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Exploring the Italian Language through Poetry

Italy has a long-standing and well-celebrated poetic tradition. After all, the Italian language seems made to be sung, maybe shouted, and definitely declaimed in verse. Poetry, as well as being a way to study the Italian culture and history through the centuries, is also a great way to learn the language itself. When diving into poetry, the wise words “focus on what you know; do not try to understand every single word; go for the big picture” are truer than ever. Understating every single word is sometimes hard even for native speakers and is not the point. Poetry is the magic of words coming together and forming something new, whose meaning is—in part—up to the reader. Let’s cover the basics and see where you can start.


Italian poetry from the beginning

The first Italian to deserve the poet label was San Francesco d’Assisi. The Cantico delle Creature, the first written text of the Italian literary tradition, was composed around 1224. The truly new feature of this text was its language: San Francesco used, indeed, the vulgar language (AKA, Italian), not Latin, the literary language by definition at that time. Let’s let poetry speak—just consider this text that is a praise to God:


Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora Luna e le stelle:

in celu l’ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.


Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Uento

et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,

per lo quale, a le Tue creature dài sustentamento.[*]


It’s from 800 years ago, but there are several words that have remained the same (signore, luna, belle, tempo), others that have changed but not as much (frate for fratello, sustentamento for sostentamento), and others more that require pro status to decipher (sora for sorella, uento for vento, nubilo for nuvoloso). However, poetry being poetry, try to read these verses aloud, and nothing will be lost in terms of musicality and sweetness. And you know that poetry is great as a tongue-twister, don’t you? Let’s see which poet might be particularly suited to this task.


Let’s learn like kids do: Gianni Rodari (1920–1980)

Reading poetry (aloud) can help with pronunciation, rhythm, tough sounds, or can just let you feel the vibe. Considering that learning a language is a process we all go through as kids, and seeing what amazing results kids can achieve … well, let’s get some inspiration from kids’ resources. Every Italian child gets exposed at some point to Gianni Rodari’s poetry and prose; his language is so apparently simple and yet so rich, his use of metaphors and rhymes are approachable at every age, and his messages never get old. Once again, let’s rely on verses to present the author (as an introduction, think of a long list of weather-related terms, and then read this as an alternative to learn vocab):

Dopo la pioggia viene il sereno

brilla in cielo l’arcobaleno.

È come un ponte imbandierato

e il sole ci passa festeggiato.

è bello guardare a naso in su

le sue bandiere rosse e blu.

Però lo si vede, questo è male

soltanto dopo il temporale.

Non sarebbe più conveniente

il temporale non farlo per niente?

Un arcobaleno senza tempesta,

questa sì che sarebbe una festa.

Sarebbe una festa per tutta la terra

fare la pace prima della guerra.


In addition to studying or reviewing weather-related terms, you also get to practice rhymes, and to reflect on the metaphor of storm/war, and maybe on the idea of peace itself.


Modern Italian poetry masterpiece: “L’infinito”

Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,

e questa siepe, che da tanta parte

dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.

Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati

spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani

silenzi, e profondissima quïete

io nel pensier mi fingo, ove per poco

il cor non si spaura. E come il vento

odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello

infinito silenzio a questa voce

vo comparando: e mi sovvien l’eterno,

e le morte stagioni, e la presente

e viva, e il suon di lei. Così tra questa

immensità s’annega il pensier mio:

e il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare


The above verses are known to every Italian kid, from elementary students to high schoolers. It’s “L’infinito,” by one of the most celebrated Italian modern poets, Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837). The last line in particular, e il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare (“and to flounder in this sea is sweet to me”), encompasses —together with Leopardi’s poetics—the magic flowing of word in verses. Once again, try to read it aloud to get the best of it. You can easily find Italian poetry online; it’s recommending poets that is the hardest task. Poetry, in every language, needs to speak to you. So, we’ll just reiterate our tips: Read it aloud and do not try to understand every single word (or even do not try to understand at all, at least at first reading). You’ll see where it brings you. Enjoy; buona poesia!


[*] Lodato sii, o mio Signore, per sorella luna e le stelle: in cielo le hai create, chiare preziose e belle / Lodato sii, mio Signore, per fratello vento, e per l’aria e per il cielo; per quello nuvoloso e per quello sereno, per ogni stagione tramite la quale alle creature dai vita.



By Claudia Quesito


Read also:
Famous Italian Poets

Top Italian Authors & Books to Read in 2023


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