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Life As A Poem

Songbook: The Selected Poems Of Umberto Saba

Translated by George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan

(Yale University Press, 562 pp., $35)

Umberto Saba, a poet of mysterious and difficult simplicity, has been ushered back into English. The translation of poetry is never easy, but Saba presents particular challenges. Leonard Nathan, the poet and veteran translator who died in 2007, and George Hochfield have for the most part improved on earlier versions, and their selection from Saba's masterwork, Il canzoniere, or The Songbook, gives a good idea of the scope of that extraordinary monument.

Saba was born in Trieste in 1883, and lived most of his life in that seaside city of complex and mingled nationalities, the major port for the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it passed into Italian hands in 1918. By the time of Saba's death in 1957, he was regarded, along with Eugenio Montale and Giuseppe Ungaretti, as one of the master poets of Italy in the twentieth century, but even his admirers seem to apologize for him, and to scramble around for terms in which to assess his art. Saba belonged to no literary or political movement, though he was clearly anti-Fascist. When a friend asked him, "But what party do you belong to, when it comes down to it?" Saba quipped, "To the psychoanalytic party." Like his native city, he is difficult to situate and to define. The appearance of this selection in English, with its graceful notes, commentary, and bibliography, should enlarge the critical conversation about him, which is what he deserves.

The difficulties in reading this deceptively clear poet start with the question of names: his own name, and the name of his great book. Saba was born Umberto Poli, the child of a Jewish mother and a gentile father. Both families were poor. His father, after converting to Judaism, had floated away by the time his son was born, and Umberto would be twenty years old before meeting the vagabond sire. "He wandered the world like a pilgrim," recalled Saba in one of the sonnets of Autobiography, remembering also that the absent father had been "the assassin" in his mind until their meeting, when the young man recognized something of himself in this Ulysses figure, "cheerful and easygoing," who had Umberto's "blue-eyed look,/a smile, in bad times, gentle and sly." The mother's grief also shaped the poet's childhood: "Alone, at night, in her deserted bed,/ my mother wept when I was born," he recounts in another sonnet in the sequence. Not by accident does this poem in Italian rhyme letto, bed, with ghetto.

The child felt himself torn between worlds: the mother's dark, cramped house in the Jewish quarter of Trieste, and the father's lackadaisical freedom. "They were two races in ancient conflict," he reflects in the "assassin" sonnet. This son of division was further torn between allegiance to his mother and an ardent love for his Slovenian wet nurse, Peppa Sabaz, with whom he lived for most of his first four years. It would be his fate, as man and poet, never to feel at ease anywhere.

It took him a while to father himself, even in the sense of finding a name. At nineteen, after a spotty education, he left his job in the office of a grain dealer in Trieste and lived a peripatetic life for a few years, making friends with artists, writers, and musicians; dabbling in university life in Pisa; and, most crucially, immersing himself in the Italian poetic tradition. He published his first poems under the aristocratic pseudonym Umberto da Montereale. It was not until 1911, when he was twenty-eight, that he took the more down-to-earth name Umberto Saba, which was emblazoned in the title of his first book: Poems of Umberto Saba. In 1928 he cast off his patronymic for good, changing his name legally from Poli to Saba.

The pseudonym has given rise to unstable interpretations. For years, critics recycled the false claim (never made by Saba) that saba means "bread" in Hebrew. Even Joseph Cary, Saba's best American critic, accepted that notion in the first edition of his groundbreaking book, Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale. The second edition corrects the error, and gives useful information on the two major pseudonyms (and some minor ones). "Montereale," along with its D'Annunzian grandiosity, echoed the origins of Umberto's father's family in Montereale Valcellina; and "Saba," far from signifying bread, recalled the name of Umberto's beloved Peppa Sabaz. In an odd filching, the poet plucked the pen-name from his Triestine friend and mentor, the philosopher Giorgio Fano, who signed his articles "Saba" before yielding it to young Umberto. Years later Saba used yet another pseudonym, Giuseppe Caramandrei, when he wrote Storia e cronostoria del Canzoniere, or History and Chronicle of the Songbook, his remarkable self-exposition in prose.

The story of the name resembles a fable out of Borges. This was an author wildly in search of a persona. And if the name distills complex identities, personal and poetic, so does the title of Il canzoniere, the masterwork into which he gathered all his individual volumes of poems as they appeared. This collection, first published in 1921 and progressively elaborated, revised, and reprinted in Saba's lifetime, seems at first glance to align the modern poet with Petrarch, and thereby to make a staggeringly ambitious claim. We learn from History, however, that Saba adored Heine, and it has been suggested that an Italian translation of Heine's Buch der Lieder--called, of course, Il canzoniere--served as a more immediate model for Saba's book. One can see how Heine's lyricism, as well as his deracination from both Judaism and Christianity, and his discomfort in Germany and France, would have touched the Italian poet. Saba's title, evoking both Petrarch and Heine, blends his classical Italianness and his peripheral, Triestine internationalism.

More than most writers, Saba had to invent himself. "He is a poet constantly making himself up," Pasolini said of him, in a phrase more pungent in the original: "Egli e un poeta in continuo farsi." And here we approach the more intimate difficulty of Saba. He himself, writing as Caramandrei, described it in History, writing of Saba the poet in the third person: the problem of his "over-insistence on the facts of his own life ... the so-called 'autobiographism' of Saba." The critic Alfredo Gargiulo attacked Saba in 1930 for his "fundamental incapacity to detach himself from quotidian fact, from the occasion, from prose" (as Saba summed it up in History). The accusation stung. Saba returns to it often in History, and the desire to justify his art against Gargiulo may have helped to inspire the book.

But as is often the case, a hostile critic may point sensitively to the source of strength in a poet without meaning to do so. The case for Saba depends on one's judgment of what he made of the raw materials of his own life. Saba puts the question into high relief, because his materials are rawly autobiographical, in a manner unusual for his time and his literary culture, and because he brought to those data a powerful apprenticeship in poetic tradition. He describes his need for tradition in one of the most moving sentences in History: "There was something in his inmost nature that had to lean on something most solid, most sure, something that had been tested in a long, the longest possible past, before setting out in the conquest of himself."

That conquest of self gave birth to a major poetic vocation. Saba inhabits his inner life with uncommon intensity and avowed egocentricity--but at the same time his detachment from self through the discipline of verse-craft and immersion in an ancient tradition produced a poetry of eerie lyric purity. It is an art at once self-absorbed and selfless, and it was thoroughly out of step with its age. In History, Saba called himself "backward and peripheral." His first books appeared in a period of high-modernist ferment in Italy and across Europe; but Saba's combination of traditional meters (the standard Italian line, the eleven-syllable endecasillabo, and its derivative, the seven-syllable settenario), traditional verse forms (sonnets, songs), and what Pasolini called "certain falsely ingenuous autobiographical crudities," all resulted in an art so original it took years to win recognition in the poet's own land.

Saba wrote a remarkably prescient account of his practice in his essay, "What Remains for Poets to Do," in 1911, the year he published his first book. The article was turned down by the Florentine literary review La Voce, and did not appear in print until after the author's death. One of the many riches of Hochfield's and Nathan's volume is their presentation of this piece. In it, the young Saba attacks the dominant strain of Italian poetry of his era, the magnificent rhetoric of D'Annunzio, which he contrasts with what he calls the "literary honesty" of Alessandro Manzoni. Saba elaborates a poetics of "sincerity," "honesty," and "originality," a description in part formal and stylistic, and in part genetic, in the sense of proposing a process of composition and a way of life that shapes it.

Saba's notion of sincerity has little to do with the narcissistic version embraced by Americans since the 1960s. Saba has something more rigorous in mind. In deposing D'Annunzio, he insists that poets engage in the dual disciplines of self xamination and submission to poetic tradition. The writer motivated only by the desire to be original "will never discover his true nature and never say anything unexpected. We must--don't take this literally--be original in spite of ourselves." Saba's account of this ascetic process rings as true today as it did in 1911, since every era has its fashions and temptations, its poetic ostentations that obscure the valid discoveries: "A long discipline is thus necessary to prepare oneself to receive grace in a proper spirit; to make a daily scrutiny of conscience, reread oneself in those periods of stagnation when analysis is not possible, trying to remember the state of mind that generated the verses and making note with heroic meticulousness of the difference between the thought and what was written."

Saba produced his life's work trying to follow this "scrupulous honesty of researchers for truth." It is not easy to translate. "Poets are untranslatable, " he declared, "especially poets like Saba who work more in 'tone' than in 'images.'" The translator of Saba must find a mode for one of the most delicately pitched voices in all modern poetry--a voice simple, conversational, almost naked, resonating with older echoes without appearing in the least literary. The best descriptions of this voice come, not surprisingly, from two of Italy's finest poets. In 1926, Montale wrote of Saba's Trieste and a Woman that "here are set all the most original features of the 'early Saba': a music almost stripped of plasticity and high relief, delight in diction that seems commonplace but that is in fact, estranged: words which vanish into the page as soon as they are released, to create an indescribable background, an indescribable second interior space redolent of Lieder and distance, of nostalgia and ungraspable presences." And Pasolini pointed to something similar: "There is no word in Saba--the most common, the 'cuore-amore' of the famous rhyme--that doesn't turn out to be intimately violated, roughed up and wrenched from its normal meaning, its normal semantic tone."

A shilling life gives the facts that produced this singular talent. After his unsettled childhood and uneven schooling, Saba had, as he said, to create a culture for himself. He worked briefly as a clerk in Trieste; wandered in and out of literary circles in Florence, Milan and Trieste; and did military service in 1907-1908. In 1909 he married the seamstress Carolina Wolfler, the Lina who would appear in many poems. Their child, Linuccia, was born a year later, and one notes sadly that Saba recapitulated the conditions of his own childhood by sending the baby out to a wet nurse so that his wife could concentrate on taking care of him. Understandably unhappy, Lina took a lover, and for a while set up house with her baby and him, an art teacher who was a friend of Saba's. (Not the Vito Timmel mentioned in Hochfield's and Nathan's notes, by the way: this is one of their few factual errors.) This matrimonial kerfuffle resulted in what some consider Saba's best book, Trieste and a Woman. It was, in any case, resolved in fairly short order, with Lina and the baby returning home.

Saba moved the family to Milan for a year to manage a cabaret, an enterprise cut short by the outbreak of World War I. He served in the army in non ombatant roles during the war, and in 1919 returned to Trieste to take over the antiquarian bookshop, the Libreria Antica e Moderna, where he would earn his living for many years, until he was dispossessed by the "racial laws" of Fascist Italy in 1938. During World War II, and especially after the Nazi occupation of Italy in 1943, Saba (who had never identified himself as Jewish) and his family were in danger of deportation, and hid in Florence, moving from house to house, including Montale's. This unpolitical poet would later learn that lines from his "Sixth Fugue" were found scrawled on the wall of a Gestapo torture cell in Florence.

During this period of internal exile and persecution, Saba started writing History and Chronicle of the Songbook, which he published in 1948. In his last years, he struggled with ill health, and also with depression, which had always haunted him. He also received the official recognition that had earlier eluded him, and won many prizes. Lina died in 1956, and Saba followed her a year later.

From this skeletal account, one may derive the main elements of the story, and the key images and preoccupations, from which Saba would build his poems: the errant father, the lost paradise of Peppa's house, the city of Trieste, the innocent and then tormented love for his wife, melancholy, solitude, and sexual desire, including some lightly sketched yearning for boys. The publication, after Saba's death, of Ernesto, his late and unfinished novel of sexual initiation of a boy by an older man, alerted his readers to expressions of homoeroticism in the poems; but it seems fair to say that Saba's longing for women outweighed his other desires. By poring over his feelings until he discovered their true strangeness, Saba created himself. His real father, the procreator of his poetic voice, was Leopardi, Italy's greatest poet of the nineteenth century. From him, Saba inherited the mixture of Romantic plangency and Classical stoicism that gave his own work its peculiar timbre.

Hochfield and Nathan were right to open their volume with "The Admonition," the first poem of Il canzoniere. It takes an act of historical imagination for the contemporary American reader to discern the force and the novelty of this delicate poem. We have had a century of plain-style modern poetry in English, and the singularity of Saba's four youthful quatrains--one of his earliest poems, composed in late adolescence--needs to be felt as both a homage to Leopardi and a defiance of D'Annunzian grandiosity. Nor should it be confused with the rather airless, willed smallness of design embraced by the loose group of anti-D'Annunzian poets of his day, known as the Crepuscolari. "The Admonition" is far from one of Saba's strongest poems, but it gives us an opening into his world, and to the trouble that he makes for translators.

The poem addresses a cloud (a recurrent image for Saba) in lines of seven, seven, seven, and six syllables, with lines two and three of each quatrain rhymed, and the last lines of each quatrain rhymed in successive pairs. The first stanza reads:

Che fai nel ciel sereno

bel nuvolo rosato,

acceso, e vagheggiato

dall' aurora del di?

Hochfield and Nathan translate this as:

What are you doing in the serene

dawn sky, beautiful

rose-red cloud, aflame

and lovingly gazed at?

One notes, first, that Saba echoes his master Leopardi's "Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell'Asia," or "Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia," which starts, "Che fai, tu, luna, in ciel? Dimmi, che fai?," or "What are you doing, moon, in the sky? Tell me, what are you doing?" Saba imitates not only the direct address to something in the sky, but more importantly Leopardi's intimate and colloquial tone. He compares the cloud in its dissolution to the youth whose light will also fade--"the azure lights gone out,/no more to see around you/friends and native sky." A great deal of Saba's subsequent verse is limned here, in these chrysalis stanzas: a feeling of doomed joy, a sensation of transience, a disturbed relation to friends and to that loaded phrase, "patrio ciel"--literally "native sky," but also in the sense of patria, fatherland for a fatherless son.

A glance at the competition reveals both Saba's art and that of his new translators. Hochfield's and Nathan's most serious rival, Stephen Sartarelli, did not include "The Admonition" in his version of Songbook, which appeared in 1998. But Felix Stefanile, in Umberto Saba: Thirty-One Poems, from 1978, shows how not to translate these lines:

Bright cloud in the clear sky,

what are you doing there,

a light-struck mariner

solicited by dawn?

There is not one thing right about that stanza, beginning with the banal first word, "bright," and the burying of the energetic question in the second line. The concocted metaphor of the mariner (jammed in to rhyme with "there," I suppose); the ostentatious compound epithet "light-struck"; and worst of all, the queasily sexual suggestion in "solicited"--all run against the grain of Saba's poem. As Saba insists over and over in History, he was not a "literary" poet. He learned from Leopardi how to rebel against the stylistic conventions of his own age. Stefanile has imposed an alien poetics upon him. But Hochfield and Nathan, by not striving for the central rhyme, preserve Saba's clarity and candor, and make up for the lost rhyme with alliteration: serene/sky, rose-red, beautiful/aflame.

In the sonnet "My Wet Nurse's House," Saba describes the scene of his childhood happiness with Peppa and her husband--a scene that he will revisit time and again in later poems such as "Three Streets" in Trieste and a Woman. The sonnet sketches the essential landscape: the view of the city from above, the old graveyard (a Jewish cemetery, we learn later from "Three Streets"), the placement of the speaker as solitary but drawn to affectionate companionship. The sonnet concludes, in Hochfield's and Nathan's precise calibration of the Italian:

To God I offered up a serene spirit,

and from the house a sound of

    dear voices

reached me, and the smell of supper.

Saba thought his first real poem was the longer and, as he said, "most imperfect" one called "To Mamma." In it, he first tried to come to grips with urgent psychic material, and he kept revising the poem for thirty years before reverting to the original version for the later Canzoniere. One can well imagine why the son would have spent years struggling not only with the poem, but with his feelings about the mother with whose grief he partly identified, and whom he resented first for having cast him off to a wet nurse and then for having stolen him away from that attachment. "To Mamma" does not touch on his mother's Jewishness, but in many other writings, verse and prose, Saba's uneasiness with his mother lines up with his rejection of his own Jewishness--his sense that with his mother's religion he inherited also her sadness--an ancestral sadness, in his eyes. The poem begins:

Mamma, the day is tedious,

    and a subtle

melancholy steals in from things

in every life....

In History, Saba does not spare himself: "Already that 'subtle' and that 'steals in' ruin everything," he complains: they are banal. Yet the poem has a large breath, and in spacious passages presents the bustle of Trieste in its Sunday promenade as observed by the weeping mother, immured in her house. Saba, who will grow into one of the great poets of city life, is beginning here to feel his own strength, the scope and the tone of his talent.

Hochfield and Nathan have produced a translation far superior to Stefanile's and Sartarelli's, but there are a few missteps. Pronoun case bedevils "Three Poems for My Wet Nurse," a much later poem recalling Peppa, from Little Berto, the book that Saba wrote in 1929-1931 during his time in psychoanalysis:

I return

to the breast of she who still calls me

Berto, to the first, the beloved breast,

to the green Edens of childhood.

The impudent thought arises that perhaps it is the idea of breasts that distracts these excellent translators, since one of the only instances of their diction going awry occurs in an erotic poem in The Loving Thorn from 1920, when Saba's attention had wandered from Lina to several girls, and one of these nymphs, Chiaretta, is seen as "a young miss/with limpid breasts." Notwithstanding the semantic accuracy of "limpid" for the Italian "limpidi," in the sense of "clear" or "calm," it is hard to avoid seeing "limp breasts" in the English "limpid," an unfortunate image not at all suitable for the little houri who beguiled the elder poet.

In only a few cases do Hochfield and Nathan misconstrue the Italian. In the sonnet "The Joke" from Saba's Military Verses (1908), the poems in which he experimented more and more boldly with spoken language and achieved solidarity with common people for the first time in his life, the English in the last tercet makes no sense, and mixes up the subjects and objects:

Here where they've sent the whores

who have them all. And if I keep my

    mouth shut,

he tells me that I look like Jesus Christ.

The Italian, though colloquial, has no such muddle: "Qui dove l'han mandato le puttane/ce l'hanno tutte" Literally, this means: "Here where they've sent him, they [the soldiers] have all the whores."

Pronouns aside, Saba emerges as a poet powerfully drawn to figures of mothers and girls, as well as to cityscapes. He also loved animals, in a manner so forthright it has been called Franciscan. Consider "The Goat," the poem by which he is best known outside of Italy, from House and Countryside (1909-1910), in which he celebrated the early days of his marriage. The poem is worth giving in full. It shows Saba in mature command of his resources, an art of plain speech and infinitely subtle suggestion:

I talked to a goat.

She was alone in a pasture,

    and tethered.

Stuffed with grass, soaked

by the rain, she bleated.

That monotonous bleating was brother

to my sorrow. And I answered, first

in jest, then because sorrow is eternal,

has one voice and never changes.

I heard this voice in the wails

of a solitary goat.

In a goat with a Semitic face,

I heard all other pain lamenting,

all other lives.

The Italian rhymes irregularly and gently, including the essential pair semita/vita, effects which Hochfield and Nathan do not try to reproduce directly. They have caught the poem's quietness, the tone on which its dignity depends. The Italian could not be more nude, more minimalist:

Ho parlato a una capra.

Era sola sul prato, era legata.

Sazia d'erba, bagnata

dalla pioggia, belava....

Sartarelli's failure points up Hochfield's and Nathan's success. His first line already seems overblown: "I had a conversation with a goat." His second and third lines commit him to clumsy repetition (of "up") and to a phrase ("full up") that seems more suited to a gas station than to an animal: "She was tied up, alone, in a field./Full up with grass, wet...." In the last tercet, Hochfield and Nathan win hands down. Just where the Italian contracts, making its largest statement with the simplest means, Sartarelli turns up the volume, repeating "on earth" twice, words that don't appear at all in the original:

In una capra dal viso semita

sentiva querelarsi ogni altro male,

ogni altra vita.

In a goat with a Semitic face

I heard the cry of every woe on earth,

every life on earth.

Of such tiny but consequential choices are translations are made, and marred.

And what of Saba's Jewishness? As a young man, he cut himself off from his mother's faith, rejecting the Jewish law by which he would have been considered Jewish. In 1911, the year of his first book of poems, he wrote a set of stories called The Jews, treating his mother's family (which included the renowned Hebrew scholar Samuele David Luzzatto) as figures of exotic folklore. The stories are not unsympathetic, but are clearly written from a gently ironic distance. When "The Goat" gave rise to discussion, either of Saba's supposed identification with Jewish suffering or, conversely, of his supposed anti-Semitism, he protested that he had never intended such associations: "He had no conscious thought either for or against Jews." The goat's Semitic face was just a visual device in the poem, he claimed. He identified himself as an Italian Triestine, an identity that went unchallenged until the Fascist "racial laws." And that capacious identity spills out into the brilliant and original poems exploring the streets and squares, the small taverns and shops of Trieste, with their population of sailors, whores, derelicts, shopkeepers, and children--poems such as "Trieste," "Old Town," "Three Streets," and "The Suburb." Montale called Saba "the man of a real city and the man of a vaster and metaphorical civitas." Trieste gave him the map of that civitas in poems as various, surprising, and generous as the city itself. Saba needs to be read whole to be appreciated, and Hochfield's and Nathan's Songbook, though a selection, gives a living sense of that whole. To know Saba, one has to experience the almost abstract, musically organized "Fugues" of 1928-1929. And one has to read his fierce indictment of the Fascists and Germans, his love of Trieste, his sense of being Italian married to his sense of being a poet, all telescoped in the poem "I Had" from 1944:

I had a beautiful city between the stony

hills and the radiant sea. Mine

because I was born there, more than

    others' mine,

who discovered it as a child, and when


I forever wedded it to Italy with my


One had to live. And from many

bad ways I chose the most worthy:

    a little

shop of rare and antique books.

Everything was taken from me by the

    bungling Fascist

and the gluttonous German....

Saba's achievement overflows the boundaries of any single poem, and now with this new translation, and the help of Joseph Cary's Three Modern Italian Poets and Cary's translations of a few key poems in his A Ghost in Trieste, English-speaking readers can at last begin to take the measure of, and perhaps to learn from, this deeply haunting poet. He never stopped seeking the "honesty" he set for himself as a goal in his youth. He knew it made him strong, and could make others strong. He often rhymed canto with pianto, song with lament, but still he faced the dark past and the uncertain future undaunted, as we see in these lines from "The Visit," the beautiful last poem of 1945:

It's late. Cheerfully I face the cold

outdoors. I have the song in my heart

    of a life

where the blood was blood, the tears,


Italy was hardly aware of it. Ancient,

it resists decay, like an oak.

Rosanna Warren is the author, most recently, of Fables Of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry (Norton).

By Rosanna Warren