Andrea Zanzotto is widely recognised as the most important Italian poet since Eugenio Montale. The author of 13 collections of poetry and several works of prose, criticism and translation, he commands the compelling, if somewhat isolated, image of a refined, learned and, by his own admission, difficult poet. His work is informed by the major currents of European thought, from Heidegger's philosophy to the psychoanalysis of Lacan, Saussure's linguistics and Derrida's theory of logocentric thought; the tradition to which he pledges an ambiguous, ever critical allegiance, finds its distant roots in the poetry of Virgil and Petrarch, and its modern ones in that of Holderlin, Leopardi, Eluard and Ungaretti. His style and language exhibit a complex cohabitation of the rhetorically and formally accomplished with the most subversively experimental. Difficulty entices criticism, and the vast critical bibliography on this poet, whether in Italian or in English, has so far been either necessarily cursory or preoccupied with Zanzotto's most problematic "central" collections from the 1960s, namely "La belta" (Beauty) and "Pasque" (Easters). In both cases, critics have sometimes been tempted to champion theory through the poetry and often failed to address the problem of interpretation.
These are the premises, eloquently expounded by the author herself in the introduction to her book, to Vivienne Hand's comprehensive study of Zanzotto's poetry - the first of its kind, and already hailed as a landmark in Zanzotto criticism as a whole. Unlike her predecessors, Vivienne Hand commits herself to interpretation from the start. If she acknowledges Zanzotto's proverbial difficulty, she refuses to tackle it through the strait-jacket of a set theory of poetry, preferring a "traditional" approach based on close textual analysis, a strictly chronological ordering of her material, accurately translated quotations and a pledge to "define . . . the range of meanings and establish particular meanings" consistently and successfully upheld throughout her discussion.
Her reading stresses the great diversity present in Zanzotto's poetry while also trying to make sense of it, and to find a common, if elusive and sometimes disguised, link between the various collections. To this purpose, she identifies a logical progression which, from an initial aim to "build a case for the possibility of poetry itself in the contemporary world" leads the poet into an ever questioning, often subversive metaliterary quest, and returns him back full circle to an idea of poetry as not ultimately defensible, but as a relevant, permanent and unsuppressible act of communication.
In the five chapters devoted to the poetry written until 1973, we are shown how this logical progression undergoes different, sometimes conflicting developments, as it changes forms from one collection to another, on the three "themes" of language, self and being in their relationship with the different realities, biographical and/or circumstantial, explored by the poet at different times.
The idyllic, romantic (in the literary sense) poetry of "Dietro il paesaggio" (Behind the Landscape) opposes a poeticised native landscape to the non-poetic culture of its day; but the poet's advocacy is soon affected by what he perceives to be a most problematic fracture between literature and reality, and brings him to question the authenticity of poetry. If, when confronted with history and science, poetry such as "IX Ecloghe" (IX Eclogues) still emerges as more humane, and more creatively vital, the poet is nevertheless forced to acknowledge the unavoidably self-referential, metapoetic nature of his medium. Hand's admirably clear analysis steers us through Zanzotto's next most complex development. The "metalanguage" of "Vocativo" (Vocative), the forbidding plurilingual explosion of meaning(s) of "La belta" (Beauty), and the deconstruction of logocentric conventions and traditional reader's response in "Pasque" (Easters) are painstakingly and brilliantly explained, as particular attention is devoted to what Hand calls Zanzotto's "creative", often "prefiguring", poetic interpretation of Lacan and Derrida.
In the concluding chapter Hand tackles the later poetry by Zanzotto through a discussion of his "pseudo-trilogy": three puzzling, often contrasting collections that wildly oscillate between extreme manierismo ("Il Galateo in bosco"; "Fosfeni" (Phosphenes) and unusual simplicity of expression "Idioma" (Idiom)). Many elements (plurilinguism, the use of dialect, extensive intertextuality) are indeed resumptive of Zanzotto's previous work. But, as Hand points out, in "Idioma", the themes of subjectivity and the self become less pervasive, striking a balance with a newly emphasised concept of poetry as communication (with others) and belonging (to the poet's native community). Hand makes no forecasts as to what the poet from Pieve di Soligo might have in store for us - but if he will continue to make a powerful case for poetry, we can rest assured that she will respond to its unaccommodating call with the same commitment and sensitivity.
Emmanuela Tandello is a lecturer in Italian, University College, London.
Author - Vivienne Hand
ISBN - O 7486 0411 1
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 233pp