Long Ago in Spoleto: Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the Festival of Two Worlds

June 1965. An emotional Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the Caio Melisso, during the 8th Festival of Two Worlds.

«I am an American poet who flew here from London with winter clothes and a backpack full of papers, to read poems in American and hear them translated into Italian at the Spoleto Festival […] it is strange to sit in this Italian landscape, watching the swallows circling over a garden in Spoleto, the morning sun on the hills in the distance, blue-white hot sky…»: it’s June 1965 and the singer of ‘insurgent art’, one of the greatest inspirers of the beat universe, one of the most influential personalities of the American counterculture tells of his stay in Spoleto in the pages of ‘Diario Italiano’.

For the column “Long Ago in Spoleto” we want to talk to you about his special relationship with the city on the occasion of his recent demise.

In 1965, Ferlinghetti was chosen to give life, together with other distinguished writers, to a literary happening which, from 26 June to 2 July, drew to Spoleto not only many intellectuals but also crowds of onlookers. This is recalled by Salvatore Quasimodo who, in the following year’s festival programme, underlines how “on Giancarlo [sic] Menotti’s initiative and invitation, twenty-four poets of national and international fame, from the West and beyond, from Europe and the Americas, read their poems in public for a whole week during the Festival of the Two Worlds”. Bill Berkson in his memoir “Spoleto 1965” specifies that it was the writer and art critic Frank O’Hara who, at Menotti’s request, chose the delegation of American artists.

Menotti’s bet was creating an experience of unusual intensity by allowing the public to listen to pages of poetry while hearing the poet’s own voice declaim the verses, with the privilege of being able to absorb the rhythm and sonority of the words by associating them with the author’s acting gestures and stage presence. That week, 56 years ago, around thirty artists took turns at the Caio Melisso, including Evtušenko and Quasimodo, Neruda and Pasolini, Bachmann and Alberti.

Ferlinghetti performs on Wednesday 30 June. In his Italian Journal – whose pages were recently collected in the volume ‘Scrivendo sulla strada. Diario di viaggio e letteratura’ – there is plenty of room for his memories of Spoleto. A former publisher and founder of the legendary ‘City Lights’ bookshop, an installed cultural agitator, and the author of the seminal and extremely popular poetry collection Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti lets go of his memories and impressions of those days in Spoleto in his rhapsodic, inexorable prose. The result is astonishing portraits such as the one of Evtušenko, not very inclined to socialise with colleagues and the public, who arrives and leaves in a limousine and during his performance displays such theatrical tones and plastic poses that Ferlinghetti himself amuses himself by calling him “the discobolus of Moscow”.

But in addition to sarcasm, there are pages of profound emotion, interludes in which Ferlinghetti’s narrative transcends into lyrical impulses and openings, such as when he attends the performance of a shaky Ezra Pound, the old poet of the “Cantos”, so distant and different from Ferlinghetti but capable of arousing in him, with the magic of his voice, a surprising feeling of sweetness, empathy and interpenetration, which ends up reverberating on the Spoleto landscape. It is a passage that is worth quoting almost in its entirety to enjoy the emotional linguistic transition between prose and poetry and to realise how Spoleto has played an important role in all this:

«I stepped onto a stage at the Teatro Melisso, the enchanting Renaissance hall where the poetry readings and chamber concerts of the Spoleto festival were held every day, and suddenly I saw Ezra Pound for the first time, motionless as a Chinese statue, on a stage in a balcony at the back of the theatre, a row above the seats in the stalls. It was a shock, just to see an extraordinary old man in a curious pose, slim and long-haired, aquiline at eighty, his head oddly tilted to one side, lost in a permanent abstraction […] Everyone in the room stood up, turned to look at Pound on his stage, applauding. The applause went on and on and Pound tried to rise from his seat […] Suddenly there was silence in the room. The voice overwhelmed me, so sweet, so subtle, so fragile, so steadfastly stubborn. I rested my head in my arms on the velvet-covered balustrade of the stage. I was surprised to see a single tear fall on my knee. The thin, untamed voice continued. I left the stage blindly, through the back door, into the empty corridor outside the theatre, where the others, still, sat facing him, I walked out into the sun, crying….»

Above the city

along the old aqueduct

the chestnut trees

were still blooming

Silent birds flew in the valley

much below

Sun was shining

on the chestnut trees

and the leaves

floated in the sun

they floated and floated and floated

And would keep on floating

His voice

went on

it went on through the leaves…

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