The Shiny Surface of Obscurity

"Nobody would write verse if poetry were a question of 'making oneself understood'; indeed, it is a question of making understood that quiddity which words alone fail to convey." This much-quoted statement by Eugenio Montale, the Nobel Prizewinning Italian poet who died in 1981, may serve as an introduction to these Motets, a sequence of 20 short poems, as well as to the most acclaimed style of his poetry as represented in his collections Cuttlefish Bones (1925), The Occasions, which includes the motets (1939), and The Storm and Other Things (1956).

But how does that principle work in Montale's own creative writing? And what is it that words may "fail to convey"? The tiny book under review, equipped as it is with a short essay of Montale's himself ("Two Jackals on a Leash," in Jonathan Galassi's version) and with an introduction by the translator, Dana Gioia, provides us with everything we need to find a way out of an otherwise vague and even cryptic assertion.

An example will best demonstrate the poet's assumption. Here is the autobiographical report of a stroll around a town in Northern Italy (in the passage, the poet calls himself Mirco, while Clizia is a fictitious name for the American Dante scholar Irma Brandeis, whom Montale met in Florence in 1932):

One summer afternoon Mirco found himself at Modena walking...

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