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The Poets of Venice - 'Around me are the Stars and Waters'

This article was previously published in the special edition, VENICE (July 2019).

To call Venice a city of ghosts is painfully cliché. But what isn’t cliché about the famous floating city – La Serenissima, the ‘most serene’ city? As literature’s love affair with Venice continues doggedly into its sixth century, poets and writers persistently attempt to revive the lost romanticism of the crumbling coloured façades, the slow gondolas traversing the Grand Canal and the view across the lagoon to the swiss-cheese exterior of the Doge’s Palace. On the one hand, nothing appears changed from the Venice that belonged to the Romantics – the city still sings of those poet-traps; sun, ruin, colour, history. When the light fades and the day-trippers embark back on the Vaporetti, it's not hard to picture Lord Byron swimming back along the Grand Canal, pushing a small candle on a board in front of him to light the path back to his Palazzo.

Around me are the stars and waters, —

Worlds mirrored in the ocean

- Lord Byron, Palazzo Lioni

And yet, to twenty-first-century eyes – ones far too saturated by Canaletto, Giorgione, Bellini; by tourism boards and tea-towels printed with San Marco – the ruin-sun-history matrix appears exhausted of stories. Stripped by the twenty million tourists that flood the streets each year. Through the voices of other visitors to Venice, I hope to find my own vantage point on the city, teetering between an idyll of the past and a sad ruin of a long-lost golden age. I start in the most recent past, and with a poet that saw a Venice closest to that which I saw.

Joseph Brodsky (Visited Venice regularly 1972 - 1996)

‘What Russian doesn’t dream of Venice?’ opens a small amateur guide to the city by a Russian tourist board. This was a connection I wasn’t aware of – but compare the heights of St Petersburg, Joseph Brodsky’s birthplace, with the architecture of Venice; the former took huge inspiration from the latter. At varying times, Venice has been an object of lust for Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Aivazovsky, and Tchaikovsky. For Brodsky, Venice was ‘paradise’. Expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972, he settled in the US as a university lecturer and began flying to Venice for his holidays, returning every year. Avoiding the crowds in summer, Brodsky preferred the dark, dampness of Venice in winter. His collection of meditations on Venice, Watermark, asks the reader to dig deeply into symbolic interpretations of the great city, describing Venice as ‘part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers’. His final resting place is the cemetery island of San Michele.

‘Whether by theft or by artistry or by conquest, when it comes to time, Venetians are the world’s greatest experts...They bested time like no one else.’

Ezra Pound (Lived in Venice 1962 - 1972)

“Do you know Pound, Ezra Pound?”

“No. Is he here?”

“In Venice, yes. Across the Canal.”

Disliked by Joseph Brodsky, Pound was another poetic conqueror of Venice. His epic poem, The Cantos, describes Venice as a stone forest growing out of the water. Ezra Pound is a difficult character, a writer of difficult poetry, and in that sense, serves as a wonderful catalyst for dismantling a difficult city. ‘Gods float in the azure air, Bright gods and Tuscan, back before dew was shed’ he writes in Canto lll. ‘Green veins in the turquoise, Or, the grey steps lead up under the cedars’.

During his earlier stint in Italy, during the 1930s and 1940s, Pound espoused Benito Mussolini’s fascism and supported Adolf Hitler, and was detained in 1945 for antisemitism. Like Brodsky, he too rests on San Michele.

Hemingway at Harry's Bar, Illustration by Rhiannon Powell

Ernest Hemingway (Visited Venice regularly 1918 - 1954)

Poetic contemporary of Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway reportedly volunteered to teach Pound to box in return for lessons in how to write. Sharing a friendship, they similarly shared a love for the city on the lagoon. After the war, Hemingway stayed in the luxurious Gritti Palace in Venice, and began to frequent Harry’s Bar, wherein he was the first to order a ‘Montgomery’ – a cocktail (that sounds like death to me) composed of fifteen parts gin and one part Vermouth. Craving solitude and quiet to write, he moved to the Venetian island of Torcello, writing Across the River and Into the Trees. Set in Venice, the novel is a semi-autobiographical tale of a colonel falling for a beautiful aristocratic Venetian woman. Hemingway returned to Venice again in 1954 to recover from a plane crash – he apparently believed he could be cured by Venice’s scampi, lobster and Valpolicella, a sweet red wine from northern Italy. Him and I both.

Lord Byron (Lived in Venice 1816-1819)

Perhaps the best and the worst of stereotypical Venetian culture is exemplified by Lord Byron. Driven out of England for his scandalous bohemianism, he travelled to Venice. His extravagance was not quashed by the city, writing home that he had slept with two hundred women in the two years he spent in the city, regularly swimming from the Lido to St Mark’s Square, while also learning Armenian and writing his loose-moraled Venetian poem Beppo. ‘I want to see Venice, and the Alps, and Parmesan cheeses’ he wrote in 1814. I felt somewhat akin to this crude cultural tourism during the five days I spent in Venice this summer, photographing the Doge’s Palace, the pasta, the wine and Bellinis. However, the version of Venice, laid out in Byron’s long poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage stuck, and even John Ruskin, who arrived in 1835, admitted that it was Byron’s Venice he came to see.

Through all this misty haze of sun-burnt romanticism, I still find a much more modern quotation by art critic Jerry Saltz echoes my feelings the most: ‘Venice is the perfect place for a phase of art to die. No other city on earth embraces entropy quite like this magical floating mall.’ I could quite easily imagine myself falling into entropy on this tiny island; the narrow streets twisting into themselves, the sedate progression of the canals seemingly slowing down time itself, the gentle lapping of their murky, history-soaked waters beckoning you to sit down and stay in the atmosphere of lost romance, and live out your days trying to walk in the shoes of all those who experienced a better Venice.

Illustration by Lucy Sabath

Entropy on the Adriatic

a poem by Rose London

Too easily drunk

and too easily

dragged into the lake from excessive self-examination in rippling tides.

Hats, coats, tails, shoes, everything. Detritus

coupled with a forgetfulness, and a slow-moving current. This crude twine is leading us down winding sun-baked alleys that feel too tired for poetry

too tired for drunk tourism, sinking balefully

having filled their boots with cheese, meats, churches, and rotting flowers. It was easy enough to rewrite the creation myth. Thrusting into the sky, tearing bits out and eating it Filling cups with sun-blue wine.

That twisting jasmine seems clinging,

it has wet toes. We scramble around panicked, clinging at rocks

sinking balefully, and singing.

Far out, where it gets dark

the piercing shrill shout, white oil flesh on lazuli silk

bare and blinding high-exposure

husks of words that threaten their own erasure

I wonder if I've heard it. Or made it up.

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