Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970)
Giuseppe Ungaretti: Selected Poems, translated by Patrick Creagh (Penguin, 1971)
Selected Poems, translated, annotated, and with an introduction by Andrew Frisardi (FSG, 2002)
Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti, translated and edited by Allen Mandelbaum (Cornell, 1975)
After lingering a while with the various copies of Gilgamesh, I declared it done and proceeded as per the plan. A random integer between 1 and 2535 was generated: 1128. 1128 is the line on my master list that says “Giuseppe Ungaretti.” This means I read the first work listed under his name. There are two work entries for Ungaretti: the first is Selected Poems (Bloom specifies that he means the collection translated by Allen Mandelbaum), and the second is The Buried Harbour: Selected Poems (a collection translated by Kevin Hart). This is an odd redundancy for Bloom, who usually likes to be sweeping and efficient and just drop something like “Collected Works” under an author’s name and be done with it. For William Shakespeare the only entries are “Plays” and “Poems.” And yet for the somewhat lesser figure of Giuseppe Ungaretti he’s taking the time to name two different translations of what must be substantially the same selections. The Mandelbaum seems to have long been the only major collection of Ungaretti in English, as well as the one with the finest pedigree, since Mandelbaum knew Ungaretti personally. The Hart collection, by contrast, was printed by a small Canberra publisher (!) in 1990 and is extremely rare in the US even among university collections. Why then would Bloom have put this redundant oddity on his list? All my hypotheses are fairly cynical. Anyway, if I ever roll a 1130 I’m going to have a hard time a) finding that edition and b) feeling like I haven’t already read it.
I went to the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library and got out what they had – no copies of the Mandelbaum were checked in and/or un-lost, but two other collections – one a little Perm-a-bound paperback from the early 70s “Penguin Modern European Poets” series, translated by Patrick Creagh (first image above); the other a recent, still-in-print collection translated by Andrew Frisardi (second image above). Later I found the Mandelbaum collection at the Brooklyn Public Library. Third image. Above.
So, you might ask, who the hell is Giuseppe Ungaretti? I certainly didn’t know. Exactly the kind of surprise I hoped this project would generate! I’m serious. A quick Wikipedia or something like it gave me the basics: one of the most prominent 20th century Italian poets. Founder of “hermetic” school of poetry. Born in Egypt, famous for World War I poems.
The “hermetic” thing, though good for encyclopedia entries, was played down by all three editor-translators in their various introductions. The word “hermetic” suggests a way of reading the style – I tried to let it guide me somewhat in determining what I should consider peculiar to Ungaretti and his particular moment – but none of the commentators endorsed this idea that this was a school and that Ungaretti was the founder. So I pretty much disregarded that. They did all try to place Ungaretti in the context of the history of Italian poetry. But when one isn’t familiar with a history, placing something within it tends only to diminish rather than illuminate: it seems as though the curator/editor is acknowledging that the thing in itself is not necessarily interesting and is best served by being seen as a mere component of a larger pageant. I know that’s not the intention, but that’s the effect on the ignorant, i.e. me. So I mostly disregarded that, too.
For most of my life, my reading comprehension has been characterized to some degree by compromise, approximation, and sour grapes. Part of the impetus behind this random-reading scheme was the feeling that I’d finally reached a point in life where I could read and actually get most anything. Well, the first arrow fired went straight through a gaping hole in my armor. “Oh right, poetry.”
I don’t understand poetry primarily in that I have not read enough of it. That’s fine, of course, but what it means is that if you (or I) sit me down with a book of poetry and tell me to read and understand it… no matter how slowly and thoughtfully I go, I can’t necessarily do that. First I’m going to have to go through a process of acclimation to poetry as a whole, and try though I might to be smart, there’s no shortcut to the head of that class. I’m not embarrassed by that but I am disappointed. It’s just going to take a lot of poetry for me to build up a fluid, mature sense of what this stuff is. The selected poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti can be one step on that road. I don’t imagine it’s the step that anyone would have chosen to assign me at this stage in my alienation from poesy, but as with learning a language, just jumping into the deep end (or perhaps, in this case, diving hard into the shallow end) also has its benefits.
Another problem with this selection, though, was that it’s poetry in translation. Translating modern poetry is a losing game. All translation is a loss of resolution, and Ungaretti’s little sketches would seem to be all about fine resolution. Translating a poem is like making an engraving of a painting, like they used to do to make images reproducible. It’s a lossy process but the sacrifice is worthwhile for those who won’t be able to see the image any other way. But translating poems that are all about the resonating implications of particular words and sounds, turning them into other words and other sounds, is like making an engraving of a Jackson Pollock. The painting is all about paint, so what are we to make of this line drawing of it? It refers to it but it doesn’t stand in for it.
Better metaphor here would be a blocky scan of a delicate line drawing.
Frisardi and Mandelbaum, understanding what they’re up against, opt for bilingual editions with the original Italian facing the translation. One attempts to read the original by means of the translation, which serves as a one-to-one phrasebook and tour guide. This I can get behind, but it’s hard work. I had the benefit of having several translations (quite a few of the poems were in all three collections) from which to triangulate a meaning. Plus, luckily, though Italian might be hard to learn for real, it’s fairly easy to fake-understand when you’re being told what it means. So I managed.
Then there’s the hard work of poetry itself. On which issue: here follow some things I wrote down while I was in the process of reading. Particular reference is being made to the World War I poetry, which begins all three collections.
War poetry is very different for writer and reader. In the midst of an overwhelming horror, four choice lines may be a distillation but they are also a contrast. What is most poignant and intense is that poetry is actually quite unlike war. It’s something different to read four choice lines while sitting on the couch. The imagination is responsible not only for everything the poem is meant to evoke, but also for everything that it chooses not to evoke but which to the poet was immediate.
This is my difficulty with poetry. It is an art based in empathy, the delivery of interior sensations and impressions, and yet the interior context in which these sensations find their meaning is not itself delivered. How could it be? A metaphor that often presents itself in my mind presents itself here – the fact that the human DNA sequence has been mapped would seem to be all we need to know everything about how the body does everything, but it isn’t, because protein folding – the conversion of the linear chain of chemicals into a functional lump – is an opaque process, dependent on many tiny details of context. That the poet thought these four lines were choice is certainly information, but the internal world in which he thought so is ours to recover/invent.
Ungaretti begins a poem:
of this night
That’s Mandelbaum; Creagh has
as a piece of
and Frisardi doesn’t include it. Anyway. What kind of night has a face that’s dry like a parchment? I can easily imagine that such a night – such a kind of night – exists, and that Ungaretti was there, and sensed it, and got it down beautifully. But he was living it when he wrote these words, and as I am reading them, I am not. To find this night, I cannot follow the parchment face backward – it leads nowhere, or only to some misty poetry limbo that does not satisfy me. I have to imagine different kinds of nights and test them – would this sort of (imagined) night inspire me to say that it had a face as dry as a piece of parchment? I am the active agent, investigating this inert unhelpful artifact, this poem. This is not communication. Poetry, or at least this sort of poetry, does not communicate, it only records and arranges. If I do not already possess the poet’s experiences, I cannot find them here. Only my imagination can provide them.
It is one thing to experience a night and recognize that its salient feature is that its face is dry like parchment. It’s another to extrapolate a night, knowing only that its salient feature is that its face is dry like parchment.
Perhaps this is the skill that poetry requires, but if so, mine is very weak. Or at least I don’t trust that what I find, when I let my mind create following scant poetic indications, has any more to do with the poet than it does with me.
And it should. All art should. I have enough thoughts and enough things to think about that I don’t need art as an ice-breaker with no other agenda.
As with the crossword puzzle, what to the conossieur might feel like pure deduction is actually enculturation. The seasoned solver may believe that he is fundamentally sharper than the rookie when in fact he has reprogrammed his own intuition over a long process of trial and error. A seasoned reader (or writer) might feel that the indications are full and sufficient, when in fact they are only sufficient when taken in combination with a silent complex of assumptions and expectations that cannot be simulated by any conscious thought process but must simply be amassed over the course of years.
I’ve developed intricate enough associative webs for dealing with a variety of cultural products. But not poetry. Not yet.
So anyway, accepting that I wasn’t quite up to the task, what was the poetry like? It was a mixed bag. The voice of the poems, throughout Ungaretti’s career, always has a certain innocent-in-the-face-of-the-infinite awe. I would call his outlook “naive,” except that it gets worked and reworked in such a wide variety of intellectual configurations that the word “naive” seems misleading. The introductions all praise the absence of bitterness in his poems, his openness to life’s mystery even in the face of war or tragic personal loss. I can see it that way. Certainly in the collection he wrote after the death of his young son, there’s something quite affecting in his combination of heartfelt anguish with mystery-of-nature imagery. But much of the time, the air of awed humility, or even the pose of wise detachment, rang a little false for me. Something about his interest, which many poets seem to share, in the figure of the poet – or sometimes quite blatantly in the figure of himself – felt indulgent rather than open. In general I had the unhappy suspicion that his poetic expression was vague, mystical and self-involved because he was vague, mystical and self-involved, and that the rather tedious classicizing his poetry underwent later in his career was just a mask for said vagueness.
That’s the negative, but there was much here that I enjoyed – poetry, no less! – which for me is saying something. His imagery is distinctive, somehow both plain and mysterious, and I frequently admired phrases and images, even when I was skeptical of the poems they formed. At his best, his poems create a quiet sense of beauty and human emotion dwarfed by, yet suspended poignantly within, the sobering reality of the infinite. That’s quite a sentence; something like that, though. There is that suggestion, as with haiku, that the delicacy and obliqueness of the poetry is the only possible response to the profound actuality of time, death, the world. When it worked, it was lovely. But most of the time, either it was too difficult for me or it was more manner than thought. I assume it was the former. In asking “why this here and not another” about any given phrase or image, I had no clear answer and wasn’t convinced he did either, even though the commentators told me to admire his incredibly careful craftsmanship. But, for the last time: I’m not good at this yet.
Here’s one of the better of the early, readily-understood war poems. I figure you deserve a poem after reading all that. Plus you get to see what I was dealing with in terms of parallel translations. Also, I imagine this is the poem that Frisardi collection’s cover designer had in mind.
Vallone, 19 August 1917
above the rubble
spreads the crystal
of boundless space
And the man
over the water
by the sun
comes back to his senses
as a shadow
Vallone, August 19, 1917
above the rubble heaps
And the man
over the water
by the sun
as a shadow
Vallone, August 19, 1917
above the rubble
And the man
over the sun-
he’s a shadow
In this particular case, Frisardi has gone the route of literal sense whereas Creagh goes in the other direction. Mandelbaum tries for a middle ground. I’m all for literal sense. In fact this is one of those cases where I’m not sure Creagh fully understood. None of these guys tried at all for the rhythmic effect that seems crucial to the original. Judge for yourself:
Vallone il 19 agosto 1917
So: I think the Frisardi translations are generally the most helpful to the reader and his collection is the largest, whereas Mandelbaum’s selections, though a tad more stiffly translated, were more in accord with my personal taste regarding which poems deserved inclusion. Creagh, on the other hand, strays very slightly further from the text and comes the closest to writing attractive poetry in English. Unfortunately, there are too many places where he lets the meaning become even more obscure than it would seem to be in Italian.