Sandro Penna was an Italian poet and translator. He also worked as a bookstore clerk, proofreader, substitute teacher, and salesperson.
Sandro Penna was born on January 12, 1906, in Perugia, Italy. He was the son of Armando Penna and Angela (Antonione Satta) Penna.
His father was a shopkeeper. His mother, however, was in possession of an inheritance, and though the household was relatively prosperous from this, infidelities and quarrels over money marred Penna’s childhood years.
Penna suffered from bronchitis, and so did not begin school because of poor health until the age of eight. In 1925, he graduated from the Técnico di Perugia Institute.
After his graduation, Penna moved to Milan, where he worked in a bookstore. He held a number of odd jobs both there and in Rome, where he moved with his mother in 1929. For a time, Penna sought professional psychological help for his own desires and was treated by a doctor who introduced him to Saba, also a patient. This occurred in 1932, but Penna had already been sending Saba his poetry under an assumed name. The older writer then became Penna’s mentor, and that same year two poems of his appeared in a journal called L’ltalia Letteraria.
The editors of another journal liked Penna’s poems and discussed putting together a collection of his poetry. The writer Eugenio Montale, however, to whom Penna had been introduced by Saba, discouraged this, fearing they would face heavy censorship from the conservative Italian authorities. The country was by then a dictatorship run by Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Yet a Florence publisher was interested, and Poesie, Penna’s first collection of verse, was brought out in 1938 by Parenti. The volume would be enlarged twice and appear in subsequent editions in 1957 and 1970. Poesie was met with favorable praise by critics, a fact all the more remarkable because of the poems’ absence of any sense of remorse or despair over the homoerotic sentiments expressed.
World War II interrupted Penna’s literary career for a time, and his second volume, Appunti (“Notes”), was again well-received by critics in 1950 despite its themes. Six years later the volume Una strana gioia di vivere (“A Strange Joy for Life”), appeared after Penna contracted with a new publisher, Milan’s Scheiwiller.
Penna published no works at all during the 1960s but issued a collection of prose pieces, Un po di febbre (“A Little Fever”) in 1973. The essays in it provide unwitting assistance to a reader of Penna’s poems since so many of them were undated and not published in any chronological order; his prose discusses incidents that correspond with moments he sketched in his poetry. The volume also contains descriptive essays on several Italian cities that had been written around the time of World War II. One of Penna’s final works, 1977’s II viaggiatore insonne (“The Sleepless Traveler”), contains poems in which the writer walks through Rome alone at night.
Penna died of heart failure, probably instigated by an overdose of sleeping pills, just a week later. His place in contemporary Italian poetry, however, remains secure; the most recent volume of his work, Peccato digola: poesie al fermo posta, appeared in 1989.
As a young adult, Penna read a great deal, and favored writers such as Friedrich Hoelderlin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Gabriele D’Annunzio.
Throughout his 30 poems, he wrote of his desires, and described himself as saturated by a strange joy of living that made him immune to the dangers of the chase.
He lived in reduced circumstances for much of his life, uninterested in furthering his career. In his later years he gave interviews for money. Penna possessed a beloved German shepherd dog, but had to give the pet up after a time because of his health and his living quarters, which were a cramped and cluttered sixth-floor apartment in Rome.
In his later years, Penna suffered from severe tooth decay as well as insomnia
Quotes from others about the person
"Penna’s homoerotic lyrics, dreamy and delicately pornographic, are a supple blend of melancholy and exhilaration in the classical tradition; they re-create the tension between the real and the imaginative world of erotic experience.” - Jack Shreve