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Assault on Aussie literature: Australian poetry desecration for Italians

By Domenico Pacitti

La poesia australiana [Australian Poetry] by Pietro Spinucci. Published in 1990 by Bulzoni, Rome, Italy, 310 pages,  €18.00, ISBN 88 7119 170 6.

Pietro Spinucci is reported to have given up the Roman Catholic priesthood a long time ago to teach English literature at Italian universities. It would be interesting to explore in which of these two areas Mr Spinucci has caused more damage, but this falls beyond the scope of our present review.

On the evidence of his book, however, there can surely be little doubt about the potential damage which Mr Spinucci has wrought on the minds of generations of malleable students entrusted to his care at the Universities of Trieste, Verona and elsewhere.

How, one might ask, is it possible to corrupt the minds of students in a book on Australian poetry? The trick, ably demonstrated by Mr Spinucci from his superior Italian academic armchair, is to view the last two centuries of Australian poets as having been unable to write poetry to Mr Spinucci’s standards on the grounds that they were the descendants of criminals who had been exiled to Australia.

Consider the implications of this belief. Criminality turns out to be something that is handed down from parents to children and grandchildren, presumably genetically, although Mr Spinucci does not actually spell it out in this way. Nor does Mr Spinucci stop to consider that criminal exiles may have been so branded for having had the courage to challenge the dominant authority of their day and not on account of any inherent criminality.

Within this framework it is hard to see how Mr Spinucci might avoid boomerang accusations of promoting racism towards Australians. Mr Spinucci, after all, clearly states (page 5) that his book is aimed “especially at university students”.

Mr Spinucci might like to consider the view that the poetic spirit is, like nobility of mind and soul, something that is born with the individual and not something that is genetically transmitted. It is instructive to note that Italy’s supreme poet Dante held this conviction, but perhaps that was because Dante did not have the advantage of being able to read Mr Spinucci’s books or attend his lectures.

Having set the relevant criminal constraints, Mr Spinucci romps carelessly and irresponsibly through 200 years of Australian poetry, desecrating the original English along the way perhaps in an unconscious effort to drive home his thesis on Australian poetic inferiority and mediocrity.

Thus Mr Spinucci attributes a serious misquoting of Virgil to Barron Field (page 27) and has him write “at fist” and “incongrous”, while Charles Harpur is made to write “poemas” and “conopies”. Similarly, Mr Spinucci has Henry Kendall write “firs and stars” (instead of “fits and starts”) and makes James McAuley write the Italian-English “indipendent”. Other gems from Mr Spinucci include: “hourley”, ugnliness”,  “monstruous” and much more.

Mr Spinucci further mutilates his ill-fated Australian poets by failing to indicate whether the verses which he cites constitute the whole poem or only a part.

Furthermore, and in possible support of the racist hypothesis, Mr Spinucci completely omits Aboriginal verse and the so-called Black Australian poets from his book. Mr Spinucci may have felt that their inclusion would have detracted from his criminal deportation thesis – or, perhaps more feasibly, he may simply have been totally unaware of their existence.

Readers may also be interested to know that in addition to murdering Australian literature Mr Spinucci has elsewhere also successfully murdered Anglo-American literature from the Elizabethan theatre to T.S. Eliot. Apparently still not content with this, Mr Spinucci has more recently unleashed on unsuspecting readers a collection of his own poetry. The collection is presumably intended to show how poetry writing should be carried out but, sadly, it further demonstrates Mr Spinucci’s own acute and embarrassing insensitivity to the subject.

At this point offended Australian readers might well find it puzzling that someone writing from an Italian cultural institution that has been well described as a moral vacuum should be engaged in desecrating Australian poetry from a moral perspective.

Those Australians who have had the misfortune of experiencing Italian academia from the inside might well have some “moral” and “criminal” questions to put to Mr Spinucci.

Surely Mr Spinucci must know about the rector who approached the language faculty dean with an offer he couldn’t refuse? "Your faculty can have five full professorships provided my son-in-law gets one and you can do whatever you like with the other four." When the dean died, the faculty’s main lecture room was named after him as a token of gratitude by the five beneficiaries and their colleagues.

Or what about the external examiner for a ricercatore competition who helped the internal examiner get rid of the female candidate who had been promised the post after dominating the internal examiner for two years in a sado-masochistic sexual relationship? This after the internal examiner’s wife had stormed into the English department threatening divorce proceedings.

Or the concorso commission member who threatened the best candidate that unless he stopped writing such long and embarrassingly good answers, he would shortly find his work published under the commission member’s name?

And what about the professore who was caught filming himself having sexual relations with his students in his faculty office and whose case was subsequently dismissed from court on the grounds that the protagonists were all adults?

What do these and a myriad of other similar cases say about the moral and criminal state of Italian universities? Doesn't any of this occasion any shame or moral indignation from Italians? Or is it that everyone simply wipes the slate clean at confession and resumes sinning again the next day?

Pietro Spinucci recently retired from a senior post in English Studies at the University of Verona's Faculty of Economy and Commerce.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on July 30 2004.