“ICELL, International Conference on English Language and Literature” (2017)
Author: Hektor Çiftja, PhD Candidate
Affiliation: University “A. Xhuvani”, Elbasan, Albania
philosophy had taught me: more love
for poetry, and a sense for style.
A Book of Poetry of an Albanian –American, with poems written most in English, and some of them in French, can not only be seen as a beautiful crystal-clear, but small drop in the amazing ocean of the poetry and literature written in the language of Shakespeare. It can be a collection of verses and poems about how American Society and Academia can be seen through the poetic eyes and the cultivated sensitivity of a sophisticated intellectual, born and raised in Albania, bearing a classical education from the Universities in Florence in Italy. When the author we are referring to, Arshi Pipa, wrote the volume of poems in English “Autobiography”, he was officially a citizen of the USA, very involved in the American Academic Life, and at an age in which someone would definitely think of a Poetic Testament.
My treatise “The life of an Albanian-American in the Northern American Universities” is going to be an analyses of the poems in the collection “Autobiography”,[i] by Arshi Pipa, written in the USA in 1998. I will be trying to demonstrate how ideology and poetry can come together in an English-speaking environment, almost alien to the author and still produce valuable pieces of written art.
In “The Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe since 1945” (Columbia University press, New York, 2008), Harold B. Segel states that Arshi Pipa published a series of books of more-or-less scholarly nature that sought to expose the Albanian dictatorship in the way that Paul Goma sought to expose the Romanian tyranny under Nicolae Ceausescu through his fiction. That was undoubtedly one of the aspects of Arshi Pipa’s work, most of whose volumes in the English language being either a contribution to Italian studies – such was the case for Montale – or a dedication to the exposure of the richness and faults of the Albanian culture, literature, and contemporary politics to the English speaking audience.
In my treatise, I will try to shed some modest light on another of Arshi Pipa’s multifaceted artistic personality in the United States, other than his scholarly work, and that his poetry written in the English Language, and with an English-speaking audience in mind. And here comes a volume of poems, the name of the collection could not be anything else but “autobiography”, as the author was now a well established albanian-american, in the late 1980-s, with no hope of coming back to his homeland, having spent 10 years in albanian Gulags, and a good part of his youth in the very heart of European culture, studying philosophy in Florence, Italy. “a hybrid” he was, with so many influences upon his life, and trying to survive in a very fast-moving cultural milieu as American academia was
It’s obvious that the collection of poems could not be but in many languages, most of them in English, (one would wonder: an albanian, teaching Italian and writing poems in English), some in French (we later learn that beside studying in French, he also had a girlfriend, with whom he shared most of his life, and she was a honorable French woman, living in the United States and studying, were are not surprised at this point, albanology. So French was what Arshi Pipa was speaking at home, in his new home, in the United States.
The collection ends with a significant poem: “venerianda”, significant not because its content, (it’s a bitter satire on Enver Hoxha and Stalin written in the spirit of ancient Latin poets) but because it is written in two versions, in English and in albanian, and published in the same volume. What can we think in that case, beyond scholarship scrupulosity of being faithful to both languages: Yes, here comes a wonderful example of how a writer, completely aware of being an émigré tries to communicate TO two cultures, the western, Anglo-Saxon one, with the English version, and to the albanian one, with the albanian version. The difference between the two versions being such that one cannot but think that Pipa wrote two different texts for two different audiences. He was aware of the differences, and to overcome any issues in poetic communication, he calls for help from Classical Latin Literature and references, which have become quite international by the very nature of scholarship
An introduction as well as a short and accurate description of the book can be found in the “prefaratory note” in which Pipa states that the poems in that volume cover the whole span of his adult life. They stand for his autobiography, poetry and life, having being interrelated much as a design is woven into a fabric. It was poetry which kept him alive during prison years . And it was also poetry which kept him afloat afterwards.
The poems, chronologically arranged, are divided in seven sections. “Juvenila” introduces three Italian translations from his first volume of verse, “Lundërtarë” (Sailors, 1944). Then a section with Italian poems-published in Albanian Translation in Meridiana (1969)-marks his Florentine Period. The third section contains a selection of free translations into Italian and English from “Libri i Burgut” (Prison Book, 1959). “Exile” groups verse written after he fled his native country, the French poems being written in Sarajevo, the rest in United States. The reader will notice the blank period in my writing after I settled in the new world. A rebound occurred during a leave of absence (1970-71) in Rome. The poems of his US period constitute the two last sections of the book.
As mention before (see Çiftja 2014[ii], Hamiti 2016)[iii], most albanian intellectual who settled in US during the 20-th century, could not be but first class intellectuals who found safety and encouraging environment, but yearned all the time for their native homeland, not only for reasons related to patriotism, but also because the way of living was so connected, rooted and interrelated with the albanian language. Forced not to think about that, their main concern became alienation. A generation before, Fan Noli had already started to translate INTO the English language, Pipa had started to teach courses in aesthetics, and uses grants on Italian studies to write on the Italo-Albanian culture, thus becoming very internationalized, not only by the very quality of their origin (Albania has always been considered a threshold between east and west), but also by the nature of the humanistic studies, rooted in Latin Culture, and being of international acceptance and understanding per se.
Here comes “autobiography”, not the collection of poems, which is very illustrating in itself, the very poem from which the book received the name: “Autobiography”
The poem begins with poetic recollection and saying on birth of the author:
“I was born at dawn in July/ within a cowl-in my country they say/ it’s a presage of luck.
And indeed lucky I am./ my solar essence accounts for/ how I live courting despair without ever/ falling into its orbit.
Deep in my marrowbones I know/ my curve, no matter how short or long, /will close into a circle.
As mentioned earlier, internationalism appears in the poem as an intrinsic quality of the author who is proud to be born and to have been able to absorb many different cultural influences from a very young age. And being a philosopher by vocation and a follower of Croce or Bergson he will state:
Purity tempts me, being a hybrid./ My father spoke Cham, my mother/ the Shkodër Gheg, they did not mix dialects.
His cultural syncretism as well as his love for western culture has also a geographical explanation:
I grew on the shores of the lake/ where the Venetian fortress/ casts an Illyrian shadow.
Mottled history ruins my veins/
More than once Arshi Pipa appears to be a lover of “spoken as well as written word”, “of the sense of style”. he is also a very passionate researcher of albanian folk literature (In USA he published his well researched volume “ The Albanian Folk verse: its structure and genre”). In the “Autobiography” we learn:
My grandmother who raised me/ was a great storyteller. I recall/ her tales, her rhymes, /her gentle voice, “Don’t beat your sisters!”./
From his father, a very educated and learned lawyer and statesman he recalls travelling and learning through travelling all over his native country, Albania
At ten on a trip with my father, /I surprised him by asking why the fields/ along the road were untilled. In Gjirokastër, / where he took me for a summer stay,
I delighted the girls of the quarter/ by walking the roofs grazing the eaves./ later a favorite sport/ was to climb down the wells.
Then come the early love stories of the poet
Yet I never met my long-yearned-for Eurydice,// deservedly so, for my love was not pure.
The poem must have been written when Pipa was in his 50-s. Sure he must have started reading philosophy and politics a very young age, but this is how he recalls coming in touch what would become his ideological battle: Marxism, and later, Stalinism
At fifteen I read Marx.
I went to Florence uncertain what to study,/ economics or literature./The compromise was philosophy.
These were the days when I was reading Lenin./ Unfortunately for him, I read last/ his empiro-criticism book,/ the result was brain constipation.
Shortly after, during his studies in Florence, he studied philosophers of Italian Idealism, and he could not escape but give some thought to fascism, the domineering ideology in the universities of the period.
“Idealism I regurgitated// by coping with Bergson. I was to appear// in black shirt and then to praise// his recent conversion to Christian mysticism.// I did neither one, thus igniting the wrath// of my Catholic profascist adviser. I disconcerted// Garin by telling him what// philosophy had taught me: more love// for poetry, and a sense for style.”
The poet’s love for beauty, for the woman whom he sometimes calls Eurydice, and sometimes Sofia, goes hand in hand with his search for the perfect beauty (earlier he mentions “purity temps me”), classical art, religion, spiritual and philosophical quest.
“…It was// in a philosophy class that I met her, //sure enough her name was Sofia, //a classical dancer. I remember her picture at the // Syracuse amphitheater, //her hair almost touching the ground.///
//She cut it short// as a chastity vow to the Virgin.// So she failed to convert me. I know// the architecture of Florence// thanks to her who used to kneel// at every altar in a church or chapel.//
//Love of her a lover of wisdom// solved the riddle called dialectics, //the happy marriage of theory and praxis.”
Arshi Pipa puts a lot of emphasis on two kind of events that shaped his ideology and spirit. The deaths in his family, and the long history of fights that his family members had had with dictatorships in Albania, his father had been a prominent fighter against the system of kingdom established in Albania in 19020-s, his brother Myzafer, a tough opponent of Italian fascism, and both Arshi and his brother Myzafer, ardent warriors against Stalinism.
“My brother was then in jail// in Ventotene. Later he went through// the Nazi camp of Pristina,// then joined the partisans, and ended up// tortured to death. I learned his fate// during my second, in camera, trial.
//And I have sworn upon my brother’s blood// to fight Stalinism no less then fascism// to the last drop of my blood.//
and here is how Arshi Pipa recalls the influence of his father on him
“My father, the nonconformist judge,// confined by Turkey and fired in Albania,// taught me to clutch at principles// and to despise tyranny. I remember him// patriarchal at home, smoking// a nargileh, but also having a drink// with plain people at the city’s taverns.//
From my martyred brother born// of a Georgian mother (my kinship with Stalin!)// I learned courage.
The long and sorrowful narration on family history end with elegy verse:
“//these are the dead to whom I have pledged// “
Philosophy and “the sense of style” must not only have been his vocation and field of education. Philosophical thinking was an intrinsic quality of him, showing up in his poetry. Earlier, when he writes on Bergson, emphasizes that there is a lot of poetry in philosophical writings and there must be a lot of philosophy in poetry as well. At least this seems to Arshi Pipa’s credo when he writes in the journal “kritika” (Tirane, 1944) (“Criticism”,) “Bergson, Metaphysics and Poetry”
“I bear, however no grudge. // Prison chastised my arrogance of freedom,// wiping out my elitist left-overs, // brutish life gave relish to life,// and forced labor taught me what labor is.//
//It was in prison I studied Espinoza// in the original my sister sneaked in,// the volume bound with a Stalin cover. //
//Sharing suffering with all sorts of people// humbled my pride, gave me a chance// to broaden my humanity’s scope// and then reach out and beyond.// Family deaths paved the way.
When he wrote his “autobiography” he was in his 50-s, well established in the USA, with very respectful position in American Universities. But he is not happy, part of the well-known adage that a real poet is never happy
“//Age has softened my temper,// I was adamant in my youth.// Captivity my purgatory,// exile a milder surrogate, // freedom in the new world its own// caricature, marriage a blunder, // academia a relentless struggle// not to sink in the Stygian marsh.//
And here comes the epilogue:
//…here I stand, my life on my palm, an Albanian// Teaching Italian at an American School// and speaking French at home//
some concluding remarks:
The collection of poems “autobiography” was written in 1988 and prepared to be published in the United States, when Pipa was in his 60-s and the prospect of returning to a democratic Albania was not in the forecast at that time. The book never came out as long as Arshi Pipa was alive, his devoted sisters Fehime and Nedred published it in 2000, in Tirana, almost 12 years later, and three years after Pipa had passed away. We do not have a clue what would the book be like if the author was alive upon the time of publication. But we do have strong reason to believe that it is precisely in that form of “post-umous manuscript” that the book hermeneutically and interpretatively very resourceful in gaining a proper insight on work and life of this established albanian-american author
[i] Pipa, Arshi: “autobiography 1988”, Shtëpia Botuese PHOENIX, Tiranë 2000
[ii] Çiftja, Hektor: “Arshi Pipa as an National as well as International Figure”, ICELL, Conference, Universiteti “Hëna e Plotë Beder”, Tiranë 2014
[iii] Hamiti, Sabri: “Studimet Albanistike në Amerikë”, Akademia e Shkencave dhe Arteve të Kosovës, Prishtinë 2015, pg 53
[E2]mund te permenden rastet e tjera ne te cilat poezia eshte pare si autobiografi, ose si e lidhur me jeten