IF, SOME YEARS AGO, A FORTUNE
TELLER HAD TOLD me that one day I would be in America and that
I would even write in English, I would have answered: "Non
capisco." I did not know English then, or rather, I knew
only enough of it to make me bold enough to write my doctoral
dissertation on Wordsworth at the University of Naples in 1947.
My roots are Italian, and,
I would even say, Latin, for my very name means "Incense
of Janus." Janus was the god of my Gargano mountain in the
Apulian region of Italy. There, in a little town called San Marco
in Lamis, I was born on January (Janus again!) 14, 1924. The
day was Monday and the hour was early dawn. That is why my mother
tells me that I arrived into this world just in time to start
my week's work. And work I did at a very early age. I remember
that, as a child, I had a rather good singing voice (today it
is as deep and cavernous as the corridors of Hades); and that
silvery voice enabled me to earn a few lire at every funeral
As I have said, I was born
in the Apulian region of southern Italy. If you recall that even
Horace called it "thirsty," you will remember that
water is to us Apulians one of the greatest gifts of God. Imagine
hundreds and hundreds of people standing in line under a scorching
sun for hours and hours waiting for their turn to fill a bucket
at the well. And when we children spilled some water, the spanking
was quite resounding.
But, in spite of the drought
and the poverty, my childhood was a happy one. Mamma Lucia (as
I called my grandma) was illiterate, but she was a wonderful
woman who usually expressed herself in proverbs and adages. Had
I known at the time what poetry was, I would have called her
a poet. Almost everything I did, she preceded or followed with
a luminous phrase encompassing all the wisdom of our mountain
shepherds. With my pen moving over this paper, I am reminded
of her words: "With one stroke of the pen a certain Pilate
condemned an innocent Man." It was she who introduced me
to Padre Pio, the stigmatic. His monastery is only five miles
from our town; I served his Mass many times and he even called
me by my first name.
The years passed and the Second
World War came. I am tempted to write of a nineteen-year-old
lad who was buried alive in one of those horrible bombardments
which killed thousands of civilians, but who was rescued after
seven long hours of agony. But why afflict you with details of
sorrow? Besides, after such an experience, any lad becomes an
adult. I was still only nineteen when the Fascist censor of San
Severo, Foggia, had me brought before him. I had no idea what
it was all about, but I rushed to his office from the Classical
Lyceum I was attending, happy to escape an hour of trigonometry.
A little old man in a black shirt sat yawning over a huge desk.
He pointed to a pamphlet entitled Amedeo di Savoia, and
demanded "Did you write this poem?" I was delighted
to see it for I did not know that it had been printed. "Yes,
yes!" I answered. "And what do you mean right here?"
he questioned, pointing to a rather lyrical passage in which
I had referred to the King of Italy, and not to Mussolini. But
he must have realized that I was too young and too innocent to
be capable of political "malice," so he let me go home.
That was my first encounter with dictatorship, or rather, with
censorship in my native land.
When I came to the United States
on September 6, 1957, I met my father for the first time. He
had left Italy five months before I was born. After nearly twenty-four
years, full of the vicissitudes that so often make immigration
a tragic story, our little family was united. Some day I may
write an account of just how hard it is for a twenty-three-year-old
son to utter the word "father" for the first time.
I felt that I could never master
the English language. Although I could read it fairly well (remember
I had written my thesis on Wordsworth), I could speak scarcely
a word of it and had great difficulty grasping the spoken word.
Was it the speed with which it was spoken, or the slang with
which it was interspersed, or an inferiority complex on my part?
I do not know. But I did know that mastering the words of a language
is not enough. One must arrive at the point where mastery becomes
creative atmosphere. I comforted myself with the thought that
poetry had no linguistic barriers and that a poet (I was not
thinking of myself) could write in any idiom he has mastered,
for language is but a goblet bearing the wine, the ineffable
essence which gives universality to his thought and feeling.
It was a question of patience,
faith, and constant hard work. In the meantime, I wrote a novel
in Italian as well as works of literary criticism, and, so as
to keep up with my classics, a booklet of poetry in Latin. This
last, of course, found but a handful of readers.
Then in 1956, something happened
which definitely influenced my career. A good friend of mine,
the distinguished biographer, Miss Frances Winwar, persuaded
me to submit one of my poems in English to the Poetry Society
of England's most important poetry contest. Having nothing to
lose, I agreed. So, almost in camera caritatis, I sent
with timid best wishes my two-hundred line poem, "The Return."
Six months later I was informed that I was the winner of the
Greenwood Prize. My poem was printed in The Poetry Review,
London. The award restored my self-confidence and gave me
to understand that under God I should go ahead without fear or
It was not true with me, as
it seems to be with most writers, that I always wanted to write.
As a child I wanted to paint, and if my first teacher were alive
he could testify that I was somewhat talented in sketching. Then,
in my fifteenth year, despite the fact that I had never studied
music, I wanted to be a composer. I did, in fact, write some
Tantum Ergos and several songs. I played the songs on a mandolin,
for in our little mountain town the romantic tradition of the
nocturnal serenade is still alive. And it is still made up of
a guitar, a mandolin, a song and a window in the moonlight. But,
to return to my writing. You could say that I passed through
all the forms of creative restlessness before I found out that
it was literature I was seeking.
The year of my literary debut
in English coincided with that of my American citizenship. Proud
of becoming an American, I wanted to give my new country something
no one had ever given her before. And so, my volume, The Complete
Poems of Michelangelo, made me very happy. Through my humble
efforts, America now has at last after four centuries more than
a hundred great poems, hitherto untranslated and unenjoyed.
Since 1948 I have been teaching
Italian at the College of Mount St. Vincent. I also lecture at
New York University and Hunter College. I am a director of the
Catholic Poetry Society of America and have just been nominated
for the office of Vice President of the Poetry Society of America.
Can you picture me, a "five-yearold" American writer,
among so many outstanding literary Nestors? But I have wonderful
friends who even call "charming" that bit of accent
which, after all, reminds them that poetry, as I have said, knows
no linguistic boundaries.
EDITORS NOTE: Mr. Tusiani's
works include Amedeo di Savoia, a narrative poem
(Tip, Sacro Cuore, 1943), Flora (1945), Amore e Morte
(Tip. Caputo, 1946), Petali Sull'Onda (Vlnetlan Press,
1949), Peccato e Luce (Id., 1950), La Poesia Amorosa
di Emily Dickinson (Id., 1951), 'Two Critical Essays on
Emily Dickinson (Id., 1952), Wordsworthiana (Id.,
1953), Melos Cordis (Id., 1955), Dante in Licensa (NIgrlzla,
1952), Poesia Missionaria in Inghilterra ed Americana (Id.,
1953), Sonnetisti Americani (Clemente, 1954), Lo Speco
Celeste (Ed. Ciratma, 1957), Odi Sacre (Id., 1958),
and The Complete Poems of Michelangelo (Noonday Press, 1960);
as well as poems in Spirit, The Sign, The Catholic World, Audience,
The New York Herald Tribune, The Literary Review, The Poetry
Review (London), etc., and in several anthologies.
published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig,
Sixth Series, 1960.