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"Il corso del congedo': time and eternity in Zanzotto's later poetry.

One of Italy's most important poets of the second half of the twentieth-century, Andrea Zanzotto died on October 18, 2011, at the age of ninety. The following paper, presented at the American Association for Italian Studies conference at the College of Charleston in May 2012, commemorates his passing by reflecting on the theme of time and eternity in his later poetry and by sharing some personal reminiscences.

Wisdom traditions from various parts of the earth teach that life is a journey through time. Because of the focused attention it requires, poetry can be a way of being more present to the passage of time, of "remaining in the moment," and of meditating on the meaning of life. References to time in poetry can also signal an engagement with contemporary social and political realities as well as historical issues and traumas.

In the later work of Andrea Zanzotto, we find numerous representations of temporality that combine both of the above-mentioned aspects of poetry. In Sovrimpressioni (2001), for example, we find expressions of the measurement of time--"da ogni picosecondo del vivere" (31), of reflections on the different stages of life--"Vecchiaia e Adolescenza" (27), as well as a focus on eternity--"attirati nel folto del finire / senza fine, senza fine avventure" (9). At the same time, no pun intended, Sovrimpressioni and the book that precedes it, Meteo (1996) use temporal references to formulate a critical stance in opposition to the present state of the world. Zanzotto's Conglomerati (2009) is even more explicit in its denunciations: "Inciampando nel 3 millennio e nell'equinozio di primavera / oltre ogni decibel kitsch estasi del kitsch" (Conglomerati 21). In "Silenzio dei mercatini 1," we read: "Nell'anno dei vermi / dei vermi dei vermi e dei vermi / e del loro torpido e livido banchetto" (Conglomerati 23).

The ethical concerns of Zanzotto's work are well known. They are also longstanding and exemplary. Already in 1968, for example, Michel David characterized the poet from Pieve di Soligo as "Petrarca filtrato dai getti di napalm" (cited in A. Zanzotto, Poesie 1938-1986, 29). The opening poem of Meteo, reproduced in the poet's own handwriting, perhaps to give it a greater sense of immediacy, is entitled, "LIVE': the title is in English, entirely in capital letters, and creates an alarming effect. The poem consists of four lines: "Sangue e pus, e dovunque le superflue / superfluenti vitalbe che parassitano gli occhi; / un teleschermo, fuori tempo massimo, / Dirette erutta e Balocchi" (Meteo 7).

In a similar tone, through a series of conversations and interviews published over the past decade, Andrea Zanzotto has denounced ecological disasters and climate change, a rapacious global consumer capitalism in the service of the 1%, the use of science and technology to reinforce the power of elites rather than to reduce global hunger, the loss of identities and the proliferation of fundamentalisms of all kinds, including a notion of progress that risks leading to self-destruction. Felice Rapazzo, for example, in an article on the poetics of the later Zanzotto, writes: "un trauma storico e antropologico, e non solo psichico e personale, sono alla base della sua scrittura" (77).

In the author's introductory note to Sovrimpressioni, Zanzotto states: "Continua, in questa raccolta, la linea avviata con Meteo" (133). In a brief message to the present writer, the poet wrote, with reference to Sovrimpressioni, "Caro John, questo e il seguito dell'incerta telenovela .... " Despite his many awards, accomplishments, and stature as a major poet and one of Italy's leading intellectuals, Zanzotto was also a rather humble, unassuming and self-effacing man, particularly in reference to his own work.

A figure of European and international stature, his intellectual concerns combine the global and the local. In "Addio a Ligonas," for exampie, he writes: "Eri omphalos del Grande Slargo / che per decenni i piu bei cammini resse, [...] Ora la morsa si serra / anche nella sua stessa maniacale / insicurezza di poter durare / senza il gran verbo delocalizzare" (Conglomerati 9). While for over six decades his work has been marked by dramatic stylistic shifts, it has remained faithful to a central core of thematic issues, primarily landscape, language, and identity. His writing is known for its stylistic inventiveness and its interaction with psychoanalysis. Zanzotto is unmistakably original in his combination of tradition and experimentalism, in his engagement with history, and in his crifical examination of the disquieting realities of our time.

While the "telenovela" image may not be a very appropriate description of the corpus of Zanzotto's poetry, the reference to continuity with what came before---"il seguito dell'incerta telenovela"--should not be overlooked. In fact, many of the forty-one texts included in Sovrimpressioni share the theme of time, as well as a clear stance of opposifion to our current rime. Examples of temporal markers include references to the time of day, to dates, to historical movements (the Resistance, for example), to cosmic and astronomical events (from the "Big Bang" to the comet Hale-Bopp), to pre-historical and historical ages, to seasons, to the immediate present, to ways of measuring time (from folk traditions to scientific instruments), to the calendar, to narration, to time in the musical sense, to outdated technologies, to obso lete osterie, to death, to the future, to memory, to oblivion, and to eternity. Giorgio Agamben has brilliantly demonstrated the continuing theme of messianic time in Zanzotto's poetic corpus: "struttura del linguaggio e struttura del tempo messianico coincidono. Il linguaggio, il logos, e anzi, l'elemento messianico per eccellenza, sempre erchomenos, sempre a monte e in annuncio di se, sempre sopravveniente in un non-luogo" (101).

While references to time and eternity are found throughout Zanzotto's work, I would argue that in the later poetry, consisting of Meteo, Sovrimpressioni and Conglomerati, these references become more intense. Although I will not be able to develop an analysis here, I would like to suggest that a shift in Zanzotto's poetics and poetic style might be traced through allusions to the marking of time. Moreover, I am interested in exploring to what extent the later phase of Zanzotto's work constitutes a kind of calculated, conscious "congedo" or meditative, purposeful "leave-taking." "Congedo," of course, is also a technical term from poetic discourse: "in poesia, la strofa piu breve delle altre (detta anche commiato) che serve come conclusione della canzone" (Dizionario Garzanti della Lingua Italiana 423). In what follows, then, I offer some brief reflections on the theme of time, on the use of temporal references, and on strategies of poetic closure in Zanzotto's later poetry. Moreover, in light of Andrea Zanzotto's death in October of 2011, I think it is appropriate that we might also permit ourselves to share some personal remembrances.

A focus on time and eternity--it could be argued--has been present in Zanzotto's poetry from the beginning. In fact, one might object that these two categories are so general that most poetry contains some references of this type. And yet, because I am interested in trying to put the poetry of Zanzotto's third phase into conversation with his two earlier phases--the first one beginning with Dietro il paesaggio and ending with La Belta; the second beginning with La Belta and ending with Idioma--I believe that a focus on the way the poet tells time might lead to greater insights into his poetry. Therefore, before returning briefly to the later poetry in my conclusion, let us sample some of the references to time and eternity from the first stage of Zanzotto's production.

In "Quanto a lungo," for example, from Dietro il paesaggio (1951), time is referenced with the symbols and imagery characteristic of the surrealist and late hermetic elements of Zanzotto's early style. Note the abstract nature of the temporal references.
 su voi sagittario e capricorno
 inclinarono le fredde lance
 e l'acquario tempero nei suoi silenzi
 nelle sue trasparenze
 un anno stillante di sangue, una mia
 perdita inesplicabile (Le poesie e prose scelte 44).

In the conclusion of the poem, we read:
 [...] e se a voi salgo per cornici e corde
 verso il prisma che vi discerne
 verso l'aurora che v'ospita,
 il mio cuore trafitto dal futuro
 non cura i lampi ele catene
 che ancora premono ai confini (Le poesie e prose scelte 44-45).

Titles of poems from Zanzotto's first book indicate how he uses seasons, traditional feast day/holidays, periods of the day and night, and adverbs to create temporal references. These titles include "Primavera di Santa Augusta, .... Quanto a lungo," already mentioned, "Ormai," "La sovente nell'alba," "Elegia pasquale," "Notte di guerra, a tramontana," "Quanta notte," "L'Amore infermo del giorno," and "Equinoziale."

In Vocativo (1957), the second book of Zanzotto's first period, titles of poems with temporal references include "Epifania," "Fiume all'alba," "Elegia del venerdi," "La notte di Serravalle, .... Nuovi autunni," "Prima del sole," and "Fuisse." In IX Ecloghe (1962), the list of titles of this kind include "13 settembre 1959 (variante)," "La quercia sradicata dal vento (nella notte del 15 ottobre MCMLVIII), .... Sul Piave nel quarantesimo anniversario della Battaglia del Solstizio," and "L'Attimo fuggente." In the poem, "Ecloga IX, Scolastica," the references to time and eternity are characteristic of the lexicon, syntax and imagery adopted by Zanzotto during this phase of his career. In the following lines, the theme of pedagogy takes shape through allusions to space, but primarily through points of time and eternity:
 Riudrai le voci del profondo autunno,
 del magistero, del pozzo profondo,
 se sapesti udirle nel primo
 giorno, se sapesti che primo
 e ogni giorno. Non essere stanco
 di durare tra le albe, esse faranno
 verita della nostra menzogna (Le poesie e prose scelte 256).

Eugenio Montale once wrote of Zanzotto, in a description to which Contini alludes in his famous preface to II Galateo in Bosco: "E' un poeta percussivo ma non rumoroso: il suo metronomo e forse il batticuore" (cited in Contini 5). We glimpse a sense of the heartbeat as metronome in "Ecloga IX, Scolastica," which I have just quoted:
 [...] Senti che da sotto
 di tutto se stesso ti regge; sentine tutto il respiro:
 non e, nemmeno nella morte,
 ancora non e faticoso (Le poesie e prose scelte 256).

Although I have only scratched the surface of a theme that merits a more thorough analysis, let me return to the later poetry in order to begin to move towards a conclusion.

The text in Sovrimpressioni that is most explicitly suggestive of time, eternity and "il corso del congedo," to which the title of my paper alludes, is the sixth composition of a poem in six parts entitled, "Sere del di di festa," with obvious Leopardian echoes.
 Da ogni picosecondo del vivere
 che dilato a dismissura
 per renderlo pensabile-abitabile,
 da ogni nube di tempuscoli in cui si figura
 calcolo il corso del congedo (Sovrimpressioni 31).

This poem was published in June of 2001. In October of that year, Zanzotto celebrated his 80th birthday.

Also in October of 2001, an international conference was held in London, organized by John Butcher and David Forgacs, on Italian Poetry in the 1960s and 70s. Participants included critics and scholars from Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Giovanni Giudici made himself available by means of a telephone speakerphone. Edoardo Sanguineti had been invited and had accepted the invitation but the recent attacks of September 11th caused him to change his plans. Andrea Zanzotto, who rarely participated in events of this type, with the exception of the earlier phases of his career, nevertheless, spoke with a number of us by way of Niva Lorenzini's cell phone. Friends and colleagues took turns wishing Zanzotto a happy birthday. In my brief conversation with him on that occasion, I recall him saying "sento il peso degli anni." He also said, "se gli dei vorranno, campero ancora; ma se no, addios, muchachos."

His light-hearted way of describing how he would take leave of his friends when his time had come, "addios, muchachos," resonated with me. First of all, I was reminded of the numerous poems in Idioma (1986) in particular, that constitute elegies. In the dialect composition, "In ricordo de Pasolini," for example, we find a poem that embodies the two senses of "congedo" that interest me in my approach to the later poetry. First of all, this text is "un congedo" on the thematic level because it constitutes the first in a pair of poems in which Zanzotto takes leave of Pasolini. Secondly, although not strictly speaking "un congedo" in the technical sense of the poetic term, it is in the closing stanza of the text where the staging of the farewell is most intense.
 Ah, scuseme, se ades no so darte
 altro che 'sto muzhigament, 'ramai da vecio ...
 L'e sol che 'n pore sforzh, tremor,
 par pontar-su, justar-su in qualche modo

 --par un momento sol, par saludarte-quel
 che i a fat dei to os e del to cor.

 [Ah, scusami, se ora non so darti / altro che questo borbottio, da
 ormai ... . / E' solo un povero sforzo, tremore, / per ricucire,
 in qualche modo/--per un momento solo, per salutarti--/ quello che
 hanno fatto delle tue ossa e del tuo cuore] (Le poesie e prose
 scelte 769).

Regarding the theme of "saying farewell," "Parola, silenzio," the final poeta in the last volume that Zanzotto published while he was living constitutes an unmistakable "congedo." By way of a conclusion, therefore, I would like to leave you with the words of this text. In sum, this short poem seems to express in a condensed manner Zanzotto's life-long commitment to the poetic word and to the search for meaning contemplated in silence. Also typical of Zanzotto, we might add, is the wry sense of humor.
 Parola, silenzio

 Siccome un bel tacer non fu mai scritto
 un bello scritto non fu mai tacere.
 In ogni caso si forma un conflitto
 al quale non si puo soprassedere.

 Dell'ossimoro fatta la frittata
 --tale fu la richiesta truffaldina-si
 die inizio a una torbida abbuffata
 del pro e del contro in allegra manfrina.

 Si parola, si silenzio: infine assenzio (Conglomerati 196).

To these final words, perhaps after observing a moment of silence, we might simply add "addios, muchacho."


Agamben, Giorgio. Categorie italiane: Studi di poetica e di letteratura. Bari: Laterza, 2010.

Contini, Gianfranco. "Prefazione." Il Galateo in Bosco. By Andrea Zanzotto. Milan: Mondadori, 1978.5-7.

Dizionario Garzanti della Lingua Italiana. Milan: Garzanti, 1965.

Rapazzo, Felice. " 'in pelli miti e sobri conati': Per la poetica dell'ultimo Zanzotto." Allegoria 54 (2006): 71-88.

Zanzotto, Andrea. Conglomerati. Milan: Mondadori, 2009.

--. Le poesie e prose scelte. Eds. Stefano Dal Bianco and Gian Mario Villalta. Milan: Mondadori, 1999.

--. Meteo. Rome: Donzelli, 1996. --. Poesie (1938-1986). Ed. Stefano Agosti. Milan: Mondadori, 1993. --. Sovrimpressioni. Milan: Mondadori, 2001.


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Title Annotation:Andrea Zanzotto
Author:Welle, John P.
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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