The poetry of statehood | Oliver Friggeri

As the country continues to celebrate its national identity this year, Oliver Friggieri speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the enduring relevance of Dun Karm Psaila’s Innu Malti.

Oliver Friggieri
Oliver Friggieri

While the furore over the MEP elections was underway, the discussion of the island’s national identity continued in hushed tones at the National Library in Valletta, as leading poet and critic Oliver Friggieri delved into the life of his favourite subject – Malta’s national poet Dun Karm.

Under the auspices of ‘It-Tnax il-Ruh tal-Malti’ – a series of literary lectures organised by Fondazzjoni Celebrazzjonijiet Nazzjonali as part of this year’s cluster of events celebrating Malta’s national identity – Friggieri delved into that enduring Maltese poem: Dun Karm’s ‘L-Innu Malti’, penned in 1922 and adopted as Malta’s national anthem in 1941.

“The anthem has incessantly expressed and is still expressing the most salient aspect of Malta’s cultural identity, namely the belief in God, an uninterrupted tradition of some seven thousand years (the pre-Christian and then the Christian periods),” Friggieri said, speaking about his lecture which took place on 23 May.

Entitled ‘L-Innu Malti kelma b’kelma’ (The Maltese anthem word by word), Friggieri’s lecture – based on a booklet published by the author by the Zebbug Local Council, ‘Analizi tal-Versi tal-Innu Malti’ – demonstrated how the anthem is made up of Semitic words, whereas its poetic form is Latin, namely Italian.

According to Friggeri, “for a poet writing in the 1920s, this has implied a forceful political stand, placing the poet midway between the two extremes: the Stricklandian and the Mizzian, implying a fusion of both”.

Friggieri said that the political element was a key concern for Dun Karm, insofar as he was eager for Malta to become more aware of its national identity.

Friggieri discussed this element of Dun Karm’s biography, and artistic programme in his first Maltese-language book on Dun Karm, published in 1989 – following previous publications on the poet he had released in Italian.

“In this book I have sought to simplify some of the basic conclusions reached in my books on Dun Karm in Italian, and to show to what extent he got involved in the political debate prevailing in Malta in the post-war period, a point in time when Malta was getting closer to her major challenges.

“Social, popular, national: within these three categories I have sought to identify the various standpoints from which he observed, judged and addressed Malta. Never sensational, always gentle and calm, as true art in general demands (a very old lesson imparted by the ancient masters, especially the Greeks).”

The talk also delved into the revealing formal make-up of the ‘Innu’. In his discussion of the poem’s stylistic devices, Biblical references and rhythmic patterns, the talk showed how the poem achieves two aims: (first stanza) evoking a son’s relation with his father (‘Mulej’) and his mother (‘omm’); (second stanza) defining Maltese society in democratic terms, namely government (‘min jahkimha), employer-employees relationship: (‘sid’, ‘haddiem’), the people (‘Maltin’).

Friggieri claimed that the ‘Innu’, “gives poetic shape to the Maltese people’s urge to maintain democracy”.

“The first stanza defines a family in terms of a son’s dependence on parents, and the second one enlarges the concept of a family to embrace a whole ethnic group.”

Friggieri was keen to dispel the notion that the poem may be somewhat dated now, insisting that it remains relevant to contemporary Malta. Asked to comment on the somewhat fraught use of the term ‘hakkiem’ in the poem, Friggieri insisted that, contrary to what some may think, the word carries no explicit colonial connotations.

“The verb ‘hakem’, from which ‘jahkimha’ is derived, occupies a wide semantic range which includes the notion of administering, governing, leading, ruling. It has no colonial connotation at all,” Friggieri said, highlighting the fact that “Dun Karm is Malta’s most eminent voice of Maltese statehood – the awareness of being on the road towards Independence permeates his works, even the ones written in Italian.

Friggieri added that the use of the verb in this context precedes Dun Karm by many years, and that it can be found in poetry published prior to December 1922, when the anthem was first performed.

He also claims that basic terms in the local political phraseology can be traced back to Dun Karm. Some of these terms occurred frequently in 19th century poetry, and have survived largely thanks to Dun Karm. These include words like ‘gensna’, ‘art helwa’, ‘ommna Malta’, ‘Malta tagħna’, ‘lkoll’, ‘flimkien’, ‘ahna’.

But despite and historical or political considerations, Friggieri is keen to emphasise that the ‘Innu’ survives as a result of its universal qualities, as delivered through clear language that can be understood by all.

“The ‘Innu Malti’ is typical of Dun Karm’s major talent: unifying profundity and simplicity. Simplicity to me is a point of arrival, and not of departure. It is acquired through practice and the attainment of a higher sense of how loaded all words are,” Friggieri said.

“The universality of the ‘Innu’ can be found in the way it expressed the concerns of a whole country, the basic needs of a community which far transcend time and change. Poetry itself is attained when universality it attained, and when the limitations of time and place are superseded.”

Citing Oscar Wilde’s claim that “the only decent form of autobiography is criticism”, Friggieri finds direct parallels between his work on Dun Karm and his own poetry – a direct link to a literary forebear that manifests itself in his own work. 

“I once decided to produce a densely annotated edition of Dun Karm’s major work, ‘Il-Jien u Lilhinn Minnu’, a poem of more that five hundred lines which encapsulates mankind’s major concerns regarding the meaning of life, suffering and death.

“When I finished working on the annotated edition of this poem, I myself embarked on writing a long poem ‘Il-Bikja tal-Masġar’ (The Cry of the Woods), in which I somehow moved on from where the poet had stopped,” Friggieri said.