Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti
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
a un compagno
con la sua bocca
volta al plenilunio
con la congestione
delle sue mani
nel mio silenzio
lettere piene d’amore
No sono mai stato
attaccato alla vita
Cima Quattro, December 23, 1915
One whole night
thrust down beside
turned to the full moon
of his hands
I have written
letters full of love
Never have I held
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.