Jan 7 2023
Poetry review – 100 POEMS: Carla Scarano examines the poetry of Umberto Saba in a new translation by Patrick Worsnip
100 Poems Umberto Saba (edited & translated by Patrick Worsnip) Carcanet Classics ISBN 9781800171930 £14.99
This collection of a hundred poems by Umberto Saba is an impressive selection that offers a thorough understanding of the Italian poet’s work. The Preface by Angela Leighton and the Afterword and Notes to the poems by Worsnip (who is also the translator) add interesting information and knowledge about Saba’s life, the historical context and his writing process. The volume is accurate and detailed in terms of both the translations and the explanations that highlight Saba’s literary position among the most famous Italian poets of the 20th century. Montale, Ungaretti, Quasimodo and Pavese are considered the most significant poets of the period, and Saba, though in an isolated position, is part of this group. Trieste, Saba’s hometown in which he spent most of his life, is in an isolated location too, situated in the north east of Italy at the border with Slovenia, and at the time of his birth (1883) until the end of the First World War the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Saba’s real name was Umberto Poli but he adopted the pseudonym of Saba, a Talmudic term meaning ‘old man’, probably referring to his Jewish origin via his mother, Rachele Cohen. His father abandoned the family before he was born and he was raised by a wet nurse, Josefa Gabrovi?. He married Carolina Wöfler, the Lina often evoked in his love poems, in 1909, and had a daughter, Linuccia, in 1919. In one of his most famous poems Saba compares his wife to a hen and other animals, emphasising women’s connections with the natural world and their openness to life, which is also done by Montale in ‘The Eel’:
You’re like a young, white pullet. Her feathers ruffle in the wind, she bends her neck down low to drink, and scratches in the ground; but when she walks around, she has your step, queenly and slow; over the grass she strides, full-chested and proud. [‘To My Wife’]
He had a controversial relationship with his wife, who lived with a painter for a while. Saba, on the other hand, had crushes on young women who worked as assistants in the second-hand workshop he owned and with boys he celebrated in some of his poems, such as ‘Guido’ and ‘Glauco’. In 1938, because of Mussolini’s racial laws, Jews were deprived of some civil rights, but it was not until 1943, when the Nazis occupied Italy, that Saba was forced to flee Trieste and hide in Florence. He moved from one place to another to avoid deportation until the liberation of Florence in 1944.
His relationship with Judaism was contentious too, and this is explained really well in the Afterword. For example, in the famous poem ‘The Nanny Goat’, in which many commentators read an allusion to the tragedies of Jewish people, the poet remarks that the lines ‘I heard lamenting / in a goat with a Semitic face / every other wrong, every other living thing’ are just a visual image with ‘no conscious thought either for or against the Jews’. This comment is meaningful and helps us understand the core of Saba’s ideas, that is, his poetry describes the human condition honestly and without exaggeration. He did not aim to explain philosophical concepts or social issues and did not attempt to answer existential questions. Saba represented the human condition in its quotidian reality in a language that is often simple, using ‘trite words’, for example rhyming fiore with amore (flower and love). He believed that the truth lies in the depth of the unconscious that he explored through psychoanalysis when he was aiming to cure his depression. Therefore, poetry was a tool that he used to clarify his thoughts, explore his internal traumas in detail and to examine his conscience. His apparently simple language seems to clash with the traditional structures he employs, such as sonnets, frequent rhymes and half-rhymes and the use of hendecasyllable, a line of eleven syllables similar to the iambic pentameter, which are certainly a challenge for the translator.
His collection Il Canzoniere (The Songbook), first published in 1921 and later updated in six editions until 1965, collects 425 poems, with an addition of 178 poems in 1988. Worsnip’s selection of a hundred poems gathers Saba’s best-known poems as well as lyrics that reflect the translator’s personal taste. They are set out in chronological order and, according to Worsnip, the most meaningful ones are those that look ‘at the life around him and [reflect] on it, not when he sets out from the start to tell us the meaning of life’. His models were classical poets such as Dante, Petrarch and Leopardi, in terms of both form and content. He did not embrace the themes and prosody of the avant-garde or those of the decadent and symbolist movements. Montale was one of his fellow poets though their poems are very different in their style and aims. Saba’s subjects develop around his surroundings, Trieste, the seashore and countryside, his family, especially his wife and his daughter, childhood memories and nature, which are contemplated in an everyday setting. Melancholy and grief are often present but in a more personal key than that employed by Leopardi.
The loneliness of the human condition is often evoked too in a marginalisation that is both intentional and unavoidable. This allows a sense of freedom as he can express his thoughts from his sidelined position, keeping a low profile. He refuses experimentation and hermetic poetry in favour of a ‘truth lying in the depth’; it is a never-ending adventure that shows a constant wandering towards an uncertain future, just like in Ulysses’ voyage:
In my young days I sailed along the coastline of Dalmatia Island clumps, […] Today my kingdom is that no-man’s-land. The harbour turns on its lights for others; I am still pushed out to sea by my untamed spirit, my painful love of life. [“Ulysses”]
This constant personal scrutiny and lack of final goals unsettle the reader who following the poet’s journey and they suggest that he is rethinking conventional themes. The perspective is therefore changed or reversed, proposing an individual viewpoint that is outside the scope of ordinary schemes. Worsnip points out that Saba was not always appreciated in Italy and has been undervalued abroad. This book aims to introduce Saba’s work to a wider readership in versions that are pleasant to read and offer a thoughtful and precise approach to his poetry. The volume is not only a perfect introduction but also goes beyond this, accomplishing a comprehensive and insightful appreciation of Saba’s career and poetical development.