Still, Pavese is today considered one of the greatest Italian writers of the twentieth century and the only Italian poet from the fascist era who is studied in depth.
Compare & Contrast
- 1946: In the aftermath of World War II, Italy is a ruined country, economically drained and damaged by battles that took place across its landscape.
Today: Italy has enjoyed a strong economy that has only recently suffered its first mild recession since the early 1990s.
- 1946: Italian culture, having been suppressed for decades by the totalitarian rule of the fascist party, flowers and attracts world-wide attention.
Today: Italy has no official state-sponsored censorship. There is concern about the 2001 election of billionaire media baron Silvio Berlusconi to prime minister. Opponents fear that Berlusconi, who controls 90 percent of the country's television stations, might suppress artistic freedom.
- 1946: Italy is primarily an agricultural society.
Today: Although it still has a strong agricultural aspect, most of Italyís economy today is in industry and communications.
- 1946: In the wake of the fascist government's fall, organized crime, which has had a strong influence in Italy for most of the twentieth century, flourishes.
Today: Although the Italian economy and government are stable, organized crime is still a powerful force, costing Italian businesses over $60 billion annually in protection money, stolen goods, and security.
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at two colleges in Illinois. In this essay, Kelly examines why it can be considered artistically appropriate that T., who is hardly given individual characteristics in the poem, is referred to in the title at all.
"Two Poems for T." is one of Cesare Pavese's later works, scribbled in a notebook in 1946 and unpublished until after his suicide in 1950. The poem could hardly be more cryptic, from the fact that this one poem is identified as two, to the references to specific objects (such as "goats") that seem to identify a particular, unidentified setting, to the fact that the "you" of the poem is identified less by social relationship than by philosophical situation. There is so much left unsaid in this poem that critics tend to look outside its lines, to the life of the poet himself, when trying to understand it. This should come as no surprise: Pavese was an intensely personal poet, whose literary reputation was based on other activities, namely his fiction and his fascination with American authors. His poetry actively defied easy comprehension. William Arrow-smith, whose translation of Hard Labor was the first collection of Pavese's poems available to American audiences, noted in his introduction to the book that, for Pavese, poetry was a struggle against the old forms, which the fascist government of Italy had co-opted into a political tool of its own. Arrowsmith explains Pavese's poetry as a search for the spiritual meaning in the small things in life—the obscure, overlooked objects that are always around but never thought of as objects of poetry. He tells readers that, for Pavese, "the poet had to stand open to the world and to others, to make his poetry reveal . . . the spiritual, mythical 'presence' which things do not 'express' but are."
The assumption, then, that facts from Pavese's life might lead to a richer understanding of why he constructed this poem in this way is not a very strong one, but, in trying to untangle the riddle of something as shadowy as "Two Poems for T." it is best to grasp at any clues that are available. In a lengthy article published in 1997 in the journal American Poetry Review, Alan Williamson noted that the novelist Italo Calvino had drawn the conclusion that T. of the poem was a woman referred to in Pavese's journal as "Ter.," with whom Pavese had conducted a brief affair but had not loved with the operatic breadth of many of his other heart-crushing affairs. Assuming that Calvino is correct—which, given his reputation as a writer and scholar, is a pretty safe assumption—this puts readers only slightly closer to the heart of the poem. Knowing that T. was a lover at one time brings shades of understanding to the poem, especially to the second stanza, which is about love. Knowing that their love affair was just tepid gives readers food for thought in interpreting the "you are love" idea. Still, this new perspective only changes one's interpretation slightly. Setting aside information about Ter., this poem is about the human condition and raises specific imagery that tantalizes readers because it seems that it should mean something, and it probably does, to the writer. What the knowledge of this past lover adds to the interpretation is measurable, but it still does not provide the poem with any clear point.
Suppose there was a Ter. and, further, suppose that person was on Pavese's mind the entire time that he was working on this poem: the poem is still too tightly woven to make the presence of an outside person, an intruder from the real world, significant. This poem is not about a person, strictly, but rather about humanity. To that end, it matters very little if the person described is a lover, an acquaintance, or someone the poet has known all his life.
Like any work of art, "Two Poems for T." is partly about the artist who created it. It shows the kind of fear and fascination with the details of life in the country that is common of a city dweller like Pavese, and it shows his characteristic mix of cold-blooded realism with the awareness that the tangible objects of the world mean something that cannot be verbalized. Even more relevant than the identity of T. is the brief biographical fact that, sentenced for treason, Pavese was sent into exile from Turin, the town where he had lived all of his life, to a remote Mediterranean village. The confluence of being displaced against his will, having his life disrupted, and serving his sentence in relative freedom in a free and sunny climate has more to do with this poem than the name of the person who was on his mind at the time.
There would be no interest in the actual identity of the "you" of the poem at all if she had not been named in the title. Doing so represents an interesting choice on the poet's part. Even if it was just an off-the-cuff scribbling in his notebook, it still indicates a desire to connect the person to the poem. Though the connection is not necessary in a literary sense, there must have been some reason why Pavese wanted it made.
According to Arrowsmith, in the quote above, it was Pavese's intention to make circumstances reveal themselves, rather than having to explain them. In wondering why this title works for this particular poem, readers must ask themselves just what it is that is supposed to be revealed. The two poems melded together here show very little in the way of character of either the speaker or the "you." The first "poem," about sweat and blood and goats, has the speaker observing the other, but all that readers are told is that the other is swimming in a lake. This stanza goes on to say that the "you" will someday "rediscover" something that will make the misery of life better, but this is a generalized prediction that any person could make to any other with a good chance of being close to right. The second "poem" is a little more specific—does one not need to know a person, readers must ask, if they are going to say to that person, "You are love?" Still, this poem is impersonal in that it seems to be telling the other things about her that she does not know, and would quite possibly not recognize. If two people do not have the same view of the situation, then it is not really a shared situation. The character of T. as it is described here might be anyone, as far as she is concerned. Pavese describes T. as a true outside observer would, as "one who waits and does not see" and "the earth that aches and keeps silent." From the very fact that he feels that he has to offer these assessments at all, it is clear that she would not recognize herself in them: they are not the warm compliments of lovers, but instead have the unpleasant clang of a doctor's diagnosis. The subject herself would need the title to see that this is supposed to be she.
In combining this title with this poem, Pavese shows his subtle poetic genius. The poem's subject might not know about whom he is talking, and its readers might not know, but the one thing that anchors his philosophical musings is that the poet makes it clear that he knows. It is only when readers can believe that there is an individual subject and that this poem is not written with the intent of illustrating the general human condition, that the poem can work. There are hints of the particular setting within the poem, but giving the other person a name (or, rather, an initial, indicating that the full name has been hidden in order to preserve her identity) makes readers back off asking more. We understand that this is a private matter and are therefore much more willing to accept the lack of details.
Hinting in the title of the poem that the person described is a real person is bound to whet a reader's curiosity, especially when the poem is so scarce of details that the subject's identity might reasonably be expected to provide critical information. In the case of "Two Poems for T.," knowing who T. probably was ends up being only mildly interesting. The poem can be understood without knowing, though the information from Pavese's journal does add a little coloring to any interpretation. The important thing is that it was dedicated at all, so that readers know that there is a level of reality beyond what appears in this poem. Most people are used to experiencing the lives of others in glimpses, familiar with only a fraction of the events that form another person's mind, and in cases of other people's personal relationships, it is almost always the case that we just will never know the whole story.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "Two Poems for T.," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.
In the following review of translations of works by Dante and Pavese, Pappas-Signorelli identifies various themes in Pavese's poetry and comments on Pavese's contributions to modern Italian poetry.
What motivates poetry translation? Perhaps its inescapable resemblance to the very act of poem-making—the conversion of sudden, distant beats into words. By trying to capture in words the powerful "spirit" of the original, translators seek to animate their works with the haunting energy and sensibility that the primary text conveys. Both the Hollanders and Geoffrey Brock seem to me to have accomplished this elusive feat, for they have consistently made the intricate conversions of translation with skill, discipline, and a visionary force.
To enter Dante's Purgatorio is to step into a charmed world, balanced by the rhythmic interplay of sleep, dreams, light, shadows, smiles, tears, and the reverberations of both solo and choral song. This is the most aesthetically vibrant of Dante's three realms, the one in which the artisanal gestures of poet, painter, and musician prevail. As Robert Hollander comments in the introduction, the language itself here is less harsh than that of the Inferno, reflecting perhaps the milder psychological states of the penitents, whose suffering remains real but is now eased by the prospect of redemption.
The stories of transforming life moments also continue, yet they do not end in the anguished or self-pitying outbursts that seal the narratives of characters like Francesca or Ugolino in the Inferno. The resounding note of the Purgatorio is that of love, the vital force that informs the moto spiritale, the movement of the spirit. "I am one who, when Love inspires me, take note and, as he dictates deep within me, so I set it forth," says Dante, when questioned in Canto XXIV about his poetic purpose by the medieval poet Bonagiunta da Lucca. Although Dante here defines the essence of the dolce stil nuovo, the "sweet, new style" that distinguished his love poetry from that of his predecessors, his response also suggests the way in which the poignant shadowy souls in purgatory both embody and are themselves swept along by the force of their own recovered innocence and love.
The Hollanders have rendered both the supple lyricism and the rich imagery of the Purgatorio with an admirably informed expertise, preserving the stately economy of Dante's Italian throughout. On the occasions when they have chosen English equivalents that seem in any way at odds with the original text, they responsibly offer thoughtful, detailed explanations of their decision. This kind of linguistic integrity represents a model for all translators. On the other hand, the prolonged scholarly commentaries that follow each canto can seem excessive, giving readers a sense of reading two books simultaneously rather than one. The result is a certain loss of momentum with the primary text that has to be recovered with effort as each new canto begins. Perhaps this somewhat labored, jagged rhythm is inherent in the modern reading of a text like the Commedia with its unusually dense number of medieval figures and references that clearly need some form of supportive gloss. While Robert Hollander is an internationally known scholar and his commentary—especially in the elaboration of conflicting interpretations—is eloquent and authoritative, I question the decision to freight the cantos with the sheer bulk of explication presented here.
The Hollanders have chosen free verse over the rhyme scheme that Dante originally devised for the Commedia, the terza rima that technically unifies the work and propels it forward. Yet they have kept carefully intact the original text units of both individual lines and tercets, allowing readers to stay oriented whenever they make the transition across the page from one language to the other. And the translated English lines themselves have an assured naturalness that evokes an authentic sense of Dante's balletic economy with language. The famous monologue of Pia of Tolomei in Canto V, for example, is rendered with a spare, elegant simplicity:
Pray, once you have gone back into the world and are rested from the long road, the third spirit followed on the second,
please remember me, who am La Pia. Siena made me, in Maremma I was undone. He knows how, the one who, to marry me, first gave the ring that held his stone.
In an intriguing explanation of process, Robert Hollander comments that he and his wife, Jean, had to resist the impulse "of making the translation sound better than the original allows." He continues, "This is not Dante, but an approximation of what he might authorize had he been looking over our shoulders . . ." I am struck by the wisdom of this guideline and can't help but think that we would have more high-quality translations if translators systematically held themselves to the standard of the Hollanders' imagined authorial gaze.
If Cesare Pavese were looking over the shoulders of Geoffrey Brock as he rendered the clipped, pungent verses of Lavorare stanca (Work's Tiring) into English, I feel certain he would have been satisfied with Brock's consistency in preserving the powerful spirit of the original. A devotee of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English and American literature, Pavese was himself an active translator who introduced Italian readers to the works of Melville, Joyce, Whitman, and Faulkner. Devastated by the way in which Fascism effaced Italian culture, forcing the generation that lived through it into silence, Pavese used nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature as a model for creating a new Italian literary culture that would embrace democratic ideals and allow authors to write in a state of freedom.
Although he would eventually make his name as a novelist, producing ten major works of fiction in less than ten years, Pavese began as a poet. The poems in Lavorare stanca, which he wrote during a period of political exile in Calabria between 1935 and 1936, evolved into a kind of diary, deepening his inner life and providing a path into the spare, mythic, poetically resonant prose that would crown the work of his final decade. Instinctively drawn to the narrative form, Pavese created a haunting cycle of "poemstories" in Lavorare stanca in which the peasant inhabitants of an ancient Piedmont culture come forth in Dantesque style to tell their life stories in clipped, austere voices. This lifeworn assemblage of prostitutes, convicts, and working class men and women are unpoetic in their blunt, even coarse, manner, yet their speech is unmistakably authentic in its clear, conversational style and heartfelt honesty. In their elemental purity they embody the essence of the undaunted new Italian culture Pavese hoped to create.
As a translator of Pavese's verse, Geoffrey Brock manages to capture the rustic grit of these speakers, while also conveying the measured restraint of the original Italian. The result is that even when the poems downshift into understatement they maintain a mysterious apocalyptic tension, a poised balance between the metaphysical and the real that is the hallmark of Pavese's mythic power as a writer. A poem like "Grappa in September" engages the paradox of movement through stasis, the unstoppable, silent ripening of both natural and human forms as seen through the eyes of a characteristically reticent speaker:
This early you see only women. Women don't smoke and don't drink, they know only to stop in the sun to let their bodies grow warm, as if they were fruit. The air's raw with this fog, you drink it in sips like grappa, everything here has a flavor. Even the river water has swallowed the banks and steeps them below, in the sky. The streets are like women, they grow ripe without moving.
By remaining faithful to Pavese's line breaks, word choices, and punctuation, Brock allows the poem to move forward in its distinctively deliberate, evocative rhythm, gently linking male with female, land with water, sight with touch. Unlike William Arrowsmith, an earlier translator of Pavese's verse, whose rendering of this poem created considerably more short, staccato sentences, Brock leaves Pavese's original longer sentence units gracefully intact, preserving the sense of what is visible and invisible flowing into a single unified force.
What Do I Read Next?
- "Two Poems for T." can be found in the collection Disaffections: Complete Poems, 1930–1950 (2002). This collection provides a broader sampling of Pavese's writing styles and themes.
- Four of Pavese's novels—The Beach, The House on the Hill, Among Women Only, and The Devil in the Hills—are collected and available in The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese (1968).
- The standard biography of Pavese is An Absurd Vice: A Biography of Cesare Pavese (1983), written by Davide Lajolo and translated by Mario and Mark Pietralunga.
- Students interested in Pavese can read a condensed version of his diaries in The Business of Living: Diaries, 1935–1950 (1980). These selections do not cover all of the important events in his life, but they do give a sense of his personality and complex mind.
The theme of maturity persists in a number of Pavese's poems, notably "People Who Don't Understand," which tells the story of Gella, a young woman suspended between the primitive allure of the country where she can live like a creature of pure instinct and the irresistable fantasy of sophisticated adult life in the city. She imagines the city ". . . up on those hills, / luminous, secret: never again would she leave it" or the country vanishing to leave her strolling with a laugh down city avenues in the evening, but as the poem ends she remains paralyzed, unable to live comfortably in either world.
Loneliness is a state that stalks Pavese's characters, like the drunkard in "Ancient Discipline" who escapes the pain of solitude in alcohol and sex. The poem opens with the image of drifters who spend their lives eternally in transit: "They move slow down the street; the street and its lamps / are endless." In the world of the exile—as Pavese must have seen himself during his year of political confinement—women represent the only hope of flight from the pain of solitude. In the title poem, "Work's Tiring," a fantasy of loving connection erupts in the midst of despair: "If he had a companion, / they could walk through the streets together, and home / would be where she was, and it would be worth it." But the dream condenses only to vanish and as the poem ends, the man "feels only the pavement . . . as hard as his hands."
Pavese regarded the poems of Lavorare stanca as his most important artistic achievement, the book, as he mused toward the end of his life, "that might have saved a generation." But it was largely ignored when it was published in 1936, leaving its author as one of the few to take the full measure of its bold originality. The poems of Pavese's later life that conclude Disaffections present a striking contrast with their shorter lines and complete absence of narrative. Pavese's subjects now turn moodily personal and are haunted by elusive female figures who suggest the frustration he felt in trying to find anything like contentment in his relationships with women. The famous "Death will come and will have your eyes," part of a new cycle of poems found in the hotel room where he committed suicide in 1950, suggests his final yielding to the dark forces that had long tormented him. Brock offers an English version that conveys the grave power and poignance of the famous Italian original:
Death will come and will have your eyes—this death that accompanies usfrom morning till evening, unsleeping,deaf, like an old remorse or an absurd vice. Your eyes will be a useless word, a suppressed cry, a silence.
What I especially admire in this poem and others is not only the passionate intensity of tone but the deft way in which the translator preserves the poet's use of assonance to echo vowel sounds, creating a pattern of internal rhythm in English that evokes the music of Pavese's Italian.
In rendering both these later poems and the earlier verses from Lavorare stanca, Brock is scrupulously faithful to the primary text, consistently expressing in English the authentic sense and spirit of Pavese's poems. As a result, we have been given access to a body of startlingly original poetic work that can now begin to be understood as the courageous and pioneering contribution to modern Italian poetry that it always was.
The past decade has brought a Renaissance in poetry translation, with accomplished English versions of twentieth-century poets like Mandelstam, Celan, and Akhmatova taking their place beside the older classics of Ovid, Homer, and Sappho. The powerful renderings of both the Hollanders and Geoffrey Brock are firmly rooted in this movement to vivify both ancient and modern poetic literature by giving two Italian exile poets from different eras newly forceful and melodious voices in English.
Source: Rita Pappas-Signorelli, "Imagining the Author's Gaze: Ancient and Modern Exile Literature in Translation," in Literary Review, Vol. 46, No. 4, Summer 2003, pp. 753–58.
In the following essay, O'Healy explores critical reaction to Pavese's life and work.
Despite the explicit plea for discretion made in his suicide note, Pavese's life and death have been the object of unrelenting speculation and discussion. More has been written about him than about any other Italian author of the twentieth century. Pavese's suicide, eventually interpreted as the gesture of an entire generation, was, in fact, simply a private act. It was the direct result of his fragile mental health, characterized by recurrent bouts of extreme depression and exacerbated by the external pressures that converged at a single moment in time. Public fascination with this troubled, perplexing personality and his dramatic last act has often eclipsed or distorted the critical perspective on his remarkable artistic and intellectual achievements.
The scope of Pavese's contribution became evident only after his death. His novels enjoyed enormous popularity not only in Italy but throughout the world, and they were soon translated into many languages. Though no systematic critical assessment was available for some time, two diverging views of Pavese gained currency. On the popular level, he came to be regarded along with Vittorini as the major exponent of the neo-realist novel, with all the implications of social consciousness that that category brought with it. In the meantime, however, critics on the Left brought into focus his lack of ideological consistency and his regressive, decadent inspiration.
An essay written by Carlo Muscetta shortly after the publication of Il mestiere di vivere in 1953 exemplified the opinion of the Left. Observing in Pavese's spiritual stoicism the reflection of a decadent sensibility, Muscetta gave an essentially negative evaluation of the writer's art. In 1954, in a short article inspired by a similar perspective, Alberto Moravia dismissed the literary qualities of Pavese's poetry and fiction, claiming that the cultural importance of Pavese's work was greater than its artistic value. A year later, Carlo Salinari also emphasized the decadent sensibility at the heart of Pavese's inspiration. While analyzing the critical importance of his development of "symbolic realism," Salinari presented Pavese as the end point of the entire decadent tradition in Europe. On the positive side, he also claimed that Pavese was the first letterato of truly European stature to emerge in Italy for many years.
Much of the criticism of Pavese offered during the 1950s and 1960s proceeded from biased generalizations and, with some exceptions, studies attempting a methodical critical assessment of his works were very few. The publication of Lajolo's biography Il vizio assurdo in 1960 served to further confuse the issues and to perpetuate the notion that an evaluation of Pavese's poetry and fiction should be linked with the details of his day-to-day existence. Lajolo attempted to illustrate the events of Pavese's life with references to his poetry and fiction, thus subordinating the importance of the writer's art to the account of his psychological and social problems. Though the limits of such an approach were noted almost immediately by Pavese's more astute readers, Il vizio assurdo enjoyed widespread popularity and acclaim. A play written by Diego Fabbri in collaboration with Lajolo—on whose book it was based—was eventually produced on Italian national television in 1978. This served to circulate and reinforce on a mass level the distorted image first generated by Lajolo's earlier work, that of Pavese as a hysterically flawed and pathetic individual.
The extensive Freudian analysis of Pavese's life and works undertaken by Dominique Fernandez in 1967 has become one of the most widely quoted sources in the secondary literature. Nevertheless, Fernandez places excessive emphasis on the details of Pavese's life and particularly on his emotional difficulties, as a tool for understanding his poetry and fiction. There are also briefer, less detailed attempts at psychoanalytical criticism in the secondary literature, notably the biographical chapter offered by Armanda Guiducci—influenced by the theories of Melanie Klein—and the monograph by Philippe Renard, which builds an interpretation based on the principles of Jacques Lacan. All of these studies are regrettably reductive and flawed. More useful, though also limited, is Armanda Guiducci's lengthy monograph, Il mito Pavese; while not purporting to be a study of Pavese's work, it offers a speculative analysis of the broad cultural influences that converged in the composition of those works.
In 1964 the publication of an issue of Sigma devoted to the analysis of various aspects of Pavese's works became a significant milestone in the development of a rigorous critical trend. The twelve scholarly articles printed in this issue not only provided stimulus for future inquiry, but also set the example for a systematic, disciplined evaluation of Pavese's output. The articles on the significance of Pavese's use of language were especially influential, as were those on Pavese's elaboration of the notion of myth. Since 1964, many monographs on the author have been published, some taking their lead from the focused studies collected in the Sigma special issue, and others harking back to the attempts at psychobiography offered by Lajolo or in the more skilled but ultimately limited study by Fernandez. The most recent milestone in the literature on Pavese is the 1985 monograph by Tibor Wlassics, which, in its probing analysis of the incrustations that have accumulated in the secondary works, has raised the standard of Pavese studies to a new level.
The importance of Pavese's role in the perennial struggle to re-create the Italian literary language—the so-called questione della lingua—is now a matter of general consensus. His theories on myth and his formulation of a personal mythic symbolism remain more controversial. His preoccupation with myth is clearly linked with his decadent heritage, an influence for which he has been repeatedly criticized. Pavese was undoubtedly marked by his exposure to the tradition of European decadence. In his early years he carried on a conscious battle to transcend the limits of that sensibility, invoking the example of American writers and eventually attempting to create a radically new form of poetry. Despite his early and thorough attempt to become a modern, rational, progressive writer, he could never fully abandon his fascination with aestheticism and the myths of the late romantic sensibility.
His struggle to balance life with art was never resolved successfully. As a result of his emotional difficulties, Pavese's artistic and intellectual pursuits became not a mere temporary repository for existential tensions, but threatened to become a substitute for life itself. It has been on this point that his critics have been most severe. It should be observed, however, that for Pavese art could not completely substitute for life. In an ironic way, his deeply felt anxieties and alienation led him to desire to identify with the alienated. This existential yearning in part explains his membership in the Italian Communist party after the war; but his artistic integrity accounted for his ultimate rejection of the Party principle that culture must be subordinated to ideology.
Pavese was not only a poet and novelist but a cultural leader and innovator. His substantial contributions as editor, translator, and essayist broke new ground. In his work Pavese was decisive, disciplined, and strong. Despite the tone of self-abasement that surfaces from time to time in his letters and diary regarding his personal life, his attitude toward his work was marked by a contrasting self-confidence. His only fear was that his artistic inspiration might one day run dry. Life without the option of self-creation through writing would be impossible.
In 1939 Pavese quoted in his diary the French writer Lavelle: "La seule chose qui compte, c'est d'être, non point d'agir" ("The only thing that matters is to be, not to act"). Yet Pavese's whole life was dedicated to the process of doing, constructing, and working. This ceaseless activity, prompted by the need to prove himself worthy of being in the world, came from his deepest existential anxieties, transformed into rational endeavor. Too much attention has been paid to Pavese's final act of suicide and not enough to his unrelenting discipline and to his ongoing effort to transcend personal anxieties through the construction of an enduring artistic legacy.
Source: Aine O'Healy, "Conclusion: Pavese's Critics and His Legacy," in Cesare Pavese, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 154–57.
In the following excerpt from his diary writings, Pavese extrapolates on poetic images and technique.
Every poet has known anguish, wonderment, joy. The admiration we feel for a passage of great poetry is never inspired by its amazing cleverness, but by the fresh discovery it contains. If we thrill with delight on finding an adjective successfully linked with a noun never seen with it before, it is not its elegance that moves us, the flash of genius or the poet's technical skill, but amazement at the new realities it has brought to light.
It is worth pondering over the potent effect of images such as cranes, a serpent or cicadas; a garden, a whore or the wind; an ox, or a dog. Primarily, they are made for works of sweeping construction, because they typify the casual glance given to external things while carefully narrating affairs of human importance. They are like a sigh of relief, like looking out of a window. With their air of decorative detail, like many-colored chips from a solid trunk, they attest to the unconscious austerity of their creator. They require a natural in-capacity for rustic sentiment. Clearly and frankly they make use of nature as a means to an end, as something subordinate to the main issue, entertaining but incidental. This, be it understood, is the traditional view. My own conception of images as the basic substance of a theme runs counter to that idea. Why? Because the poetry we write is short; because we seize upon and hammer into some significance a particular state of mind, which in itself is the beginning and the end. So it is not for us to embellish the rhythm of our abbreviated discourse with naturalistic flourishes. That would be pure affectation. We can either concern ourselves with some other subject and ignore nature with all its fertile imagery, or confine ourselves to conveying the naturalistic state of mind, in which case the glance through the window becomes the substance of the whole construction. But with other kinds of writing, we have only to think of any vast modern work—I have novels in mind—and amid the usual medley of homespun interpolations due to our irrepressible romanticism we find clear-cut instances of this play of natural imagery.
Supreme among ancients and moderns for his ability to combine the diverting image and the image-story is Shakespeare, whose work is constructed on an immense scale and yet is essentially a glance through the window. He evokes a flash of scintillating imagery from some dull clod of humanity and at the same time constructs the scene, indeed the whole play, as an inspired interpretation of his state of mind. The explanation lies in his superlative technique as a dramatist, embracing every aspect of humanity—and to a lesser degree of nature.
He has snatches of lyrics at his finger tips and builds them into a solid structure. He, alone in all the world, can tell a story and sing a song simultaneously.
Even assuming that I have hit upon the new technique I am trying to clarify for myself, it goes without saying that, here and there, it may contain traits borrowed in embryo from other techniques. This hinders me from seeing clearly the essential characteristics of my own style. (Contradicting Baudelaire, with all due respect, it may be said that not everything in poetry is predictable. When composing, one sometimes chooses a form not for any deliberate reason but by instinct, creating without knowing precisely how.) It is true that instead of weaving my plot development objectively, I tend to work in accordance with the calculated, yet fanciful, law of imagination. But to know how far calculation may go, what importance to attach to a fanciful law, where the image ends and logic begins, these are tricky little problems.
This evening, walking below red cliffs drenched in moonlight, I was thinking what a great poem it would make to portray the god incarnate in this place, with all the imaginative allusions appropriate to such a theme. Suddenly I was surprised by the realization that there is no such god. I know it, I am convinced of it, and therefore, though someone else might be able to write that poem, I could not. I went on to reflect how allusive, how all-pervading, every future subject must be to me, in the same way that a belief in the god incarnate in these red rocks would have to be real and all-pervading to a poet who used this theme.
Why cannot I write about these red, moonlit cliffs? Because they reflect nothing of myself. The place gives me a vague uneasiness, nothing more, and that should never be sufficient justification for a poem. If these rocks were in Piedmont, though, I could very well absorb them into a flight of fancy and give them meaning. Which comes to the same thing as saying that the fundamental basis of poetry may be a subconscious awareness of the importance of those bonds of sympathy, those biological vagaries, that are already alive, in embryo, in the poet's imagination before the poem is begun.
Certainly it ought to be possible even for me, to create a poem on a subject whose background is not Piedmont. It ought to be, but hardly ever has been, so far. Which means that I have not yet progressed beyond the simple re-elaboration of the images materially represented by my innate links with my environment. In other words, there is a blind spot in my work as a poet, a material limitation that I do not want, but cannot succeed in eliminating. But is it then really an objective residuum or something indispensable in my blood?
Source: Cesare Pavese, "1935," in This Business of Living: Diaries, 1935–1950, translated by A. E. Murch, Quartet Books, 1961, September.
Arrowsmith, William, Introduction to Hard Labor: Poems by Cesare Pavese, Grossman Publishing, 1976, p. xiii.
O'Healy, Àine, Cesare Pavese, Twayne's World Authors Series No. 785, Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Pavese, Cesare, Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930–1950, edited by Geoffrey Brock, Copper Canyon Press, 2002.
Williamson, Alan, American Poetry Review, Vol. 26, No. 5, September–October 1997.
Pavese, Cesare, American Literature, University of California Press, 1970.
Pavese was as well-known for bringing American literature to his Italian audience as he was for his poetry. Students studying his thoughts on Melville, Whitman, James Baldwin, and others will find Pavese's philosophy mapped out in greater detail here than it is in "Two Poems for T."
Signorelli-Pappas, Rita, "Imagining the Author's Gaze: Ancient and Modern Exile Literature in Translation," in Literary Review, Vol. 46, No. 4, Summer 2003, pp. 753–58.
This recent article examines a wide range of translation methods, including choices made by Geoffrey Brock in translating Pavese's poetry.
Thompson, Doug, Cesare Pavese: A Study of the Major Novels and Poems, Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Thompson's work does not examine "Two Poems for T." but it does give serious consideration to the poet's style and influences.
Williamson, Alan, "Pavese's Late Love Poems," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 26, No. 5, September–October 1997, pp. 40–45.
Williamson identifies the inspiration of "Two Poems for T." as a woman referred to in Pavese's notebooks as "Ter.," attributing this discovery to Italian novelist Italo Calvino. In general, this article gives a good sense of the emotional turmoil in Pavese's life when he wrote this poem.