Riassunto / Retrospect
Franco Fortini

The Italian poet Franco Fortini (1917–94) once said he had begun by believing that poetry could act in some way against what he called «the triumphant organisation of the bastards» but added «I do not believe this today». Like Auden, whose view that «poetry makes nothing happen» this seems to echo, Fortini was a Marxist at heart, though his early political engagement turned into a more mature scepticism following his experiences before and during the war. He was born Franco Lattes to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother whose maiden name he took in 1940 to avoid persecution by the Fascists. He joined the Italian army in 1941 but deserted and fled to Switzerland, returning to Italy in the final year of the war to fight with the partisans in Valdossola. Disillusioned by politics, he left the Italian Socialist Party after the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956.

But, as Michael Hamburger writes in the Introduction to his translation of Fortini’s poems (Poems, 1978), «a poet’s political commitment almost always turns out to be a moral commitment» and this is eminently true in Fortini’s case. In this poem – Riassunto – from Fortini’s collection Una volta per sempre (Once and For All, 1963), the poet’s practical and poetic selves merge in lines in which diction is finely balanced, as Hamburger puts it, between «the plainest vernacular and the dignified melopoeia of traditional Italian verse». Although he recognises that we do what we must, Fortini holds on to a belief in humanity’s collective destiny: «…the dark water beyond the future […] of that I knew how to speak». This balance of public and private, Hamburger says, can be «hard or impossible to render in another language». The fact that these translations were authorized by Fortini – himself a skilful and prolific translator into Italian of Brecht, Proust and Goethe – suggests that Hamburger’s efforts were not in vain.


I have worked all these years, have seen
the seasons change little behind the window panes, working
for the car, the papers, the doctors, for food and the house.
Doing not what I ought to have done, but neither
what I should like to have done; not with the slow mind
of the wise, nor with bright eyes,
nor with a glad heart.

But the dark water beyond the future,
the still lake that lies unvisited there,
of that I knew how to speak; and you
that hesitate over these words should know:
behind the proud complaint and the feeble anger
it is one in you and in me.


[Eng. Trans. by Michael Hamburger, in «The Times Literary Supplement», September 4, 2012]