The relationship between poetry and politics has always been complex and difficult; in this century the complexity and difficulty has been given a new dimension by the emergence of powerful, organized Communist Parties. It is no longer possible for the radical or even revolutionary writer to be merely one of a loose front of like-minded individuals, linked together by a common aim or a common style of action. He has had to take up a standpoint which may be judged, to a considerable degree, by the standards of a political party which insists on bonds of organization and discipline. Shelley’s legislators necessarily look somewhat abstract in the face of the concrete legislators of the Communist Party.
In these circumstances the traditional idea of the poet’s social mandate has been outmoded. This has expressed itself principally in an increasing tension between the two aspects of the poet as private and public figure: the two can no longer be easily combined. One solution is to try to separate poem-pronouncement from other kinds of political pronouncement: to make the poem an essentially private pronouncement and the signed manifesto or protest statement, for instance, a public pronouncement. But why write a letter to a newspaper about, say, the war in Vietnam, rather than write a poem about it? And is the distinction between the two merely formal or must we say that there are appropriate topics for poetry?
We see the tension very clearly in the work of Mayakovsky, who was perhaps the last prominent poet to believe optimistically that, since the revolution had been achieved, the problem could soon be surmounted. Stalinism and Zhdanovism dashed those hopes. After Mayakovsky, we can detect three principal currents, representing three different approaches to the problem, certainly not solutions to it. First there is the trend associated mainly with the surrealists, who insisted that the poet, as private individual, must speak the truth as he sees it, openly and
There is, however, a third possible path, which Franco Fortini in his discussion of these problems attributes to Bertolt Brecht. Brecht is the principal poetic ancestor of Fortini: the inheritance consists of irony, paradox, cunning: the acknowledgement that the poet is always a double man, an internal emigré, a hostage in enemy country. His task is to try and reconcile the short-term public demand and the long-term private vision and to express the tension which this task necessarily brings with it. Brecht’s example is particularly relevant today when old-style Stalinist intervention in literature is, at any rate, on the retreat. The danger, of course, is that poets in the Communist countries will take the opportunity to avoid politics altogether. But this will be to stunt the whole possible development of poetry by avoiding both its public and prophetic dimensions. Fortini has spoken of the cultural bankruptcy of the Stalinist period through the image of ‘the black sun’: the sad fact that the brunt of the cultural development of Marxism has fallen on a few scattered and dispersed intellectuals in the west. It is all the more important that we should try to reconstitute a poetic culture from the fragmentary inheritance which survived the Stalinist period, from elements in both the ‘surrealist’ and ‘social realist’ currents and, most important of all, from isolated poets such as Brecht, József, Hikmet, Zukovsky. . .
Franco Fortini is one of the few poets to have been conscious of the nature of this predicament throughout the post-war period of the Cold War. Born in 1917 he first began to write poetry in Florence in the late thirties, in a milieu of aristocratic hermeticism. Later he left Italy for exile in Switzerland and then re-crossed the frontier to join the partisan struggle in the Val d’Ossola. Then, settled in Milan, he launched a series of cultural magazines and published his first collections of poetry and essays. The poem which we publish here is self-explanatory: in it we can clearly see the heritage of Brechtian irony, the tension between private and public figure, the difficulty of writing in an age when the poet is trapped between epitaphs and manifestos.