Thursday, March 19, 2015

The poet has just so many days to live - Umberto Saba repeats himself

My unhappy youth was spent with
images of sadness and of pain; art
has made them pleasing to others
like a green and tranquil hillside.  (From Autobiography, sonnet 1, tr. Hochfield & Nathan)

Thinking about how to describe Umberto Saba, I keep returning to the 1924 Autobiografia, a sequence of fifteen sonnets which epitomize the autobiographical poems he had been writing for twenty years, and would write for another thirty.  His father abandons him (“My father had been ‘the assassin’ to me / until I was twenty, when I met him,” sonnet 3).  He is unhappy.  He falls in love with a boy – “I wrote / long letters to him, as if to a bride” – but “perhaps he wasn’t what he seemed to be” (sonnet 6).  He does his military service. He becomes a poet, meets Gabriele d’Annunzio (“all courtesy / to his guest, but otherwise no help to me” and the Florentine poets who “never liked me much” (sonnet 10).  He meets Lina, who he marries (“I loved her for the depth of her sadness,” sonnet 12).  He buys his bookshop.

All of this, however plain it is in English, in lovely, regular, rhyming verse:

With the war I was an infantryman again.
I was a rotten poet and a good soldier –
I wish I could say so!  But even as a child
I did not like to be untruthfully praised.

Ritornai con la guerra fantaccino.
Fui cattivo poeta e buon soldato:
vorrei ben dirlo!  Ma non pur bambino
amavo contro il vero esser lodato.  (Sonnet 14)

Saba benefits greatly, in translation, from being read in quantity.  If here is not poetry, there is a story that is created by the poet’s obsessions.  Somehow he understood this aspect of his art early on.  In 1911, just as he began publishing his poems, he wrote “What Remains for Poets To Do,” a personal manifesto calling for “honest poetry,” which no one had written for a hundred years, but more interestingly for repetition, since “a man cannot go outside of his real self, the feeling and expression will repeat themselves obsessively”:

The Songbook of Petrarch and that of Leopardi are full of repetitions, as well as the most sublime part of the Divine Comedy, “Paradise,” because these poets were trying to give voice to their great passions, and not to astonish like jugglers, who are finished if they repeat the same number twice.  (pp. 527-8)

Saba is arguing against the “make it new” ethos of his jittery peers in Italy and elsewhere, but what is most curious to me is that he had only published one book at this point (at age 28), meaning he had not been especially repetitive yet.  But he would be.  He already knew it.

The poet has just so may days
to live,
like every one of us, yet so many ways
to live them!

Il poeta ha le sue giornate
come tutti gli uomini; ma quanto,
quanto variate!  (from “The Poet,” 1912, tr. Sartarelli) 


  1. What a nice argument on behalf of literature, those last lines.

  2. Yes, a great argument for art, for those of us with uneventful lives.