Blog Our Sweet Old Etcetera
Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library
Postcard from Pisa
In the past, poets have travelled to Pisa to escape a climate at home inhospitable to their talents. I went on holiday to Pisa to escape a native climate that was simply inhospitable.
Pisa is famous, of course, for its leaning tower, the ‘torre pendente’ of legend, sited on the Campo di Miracoli where droves of tourists have photos taken of themselves in such a way as to make it look like they’re pushing the tower back. Earlier visitors had to make do with journal entries. Henry James, Dickens and Coleridge made notes on the tower, the poet writing in his diary in 1804, ‘Especially by moonlight, the hanging Tower has something of a supernatural look.’
Pisa was particularly amenable to Romantic poets. Both Byron and Shelley enjoyed extended stays in Pisa, where each has a street named after them. In January 1820, Shelley arrived in Pisa determined to found ‘a society of our own class, as much as possible, in intellect or in feeling’. Britain was not sympathetic to his radical ideas, nor those of his scandal-mired friend, Byron, who joined Shelley, writing cantos 6 to 12 of Don Juan in Pisa. Shelley wrote to Keats, asking him to join his community of writers and thinkers, although the sickly poet perished before he could take up the offer.
In a sun-blitzed park built upon the grounds of the ruins of one of Shelley’s dwellings, I read collections by poets close to the SPL. Condition of Fire: the title of my colleague Jennifer Williams’s slim volume felt apposite in the heat. The title of Ryan Van Winkle’s was more wish-fulfilment – Tomorrow, We Will Live Here.
Poetry surrounds you in Pisa. Fly-postered poems are glued to walls, while poets claim street names. In addition to Byron and Shelley, and the Via Giacomo Leopardi (who took up residence for a spell), there is the inevitable nod towards Dante. Dante took Inferno’s grisly ‘Ugolino’ incident from a treacherous Pisan nobleman’s misadventures, while it was in the city that the exiled Florentine possibly met Petrarch, both men having done so much to change not only the Italian language but English letters.
On a smart bookshop on the Borgo Stretto, I got talking in my halting Italian to the proprietor. I asked whether it was true, as Tobias Jones claims in his book The Dark Heart of Italy, that Italians don’t read much. She said it was true, disappointingly, before persuading me to buy a couple of editions of Italian poetry, Cesare Pavese’s Verra La Morte E Avra I Tuoi Occhi and Alda Merini’s Clinica Dell’Abbandono. The cover of Merini’s book reproduces a short poem of hers:
lavera nella notte
il suo pensiero
ne fara tante lettere
che spedira all’amato
senza un nome.
Which my wobbly Italian translates as something like: ‘In the night, every poet washes his thoughts, all his words imprecise, to send to a love with no name.’ Reading that, one sees Dante, Petrarch, Shelley, Byron, and Leopardi writing past midnight for a nameless love: the reader, surely. A beautiful thought for a beautiful city.