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  • What is a Little Thing?: Crepuscular Still Lifes and the Italian Avant-garde
  • Danila Cannamela (bio)

In his most highly regarded poem, “Desolation of the Poor Sentimental Poet” (“Desolazione del povero poeta sentimentale”), Italian poet Sergio Corazzini (1886–1907), speaking in the guise of a whimpering child, declares, “I love the simple life of things.”1 A few lines later, referencing the poet’s own tuberculosis, he compares the decay of his body to the decay of everyday objects: “and I die, a little bit, each day. / You see: just like things” (Sunday Evening, 34). The transience of animate and inanimate life, expressed so poignantly by Corazzini in this poem, is a theme that also informs the more ironic poetry of his contemporary, the Turinese poet Guido Gozzano (1883–1916). In a 1907 text, “The Road to Shelter” (“La via del rifugio”), Gozzano compresses his own name into a cluster of lowercase letters; expressing the existential condition of his poetic double, who, he affirms, “lives between Everything and Nothing / this living thing / called guidogozzano!” (vive tra il Tutto e il Niente / questa cosa vivente / detta guidogozzano!).2 Juxtapositions of the human and nonhuman, as seen in the poetry of Corazzini and Gozzano, evoke a sense of regression into an inert existence that illness only intensifies. However, their melancholic retreat into “things” should not be associated with a fading turn-of-the-century poetry; rather, their poetics anticipates the material vitalism of the futurist avant-garde and the centrality of still life in Italian modernism, especially in Eugenio Montale’s work. Illustrating the anticipatory role of the crepusculars (crepuscolari)—as Corazzini, Gozzano, and their peers were dubbed—will offer a new reading of futurism, in light of the earlier movement’s [End Page 841] transitional character. Furthermore, exploring the crepusculars’ poetics of everyday things that come to “life” will lead to a broader discussion of the shifting relations between people and objects in modernity.

Authors on the margins of Italian modernism and avant-garde scholarship, Corazzini and Gozzano were the key personalities of crepuscularism (crepuscolarismo). This poetic lineage took its name from the adjective “crepuscular” (crepuscolare), denoting the dimming light of dusk along with the “emotional temporality” of decline that suffuses the end of the day. The term was apt for it evoked the crisis of poetic inspiration at the twilight of the Italian Risorgimento (1859–70), a decade of political events that “led Italy from [being] a fragmented peninsula to an independent and unified nation-state, under the Savoy king, Victor Emmanuel II.”3 The literary critic Giuseppe Antonio Borgese coined the “crepuscular” moniker in his landmark 1910 article “Crepuscular Poetry” (“Poesia crepuscolare”), in which he analyzed—and criticized—the movement within the context of broader reflections on the evolution of Italian literature. Addressing the void that Giosuè Carducci’s lyric passion for liberty had left in the post-Risorgimento scene, Borgese argued that the two then-dominant figures of Italian poetry, Giovanni Pascoli and Gabriele D’Annunzio, represented a form of self-indulgent decline: the former through his ingenuous “humanitarian spirit,” the latter through the “leonine Dionysian sensuality” of his language.4 In the context of this regression, the emerging young poets of Borgese’s own era brought a plethora of scattered developments—not just crepuscularism, but also “skepticism, decadence, futurism, [and] novecentismo”—that in his view ought to be condemned as characteristics of a poetry that had abandoned its civic mission (“Poesia,” 150).5

Bereft of politic engagement and stylistic refinement, crepuscular poetry, in Borgese’s article, is relegated to the wasteland of having “nothing to say,” to a limbo overpopulated with obsolete objects and disempowered quasi-characters. This critical view was revised in the second half of the twentieth century.6 Spokesman of a re-evaluation of crepuscularism, Edoardo Sanguineti, identified in Gozzano’s poetry a parodic function that helped to overthrow the dominant aesthetics of D’Annunzio and to originate the “crepuscular lineage,” a prosaic lineage that shaped post–World War I Italian poetry. Furthermore, scholars like Giuseppe Farinelli and Angela Ida Villa have debunked the myth of crepuscular poetry as naïve self-confession, delineating the hybrid philosophical roots of the movement—between Latin Renaissance...


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