Paolo Ruffilli was born in 1949. Attended the University of Bologna, where he studied modern
literature. After a period of teaching, he became editor with the publisher Garzanti in Milan, and is
presently the general editor of the Edizioni del Leone in Venice.
As an editor, he has not only supported contemporary poetry but also shown a scholarly interest in the Italian literature of the nineteenth century, preparing editions of the Operette Morali of Giacomo Leopardi, Ugo Foscolo’s translations of Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey , and Le confessioni d’un italiano by the poet, novelist, and patriot Ippolito Nievo. Ruffilli has also written a biography of Nievo. He has published criticism in a number of periodicals, and is the regular literary critic of the Bolognese daily Il Resto del Carlino.
Beginning in 1972, he has published nine volumes of poetry. The more recent: Piccola colazione
(1987, American Poetry Prize), Diario di Normandia (1990, Montale Prize), Camera oscura (1992),
Nuvole (1995), La gioia e il lutto (2001, Prix Européen, in english translation Joy and Mourning,
Dedalus Press 2004), Le stanze del cielo (2008), Affari di cuore (2011), Natura morta (2012), Variazioni sul tema (2014; Viareggio Award).
He published also the novels: Preparativi per la partenza (2003), Un’altra vita (2010), L’isola e il sogno (2011).
In English:Whenever I go (Banholt, 2003), Joy and Mourning (Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2004), Like it or not (Bordighera Press, New York, 2007), Dark Room (Bordighera Press, New York, 2011).
Have written about Ruffilli’s poetry: Alberto Asor Rosa,
Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo,
Piccola colazione (1987) has been a tremendous success, selling more than five thousand copies in a nation where a sale of one thousand copies for a book of poems is considered quite healthy. The volume has won numerous prizes and was the subject of both television special and a radio broadcast. An evening devoted to Piccola colazione was also held at the 1988 Frankfurt Book Fair, with papers read in Italian, French, German, Spanish and English.
Piccola colazione is a thematically and stylistically linked
volume of seven poems, a brief title poem followed by six
extended ones, each prefaced by a pair of sharp epigraphs
from writers as diverse as Swift, Proust, and Mishima. The
six longer poems, of which "Malaria" is the first,
form a kind of loose progression. Composed in short lines
and irregular, mostly short stanzas, with recurring bursts
of rhyme, they combine images, memories, narrative fragments,
scraps of dialogue, and snatches of song, in what several
commentators have described as an almost operatic technique.
Ruffillis style has been compared to the stream-of-consciousness
method employed by Joyce and other novelists, the historical
precedent for which is, interestingly , found in the works
of Sterne. Ruffillis techniques of dramatic collage
also owe a great deal to Eliot and Pound. But, despite these
influences, his style is both authentically original and unmistakably
personal. Through associative and impressionistic methods,
Ruffillis poem build and sustain an intense atmosphere
of fear, guilt, and desire. The Frankfurter Allgemeine describes
Piccola colazione as " a coming-of-age novel in verse,"
and Le Monde calls it "one of the most important books
of the last few years, destined to endure also as an other
way of making poetry."
POETRY OF ANTIPHRASIS
We know from Blanchot that the space of writing is the space of death. And Ruffilli can be taken as individual case and singular way in which the letter poetic always proves letter of transfixion, after being for a moment more or less prolonged letter of brightness.
This happens in the reply that his poetry created with the photos that are the starting point, but somehow already the point of arrival. In a perplexed and hallucinated timelessness which is that of photography, whose evidence has not from the point of view of nostalgia-pleasure, but of the seal of love and death that is printed on them.
It is not common to find such disturbing effects in a seemingly relaxed and in the air as much lightness. The strength of this poem is in anguish the reader, enchanting him. And well the poet represents, of reflection and through small yellowed scales the bourgeois “hell”: delusions, voids, cruelty, some madness, floating over the decorum and discretion. Is that law of antiphrasis, so the more ruthless the wording, the more affable. And you can not totally agree with the author about the tragic nature of existence (but unspeakable and pronounceable only in short volatile formulas).
EViDENCE OF PAIN
The fine citation by Roland Barthes, which Ruffilli has posted as epigraph to this book, can induce (and, as far as I am concerned, has fleetingly induced me) to a curious “optic” error. For a few instants, I supposed that the title of Ruffilli’s
book derived, in an overturn, by a book, Barthes’s, from which the citation is taken: dark room, that is, instead of white room. Naturally, reason quickly corrected the error: it was nothing like that: Barthes’s title is overturning something, precisely a current expression, while that of Ruffilli rectifies and integrates it, that expression, in the semantic norm (even if, as it is well-understood, not without its halo of ambiguity, of ulterior feelings).
The citation then remains, as the true meaning of Barthes’s phrase, which Ruffilli has re-cut and ideally framed as a warning to himself and to the readers. and, from it, the gravity and pregnancy of this warning leaps quickly at the eye: “For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent photo (. . .) for you, in it, there would be no wound.”
The reference is as specific as it is illuminating, subtly illuminating. The dark room is, in fact, the patient, minute reconstruction of a familiar romantic story, beginning with the “signs,” with the datum (these are words found in the text) made of a togetherness — perhaps one or more albums — of old photographs. It is not important here to name which story; already, the expression “familiar story” alludes, if he wants to or not, to a tangle of mercies and cruelty, collapse and detachment, that is, however, precisely, an intrigue, a predicament, an “interlacement,” to eschew from the material events of the story. What is important, it seems to me, is instead to suggest what the breadth of spectrum is, of the expressive range within which, and across which, the enquiry becomes division, the reconstruction poem; an enquiry measured, as i see it, from the opening between the “wound,” which Barthes (and Ruffilli through Barthes) refers in order to negate the reaching out to others rather than the subject, the first person, and the choice of neutrality, of objectivity, of a dryness that appears, at first glance, as the dominant tonality of Ruffilli’s text. What I want to say here is that the trajectory of the expressive gesture included in these pages — and from which — symmetrically, these pages are the dilation, the “body” — goes from the recognition, of the certainty of the wound, whatever it is (and even before its search; in fact, from the search of the body that inflicted it), to its symbolic scar, to the rite of its plainness in the practice of the language.
But in a poem, one knows, time does not exist, or better, the “arrow” of time does not exist, its irreversibility, just as it does not exist in dreams; and it is here, then, that the trajectory just described can be seen (rather, it is, without a doubt, seen in the reality of literature) even in the opposite sense, that is, according to the direction that brings one from the scar of the wound to the discovery of the wound, of the normalizing of pain and its advent. in each text of poetry, after all, the invention of the cross is at the same time both the point of arrival (and the point of departure of each possible metaphor of the passion).
A discreet connoisseur of Italian poetry of this century will quickly see in Ruffilli’s verses the continuity of a noble tradition, made of refined poverty, of contracted music, up to the extreme limit of inaudibility, which reaches its high point in the poetry of Giorgio Caproni; and he will think, then, of certain tangents, even thematic, between the present story in Camera oscura (Dark Room) and the unforgettable story of Annina in Seme del piangere (Weeping Seed).But just as easy, and certainly owed, will be to watch how Ruffilli works on his verbal and sentimental material with a sort of tenacity and “scientific” impassibility, which is not Caproni’s regarding how the very stillness of the photographic image constitutes a “moving” and formal correlative.
More than these heraldic divagations, however, what counts is the within of Ruffilli’s work, his internal and obsessive coherence. I believe Ruffilli has many reasons, and certainly all the rights, to lay claim, as center of his search, to cite a fragment, “the datum, but not/memory or nostalgia.” The datum, the sign, certainly, rendered, in judgment, as of minerals, like found fossils of another era, the ancient or future era of pain.
Dark Room, Bordighera Press
Q. Piccola colazione has been
a real success. Could you explain how you picked out such a
title, Breakfast ?
A. Theres an unforgettable
scene in Fellinis movie Amarcord : breakfast at Tittas,
which perhaps explains the title of my book. Theres a
stormy atmosphere developing at and around the table, which
represents , better than anything else, the precariousness of
those people meeting together and, at the same time, the relation
between them, affecting their personal destinies.
Anxieties, worries, resentments, disappointments, hopes, feelings,
fears: everything is laid on the table. There is being performed
the daily rite of a breakfast consisting in words and things,
in which everyone finds himself pulled by opposite forces, caught
in between laughter and tears, which ultimately are the very
condition of being.
There, the dramatic intensity of thoughts, dreams and emotions
is lost; speech, action and gesture take somewhat of the light
connotation of comedy. This is what I mean by "breakfast",
a kind of daily shake made with words, in which we are at the
same time acting and subject to action, eating and , in turn,
eaten, each being ones food to oneself, as we move back
and forth , out of the dark world of unconscious into the light
of reason and back to darkness again.
Q. Do you feel you belong in todays
Italian poetry or do you feel rather like an outsider? And why?
A. Its always hard to tell
where youre going also because very often you become what
you claim to be rather than what you really are. Therefore I
cant really tell where Im standing. On the other
hand Id like to say that my greatest ambition is to be
nobodys epigone. That doesnt mean Im going
to cut myself off or avoid confrontation. Quite the reverse
: Im open to any approach to writing and also to get involved
in writing even more actively and directly, yet determined to
keep going my way.
Q. Who are your models?
A. This is another difficult question,
because I dont want to make myself indebted to any particular
author, especially when considering that, very frequently, you
owe most to someone whose influence you dont usually regard
as significant. However, I can say that I very much like Gadda
and Savinio among prose writers, and Metastasio among poets.
Im also particularly fond of Da Ponte and Sterbini, Mozarts
and Rossinis librettists, and like comical endings of
plays and Laurel & Hardy type of gags. I love comedians
because nobody can be so fully aware of the tragic sense of
life and so painfully conscious of life-defeats as they are.
I dont know anybody whos better than they at recounting
life in the form of drama
Q. Then is it drama what your
poetry aims at?
A. Is there any other possibility?
If you look life full in the face, its drama itself that
youre looking at. This doesnt mean to draw away
from life, but rather to adjust yourself to a higher emotional
pitch, yet retaining the ability to bring out that humorous
vein which very often underlies things and rescues you from
falling into rhetoric.
Q. Over ten years have gone by
since you last published a collection of poems. How come youve
waited that long?
A. Generally speaking, the creative
process of poetry develops over long times. As far as my poetry
is concerned, times are even longer because I keep constantly
revising my work till I find the right key of expression. It
should also be noted that, since my poetry is expressive of
a particular genre which does not, in fact, belong to any literary
type, that causes additional difficulties.
Q. Since youve brought up
the question of genres, Id like to talk about it. In the
foreword to your book; Giuseppe Pontiggia explicitly says that
it is by making use of a number of converging choices of expression
that you overcome the problem of genres and find an appropriate
A. I wanted to attempt a new way
of writing poetry : I had in mind this idea of mixing dialogs,
narrative and images, and I wanted it to be a type of poetry
resulting in lyricism from the viewpoint of style and sound,
through varying the tone of expression and the levels of telling.
I also wanted the lyrical effects to be different from usual,
associated with irony.
Q. Irony. Thats something
quite alien to the tradition of Italian poetry.
A. As a child, I used to look
at things through a pair of binoculars I held the wrong way
round, so that things appeared to be further away rather than
nearer. I dont use those binoculars anymore but I still
look at things through the lens of irony. It helps me bring
down things to the size and proportions they actually have in
life. But irony does a little more : it helps me move away from
things not only in terms of space but also in terms of time,
so that I can look at my own life today as if I were centuries
and even millenniums apart. It is not a sort of optical distortion
but rather a way of seeing things perspectively different and
getting a clearer picture of them by making them look smaller.
Q. Whats your poetics?
A. From time immemorial the sublime
has been the battle-ground on which two schools of thought have
clashed: the one claiming the sublime could only be achieved
through magniloquence and grandiosity of effects, resorting
to the elevated style of tragedy and epic, the other maintaining
that the sublime was to be pursued through undertones of expression
and the choice of the little things and minor aspects of life
as subject for artistic representation. The latter view is what
I personally call " the inversely proportional law of poetry
", and thats precisely what my poetics is based on.
This is also a view shared by the whole of sapiential tradition
and the philosophical thought of ancient times. Its also
the foundation of great mistique : one must go into the desert
to find his way to heaven and must change himself into a child
to be great. This is especially true in todays life, where
exaggeration seems to be the general formula to achieve impressiveness
and elevation of result. Thats why I like to speak in
an undertone : to achieve deeper and more significant effects.
Doing the opposite would result in something pathetic and even
"WORLD LITERATURE TODAY",
Paolo Ruffilli. Piccola colazione.
Milan.Garzanti.1987. 125 pages. 16,000 l.
The semantic ambiguity implicit in the title of Paolo Ruffillis
latest book of poetry literally "Light Meal/Verification"
emblematically suggests the equivocal and transgressive
quality of his writing.
The association of a literary activity (the act of reading)
with a physiological one (the act of eating and digesting)
through a metonymic glide reveals the discrepancy between
reality and appearance inherent in all aspects of human existence.
The poetic subject projects his corporeal self into the materiality
of the text and attempts to grasp the truth, the essence of
things, by confronting writing and existence, the signifying
and the signified. Although his investigation proves to be
pointless, as words are deceiving signs which refer to an
unseizable , maybe inexistent reality, he feverishly persist
in his search in order to provide meaning to his existence.
The book, which was awarded the 1987 Tarquinia-Cardarelli
Poetry Prize, contains six short narrative poems, fragmented
into rhythmic sequences of dramatic, lyric and descriptive
nature. Phonematic effects (rhymes, alliterations, assonances,
consonances, et cetera) tend to prevail over semantic integrity
and thus metaphorically convey that life is a series of contingent
events, devoid of any logical meaning. The poetic persona
reacts against his awareness of the emptiness behind (or between)
all forms. Through erotic self-indulgence achieved in writing
with the compliance of the seductive word, he trusts sensory
perceptions as the only certain basis for knowledge. Paradoxically,
however, he knows that the senses are continually deceived
and that human history occurs beyond the corporeal reality
of the individual. Ultimately he must "yield to the evidence
/ that he is sailing / adrift" through life, unable to
identify and record in writing the object of his ontological
In conclusion, Piccola colazione appears to offer a sumptuous
meal even to the most demanding reader, just as it portrays
him tormented by an insatiable appetite.
Giovanna Wedel de Stasio
COINCIDENCE OF OPPOSITES
There is an intellectual energy in the poems by Paolo Ruffilli, a force of intelligence that explains all in garbage without giving up the halos of emotion. And is this coincidence of opposites, this solution in the contradiction that generates the spread of surprise and suddenly reveals to the reader what he had under his eyes and can not see. The word that comes from deep lights and in his incandescent reveals the truth of things. The revelation, enlightenment or epiphany, happens by virtue of the musical breath that pervades all the verses. And the music, we know, has the power to make us understand the incomprehensible. But in addition, through the word, Ruffilli’s poetry. offers us also the reasons. That's why Ruffilli arouses so much interest and is translated into main languages.