Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A poet lives serenely in this atmosphere - Umberto Saba, poet of used bookstores

The conventional history of Italian poetry that I have pieced together has a 19th century dominated by Leopardi and neo-Classicism, then a fast-moving  turn of the century full of churning movements – Decadence, Futurism – sucking up foreign influences, reacting to technological changes, and philosophical challenges.  Like poetry everywhere.  Suddenly the point of poetry is for it to be new.  Luckily, there are many kinds of newness.

Umberto Saba (1883-1957) wrote confessional poetry.  On the margins of Italian literature – on the margins of Italy, in fact – he did not write in a way that was formally innovative but rather new in the way he wrote about himself.  When I was writing about Saba’s contemporary Dino Campana, I noted that he often seemed like an American Beat writing forty years too early.  Saba sometimes seemed like he belonged with Robert Lowell and John Berryman, except, again, forty years earlier.  Is that all American poets were doing in the 1950s, looting Italian poetry?

Saba spent most of his life before World War II in Trieste, where he was born, meaning that he was by birth Austrian, not Italian.  His mother was Jewish, so Saba spent the war in hiding, mostly in Florence.  For twenty years he ran an antiquarian bookstore in Trieste.  The store is still operating.  Why there are not more famous poets who were used book dealers is a mystery.

A curious antiquarian shop
is open on an obscure street in Trieste.
Various golden hues of antique bindings
delight the eye that wanders across its shelves.

A poet lives serenely in this atmosphere.
In this living memorial of the dead
he does his work, honest and content,
brooding on Love, unknown and solitary.

He would like to die one day, undone
by his secret passion, the eyes that have seen so much
closing on his beloved manuscripts.

And what remained beyond his time and place,
art painted for him still more beautifully,
and poetry made it all the sweeter.  (Autobiography, Sonnet 15, 1924)

In Italian this sonnet rhymes and is sonorous and all of the usual stuff:

Vive in quell’aria tranquillo un poeta.
Dei morti in quel vivente lapidario
la sua opera compie, onesta e lieta,
d’Amor pensoso, ignoto e solitario.

He kept returning in his poetry to the same subjects – his beloved wet nurse Peppa, a Slovenian who was in effect his foster mother; his absent father; the neighborhoods of Trieste; a homosexual crush when he was a teen.  New events join the story – the happiness of meeting Lina, his wife; troubles in the marriage; the destruction and disruptions of the war.  In 1921 Saba first thought to organize his life’s work into a Canzoniere or Songbook.  Subsequent poems were incorporated into the Songbook, much like what Walt Whitman did with the later editions of Leaves of Grass, although Saba’s inspiration was a fellow secularized Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine.

Saba also wrote fiction and memoirs, mostly on the same matter as the poetry, also quite good.  For the prose, I read The Stories and Recollections of Umberto Saba (Sheep Meadow Press, 1993, tr. Estelle Gilson).  For the poems, I tried two collections, both titled  Songbook, the 1998 Stephen Sartarelli translations published by Sheep Meadow Press  -Sartarelli is now raking in the big translation bucks as the translator of Andrea Camilleri – and the 2008 George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan versions published by Yale.  The sonnet above is from the latter.  Both books are prosy, but both include the Italian.  The Hochfield and Nathan has more poems, about half of the Italian Canzoniere, which with Saba is a plus.  The translators disagree to a certain extent about which poems are good, which is interesting.

So, a couple more days rummaging through Saba.


  1. I read a selection of Saba's poems (from the Nathan/Hochfield anthology) last fall, and found his poetry personable, intimate and lucid - as though one could get to know him as a person just through the poems.

    Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the only other poet/bookstore owner with whom I'm familiar, but he sells new books.

  2. Ferlinghetti is a national treasure. Why aren't there more like him? Running a bookstore must be a pain.

    "as though one could get to know him" - very much so.

  3. In Italian this sonnet rhymes and is sonorous and all of the usual stuff.

    And decasyllables. More and more I miss those artifices; after a century, vers libre isn't revolting against anything.

    He wrote lots of poetry; the Italian collection has 1300 pages!

  4. And Saba's collected prose is another 1,500 pages. I wonder how much of that is notes. Montale's equivalent volume is 1,300 pages, too. Ungaretti's is almost 1,600!

    Now you have me messing around with

    It is also possible that the collected works has multiple versions of some poems. Saba was the kind of poet who revised pusblished work. Each edition of the Canzoniere meant changes.

  5. And Guiseppe Belli's sonnets number nearly 2,300, not counting the reams of -sonnet work he wrote or his 11 volume zibaldone. But I still think Hungarian Gyula Krúdy might win the prolific prize, with over 50 novels and 3,000 short stories.

  6. And people act as if Balzac was so prolific.

  7. "In this living memorial of the dead" is a fine description for an antiquarian shop--curious or otherwise. Thanks to you for the intro to Saba and to Scott for seconding the recommendation. Still, I bet Saba never recorded a poetry reading as winningly titled as Bukowski's Poems and Insults!

  8. No, Saba's shop does not sound like it was as much fun as City Lights.