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A Journey Through Poetry - Per Carmen

A Journey Through Poetry - Per Carmen

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A Journey Through Poetry - Per Carmen

109 pages
1 heure
Jan 30, 2013


The work consists of eleven dialogues, between a teacher and her students, aged between 16 and 18. The subtitle, Per Carmen, has a double meaning: Carmen is the name of one of the students, who died young; in Latin, per carmen means through poetry, which on one hand is the vehicle and, on the other, the object of the dialogues.
The work is circular in structure and can be read at random according to the reader’s whims and interests. At the same time there is a climax, as we ascend from the negative theme of grief towards horizons that are increasingly liberating, representing the beneficial power of literature. The interpretation is philological but at the same time psychological, since in its strictest sense philology means to search for oneself in the words of another.
Jan 30, 2013

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A Journey Through Poetry - Per Carmen - Luisa Pinnelli

© Luisa Pinnelli

Translation by Ruth Taylor


Writing these pages, I feel myself in their midst, my students, past and present. With them I have felt poetry’s heart beating beneath the sands of time, with them I have continuously ventured along new paths, as though through a wood, seeking the secrets of nature and the human heart. A thousand times in different ways. What a child recognizes above all in a teacher is sincerity, vitality, the dynamic of discovery. This is what goes into his head and heart and allows him to grow. Mysterious and powerful forces transform him from one year to the next: magic.

I can see them gathered around me now, with no distinction between class or year, to me they are all still kids, even Angelo who has grey hair and comes to chat about his son. I want to think of them, my companions on this long journey through poetry. They are all there. One place in the third row is empty. She is missing, Carmen, swallowed up years ago by the Autostrada del Sole. I think of her – she was beautiful, free and loved literature. I dedicate these lessons to Carmen. Who knows that she might not come and sit in her place once more.

Poetry and suffering

When we read, we are like a glass of water into which we mix a herb that will give us colour, taste, smell or, in other words, strength, happiness, calmness, languor. Sometimes it won’t give us anything. In that case, it’s time to change books. But when the mix is good, it will give light and meaning to our life, to what we have lived and what is still to come.

Art is always concerned with life, transcribing its moments and problems.

A carmen by Catullus (number 65), not one of his most famous, allows us to understand the relationship between creativity and suffering.

Yes, the one about his dead brother, Federico recalls and begins to translate: "Even though sorrow calls me away, exhausted as I am with constant grief, from the learned maidens (the Muses), and my mind’s imagination is not able to bring forth the sweet birth of the Muses (nec potis est dulces Musarum expromere fetus mens animi), my mind itself is tossed about with such great misfortunes …."

The general meaning is clear: the suffering of his loss has been so great, that Catullus has distanced himself from the Muses and is no longer able to write poetry.

The relationship between mens and Musa, which share the same root, also shared with memory, is striking.

But aren’t the Muses the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosine, the goddess of memory? Thomas pipes up. 

So poetry and memory are connected. What happened to Catullus?

He lost his memory, Alberto concludes.


Because his brother died.

In fact the wave that washes in from the Lethaean stream bathes his pale (pallidulum) foot, that is to say pale, like the pallor of the dead. But what exactly is the Lethaean stream?

The Lethe is the river of forgetfulness, but forgetfulness (or oblivion) is the opposite of memory. So suffering, causing oblivion, cancels memory which is the mother of the Muses and therefore mother of poetry.

But that’s not possible, many of them say.

Suffering leads to poetry, Federico explains. It’s when we are feeling really bad that the conditions for creativity are created.

The harm caused by Romanticism!

As a good ancient, a good Roman, Catullus ensures the exact opposite: if you are feeling bad, you don’t create anything.

Alessandro, who writes poetry, confirms this: Look, if you’re not feeling great, the poems just don’t come.

Fertility thus arises from fortunate conjunctions or conjunctures.

And, in fact, addressing his dead brother, Catullus weeps and declares: Will I never tell you, will I never have heard you, o brother more beloved than life, will I never behold you hereafter? But certainly I will always love you, I will always sing songs saddened by your death.

So many negations, how sad! And the comparison that follows is enough to give us gooseflesh: Catullus sees himself as similar to Procne, who, transformed into a nightingale, laments the tragic destiny of the dead Itylos. Procne, wife of Tereus and mother of Itylos, having discovered that her husband Tereus has raped her sister Philomela and has cut out her tongue to pervent her from talking, took revenge by killing Itylos and feeding him to Tereus.

Philomela (lover of song) is the mens animi, in other words, the creative mind that is deprived of its vital organ, the tongue, by her brother-in-law Tereus, symbol of mourning and death. Procne succeeds in suppressing the fetus Musarum (namely Itylos) and erases them from consciousness: this is the Lethaean wave, oblivion.

This is the preamble. But luckily there is something new.

Catullus is not alone, his friends support him (where would we be without friends!). Hortalus urges him to start writing again. Not wanting to let him down, Catullus set to work once more and drafted a translation from Greek of Callimachus, his master and inspiration.

The translated text is the famous Berenice’s Hair, which tells of royal locks cut and offered in sacrifice to the gods, who, benevolent in their turn, gather them in the sky in the form of stars. If only our own sacrifices were thus transformed, or anything else that is cut or removed from us!

But let’s continue: Catullus is recovering, working, on the mend. And how does he tell us? As poets do: with similes and hidden metaphors.

He compares himself to a young girl who has received as a gift from her beloved a malum (malum with a long a means fruit, while on the contrary malum with a short a means suffering or misfortune). She keeps the fruit hidden under her clothes, but suddenly her mother comes into the room, she jumps up and the malum falls out. Caught in the act, the young girl blushes.

At this point, Cristiano laughs; he thought of the malum as an erotic allusion. He imagined the two young people flirting, almost on the point of making love. Coming in, the mother has ruined everything. Be patient, Catullus seems to be saying, not everything is possible

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