on Songbook: Selected Poems of Umberto Saba, translated by George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan (Yale)
Although he published his first book of poetry in 1911, Umberto Saba (1883-1957) did not receive a major Italian literary award until 1946, the Viareggio Prize. He was a modern poet ill-equipped to channel his sensibilities through the prevailing modernisms. Where Montale, Ungaretti and Pavese escaped from personality, Saba turned his ear back to Leopardi and stuck to the first-person. He seemed incapable of doing anything else. By 1921 he had devised the framework for his output, a continually revised collection called Il Canzoniere or Songbook. “Every little poet in Italy has pissed on it,” he wrote. Here is “The Stream” (“Il Torrente”) from around 1910-12:
So adventurous in my myth, you
are so thin between your banks.
You have no flowery margins that I can see.
Where you stagnate you expose filthy things.
Yet when I look at you, anxiety wrings my heart,
o poor little stream.
All your course is that
of my thought, which you force back
to its beginnings, to everything strong and beautiful
that I wondered at in you; and if I recall the great
rivers, their encounter with the hostile sea,
this water, which barely reddens the naked
feet of a washerwoman,
still appears to me the most perilous
and happy, with islands and cascades;
and the knoll down which you flow is a mountain.
On your paved bank the grass
grew, and always grows in memory;
it is always Saturday evening around you;
always his stern mother reminds a child
that this water is in flight,
that it never again finds its source
nor its bank; always the still beautiful
woman grows sad, and the boy, who heard
a strange likeness between our life and
that of the stream, seeks her hand.
Perilous and happy. Saba regarded himself as a classicist who must confront the history of the moment. Modernism ruled that the poet must spurn a contaminating history and wear a mask, thereby tapping into the metaphysical. Sneering at his rhymed verse and counted syllables, the critics gave Saba hell. (George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan did not retain Saba’s end-rhymes. For more comment on their method, see the interview with George Hochfield.) Isn’t it still the case that we suspect a poet who sustains the first-person, and that we refuse to accept the long truth that the story of a life is a metaphor for something, that mask-wearing pertains to the first-person, often especially so? Saba sardonically described his poetry as periferico and arretrato -- peripheral and backward. In his introduction, Hochfield writes, “His poetry was not cerebral or abstract; it did not mystify at first reading but seemed to offer itself to the reader without difficulty.” Saba had written (referring to himself in the third-person) that “something deep in his nature needed to rest upon what was most solid and secure before setting out to the conquest of himself.” It was Cesare Pavese (cramming history into his prose fiction and his anguish into his diary) who persuaded Einaudi to publish Songbook at the war’s end in 1945. Saba’s other supporters and friends included Italo Svevo, Carlo Levi, Montale and Ungaretti. “After Sadness” (“Dopo La Tristezza”) below, was written in his late 20s:
This bread tastes of a memory,
chewed in this poor tavern
where the harbor is most littered and deserted.
And I savor the beet’s bitterness,
seated, on the way back home,
facing the cloud-topped mountains and the lighthouse.
My spirit, having vanquished one of its torments,
observes with new eyes in the ancient evening
a pilot with his pregnant wife,
and a ship, its seasoned wood
glistening in the sunset, its smokestack,
as tall as the two masts, making a childish
design that I made myself twenty years ago.
Who could have told me then that my life
would be so beautiful, with so many sweet concerns,
and so much solitary bliss!
Today there is a statue of Saba in Trieste where he was born Umberto Poli. His mother was Jewish. The father, called thereafter “il assasino” by the mother, had departed by the time Umberto was born. (The father and son first met in 1903. Saba associated the father with the freedom of song.) The boy was handed over to a Slovene wet nurse named Peppa Sabaz. The mother lived in a deeply depressed state until 1921. Umberto lived with an aunt and uncle in Padua until he was ten. In 1928, Umberto Poli changed his name legally to Saba (recalling Peppa Sabaz about whom he writes in his poetry). He briefly attended the University of Pisa in 1903 but returned home with a nervous breakdown. In 1909 Saba married Carolina Wölfler (“Lina”), but the relationship was contentious. In 1912 his second book of poems was published; at that time he was managing a cabaret. He served in the rear of the Italian army during the Great War at the end of which he was hospitalized in Milan suffering from nervous exhaustion. In 1919 at age 36 he acquired a bookstore, La Libreria Antica e Moderna in Trieste, his livelihood until the 1938 enactment of anti-Semitic racial laws. He experienced a mental collapse in 1924, and in 1929 Saba began psychoanalysis after a relapse. He suffered from debilitation for most of his life. During WWII he hid in Florence with his wife and daughter. In his final decade, addicted to opium, he published essays, stories, articles, and added work to Songbook. He died in a sanatorium in Gorizia in 1957. Lina died the previous year.
The deceptive transparency of Saba’s speaker is the key to his own modernity. His “tristezza” is the sadness of Job, Ovid, and Leopardi, updated in the world of Trieste with its people, shops, streets, harbor, and hills, and informed by his keen interest in the psyche (namely his own). He writes of “la serena disperazione” – serene despair. In an early poem “To Mamma,” he sets himself apart from the other boys “in whose astonished eyes are new desires”:
Mamma, I never was like that. I think
my cradle was cut from a different wood.
My spirit always yearned for a sign
that my gentle friends did not yearn for.
Mamma, is it perhaps for this that you
always cry, there in your empty house?
While acknowledging Saba’s nervous crises, the difficult youth and marriage, critical rejection, and fascist persecution, Hochfield writes, “And yet all these, so far as the poetry is concerned, are inadequate as explanations” for Saba’s thematic and vocal dolore. “There is something underlying them, a deeper reality, a suffering that is coincident with life, the very ground note of existence. This is not a common theme in English or American poetry, but it is there in the Italian tradition, and nowhere with greater profundity and conviction than in the work of Giacomo Leopardi.” This grounding in austere sadness – an ultimate, aboriginal, trans-human condition -- provides a guard against inauthenticity, inflated transcendence, and unearned emotion of any sort. Louise Glück, America’s most prominent practitioner in the Leopardi mode, the serenely seductive poetry of failure, wrote in “The Idea of Courage,” “The poet, writing, is simultaneously soaked in his materials and unconstrained by them; personal circumstance may prompt art, but the actual making of art is a revenge on circumstance.” Saba exactly. One’s taste may reject the self-reflexiveness of his “materials.” But one’s standards will probably acknowledge the artfulness of his revenge on the painful strictures of his life.
Nevertheless, to his critics, Saba was the least original of poets. If you are a young poet puzzling over the demands of originality and what have become, here in America, its workshop designations, you may find Saba’s 1911 essay “What Remains for Poets To Do” of some interest. The piece is included as an appendix to Songbook. Saba writes, “Although to be original and to discover one’s true self are equivalent terms, whoever does not recognize that in practice the first is the effect and the second the cause, and who begins not from the need to know himself but from an unchecked desire for originality as a result of which he cannot resign himself from an unchecked desire to say what others have said, will never discover his true nature and never say anything unexpected. We must – don’t take this literally – be original in spite of ourselves.” He also warns against the fear of repeating oneself “since a man cannot go outside his real self” and dissatisfaction with every work requires a return to improve over time. He speaks of “a long discipline … to make a daily scrutiny of conscience.” Mental sloth keeps the plumb from touching bottom.
I am a good friend. I’m easily
taken by the hand, and I do what
others ask of me, well and cheerfully.
But my secret soul that does not lie
to itself murmurs its own words.
And sometimes a god calls me and wants
me to listen to him. With the thoughts
that are born in me then, with my heart
beating inside, with the intensity of my pain,
I reject all likeness with other men.
I have this privilege. And I will keep it.
Hochfield says that Saba not only believed egocentrism was a staple of human behavior, but that he recognized his own self-obsession as particularly acute. Therefore, his autobiografismo “was the imperative of ‘honest poetry.’” For Saba, poetry was driven by inner necessity. For his critics, his poetry was shamelessly diminished by the personal element. In “The Egoist” (circa 1917) he writes, “You wonder at me and at the thing / so firmly locked in my heart / that I keep hidden from others’ eyes … because I seek the calm of meditation / even as bodies and minds are consumed by war, / I seem to you a really wicked man.” Songbook also includes a section of fifteen sonnets Saba wrote in 1924 called “Autobiografia.” The ninth one, describing his early 20s, reads as follows:
To have an irresistible thought night and day,
foreign to me, never apart from me,
this happened to me: a sudden fall
from paradise into the terrors of hell.
How this monstrous event failed
to kill me, I still do not know.
Instead, I made a pact with suffering,
I agreed to live with it face to face.
I saw other places, made new friends.
I learned strange things from strange books.
After four or five years, little by little,
though never again were my days ecstatic
and happy, they were freed and engaged
once more in the game of life and art.
Saba wrote about 600 poems. He included 400 of them in the most expansive version of Il Canzoniere, and the translators of Songbook have narrowed that number to the 200 they consider most essential and accomplished. Songbook represents the final work of Leonard Nathan who died in 2007. In 1947, Umberto Saba wrote the following epigraph:
Parlavo a un popolo di morti.
Morto alloro rifiuto e chiedo oblio.
I spoke to a people who were dead.
Dead, I spurn the laurel and ask oblivion.
[Published January 13, 2008, 592 pages, $35.00 cloth]