“In a time of increasing deterioration and degradation of everyday life, the sovereign sarcasm of his verses helped me at times to endure the ubiquity of the dictator. I knew the poem by heart and repeated it to myself with sadistic determination, carefully measuring out the poison the poet had distilled so masterfully.”
You need a program to identify the dictator du jour. They reproduce faster than E. coli. The one in question is the late Nicolae Ceaușescu of Rumania, who had the graciousness to die by firing squad with his charming wife Elena. The writer is Norman Manea (b. 1936), who left his native Rumania in 1988, one year before Ceaușescu, and settled in the United States. The passage comes from his essay “On Clowns” in The Fifth Impossibility: Essays on Exile and Language (Yale University Press, 2012). The poem he refers to is “The Poet” by Eugenio Montale, as translated by Ghan Shyam Singh in It Depends: A Poet’s Notebook (New Directions, 1980):
“Only a short thread is left me
but I hope I’ll be able to dedicate
my humble songs to the next tyrant.
He won’t ask me to cut my veins
as Nero asked Lucan. He will want
spontaneous praise gushing from a grateful
heart and will have it in abundance.
All the same I shall be able to leave
a lasting trace. In poetry
what matters is not the content
but the form.”
“The Poet” defies Montale’s early and lasting reputation as a hermeticist. It was written in the nineteen-seventies, half a century after his first collection, Ossi di sepia. The tone is satirical, reminiscent of another poet who knew something about tyrants, Zbigniew Herbert. History forced Montale and Herbert to act politically without being political. In 1938, Montale lost his library job after refusing to join the Fascist party. Manea writes of the poem’s opening lines: “I wasn’t alone in sensing that only a short thread was left me: over the years, the tyrant had worn us down, insinuating himself into our daily nightmares, and I knew that even if I managed to save myself, I would be scarred forever by the toxins of this macabre period of my life.” Manea says he would whisper the final lines: “That was the only way I could enjoy the exaltation with which art proclaims its fundamental truth, parodying it at the same time.”
My timing was fortuitous. I was reading Manea’s essays on Monday, the day Ceaușescu’s “court poet,” Corneliu Vadim Tudor, died: “He wrote disparaging articles about Jews, Hungarians, Roma and liberal-minded Romanians. He was a lawmaker in the European Parliament from 2009 to 2014. He denied the Holocaust took place in Romania in a 2012 television interview.”
But even Tudor was not without redeeming qualities: “Tudor wrote more than one dozen books and was also known for his flamboyant style of dressing, wit, ready insults and love of stray dogs.”