Eugenio Montale: Poetry in an era of nuclear weapons and Doomsday atmosphere
From Nobel Prize in Literature lecture (1975)
The register of the names of those who, having given something to humanity, have received the coveted recognition of the Nobel Prize would be long. But infinitely more numerous and practically impossible to identify would be the legion, the army of those who work for humanity in infinite ways even without realizing it and who never aspire to any possible prize because they have not written works, acts or academic treatises and have never thought of “making the presses groan”, as the Italian expression says. There certainly exists an army of pure, immaculate souls, and they are an obstacle (certainly insufficient) to the spread of that utilitarian spirit which in various degrees is pushed to the point of corruption, crime and every form of violence and intolerance. The academicians of Stockholm have often said no to intolerance, cruel fanaticism and that persecuting spirit which turns the strong against the weak, oppressors against the oppressed. This is true particularly in their choice of literary works, works which can sometimes be murderous, but never like that atomic bomb which is the most mature fruit of the eternal tree of evil.
Evidently the arts, all the visual arts, are becoming more democratic in the worst sense of the word. Art is the production of objects for consumption, to be used and discarded while waiting for a new world in which man will have succeeded in freeing himself of everything, even of his own consciousness. The example I cite could be extended to the exclusively noisy and undifferentiated music listened to in those places where millions of young people gather to exorcize the horror of their solitude. But why more than ever has civilized man reached the point of having horror of himself?
…It alarms me that a sort of general Doomsday atmosphere accompanies an ever more wide-spread comfort, that well-being (there where it exists, that is in limited areas of the world) has the livid features of desperation. Against the dark background of this contemporary civilization of well-being, even the arts tend to mingle, to lose their identity. Mass communication, radio, and especially television, have attempted, not without success, to annihilate every possibility of solitude and reflection. Time becomes more rapid, works of a few years ago seem “dated” and the need the artist has to be listened to sooner or later becomes a spasmodic need of the topical, of the immediate. Whence the new art of our time which is the spectacle, a not necessarily theatrical exhibition in which the rudiments of every art are present and which effects a kind of psychic massage on the spectator or listener or reader as the case may be. The deus ex machina of this new heap is the director. His purpose is not only to co-ordinate scenic arrangements, but to give intentions to works which have none or have had other ones. There is a great sterility in all this, an immense lack of confidence in life. In such a landscape of hysterical exhibitionism what can be the place of poetry, the most discrete of arts, be? So-called lyrical poetry is work, the fruit of solitude and accumulated impressions. This is still true today but in rather limited cases. We have however more numerous cases in which the self-proclaimed poet falls into step with new times. Poetry then becomes acoustic and visual. The words splash in all directions, like the explosion of a grenade, there is no true meaning, but a verbal earthquake with many epicenters.
The Lemon Tree
Translated by Lee Gerlach
Hear me a moment. Laureate poets
seem to wander among plants
no one knows: boxwood, acanthus,
where nothing is alive to touch.
I prefer small streets that falter
into grassy ditches where a boy,
searching in the sinking puddles,
might capture a struggling eel.
The little path that winds down
along the slope plunges through cane-tufts
and opens suddenly into the orchard
among the moss-green trunks
of the lemon trees.
Perhaps it is better
if the jubilee of small birds
dies down, swallowed in the sky,
yet more real to one who listens,
the murmur of tender leaves
in a breathless, unmoving air.
The senses are graced with an odor
filled with the earth.
It is like rain in a troubled breast,
sweet as an air that arrives
too suddenly and vanishes.
A miracle is hushed; all passions
are swept aside. Even the poor
know that richness,
the fragrance of the lemon trees.
You realize that in silences
things yield and almost betray
their ultimate secrets.
At times, one half expects
to discover an error in Nature,
the still point of reality,
the missing link that will not hold,
the thread we cannot untangle
in order to get at the truth.
You look around. Your mind seeks,
makes harmonies, falls apart
in the perfume, expands
when the day wearies away.
There are silences in which one watches
in every fading human shadow
something divine let go.
The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.