Amusing the muse

“Chi son? Sono un poeta. Che cosa faccio? Scrivo” (“Who am I? I’m a poet. What do I do? I write”), confesses Alfredo in that famous aria of burgeoning love for Mimi in Puccini’s “Bohème”. Poets are what so many other people call themselves here too. Indeed, it sometimes seems that every other person is a poet in Italy. In my evening classes students have presented me with their slim volumes of poems, often beautifully produced and always competently (and sometimes inspirationally) written. Local villagers have at least one relative who has contributed to this genre and they are proud of them. Every year a battalion of poets turn up for the little festival at our chiesina in Longoio. Bagni di Lucca has at least three nationally recognized poets (quite apart from those greats of the past like Shelley and the Brownings, who sojourned here).  This is a rather different situation from the UK where poets appear as refugees hiding themselves in the upper rooms of pubs for readings and imbibing of warm beer once a week as consolation from a society suffering from inverse snobbery.

Of course, all poets write verse but those who write verse may not all be poets! However, here I have found the standard is high and the expression honest: clearly, the cantabile beauty of the Italian language and its umpteen rhymes for every syllabic combination (rhyming verse is adoringly called verso baciato “kissed verse”) does help! What also aids is the teachers’ emphasis on memorizing poems by children at primary schools. (A great therapy if your train is cancelled is to recite a poem by heart – indeed there is a national association for this and, in my opinion, it is a great pity that Italian schools are encouraging this form of rote-learning less and less).

In addition to composed and written-down stanzas there are also examples of extempore versification: I “stornelli”  are one: statements and ripostes, in rhyming couplets, of an often scurrilous nature which become virtuoso displays with hardened practitioners.

Extempore verse reaches its sublimation when it transposes itself into dramatic form in the “canto del Maggio” – folk plays drawn from chivalric romances and local legends, enacted with colourful costumes and highly-stylized gestures, and performed open-air in the cool green glades of the upper Apennines between Tuscany and Emilia during summer. We have seen these and been entranced. The audience, gathered round the sylvan stage and amply provided with vino and panini for their picnics, are most discerning and appear to know exactly when to clap at some particularly clever combination of rhyme and meaning or some well-thought out debacle in the story. A representation we saw included a lion, a damsel in distress, a serpent, an infidel a sorcerer and a silver-armour- clad hero. We were reminded that Ariosto (he of “Orlando Furioso” first published in Ferrara in 1516, which describes the campaigns of Charlemagne with hero Orlando against the Saracens) was (rather unwilling) governor in the fortress of nearby Castelnuovo Garfagnana in the fifteenth century. (There are two recent statues in that town illustrating episodes from this classic epic of love and war – incidentally, Ariosto also wrote plays and his “Cassaria” formed the source for Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”).

One might ask how a “Maggio” play can be enjoyed if one does not know either the language or the conventions.  I reply that I have been to a “No” play without knowing a word of Japanese and a Balinese shadow puppet show without knowing a word of Indonesian. In all cases, since the audience is so involved in the performance, one can draw enjoyment from experiencing their interaction with the players, the sumptuous costumes and the Arcadian setting where it all takes place.

There is a chance for English-speaking poets to come out of their closets and contribute their efforts in time for the closing date of Bagni di Lucca’s national poetry competition by April 30th. For the second year running there is an English language section. The theme of the competition, which has star prizes, is “memories of water”. For application forms email me at

Below is a statue from a scene in “Orlando Furioso” you can see when entering Castelnuovo di Garfagnana and a “Maggio” representation of the same epic which we attended a few Mays ago:


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