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He never had a regular job, collaborating to several newspaper and writing almost only poetry. His first poems were published in 1932, through the intervention of Umberto Saba. Openly gay, his works were largely marked by his melanchonical view of homosexuality as emargination. Penna's economical conditions were often poor, and in his late years a group of intellectuals signed a manifesto on the newspaper Paese Sera to help him.
His affection for young boys was reflected by the constant presence of young boys in his verses, as well as in his taking a 14-year-old streetboy from Rome, Raffaele, to the home he shared with his mother in 1956 and living with him, on and off, for fourteen years.
According to Pier Paolo Pasolini, Penna's poetry was made of "an extremely delicate material of city places, with asphalt and grass, whitewashed walls of poor houses, white marbles of the bridges, and everywhere the sea's breath, the murmur of the river in which the trembling night lights reflect".
His controversial erotic love poems can be found in English translation in This Strange Joy (Ohio State University Press, 1982) and Remember me, God of Love (Carcanet, 1993).
An epigram of Penna's about the dark-skinned, dark-eyed, dark-haired Raffaele, scribbled on the back of his portrait by Tano Festa, reads
Sandro Penna died in Rome in 1977.