Salvatore Quasimodo is an interesting figure because his poetry changed completely through extreme historical circumstance.
Before the Second World War, he was one of the “hermetic poets”, along with Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale, who drew inspiration from the French Symbolists. They sought an unadorned verse in which an image would evoke its object in the purest form possible, but they used a personal and obscure set of symbols that can be difficult to interpret without knowing the “key”.
After WW2, Quasimodo’s poetry made a radical change. On receiving the Nobel prize for Literature in 1959, he referred to this in his acceptance speech:
War, I have always said, forces men to change their standards, regardless of whether their country has won or lost. Poetics and philosophies disintegrate "when the trees fall and the walls collapse ". At the point when continuity was interrupted by the first nuclear explosion, it would have been too easy to recover the formal sediment which linked us with an age of poetic decorum, of a preoccupation with poetic sounds. After the turbulence of death, moral principles and even religious proofs are called into question. Men of letters who cling to the private successes of their petty aesthetics shut themselves off from poetry's restless presence. From the night, his solitude, the poet finds day and starts a diary that is lethal to the inert. The dark landscape yields a dialogue. The politician and the mediocre poets with their armour of symbols and mystic purities pretend to ignore the real poet. It is a story which repeats itself like the cock's crow; indeed, like the cock's third crow.
Quasimodo’s poetry became an exploration of Italian society in the wartime years and how that experience continued to affect it post-war. There is a search for meaning through the agonies of guilt, violence, and shame. I’ve translated one of these poems below, and it has a urgent and direct power (or at least, it should have if I've done my job adequately):
Man of My Time
You are still made of stone and sling,
man of my time. You inhabit the fuselage,
with evil wings, the sundials of death,
I have seen you – on the fire wagon, at the gallows,
at the torture wheels. I have seen you: it was you,
with your perfect science committed to extermination,
without love, without Christ. You have killed again,
as always, as your fathers killed, as the animals
killed on seeing you for the first time.
And this reek of blood is as the day
when a brother said to his brother:
“Let us go to the fields.” And that cold, stubborn echo
has reached as far as you, in your days.
Forget, O sons, the clouds of blood
risen from the earth, forget your fathers:
their tombs sink into ashes,
the black birds, the wind, cover their hearts.
- Salvatore Quasimodo, 1947.