Friday, July 19, 2013

I Wish I'd Written This

A Profession

By Primo Levi (1919 - 1987)

All you need to do is wait, fountain pen ready.
The lines will whir around you, like drunken moths.
One comes to the flame and you snatch it.
To be sure, you’re not finished; one isn’t enough.
Still it’s a lot – the beginning of your task.
The others rival one another to light nearby,
In a row or a circle, order or disorder,
Simple and quiet and slaves to your command.
You are the master – no doubt about it.
If it’s a good day, you line them up.
Fine work, isn’t it? Time-honored,
Sixty centuries old and always new,
With fixed or slack rules,
Or no rules at all, just as you like.
You feel you’re in good company,
Not lazy, lost, or always useless,
Sandaled and togaed, cloaked
In fine linen, with your degree.
Just take nothing for granted.

2 January 1984

From Primo Levi: Collected Poems, translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann. London, Faber, 1988.

Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist, survived ten months of incarceration in Auschwitz concentration camp prior to its liberation in January 1945. He eventually made his way back to Italy. After his retirement from managing a chemical factory in 1977, he became a full time writer.

Naturally enough, his poems were influenced by his experience of Auschwitz. Many address that experience directly. 

The piece I have chosen, though, is an exception. I'm sure any poet would relate to it. (Because the poems in this volume are dated, we know it was written fairly late in his life.)

Not many of his poems can be found online, but there are some at this link. At PoemHunter there are poems and prose quotations, for which he ia also famous. And here is another poem and  a comprehensive article. He also wrote novels, short stories and essays; check out his Amazon page. He was interviewed in 1985 by Paris Review.

He is widely supposed to have committed suicide by jumping over the railing of the staircase outside his fourth floor apartment. I prefer the more recent opinion that, being elderly and subject to  dizziness (which was known about him), he fell accidentally.

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. Not having read Primo Levi before, I am entranced by the work and links you've shared, Rosemary. Exhausted, I am not working on the house project today. This is a great beginning to my Friday Fun Day.

    1. You must have earned some fun by now! :)

      He's such a master, isn't he? And makes it look so effortless.

  2. I, too, hope that he fell because of dizzyness. Anyone who survived Auschwitz I doubt would take his life. He would know life is precious. I enjoyed his description of writing a poem, the words like moths to the flame.......(if only, hee hee!) Very intriguing poet, Rosemary. I must check him out. I have an abiding interest in the era of concentration camps that feels like cellular memory.

  3. He certainly had a way with words (and a good translationist). I too wish I'd written this poem - thanks for finding and posting it, Rosemary.

    1. I have owned his Collected Poems for many years. :)

  4. I too wish I had written this, I know just what he was feeling.

  5. I take nothing for granted. Thank you for this poem and poet!

  6. I definitely can identify with the words in this poem! I enjoyed reading a bit of the poet's history as well. I had heard of him, but had read nothing of his. I hope it is true he FELL to his death as well.

  7. Thanks all for your comments; glad you like my choice.


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