Poetic punctuation: music and Ungaretti’s hermeticism

“It is my heart
the most torn country.”

(G. Ungaretti)

Why is it unimaginable to have music without time indications (time statement, note duration, pauses, etc.)? Even the most bizarre avant-gardes and experiments have always (and rightly, I would say) used all that information necessary to determine the rhythm, dynamics, and sometimes even the timbre of individual notes or entire chords.

In this article, I would like to discuss the concept of punctuation in both the musical and poetic spheres, referring, in particular, to Giuseppe Ungaretti, whose hermetic poetics, with his choice of free verse, seems to want to renounce all forms of “punctuation,” leaving that task to the flow of semantics and the emotions aroused.

A picture of a musical score. The information of tempo, rhythm, melody and harmony form an inseparable whole in music
An example of a musical score. The information on tempo, rhythm, melody harmony, etc. They form an inseparable whole.

The nonexistent musical semantics

In principle (incorrect – with good grace from Hanslick), the “semantic” content of music is expressed primarily by the pitch of the notes and their succession, so anyone equipped with a decoding system should be able to access the meaning of a musical production simply by evaluating the sequence of frequencies the composer intended to represent.

Before discussing the obvious reasons why this assumption is trivially unacceptable, I would like to make a counter-example to support this thesis. If we take, for example, the Prelude from Bach’s Partita for Violin/Lute Suite BWV 1006(a), we immediately notice that, apart from a couple of opening bars and a couple of closing bars, the entire composition, in ¾ ternary rhythm, is based on bars composed of three groups of four semiquavers.

In practice, the “formal” rhythm (not the interpretive rhythm-which, even though it is a Baroque composition, always possesses a certain freedom) is “flat”: the interpreter, on first readings, can proceed without thinking all that much. The metronome beats a monotonous rhythm, and with each beat, a note corresponds. In this case, by necessity, the only factual information (strictly speaking) is provided solely by the pitches of the sounds (and a few rare dynamic indications). Something similar, but opposite, is the experiment of the symphonic poem for 100 metronomes by G. Ligeti (1923 – 2006).

Music is inconceivable outside of an ad hoc syntactic context.

Of course, this argument is entirely fallacious for several reasons. The first is obvious: complete information must, by necessity, consider all the elements given in the score. Tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, timbre, and all sorts of interpretive indications (e.g., cantabile, with emphasis, sforzando, etc.) form an inseparable whole, which alone deserves the appellation “musical composition.” Removing one or more of these elements can only result in an unacceptable alteration that often makes execution impossible.

The second reason, which is more philosophical and speculative, is that music (as well as poetry and fiction) does not exist in “pure space” (unless one considers the vibrational effect static-a condition feasible in mathematics, certainly not in nature) but instead in a dimension that is perceptually referred to as “time” (or, instead, in the conjunction of space and time). In the Italian essay “Il dispiegarsi del tempo psicologico” (ed. “The Unfolding of Psychological Time”) written a few years ago, I tried to evaluate a hypothesis of why humans “feel” the flow of time. Still, here I prefer to refer to the philosophical hypothesis theorized by P.D. Ouspensky (1878 – 1947) in his famous book “Tertium Organum.”

In this sense, time is the effect of a limitation of man’s phenomenal perceptual apparatus, which, restricted by three-dimensional space, is forced to “dilute” the fourth dimension into a sequence of three-dimensional blocks. Any phenomenon, whose noumenon thus transcends the stasis of a materialistic perception, must necessarily also develop in time and, in that process, expand its boundaries to a place where efforts make us glimpse something but never quite grasp it.

Time, expressed in a graphical, structured form, is therefore “sine qua non” not only of musical interpretation (the semantics of which rests its proper foundations on the articulation of frequency sequences- time for all intents and purposes) but also of all forms of communication where the goal extends beyond the mere transmission of information functional to the phenomenal sphere alone.

Construction of a hypercube
Theoretical construction of a hypercube (or Tesseract if in 4D). Human beings have a perceptual apparatus that cannot “see” beyond the third dimension. However, mathematics can deal with multidimensional spaces (even with infinite dimensions) without any problem.

Poetry, like music, pushes its targets toward the conscious perception of noumena hidden in seemingly illogical, unstructured, and sometimes even difficult-to-understand forms of expression. Listing in succession the words that make up the lines of a lyric (as, at the limit, one might do with prose) without any line breaks or punctuation marks amounts to all intents and purposes to the dimensional flattening of the composition, with the obvious consequence of “lowering” the “target” level, from the human that transcends to the infinite, to that of creatures limited to a two-dimensional knowledge that, at most, can let one imagine solid forms just as humans think of hyperspaces (of four or more dimensions).

Poetic punctuation as a semantic vehicle: Ungaretti teaches

This dutiful premise, however long, is indispensable to clarify the metaphysical role that punctuation plays in the poetic sphere, with a particular emphasis on the figure of Ungaretti (1888 – 1970): grammar and syntax can be assimilated into pure space that, through chromatic and structural elaboration, allows the fruition of the first three dimensions to be saturated, while the role of punctuation marks becomes the only tool capable of encoding time as an actual fourth dimension.

Suppose, in prose, for example, that the separation between subject and predicate made with a comma is considered an error in poetry. In that case, it can only leave an enormous space for interpreting the relationship between the subject and the action–physical or immaterial–being performed. The forced pause becomes an instrument of emphasis. In this imaginary place, the reader can place the expansion of his or her own emotions, concreating the meaning that the poet himself or herself has “dispersed” between the meshes of his or her verses.

Portrait of Giuseppe Ungaretti
Portrait of Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888 – 1970), the leading Italian exponent of poetic hermeticism.

Then again, even the use of different lines is aimed at often creating a disconnect between two components whose “liaison” can only be found in pure transcendence to a dimension phenomenally precluded to us. To fully understand this aspect of poetic creation, one only needs to read one of Ungaretti’s most famous and hermetic poems, “Mattina” (ed. “Morning”). For an anthology based on the poet’s most important poetry works, I recommend the book “Selected Poems“):

I illuminate me
of immensity.

The first verse is itself self-sufficient: the subject (which is and is not Ungaretti himself) implicitly declares himself and affirms his tendency to expand his perception through a process of “illumination”; moreover, the latter reality implies an object “standard,” light, the acquisition of which is precisely called “illumination.” But the poet does not wish to communicate only one of his perceptions: he wants the reader to begin to experience the effect of light on himself and thus prepare himself to understand the symbolism hidden in this concept: the immensity, the infinity, the unboundedness noumeni That only light, with its ephemeral elusiveness, can represent.

The separation in verse, therefore, “expands” the scope of action, transforming a delightful but unnecessarily devoid of concreteness phrase (“I shine brightly“) into a springboard that opens the doors of perception and lets the ego fully empathize with the light, pervasive and indestructible, before “exploding” into immensity, just like the”Ain” Kabbalistic ” (a concept assimilated to nothingness) became “Ain Sof” (i.e., the end of nothingness), transforming potentiality into the beginning of the whole creation.

Similar considerations are possible for another hermetic masterpiece by Ungaretti, the poem “Soldati” (ed. “Soldiers”)

We are as
in Autumn
on the trees

Again, the only non-linguistic information is the verse division. However, in what seems a trivial subdivision lies the more profound and poignant nature of Ungaretti’s poetry. The semantic content could remain unchanged if the lines were concatenated into a sentence, but the poet does not wish to write an aphorism. The incipit “It is like” strongly implies an existential condition of forced stasis. The impersonality, coupled with the use of the preposition “as,” creates determines a clear semantic context, a stark opening to a scenario where men, like puppets forced into unnatural positions, “stand” without even attempting to rebel (an act that would certainly be in vain).

The other verses show the same poignancy and even manage, with a very apt “rhythmic” choice, to place all the emphasis now on one aspect and, immediately after, on another, creating an interconnection where the individual elements yield nothing to the context, but contribute to its structuring without distorting themselves in any way. The second verse (“in autumn”) is similar to an isolated chord that hovers in the air and remains suspended, just like an autumn landscape portrayed by an impressionist painter.

Ungaretti weighs every word, every tiny fragment capable of carrying meaning. In this case, “in autumn” is not a simple temporal statement; on the contrary, the poet strongly wishes to emphasize that on par with the being of the first verse, there is also a mode that burdens the condition of passivity. Fall is a terminal season, but it can still make people reflect, turn their backs, and see summer with its joyous squeals. It isn’t kind because it condemns yes to stasis but simultaneously to full awareness.

The last two verses crown the descriptive effort of the first two. Musically speaking, they are like a cadence: after the tension, they bring harmony back to a fundamental state. What is precariously static is precisely the leaf, “birthed” by the mother tree, which, after an entire existence spent clinging to the parent with an “umbilical cord” that was never severed, discovers the stark truth. Autumn will bring weaning, separation, and death. Forced into immobility, just like the puppets hiding in the trenches, moved only by the whims of the wind, the leaf slowly withers, yields its green to golden streaks, and increasingly feels the scourge of the air.

Without “punctuation,” Ungaretti marks boundaries to create syntactic and semantic textures. He crosses the boundary of pure formality to a place where academic rules decay to give way to pure perception that cannot be tamed. In that ethereal space, which, at the same time, is so grave and material, he draws with individual linguistic fragments whole landscapes of the soul. He overcomes the barriers of maximalist descriptivism with unparalleled elegance. He manages to create accurate poetic punctuation precisely through its absence, for, as the great musical performers teach us, it is not the value of a note that determines its genesis and death but the depth of its essence, its uniqueness, and its appearance in a specific space and time.

War in the poetry of Ungaretti

Ungaretti’s poetry constitutes a poignant testimony to the overwhelming impact of war on the human psyche. As a soldier, he experienced firsthand the horrors and brutality of the trenches during World War I. However, his poetic compositions go beyond the simple description of the battlefield; they delve into his emotions and existential condition as a soldier.

In his poetry, Ungaretti masterfully transposes the chaos and anguish of war into vivid images and profound metaphors. He captures life’s fleeting and fragmented nature on the front lines through concise and fragmented verse. His words evoke a sense of immediacy and urgency, providing insight into the raw emotions experienced by soldiers.

Italian army troops in a trench during World War I. Ungaretti's poetry was a companion even in those terrible moments.
Italian army troops in a trench during World War I.

Ungaretti’s ability to express the fragility of life in the ruthless context of war is truly remarkable. It explores themes of loss, grief, and despair, reflecting the collective suffering of those caught in the crossfire. His poems become a cathartic release, a way to process his own experiences by giving voice to the countless soldiers who have endured similar hardships.

Through Ungaretti’s unique poetic style, he effectively conveys the human condition in the context of war. His verses bridge the personal and the universal, transcending language barriers and finding resonance among readers from all walks of life. Ungaretti’s poem is a powerful reminder of war’s lasting impact on individuals and society.

Considerations on the concepts of Ain and Ain Soft in the Kabbalah

The concept of “Ain” is Kabbalistic and has significant philosophical implications within Jewish Kabbalah. “Ain” refers to nothingness or nonbeing, representing absolute divine transcendence. It denotes the initial stage of creation in which God’s existence is hidden and incomprehensible to human understanding.

Going beyond “Ain,” the Kabbalah introduces the concept of “Ain Sof,” which means “endless” or “infinite.” This term indicates the infinite nature of God, which encompasses all existence and transcends all limitations. “Ain Sof” represents the divine essence and is the ultimate source of all creation.

The philosophical implications of these concepts are profound. “Ain” emphasizes the metaphysical nature of God, challenging the human intellect to grasp the incomprehensible essence of the divine. It encourages Kabbalah seekers to transcend the physical world’s limits and delve into the depths of spirituality.

Fragment of a Kabbalistic Text
Fragment of a 16th-century Kabbalistic text.

The concept of “Ain Sof” reveals the infinite nature of God, suggesting that every aspect of creation is an expression of the divine. It inspires individuals to recognize the interconnectedness of all things and the divine spark within each being. From this perspective, Kabbalah encourages pursuing spiritual growth and realizing one’s inner divinity.

By exploring the concepts of “Ain” and “Ain Sof” within Jewish Kabbalah, individuals gain insights into the nature of God, the universe, and their spiritual journey. It opens the door to mystical experiences, profound wisdom, and a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all existence. Study and contemplation allow one to discover these Kabbalistic concepts’ hidden truths and philosophical implications. For more information and philosophical-theological details on Jewish Kabbalah, I recommend the book “On The Kabbalah and its Symbolism” by G. Scholem.

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