Introductions to Maltese poetry by:

Adrian Grima

Maria Grech Ganado


Poetry from Malta


Post-Independence Maltese Poetry — An Overview

By Bernard Micallef

Excerpts from the article, “la poésie maltaise postérieure à l'indépendance,” published in French in Le Jardin d'Essai (Paris, Number 21/22, Printemps 2001, Numéro spécial : Écritures Maltaises Contemporaines)

      To a large extent, the history of Maltese post-independence poetry is also the history of the poet's conversion from a patriotic to a linguistic, or purely artistic, hero. This runs parallel to a shift in the concept of independence: instead of the supposed conservative virtues of romantic self-perpetuation, independence now comes to connote an increasingly versatile poetry, assimilative of alien cultures through its enhancement of associative and reformulatory techniques. After Malta's political independence of 1964, Maltese literature is no longer ideologically guided by the romantic ideal of national self-sufficiency so often pitted against foreign rule. For one thing, there no longer existed a foreign power to blame for unrealized national hopes and ideals. For another, the indispensability of material and cultural importation for a small nation became an evident need of local government rather than a suspected measure of foreign rule. All this meant that the post-independence writer could no longer experience a feeling of cultural failure without turning his condemning gaze towards his own community. As the modernist poet inverts the romantic concept of independence from a self-preserving emphasis on national boundaries to an intellectual autonomy from local institutions, poetry comes to acquire a social commitment: the liberation of society from those formularities, protocols, and conformities that had previously stood for national demarcation. Inevitably, this subversive role of the new poetry conflicted with social, religious, and political standards, a fact which became publicly evident in 1968, when five items from the works selected by the MQL for the Arts Festival at the Manoel Theatre were censored by the Manoel Theatre Management Committee on the grounds that their subject-matter transgressed religious belief, debased matrimonial and patriotic values, and undermined the establishment.

Maria Grech Ganado

      Interrogating the inherited value of signs is also typical of that Maltese poetry challenging a gendered discourse from a feminist viewpoint, and appearing at a later phase of Maltese post-independence poetry. Among other woman writers comprising Rena Balzan, Doreen Micallef Chritien, Lilian Sciberras, and Marlene Saliba, Maria Grech Ganado offers a distinctive ability to evoke and disrupt the physical, emotional, and social discourse in which womanhood is encoded. Wordplay, syllepsis (a word applied to two other words in different senses), and antanaclasis (the repetition of a word with different meanings in the same context) occur at key points in her poetry to unveil the semantic instability of biological terms that crucially differentiate female roles. In the poem “Obsession,” expressions such as “the womb of thought” and “my womb is a dry open mouth / chasing and chasing / my life's tail” displace the term “womb” from biological distinction and poetic decorum to stark equations with cold rationality (thought) and emptiness (“dry mouth”). This jarring blend of reproductive terminology with cerebrality and destitution, together with a deliberate shifting between the literal and figurative functions of the term “womb,” detaches the poetic persona from any preconceived notions of femininity inscribed in a fixed discourse. The institutionalized female of fragility, etiquette, and distinctive bodily functions is dismembered and reinscribed with techniques using the same words to express unconventional, individual, and socially unrepresented concerns. The verb “impregnate,” which in Maltese forms a pun with the verb “burden,” can thus be used to denote a sexual relation which eventually burdens the female persona “with stones and wealth / that could only be traded for death” (“Gaea”). The shift in meaning not only inverts the consequence of impregnation into its opposing death, but also displays Grech Ganado's readiness to inhabit the very discourse of intimacy which she wants to transform into an unconfined realm of meaning.

      More interestingly, the poem “Communion” shocks the reader by a child born of an incestuous relation between the mother and the son, until he realizes that the conventional roles of mother, son, and daughter stand for abstract relations between the hypostatized qualities of Faith, Love, and Life. Here, the literally unacceptable becomes allegorically acceptable, and since the different hierarchies of literal and allegorical values derive from the same linguistic utterance the poem builds a tension between the shockingly perverse and the morally ideal. Besides this play between literal and figurative meaning, Grech Ganado can also express the multifarious inconclusivity of womanhood in a direct enlisting of simultaneous roles: citizen, friend, relative, daughter, mother, and wife. However, this direct utterance is typically accompanied by syntactical inversion and semantic shifting (of the pronoun “your”) that continue to slacken the sense of discoursive regularity or appropriateness typical of authoritative discourse:
That to my country I belong,
that I belong to my friends, relatives,
that I am your [plural] daughter,
above all your [plural] mother,

your [singular] wife after all, I know ...
I also exist for you
and through you I exist — also
but not only.
                        —“But not Only”

Adrian Grima and Immanuel Mifsud

      It is still too early to distinguish the characteristic traits of a later generation of Maltese poets best represented by Adrian Grima and Immanuel Mifsud. However, these younger poets do reveal some shared literary features, foremost amongst which is a readiness to represent marginalized people in a wider, global setting with less emphasis on the shock tactics of earlier poets. With a finely tuned irony, Adrian Grima employs mundane, banal metaphors, such as a grand sale of second hand goods, to caricature global injustices, such as an Africa exploited and drained of its resources (“The Great Grand Sale”). A growing motif of this emerging poetry seems to be that in the global village the aftermath of violence, domination, and exploitation becomes a condition shared by oppressor and victim alike. Grima often interlaces a dominant force and its victim into one ironic weave as he depicts the oppressor enslaved by his own enforcing measures: “The guards are sure they're better off / than me, / but there's a Tibet in them too” (“Tibet”). Recurrently, his poetry conveys a larger power creating its own impossibilities, losses, and miseries as it dominates a smaller force ruined beyond any prospective gain. In “The Tragedy of the Elephant that Wanted to Enter a Birdcage” this is cartoonishly conveyed as the elephant, looking upon the wrecked cage that continues to deny him entrance, feels encaged by this denial. While Grima's caricature depicts the self-imposed miseries of a powerful mankind, his more lyrical poems focus on the singular and neglected lives of individual people (“The Trumpeter” and “The Bicycle to Nowhere”) whose unknown routines hold the truly significant circumstances of existence.

      Immanuel Mifsud provides a deeper lyricism for the discrepancy between political forces on the one hand, and individual, dejected souls on the other. In the litany-like composition “A Few Leaves from Prague,” this poet installs impressions of a dejected humanity in the historical, political, and material dimensions of the metropolis, “mother of cities, and fresh daughter of the free market.” Municipal prestige becomes an insensible location of streets, bridges, and river banks for an individualized humanity represented in such ephemeral, yet unforgettable, sights as the “old man in the corner / with the hat in your hand / shivering with cold,” and the “woman looking in the greyness / of clouds and communist apartments.” Mifsud's focus on marginalized beings turns them into indelible spectres that inhabit him after they realistically haunt large drab spaces. In moments of solitude, this compels him to realize that his inward self is constituted out of collected images of the dejected, and the truly poetic instance consists in the exteriorization of this inward constitution. In the process, the boundary between the spectral and the tangible, the internal and the external, no longer exists, and the other's abject life becomes the very existence of the poetic self:
Here —
look inside me and tell me what you see.
A woman standing by the street corner;
a woman forever on the bus stop;
the woman with black hair freely floating;
the one waiting, loafing at the crossroads;
the one who accosts you during the night,
who saunters without looking at her watch.
      In conclusion, it may be said that Maltese post-independence poetry generally penetrates a more conventional discourse with disruptive devices that emancipate it from traditionally revered symbols and myths of order. While this poetic exercise demanded resources from foreign literary trends, its initial bohemian and distortive nature never abandoned the imagery, themes, and genres of a romantic legacy on which its parodic development heavily relied. In most cases, a blend of romantic expectations and deviational techniques provided a transformative continuation with a familiar language, deceptively evoking an accepted belief only to show that its transcendental referent no longer exists. Furthermore, the Maltese modernist poet generally experienced a conversion from a patriotic to an artistic hero, often suggesting that independence derives from an artistically versatile mind more than it does from a romantically guided ideal of national self-sufficiency. Henceforth, the modernist poet would blame the country's cultural failure on the stock sentimentality and ideological stereotypes of an earlier poetic community, which he early on confronted with deliberate indelicacies of style, offensively grotesque images, and a defying impiety towards its established imagery. The more subtle outcome, however, was a true liberation from the poet's own authorial centre, and a new importance given to a dynamism of poetic imagery seemingly ungoverned by a poetic self. Thus liberated from naive emotional and referential fixity, the new poetry employed a relativity of signs that accorded well with an improved sense of artistic autonomy. Unhampered by a simplified ego or by strict thematic categorization, the more refined instances of this poetry problematized the supposedly closed discourse of traditional poetry, finding, in the process, that reality could be linguistically constructed as much as traditionally accepted.