In 1970, five years before he was murdered on a beach near Rome, and about a decade after his first movie, Accattone, had made him notorious as a filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini sat down to write a preface to a new book of his selected poems. He called this little essay “To the New Reader,” and in it he wanted to explain to this new reader—who perhaps only knew him as a filmmaker, or novelist, or polemical essayist—why he was always, in fact, a poet. His first poem, he observed, was written when he was seven. His first collection had come out when he was twenty. The volume of selected poems was taken from three books: Gramsci’s Ashes, which appeared in 1957, when he was thirty-five; The Religion of My Time, from 1961; and Poem in the Shape of a Rose, which was published in 1964, the same year that his movie The Gospel According to St. Matthew came out. And so he had really made his films, he argued, “as a poet.” Not that a film and a poem were exactly equivalent, but still: “I think one can’t deny that a certain way of feeling something occurs in the same identical way when one is faced with some of my lines and some of my shots.”
Everything Pasolini did, he did as a poet. But what was it, precisely, that Pasolini did? Born in 1922, he began his career writing poetry in Friulian, his native language. Then he moved to Rome, where he wrote novels, this time exploring a dense Roman argot. And then came the movies of the ’60s and ’70s, including Mamma Roma, Teorema, and the trilogy of adaptations from Boccaccio, Chaucer, and the Arabian Nights, ending in his masterpiece of degradation, Salo. His atmosphere was constant scandal, and he added to that scandal with his essays in the high-end newspapers: small doses of acerbic thinking. But although he might have enjoyed using crazily various modes, he also had a certain style. In his movies, he loved fusing the hieratic with the everyday. And in his writing, too, he liked combining two things that don’t usually go together: a classical form or tone that could absorb its squalid subjects. His best poetry is a kind of diary written in long slabs and sequences—he called these poems poemetti, longer than a poesia, shorter than a poema—meditations on whatever he was thinking about, where the syntax is strung out along the terza-rima form (Dante’s meter!) in a papery festoon of thinking.
What Pasolini was thinking about, perhaps, is what now makes him seem—like so many products of the radical ’60s and ’70s—slightly dusty, as if from a time capsule. The deep aim of all his writing was as messy and outdated as utopia. In that preface to his selected poems, he noted his strange, lopsided triangle of concerns: “sensual joy” and “civil idealism,” which were both obscured by a constant sense of “being unhappy.” He was a disappointed, nostalgic utopian, always faithful to the radical idealism of his politics and, simultaneously, to the omnivorous observations of his attention.
But that constant contradiction is why, I think, Pasolini could be a useful historical model for future productions. His restlessness is exemplary—and that restlessness was symbolized by his brilliance in so many media. Not only were his poems as good as his movies, or his essays as good as his novels, but they are each independent elements of the giant Pasolini system. You need to examine them all, which is why it’s so useful for the sadly Anglophonic reader to possess this new Selected Poetry, translated by Stephen Sartarelli. True, there’s another selection by Norman MacAfee, from FSG, and one by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, put out by City Lights. But this new translation is, I think, the most comprehensive and the most attentive to Pasolini’s strangely melancholic style.
Pasolini was one of the great early analysts of the age of spectacle. (In his 1962 short film La ricotta, he has Orson Welles play a director meeting the press. The answers are pure Pasolini: “What do you think of Italian society?” “The most illiterate masses, and the most ignorant bourgeoisie in Europe.”) And his method of analysis was the capaciousness of his style, the kind of elasticity visible just in the easy drift of his tone, how a poem like “Gramsci’s Ashes” can so softly turn from the philosophical to the everyday:
here, you see, on foreign ground, may you rest,
still the outcast. Patrician ennui
is all around you. The clanging of anvils,
faint in the late afternoon, is all
that reaches you here from the mills
of Testaccio, where between run-down sheds,
stark piles of sheet metal and iron scraps,
a shop-boy sings playfully, already
ending his day as the rain outside stops.
This tone is also a habitat. Pasolini was one of the first writers to identify the outskirts of cities as his era’s landscape, a strange seepage between the pastoral and heavy industry:
I was at the center of the world,
in a world of sad, bedouin suburbs,
yellow grasslands lashed
by a wind forever restless
either blowing from the warm sea waters
of Fiumicino or from the agro, where
the city disappeared amid the shanties—
No wonder, then, that in an interview with the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (Italy’s Experimental Film Center), he observed that his basic procedure was contamination, “because I, who come from a bourgeois world . . . have attained this world of mine. Consequently, the ‘pastiche’ had necessarily to be born.” It’s a statement that I think is lovable for both its frankness and the ideal expressed. In Pasolini’s poetry, the classical is always melting into something else. The Baths of Caracalla, say, are now a cruising joint:
To the Baths of Caracalla go
young friends straddling Rumi
or Ducati motorbikes with manly
modesty and manly immodesty,
indifferently hiding or revealing
in the warm folds of their pants
the secrets of their erections . . .
Pasolini’s civic poetry is always eager for private contamination—as he tries to find a form for this era of spectacle, where reality is simultaneously a version of theater. Not, of course, that he is claiming to be exempt from this corrupting atmosphere:
I, too, head for the Baths of Caracalla,
thinking—with my old, magnificent
privilege of thinking . . .
The thinking Pasolini came up with is why he is so seductive. Writing on the artist’s 1968 movie Teorema, Jean Renoir observed: “What scandalizes people is not the obscenity, of which there is none. The scandal lies in the sincerity.” Sometimes I wonder if sincerity needs to be recuperated as an aesthetic value—with Pasolini as one of that category’s heroes. Everything he said, he said directly. Sure, it can make him infuriating—he can be so willful and outré and simplistic—but it’s also the basis of his charisma, like his blunt intuition that the deprivation of the third world was not just a phenomenon of Africa, or Asia, but visible in the ghettos of Harlem and the slums of Rome. The cross-border leap of that thought process was one of Pasolini’s favorite techniques—“Even though these things are here and evident, these images, in today’s Italy risk being unseeable”—a way of dismantling the grand pantomime of spectacle.
It was because of such theories that Pasolini once came to Harlem. He met with the Black Panthers, and discovered one of his favorite slogans: “‘You gotta throw your body into the fight.’ Here is the new motto of a real and not boringly moralistic commitment; throw one’s body into the fight.” He so loved it that he included it in another of his great poems, “Poet of Ashes,” begun in New York in 1966 but never published, which Sartarelli quotes in his introduction:
. . . nothing is worth as much as life.
That’s why I want only to live
even while being a poet
because life can express itself alone, too, with itself.
I would like to express myself through examples.
To throw my body into the struggle.
The struggle! In the ’60s, Pasolini once made a list of subjects for future radical works, subjects that were “beginnings of real situations which need to be evoked or witnessed”—lists that were “out of proportion” to the usual limits of the avant-garde. That vision of a new avant-garde, I think, might turn out to be the underlying reason for Pasolini’s longevity. Many people have dreamed of an art that stopped being art: an art that became a happening, or politics. But Pasolini’s ideal was more thoughtful. He didn’t want to abandon art. He wondered if art and reality could be versions of a single utopian structure. That was his new avant-garde, and unlike the nouveau roman, for instance, it had a strange emphasis on content. For after all, it’s true that life can express itself with itself, but it’s also true, according to Pasolini, that at every moment “reality is ‘cinema in its natural state’; it only lacks a camera to reproduce it, that is, to write it through the reproduction of what is.”
Everything he did, he did as a poet. He once argued that “the cinema is substantially and naturally poetic,” and then explained himself with typical bravura: “A cinema sequence and a sequence of a memory or of a dream—and not only that but things in themselves—are profoundly poetic: a tree photographed is poetic, a human face photographed is poetic because physicity is poetic in itself . . . because even a tree is a sign of a linguistic system. But who talks through a tree? God, or reality itself.” An object, like a poem, is just a way for reality to express itself. That was Pasolini’s strange vision, and it allowed him not only his radical politics but also the detail of his thinking, the way the camera in Accattone so often pauses on his characters’ faces, in close-up, as if they’re removed from some Renaissance fresco. He once said that the minimal cinematic unit wasn’t in fact the shot but the objects inside a shot. And in his best poetry, the minimal unit isn’t the line so much as all the details contained in that line—the small utopian freedoms of his libidinous attention:
under a sun bleeding motionless
the canal of the port of Fiumicino
—a motorboat returning unnoticed
—Neapolitan sailors covered in woolen rags
—a car accident, a few onlookers gathered round . . .
Adam Thirlwell's new novel, Lurid & Cute, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux next year.