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Mario Luzi

Poet who should have won the Nobel Prize

On 14 October 2004, six days before his 90th birthday, the great Italian poet and essayist Mario Luzi was granted a signal honour when the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, elevated him to the distinguished title of Lifetime Senator.

Mario Egidio Vincenzo Luzi, poet and writer: born Castello, Italy 20 October 1914; married (one son); died Florence 28 February 2005.

On 14 October 2004, six days before his 90th birthday, the great Italian poet and essayist Mario Luzi was granted a signal honour when the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, elevated him to the distinguished title of Lifetime Senator.

Considered to be one of the major European poets of the 20th century, and the incarnation of the revolutionary "hermetic" style of the Fifties, Luzi went on to expand his very personal form of poetic expression towards a more open, narrative lyric style. He also wrote short stories, essays and plays, and was a noted translator of French, English and Spanish poetry. Among his vast body of work there is a fine translation of Shakespeare's Richard II.

That senatorship was the highest honour Italy could offer, one that had been awarded to another great modern poet, Eugenio Montale, who in 1975 also received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Giulio Andreotti, himself a lifetime senator, always asserted that Luzi, too, should have received the Nobel Prize.

But, in a curious way, Mario Luzi's modesty and self-effacement kept him out of the spotlight. In the latest English anthology of Italian verse, The Faber Book of 20th-Century Italian Poems (2004) edited by Jamie McKendrick, Luzi is ignored in the introduction, and is represented by only two short pieces. In contrast, 10 or more translations of Luzi's poetry and prose have been published in France, where his work is widely appreciated. Perhaps this is partly because of the eternal fascination of hermetic verse, represented in France by Stéphane Mallarmé, to whom Luzi felt deeply drawn, and whom he has translated in a masterly fashion.

Mario Luzi was born in 1914 at Castello, near Florence, where his father was the stationmaster. Mario spent part of his childhood in the region of Siena, whose inhabitants, culture and way of speaking left durable impressions upon his sensibility.

He went on to study at the University of Florence, where he specialised in French literature. Under the heavy clouds of Fascism, Florence at that time became the intellectual capital of Italy, where important literary reviews came into being, among them Solaria, Frontespizio and Letteratura. Luzi made many good friends there among writers and thinkers, who included Eugenio Montale, Romano Bilenchi, Piero Bigongiari and Carlo Betocchi.

In 1935, Luzi published his first poetry collection, La barca ("The Boat"). In the following year, he submitted a doctoral thesis devoted to the work of François Mauriac, which became the basis for his first prose work, Opium chrétien ("Christian Opium", 1938).

After graduation, he began a long career in teaching, first in Parma, where he became friendly with the poet Attilio Bertolucci, father of the film-maker Bernardo. He later held posts at San Miniato and Rome.

Luzi's Avvento notturno ("Advent at Night", 1940) was considered to be the first real manifesto of Florentine hermeticism in poetry. This was a revolutionary movement known as " Hermetismo", started in the early Thirties by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Salvatore Quasimodo who employed a mostly free-form impressionistic style taken up by Vittorio Sereni, Piero Bigongiari, Luzi and others before developing, after the downfall of Mussolini as " Postermitismo". The film-maker Pier-Paolo Pasolini became a leading figure in this trend, which lasted until the mid-Sixties.

Making manifestos is a favourite Italian hobby. The manifesto of the hermetic movement, Letteratura come Vita ("Literature as Life"), was issued in 1938 by Carlo Bo, the principal hermetic critic: one of his more resonant statements was to the effect that "poetry is nothing more than a multiplication of reality".

Hermeticism was in fact a form of passive underground resistance to all ideological and political repression, and was not without its very real dangers in a viciously Fascist regime. In fact, it was an antisocial form of poetic protest whose deliberate obscurities alienated it from popular culture and isolated the poet in contemporary life. But it was effectively impervious to all political infiltration.

Luzi married in 1942 and in 1945 set up house in the place he loved best, Florence. While the first volumes of his more mature work were beginning to appear, he was teaching at the liceo scientifico and collaborating in various literary reviews including La Chimera, which he founded in 1953 with Carlo Betocchi. This invigoratingly intellectual review engaged in political battles with Officina, the rival review started by Pasolini. The times were full of enthusiastic literary, political and philosophical ferment - a wonderful period for poets and poetry. Luzi's contributions to this acerbic debate on the crises in neo-realist attitudes were later collected under the comprehensive title Tutte in questione ("Everything in Question", 1965) and remain the authoritative commentary on that exciting intellectual decade.

In 1955, Luzi became professor of French literature at the Istituto di Scienza Politica in Florence, a post he was to occupy until 1985. He published several essays on his subject - on Chateaubriand, Constant, Mallarmé and others. In 1959 appeared his great anthology L'idea simbolista ("The Symbolist Idea"), a preparation for his revolutionary deconstructive versions of Mallarmé, Baudelaire and others in another monumental anthology, La cordigliera delle Ande ("The Cordillera of the Andes", 1983).

The Sixties were a prolific period that included three major collections: Dal fondo delle campagne ("From the Depths of the Countryside", 1961); Nel Magma ("In the Magma", 1963), with its enchantingly lyrical longer poems like " Presso di Bisenzio" ("Near Bisenzio"); and a large collection covering the whole decade, Su fondamenti invisibili ("On Invisible Foundations", 1960-70), with its long postmodern poems on the theme of metamorphosis. Nel Magma won the prestigious Etna-Taormina prize for poetry.

Per il battesimo del nostri frammenti ("For the Baptism of our Remains", 1978-84) displayed the beginnings of a moving acceptance of the dissolution of life in a noble acceptance of death.

Luzi's work slowly began to acquire an international resonance, with many translations in France and in the United States. He has never been properly presented in Britain. In 1968, a beginning of acceptance in English-speaking lands could be seen in Poetry Australia, which printed several of his poems in a bilingual double number excellently translated by Frederick May, a professor of Italian.

Though Mario Luzi led a comparatively sheltered academic existence, he never lost the world view that transforms many of his poems, for he was a true internationalist. In a short poem called "Post-Scriptum" he wrote something that might be called his own epitaph. The first line refers to the deaths of three of his favourite poets - Lorca, Mandelstam and Pasolini:

At Granada, in a Siberian gulag, at Ostia -

. . . the poet and the assassin

the one and the other emerge

from the metaphor and

make their way to the bloody appointment

each one sure of himself, each one playing

his part.

James Kirkup