But what was it, precisely, that Pasolini did?
In 1970, five years before he was murdered on a beach near Rome, and about a decade after his first movie, Accattone, had made him notorious as a filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini sat down to write a preface to a new book of his selected poems.He called this little essay “To the New Reader,” and in it he wanted to explain to this new reader—who perhaps only knew him as a filmmaker, or novelist, or polemical essayist—why he was always, in fact, a poet. His first poem, he observed, was written when he was seven. His first collection had come out when he was twenty. The volume of selected poems was taken from three books: Gramsci’s Ashes, which appeared in 1957, when he was thirty-five; The Religion of My Time, from 1961; and Poem in the Shape of a Rose, which was published in 1964, the same year that his movie The Gospel According to St. Matthew came out. And so he had really made his films, he argued, “as a poet.” Not that a film and a poem were exactly equivalent, but still: “I think one can’t deny that a certain way of feeling something occurs in the same identical way when one is faced with some of my lines and some of my shots.”
Born in 1922, he began his career writing poetry in Friulian, his native language. Then he moved to Rome, where he wrote novels, this time exploring a dense Roman argot. And then came the movies of the ’60s and ’70s, including Mamma Roma, Teorema, and the trilogy of adaptations from Boccaccio, Chaucer, and the Arabian Nights, ending in his masterpiece of degradation, Salo. His atmosphere was constant scandal, and he added to that scandal with his essays in the high-end newspapers: small doses of acerbic thinking. But although he might have enjoyed using crazily various modes, he also had a certain style. In his movies, he loved fusing the hieratic with the everyday. And in his writing, too, he liked combining two things that don’t usually go together: a classical form or tone that could absorb its squalid subjects. His best poetry is a kind of diary written in long slabs and sequences—he called these poems poemetti, longer than a poesia, shorter than a poema—meditations on whatever he was thinking about, where the syntax is strung out along the terza-rima form (Dante’s meter!) in a papery festoon of thinking.