Man of Pain

Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti

translated and edited by Allen Mandelbaum
Cornell University Press, 228 pp., $15.00

From his earliest important poems, written in the trenches of World War I, to the last poems of his old age, Ungaretti’s work is a long record of confrontations with death. Cryptic in utterance, narrow in range, built on an imagery that is drawn exclusively from the natural world, and displaying an obsessive preoccupation with only the most fundamental metaphysical themes, Ungaretti’s poetry nevertheless continually escapes being predictable. In spite of the limitations of his manner, he leaves an impression of nearly boundless energy and invention. For no word in Ungaretti’s work is ever used lightly—“When I find / in this my silence / a word / it is dug into my life / like an abyss”—and the strength of his verse derives precisely from this restraint. For a man who wrote for more than fifty years, Ungaretti published remarkably little before he died in 1970, and his poetic work amounts to no more than a few hundred pages. His poems are more a distillation of experience than a commentary on experience, and what they lack in variety, they make up for in intensity.

Born in 1888, Ungaretti belonged to a celebrated generation of modern writers, his contemporaries including Pound, Joyce, Kafka, Trakl, and Pessoa. Like theirs his importance is measured not only by his own achievement but by its effect on the history of the literature of his language. Before Ungaretti, there was no modern Italian poetry. When his first book, Il Porto Sepolto (The Buried Port), appeared in 1916 in an edition of eighty copies, it seemed to come from nowhere, to be without precedent. These short, fragmented poems, at times hardly more than notes or inscriptions, announced a break with the late nineteenth-century conventions that still dominated Italian verse. The horrible realities of the war demanded a new kind of expression; and for Ungaretti, who at that time was just finishing his poetic apprenticeship, the front was a training ground that taught the futility of all compromise.

Cima Quattro il 23 dicembre 1915

Un’intera nottata
buttato vicino
a un compagno
massacrato
con la sua bocca
digrignata
volta al plenilunio
con la congestione
delle sue mani
penetrata
nel mio silenzio
ho scritto
lettere piene d’amore

No sono mai stato
tanto
attaccato alla vita

Cima Quattro, December 23, 1915

One whole night
thrust down beside
a slaughtered
comrade
his snarling
mouth
turned to the full moon
the bloating
of his hands
entering
my silence
I have written
letters full of love

Never have I held
so
fast to life

As Allen Mandelbaum writes in the preface to his translations of Ungaretti’s Selected Poems, it was when Ungaretti’s earliest book was published that

Italy found its first certain, complete modern poet. Whatever the role critics now assign to Clemente Rebora’s Frammenti lirici (1913), or to Dino Campana’s Canti orfici or Camillo Sbarbaro’s Pianissimo (both of 1914), Ungaretti was the first to face unequivocally the…terrible task of every modern Italian poet, the …

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