An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
Interview by Maria Belova (University of Warwick)
Not at all. That was ten years after I stopped writing them… The sonnet form appeared in his poetry exactly at the moment when it should have appeared, independently of me or those greater authorities such as Fortini and Zanzotto who had used this form. Raboni used it when he felt ‘quite exhausted’ from ‘work on formalisation of the informal’ and of ‘the metrics liberation’ which had interested him until that moment; and when it seemed to him that poetry needed ‘formal recognition’ from poets; and also when he felt the need to speak more about himself through ‘the protection of the form’, ‘within which one can be sincere and even shameless to the bottom of his heart’. I am quoting from one interview and one back cover.
No. In my opinion, the fixed poetic forms were always present in Raboni’s works: in his earliest poems it was Leda e il cigno – four rhymed novenary quatrains, hendecasyllable quatrains with rhymes and assonances in Gesta Romanorum and in Cadenza d’inganno (Deceptive Cadence), septenary quatrains in Alibi del morto (The Dead Man’s Alibi) and in Lista di Spagna (Lista di Spagna). All in all, the form in Raboni’s works is quite fixed, even if it is free. If there were a first Raboni and a second Raboni, what would we call the Raboni of Barlumi di storia (Glimmers of History) and Ultimi versi (Last Poems)? The third Raboni? The truth is that there was only one Raboni, great even when small.
I was influenced by stealing his verses. I remember that Picasso said that the small imitate and the great steal: I always preferred to imitate the great poets rather than the small ones. I have stolen many of his verses, exactly the way I have done with Pascoli, D’Annunzio, Saba, etc. May I give you two resounding examples? ‘Viva o morta può fare differenza?’ in Donna di dolori (1991) comes from Rammarico del viceré (in Le case della Vetra, 1966) (The Viceroy’s Regret from The Houses of the Vetra, 1966): ‘che fra essere morti e essere vivi / trovano sempre qualche differenza’, and ‘l’andante del quintetto con due viole’ (always in Donna di dolori) is the last verse of Si chiude come un pugno la città from Versi guerrieri e amorosi (1990)( Verses of War and Love), borrowed – if it can be said – while still hot off the press.
From my point of view, my life has always been very easy and beautiful. To live with a person who is so intelligent, so learned and so passionate seemed to be a paradise. The thought of competition never crossed my mind: my position was clearly inferior and I was very happy to find myself in this position.
No, not even for a joke.
Raboni mentioned many times that poems came to him as a ‘sonorous phantom’ and the major part of the creative process happened in his mind. It was difficult not to notice that. I often caught him deep in thought with a dazed, far-away look on his face, sort of looking inward rather than outward. It is different for me, I only need a pencil and paper, and the verses appear on the paper by themselves. I never know what I will get in the end.
We were both each other’s first readers, not only of one singular poem, but of the whole book. My judgement? I was full of emotion, admiration, thrilled. Yet I held my breath while waiting for his judgement. Sometimes he shared his observations with me; I was upset, was nervous, thought about it and came to the conclusion that he was right. All in all, I needed him very much, while he didn’t need anyone.
He was a theatre critic for the most important Italian newspaper for 10 years. He wrote more than 1,000 articles, therefore he saw more than 1,000 performances. I didn’t always join him as we couldn’t afford it. His travel expenses and accommodation were paid, whereas mine were not, but I accompanied him as much as I could. I can honestly say without fear of being wrong, that his passion for the theatre, which he had since he was a child, was reawakened because of my passion for Tadeusz Kantor. In 1976 he saw La classe morta (Dead Class) in Milan; I’ve only read the review in the Corriere and I fell in love. We watched Crepino gli artisti (Let the Artists Die) together in 1985, then there was a symposium in San Marino, three performances in Bari, the debut in Kassel… We followed him everywhere, and Raboni wrote about it several times in the Europeo. That’s why in the Corriere he was regarded as a theatre critic.
He is the greatest translator that ever existed, and I know what I’m saying. I am also a good translator, even better a translator than a poet, and I owe him everything. Do you know how he taught me to translate prose using only three words? I was told to translate Molière. I was scared, and I told him, ‘I know how to translate verses, not prose’. He answered, ‘Turn it into verse’. He proof-read and corrected all my translations, from John Donne to Ronsard. I remember putting a sonnet by Mallarmé on his desk, which had 13 perfect hendecasyllable verses and one verse was so long that reached the end of the margin. I asked him, ‘Please, make it shorter’. He did it in five minutes. Together we started to translate Il cimitero marino (Le Cimetière marin) by Valéry (which I know by heart) to pass time in hospital when he had a kidney removed. After that I continued on my own.
We were hosts at the Mondello Award. So what happened in a nutshell: the hotel was frozen because of broken windows and sticky tape (I was told later that it was the only one which was not fully booked by Americans). To have a duvet, water etc., you had to ask a woman on the floor who only spoke Russian and was scary. I ate turnips and cucumbers. I was afraid I would die of cold and hunger. At dawn I found a journalist friend, woke him up (I had to repeat my name four times), and he drove us to Alitalia to change the return tickets so we left. I had been in Moscow less than 24 hours. But from the taxi I saw the Red Square and it seemed very beautiful. Raboni went there many times with his wife Serena Vitale, the authority on Slavonic Studies, so he was more amused than disappointed by our escape from that place, which provided him with fond memories.
Yes, many people confuse good education with kindness. Raboni was far from kind, and he was too intelligent to be serene. He had absolutely nothing to do with any form of exhibitionism or narcissism and he didn’t want to cross the line with anybody: ‘Our duty is the other person’s right’, he once wrote. He had an exaggerated (his word) sense of responsibility, and when he was sure of doing something or saying something, he was firm and cold-blooded. If he got angry – fortunately not often – he was frightening. Do you know how, in 1994, he answered the question from the Proust Questionnaire: ‘What is my major defect?’ ‘Dislike of mankind’.
Patrizia Valduga is a famous contemporary Italian poetess, and former partner of Giovanni Raboni. She has published many poetry collections, amongst which Medicamenta (Milan: Guanda, 1982), Donna di dolori (Milan: Mondadori, 1991), Prima antologia (Turin: Einaudi, 1998), Lezioni d’amore (Turin: Einaudi, 2004) and more recently Il libro delle laudi (Turin: Einaudi, 2012). She is also known for her activity as a translator: amongst others, she translated works of John Donne, Molière, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Valéry.