“I believe poetry is the one thing in our time that cannot be contemporary. How can a poet use the language and follow the ideas and conventions of a generation for whom glory is a pipe dream, when liberty, patria, love for patria, do not exist, when true love is childish folly and all illusions have vanished, when all passion—not only grand, noble, exquisite passion—is dead? How, I ask, can one be party to all this and still be a poet? A poet, a poetry, without illusions, without passion—do these logically go together? Can a poet, as poet, be entirely self-engrossed and private and still be a poet? Yet aren’t these the salient characteristics of our time? So how can a poet, as poet, be distinctively contemporary?
“Remember that the ancients wrote poetry for the masses, or at least for people who mostly were not learned or philosophical. The moderns quite the contrary: today’s poets have only educated, cultured readers, so when it’s said that poets must be contemporary it’s meant that a poet must conform to the language and ideas of this narrow class of people, not the language and ideas of the masses (who know nothing really about poetry present or past and do not engage it in any way). Now, all learned, cultured men these days are inevitably self-engrossed and philosophical, stripped of meaningful illusions and barren of vital passions. Women the same. How can a poet be contemporary in act and spirit, how can he conform to such people, and still be a poet? What is poetic in them, in their language, thoughts, opinions, tastes, affections, customs, habits, deeds? What did or does or can poetry ever have in common with them?”
- July 12, 1823
That may have been written in 1823, but it sounds remarkably contemporary in itself. It isn’t the usual criticism that’s trotted out regularly on how poetry has become too ‘difficult’. Rather, much poetry has become private, passionless and self-engrossed, because fashionable poets (whether 'mainstream' or 'innovative') have stripped themselves and (in particular) their work of illusions, even those that might confer meaning and passion. Any myth worth its salt, whether true or not, invites both commitment and passion.
Leopardi’s question has a distinct resonance for contemporary poetry:
“Now, all learned, cultured men these days are inevitably self-engrossed and philosophical, stripped of meaningful illusions and barren of vital passions. Women the same. How can a poet be contemporary in act and spirit, how can he conform to such people, and still be a poet?”