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A sideshow of one: Umberto Saba.

Umberto Saba cultivated poetic individuality to such a paradoxical extreme that his poems often read as though written by an anonymous author. Aspiring to be simply "man among men" he yet found himself lapped in continual ripples of singularity. Perhaps this was one reason why, in Stephen Sartarelli's new translation,(1) he could speak of
 a sudden yearning to be outside of myself, to live the life of everyone, to
 be like every everyday man.


In actuality, Saba was a Jew married to an "Aryan" wife in a Catholic country; menaced by both fascists and Nazis, he remained in Italy, often in hiding, throughout the war years. He was a homosexual who reveled in and celebrated conventional married life. A city dweller to his fingertips, he loved the country, and barnyard creatures, especially chickens, pigs, and goats, and eulogized them in verse. By profession he was an antiquarian book dealer and yet seems utterly unbookish and not in the least "literary."

Born Umberto Poli in 1883, he took the pen name "Saba" the origin of which is obscure. (For years the inexplicable legend circulated that he chose "saba" because it was the Hebrew word for "bread" It is not --"bread" is lechem in Hebrew--and Sartarelli gets it right in his introduction). Saba was a native of Trieste, polyglot and exotic, as much Slav as Latin; nevertheless, in his bored view, it was nothing more than "a city of commerce" where he felt himself to be a perpetual outsider. This did not prevent Saba from longing to bind Trieste irrevocably to Italy and to do so by means of poetry. As a poet he wrote in a mode utterly at variance with the literary fashions of his time. His poetry looks disarmingly simple, and yet Pier Paolo Pasolini could argue that Saba is "the most difficult of contemporary poets" (Saba agreed, proudly calling attention to his difficili versi). Relentlessly autobiographical but in no sense confessional, his lyrics aspire to the condition of song. (If the confessional poet aspires to reveal his or her ultimate singularity, however trivial or sordid, Saba by contrast strives to disclose his singular sameness, his fundamental affinity with others.) And it is through song in all its permutations--canzone, canzonette, sonnets, and ballades--that Saba achieved a kind of dog-cared universality. His poems, plain spoken and even lowly, are as melodious as Verdi arias (a comparison he himself was not averse to trumpeting); at times they sound as immemorial as those first lyrics in Italian penned at the Sicilian court of Frederick II, where the first stirrings of the dolce stil nuovo were felt. But that is an illusion, fostered perhaps by Saba's unostentatious but steadfast immersion in tradition. Saba remains the most puzzling as well as the most inimitable of Italian poets for his poems could have been written by no one else and yet seem to have been written by anyone.

Giacomo Debenedetto, perhaps Saba's shrewdest critic, noted that in the poet's best work "life itself becomes singable" ("la vita si fa cantabile"). As example he singled out the lines "ai giovanetti e bello/ di primavera dormir la mattina? These two simple lines sing themselves; they could be the refrain of some old folk ballad: "To young men it is lovely/to sleep on a morning in spring." Saba's great work, composed over a lifetime, is his Canzoniere, or "Songbook" and it is full of such felicitous refrains. Through song the poet inserted himself into one of the oldest traditions of Italian poetry and raised the ghost of Petrarch (whose own Canzoniere founded the tradition). Vain and self-involved as Saba manifestly was, he turned instinctively to this most stringent of forms and thereby converted the minutiae of his life into a grand opera of the commonplace, with himself as simultaneously lead tenor and reigning diva.

How to translate such a poet into English? We live in an age when most of our poets, to judge from their productions, disdain melody. For this reason, if nothing else, Saba's ideal translator would perhaps be a lyricist. Unfortunately, this is not the only obstacle confronting the translator of Saba. However simply and even plainly his poems come over in English, the Italian originals are almost always highly wrought and depend upon intricate configurations of rhyme--internal, slant or off-rhyme, end-rhyme--as well as such devices as refrains and even a sort of fugal "counterpoint."

Stephen Sartarelli has had the happy idea of rendering a number of the most representative lyrics from the Songbook and accompanying these translations with a version of Saba's own eccentric commentary on his life and works, entitled History and Chronicle of the Songbook. Saba may be impossible to translate well into English--in this, he is like Verlaine or Heine (whom he otherwise resembles and whose poetry influenced him strongly). Sartarelli grapples bravely but not always successfully with the formidable obstacles; in general, he tends to fail when he strays from the utmost simplicity. For example, in the early poem "After the Silence" Saba, in Sartarelli's version, wrote
 I feel I've been alive so many years, I may well have gone forth with
 Abraham; I may have been Faust, and loved Margarethe [sic].


In the Italian on the facing page (here disfigured by a gross typo in the first line), Saba has written "che forse con Abramo ho trasmigrato./ Forse fui Faust, e Margharita ho amato." The effectiveness of the lines depends upon the repeated word forse ("perhaps"), but this is not well conveyed by the clumsy "I may well have ... I may have been." Instead it could simply read: "Maybe with Abraham I emigrated./Maybe I was Faust and loved Margarete."

Again in the same sonnet, at the close of the octet, Saba writes: "Io sono vecchio, paurosamente." Sartarelli translates this as "I am frighteningly old" which is both clumsy to articulate and inaccurate; worse, it ruins the exquisite timing of the adverb. The little pause occasioned by the comma upon which the protracted six-syllable adverb follows is what gives the line its unexpected fillip. And in paurosamente itself we seem to hear not only the speaker's dread but the long, slow years that have gone to form it. The line would have been better as "I am old, fearfully so" or, even, "I am old, and full of fear;" "frighteningly" implies that he is scaring others with his age when it is in fact Saba himself who is fearful. These are, to be sure, small matters but upon such small matters good translations, like good poems, depend. Again and again, Sartarelli overlooks or ignores the small but forceful repetitions of such words as troppo or ancora or forse in Saba's lyrics, and yet, these might have been brought over into English to at least some effect. Other characteristic stylistic devices include inversion of word order which Saba employs often to quite dramatic results. Thus, at the end of "Ashes" (another poem whose Italian text is marred by a typo), Saba wrote: "Muto/ parto dell' ombre per l'immenso impero" which Sartarelli translates as: "Silent/I leave for the shadows' vast realm." This is correct but misses the point. Saba's inversion of dell'ombre per l'immenso impero gives his line a Latinate, a Virgilian, clangor quite missing from the English. Saba here wants to end on a "classical" note as reverberatory and yet marmoreal as an ancient epitaph, hence the alliteration on m and the solemnly Augustan diction. Such inversions occur regularly throughout the Songbook and might have served, along with other distinctly Sabean stylistic tics (refrains, fugal voices, etc.), to shore up the fragility of English versions.

Sometimes Sartarelli drops into almost total unintelligibility as in "Sixth Fugue (Canto in 3 Voices)" where he has:
 I know no sweeter thing than love; and yet one shrewder than you, more
 fervent as I, feel as though born to suffer.


This not only fails as translation, it is hardly even English. In the History and Chronicle, where many verses appear, Sartarelli is generally better, though he can still perpetrate a line like "hot cows drink from you in daytime." Hot cows? (Simply overheated or "hot to trot"?) True, the Italian says calde mucche but ... These are extreme examples; when Sartarelli's translations fail, it is usually because he has approached the Italian originals for their meaning rather than their form and in Saba, for better or worse, there is almost always minimal significant meaning but much melody. In this he is utterly unlike his compatriots Montale or Ungaretti or Quasimodo (none of whom possessed his musical sense), but very similar, again, to Verlaine, the poet who in my view is his true predecessor; indeed, Verlaine's great line, from his "Art poetique"--"prends l'eloquence et tords-lui le cou" ("Take eloquence and wring its neck"), which Sartarelli, in his otherwise excellent introduction, misattributes to Montale--provided Saba with his artistic credo. For in Saba the (literal) homeliness of the subject matter salts a kind of rhetorical facility which could all too easily have become sugary:

Sartarelli does sometimes acquit himself very well, usually in such better-known poems as "The Goat" or the incomparable "To My Wife" In the latter, a poem which Saba, with mischievous glee, tells us deeply offended his wife Lina, he compares her to various barnyard animals, beginning with a hen:
 You are like a young white hen, with feathers ruffled in the wind, who
 bends her neck to drink and scratch the ground yet walks with your same
 slow and queenly step, proud and puffed up as she struts onto the grass.


Saba goes on to compare Lina to a "lanky dog" a "timid rabbit" a swallow and a "farseeing ant;' as well as, more riskily, to a "pregnant heifer." (This last simile should come, like certain television ads, with a warning to fledgling poets: do not try this yourself at home!) The poem, which could have dissolved into grotesque twaddle, instead works beautifully, not only because Saba maintains his tender but uncloying tone throughout, but because he closely and lovingly observes the creatures with which he compares Lina. These are real barnyard critters, unmistakably so, not mere tropes or "poetic" fancies; their presence on the page, homely and improbable as they are, bears witness to his love more eloquently than a thousand d'Annunzian proclamations. To take the heifer by the horns, so to speak, consider how Sartarelli handles the trickiest stanza of this poem:
 You are like a pregnant heifer, still roaming free and still unburdened,
 frolicsome, in fact, who when you stroke her bends her neck toward you, the
 skin beneath a tender pink. And if sometime you hear her moo, so plaintive
 is the sound of it, you tear the grass up from the ground and give it to
 her as a gift.


Sartarelli handles this poem suavely from start to finish, and his translation is a pleasure to read. This is one of Saba's most charming poems, and one of his most discussed. In the History and Chronicle, he immodestly notes that "'To My Wife' is the first great poem that the first-time reader of the Canzoniere comes across" and he brags further that no one "would dream of omitting" it from any anthology of his works, even if "he certainly wrote more beautiful, more complex, more seductive, perhaps even more perfect poems than this." In his blithe delectation of himself, Saba even goes so ludicrously far as to inform us that "the chicken was almost a sacred animal to Saba." There is something indiscriminate, indeed almost promiscuous, in Saba's egocentrism: he frolics with his successive selves in an onanistic orgy of unfettered self-delight. He loves to cavort but he loves even more to spotlight his own cavorting. He is the fervent barker for a sideshow of one.

This shamelessness, of course, did not prevent him from writing masterpieces; indeed, it probably made them possible. But Saba is at his best, in my opinion, when his own solipsistic self-pleasure washes over to engulf some creature outside of himself who is yet commensurate with, while remaining obdurate to, his immense fascination with himself. In his great poem "The Pig" (which Saba for some unfathomable reason omitted from his final recension of the Songbook in 1954), he makes explicit his rather unexpectedly subtle identification with the pig:
 he does not wonder why the farmer's wife, who chases the poor thing about
 the yard, wants him nice and fat, well fed as can be. Like all life he does
 not know what purpose he will serve when he has reached perfection. Yet if
 I look at him and put myself inside his skin, I feel the knife cut through
 the flesh, I feel that scream


The wonderful statement in the original, "Ma io, se riguardando in lui mi metto," (literally, "But I while gazing put myself in him") exemplifies the kind of bifurcated awareness Saba displays in all his strongest work, for while he puts himself inside the pig he never relinquishes his simultaneous stance as outside observer. His knowledge of the pig's ineluctable future impinges on his warm, almost brotherly identification with the creature itself. The last two lines of the poem build on this instant of identification in the most delicate way: "Solo in me mette un impetuosa voglia/ di piangere quel suo beato aspetto." Sartarelli translates this as: "I alone, to see his beatific face,/feel an overwhelming desire to weep." In the original it is the pig's "beatific face" which "puts into" the poet the desire to weep; the repetition of the inconspicuous verb mettere brings the transformation full circle and this is reinforced by the delayed rhyme of aspetto, the last word in the poem, with metro, six lines before, when the poet first assumes his porcine vantage-point. Such small, shy devices give Saba his great but unassuming mastery, a mastery which alone tempers and makes bearable his gusty braggadocio. Saba's most famous poem is "The Goat" which begins: "I have spoken to a nanny goat" ("Ho parlato a una capra"). Sartarelli translates this, rather nicely, as "I had a conversation with a goat." The "conversation" consists at first of the goat's bleat and Saba's joking imitation; the sound of "that monotonous bleat" however, comical and jarring as it is, jolts the poet into what is perhaps his deepest moment of fellow-feeling. In Sartarelli's version, the last three lines read:
 in a goat with a Semitic face I heard the cry of every woe on earth, every
 life on earth.


The "Semitic face" of this nanny goat has prompted much comment; as Saba himself noted in the History and Chronicle of the Songbook, by some readers he was even accused of anti-Semitism. In reply (speaking of himself as usual in the third person), Saba stated flatly that "in a goat with a Semitic face" is "a predominantly visual line. When Saba came up with it, he was thinking neither in favor of nor against the Jews. It is merely a thumbstroke applied to the clay in shaping a figure."

Another of Sartarelli's successes in handling Saba's thorny simplicity occurs in a lesser known poem entitled "Old Town" (Citta vecchia), in which the poet extends his sympathy to his fellow humans:
 Here the prostitute, the sailor, the old man shouting curses, the woman in
 a twitter, the dragoon eating fritters sitting in a store, the lovesick
 adolescent girl who wants to be adored, all are creatures of this world and
 its reward of sorrow; and in them all, and me, there moves the Lord.


Sartarelli's translation conveys the percussive and tumbling lines with their music-hall rhymes; even the risky off-rhyme "twitter/fritters/sitting" (which could have been disastrous) works because it sardonically tempers the incipient sentimentality which the poet barely skirts; even better, the rhyme replicates the crescendo of rhymes in the Italian where lowly friggitore ("fried fish shop") chimes with lofty amore and dolore. (How utterly characteristic of Saba--his poetics in a nutshell--to rescue the worn old words "love" and "sorrow" with a serving of fish and chips!)

This poem offers a good example of Sartarelli's strengths and weaknesses as a translator of Saba. Immediately before the above stanza he renders the lines "io ritrovo, passando, l'infinito/nell'umilta" as "I in passing find eternity/in wretchedness" This is not merely wrong, it is gratuitously wrong and misses the connotations of the lines. In the word l'infinito, which Saba rhymes significantly with detrito ("petty flotsam" in Sartarelli's version), he is both alluding to and reproving his great predecessor Leopardi whose poem "L'infinito" is one of the small splendors of Italian literature. Saba is deliberately juxtaposing his vision of infinity, which he finds reflected in human misery all around him and with which he passionately identifies, with Leopardi's solitary and overwhelming glimpse of infinity through a hedgerow on a hill ("In that immensity my thought is drowned" in John Heath-Stubbs's translation). Why then render "infinity" as "eternity" quite a different proposition? (Is there not too in the gerund passando ["in passing"] some gentle after-tremor of the Dantescan "guarda e passa" ("look and pass on!"), that brutal admonition of Virgil to Dante in the Inferno?) Nor is "wretchedness" quite right for umilta which is more accurately rendered as "lowliness;" these are not merely the wretched, but the lowly, the meek, of the earth. Sartarelli gets it right in the conclusion where he uses "the lowly" to translate umili, but this is, alas, for the sake of a rather forced rhyme which distorts Saba's final meaning; the poet finds his thought grow not "more holy" but "purer" in the presence both of the meek as well as of what is "meanest" (piu turpe). Again, the tiny unobtrusive repetition of a simple word (piu) gives the line its sly spin: "piu puro dove piu turpe e la via" ("more pristine where more squalid is the way").

Readers new to Saba may want to delay immersion in the History and Chronicle of the Songbook and stick with the poems; despite Saba's infectious sense of humor and the general excellence of Sartarelli's rendition of his prose, he often comes across as almost buffoonishly self-mesmerized. The History and Chronicle thus begins with the announcement that "ignoring Saba's poetry would be like ignoring the evidence of a natural phenomenon" and then, within the space of a few lines, we are told that "Saba" was born in the same year as Pinocchio! In this unique document, the genial and the hyperbolic jostle and elbow each other on every page. At worst, prolonged exposure to Saba's self-infatuation is like being cornered by a monomaniac brimming with photo albums of the family vacation; the eyes glaze over but the gloating commentary drones on. At its best, however, the History does illumine many of Saba's poems, and for this alone it is precious.

Despite the faults of the translation, many of the shorter poems do succeed. To give a final example, Sartarelli captures the tenderness capped by sarcasm of the late poem "Woman" a lyric that owes much to Heine:
 When just a girl you used to sting like a bramble bush. Even your foot was
 a weapon, my wild one.

 You were hard to catch.

 Still young you are, still beautiful. The scars of time and sorrow bind our
 souls, of two make one. And behind the coal-black hair I wrap around my
 fingers, I no longer fear the small white pointed devil's ear.


There are other successes in both volumes. Sartarelli set himself a hugely ambitious challenge, and if he has not always fully met it, he has the honor of the attempt. Much of his achievement is inevitably tacit. The final (1954) version of the Canzoniere comprises more than six-hundred pages, to which the apocryphal and deleted poems add another three-hundred or so pages; to select poems at once representative of the whole and also conducive to translation must have been a Herculean labor. Sartarelli's introductions, notes, and bibliography for both volumes are admirable for their perspicacity and shrewd assessments; he is especially good at tracing Saba's career through its sometimes tortuous permutations and often displays a kind of empathy with his poet that reminds one of the master himself. This is the best introduction to the work of an unusual and utterly original poet. Perhaps in some heavenly dimension Saba is even now nodding his head and clucking softly in sublime self-satisfaction as he chortles: "Of course, Saba is untranslatable! Saba is a force of nature. he is as impervious to translation as a strutting white chicken or a lonely and vocal goat or the gray sea-waves of Trieste."

(1) Songbook: Selected Poems (321 pages, $16.95) & History and Chronicle of the Songbook (249 pages, $13.95), by Umberto Saba, translated by Stephen Sartarelli; The Sheep Meadow Press.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Ormsby, Eric
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Words:3464
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