Giuseppe Ungaretti is a poet I meant to read back when I was poking around in Italian poetry. Now I’ve read him, in the Selected Poems translated by Allen Mandelbaum.
Mandelbaum writes that “the problematic, terrible task of every modern Italian poet, the task that takes its toll in silence” was “to resurrect or to bury the cadaver of literary Italian” (p. ix). Eugenio Montale chose to bury the corpse, while Ungaretti resurrected it. I have no idea what any of this means, but it sounds grisly and exciting!
Santa Maria La Longa il 26 gennaio 1917
“This poem is often cited as an example of untranslatability,” Mandelbaum says in a note (p. 208).
Santa Maria La Longa, January 26, 1917
Ungaretti was on the path to be an Italian version of a French avant-gardist – he was close friends with Apollinaire – when the war and military service intervened. His first books were all war poems, meaning poems written at the Italian-Austrian front. “Mattina” is one of them, however oblique. They are often oblique:
Forest of Courton, July, 1918
We are as –
on the trees –
Short lines – often a single word, an isolated image. In one poem, he even singles out the word as his goal, or unit, or something like that:
When I find
in this my silence
it is dug into my life
like an abyss
That poem is directly addressed to the lieutenant who noticed that Ungaretti was writing poems in the trenches and who published them, in an edition of eighty copies, without Ungaretti’s knowledge.
The poems have occasional rhymes and endless assonance, but I wonder if the latter – maybe even the former – is an artifact of Italian, all too beautiful Italian.
How lovely, I think, however I am mangling the pronunciation. It means something like:
And the man
over the water
by the sun
Less lovely. Pretty plain stuff until the last three words. But I am an English-speaker, and an ignoramus, and Italian is inherently beautiful. I remember the gorgeousness (in Italian) of a weirdo like Dino Campana. Maybe this reader is just a sucker for Italian. Surely Italian readers are not such saps.
Vallonvello dell’Albero Isolato, August 16, 1916
in these bowels
hour on hour
I have dragged
worn away by mud
like a sole
or like a seed
man of pain
you need but an illusion
to give you courage
sets a sea
into the fog
The middle stanza (“Ungaretti / man of pain”) is a statement of purpose for Ungaretti’s entire long career, for the next five decades of poems. Part of his pain is biographical, or existential, and part is from his incantation of resurrection, recovering Italian from Romantic excess one word at a time.