#144: IMMENSITIES. On seeing the first edition of LEAVES OF GRASS Emerson, in his letter to Whitman, assumed that the work “must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.” Some poets seem simply to happen, without foreground or biography, or none that helps very much. Of Giuseppe Ungaretti, we may learn that he was born in Alexandria to an Italian family; was called on and fought in World War One; spent years in Paris, was influenced by the Symbolists and Modernists and made friends with Apollinaire; lost his son Antonietto in 1939; left a trail of right-wing opinions and associations which in later years were used against him, but returned to favor and went on to travel, reputation and influence by the time of his death in 1970. Beyond that, little is needed. All of it can be connected to his work, but, as with Hardy or the Serbian poet Vasko Popa, knowledge of it seems hardly necessary; the work is remarkably self-sufficient.
Perhaps the least helpful term, in reading about his work, is the repeated reference to his leadership and championing of a literary school called Hermeticism. That term to me has always implied work that is obscure to the point of being incomprehensible. (The reference is to the mythic Hermes Trismegistus, thought to have invented a magical airtight seal. Think what he could have done for food storage.) All the descriptions of Hermeticism speak of the rejection of traditional form, subjectivity, introspection and accessibility. But here, for instance, is a verse by Salvatore Quasimodo:
Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra Everyone stands alone on the heart
traffito da un raggio di sole of the earth
ed e subito sera transfixed by a ray of sunshine
and it is suddenly night
Or one of Ungaretti’s most famous, “Mattina” (“Morning”):
M’illumino I am illumined
d’immenso with immensity
Anybody got problems with that? What I find in Ungaretti, more than any difficulty, is a wonderful (I wanted to say “immense”) concision, like Dickinson without the eight-and-six meter. Being, yes, of his time and place, his vision is tragic; there is much of death in his verses. Of the suicide of an Arab friend, he wrote: “…he didn’t know how / to set free / the song / of his desolation.” The poet Mallarme, on the death of his son, was prostrated, and unable to leave more than notes and attempts. Ungaretti’s brief notations at this time put him in the company of the Greeks, or for that matter of Izumi Shikibu:
E fu la furia che abbatte la tenera And the tenderest form was battered by
Forma e la premurosa Fury and a voice’s
carita d’una voce mi consuma… Loving care consumes me….
For Ungaretti, poetry was to help us to see “the world resurrected in its native purity.” But in 1970 he wrote: “After the war we witnessed a change in the world that separated us from what we used to be and from what we once had made and done, as if in one blow millions of years had passed. Things grow old, fit only for a museum….Something in the world of languages is totally finished…We are men cut off from our own depths.” We all live now in the continuation, the aftermath of that process; a poetry such as Ungaretti’s is all the more necessary, being a stream of reconnection, of reconstruction. Seamus Heaney said once, “This poem was written, as all poems are, in hope.”
Translating from the liquid beauty of Ungaretti’s Italian into the monosyllables of English must be the most difficult kind of transcription, but his toughness and immediacy and vision survive. For many years we had only Allen Mandelbaum’s versions, published by Cornell and now out of print; but Andrew Frisardi’s 2002 selection and translation, from Farrar Strauss, has given us a new and convincing English-language Ungaretti, capturing the range of his work and its moving, sober tone.