Antica e Moderna: The Poetry of Umberto Saba
Any edition of the Songbook will compel the reader to turn to Saba's most famous poem, "The Goat," which first appeared in House and Countryside (1909-10). Here is the Hochfield and Nathan version:
I talked to a goat.
She was alone in a pasture, and tethered.
Stuffed with grass, soaked
by the rain, she bleated.
That monotonous bleating was brother
to my sorrow. And I answered, first
in jest, then because sorrow is eternal,
has one voice and never changes.
I heard this voice in the wails
of a solitary goat.
In a goat with a Semitic face,
I heard all other pain lamenting,
all other lives.
Much of Saba's poetic destiny is already written into this brief lyric. The first-person voice is not directed toward expression but rather toward the empathy of imaginative listening. For although we cannot know the pain of any other living being, the specificity of the pain of the crying animal is particularly opaque to us. Saba emphasizes this by first letting us know that this solitary goat is not hungry; she seems to suffer from the rain alone, to be the very manifestation of a wail that precedes and follows her and that we human beings, too, might embody. It is not the goat that is "fraterno al mio dolore" but the bleating itself. In the Italian, Saba is able to make this shift from the particular to the general via a switch in tense: "Ho parlato a una capra" ("I talked to a goat") is in the passato prossimo, indicating an action completed in the recent past; "belava" ("she bleated") is in the imperfect, indicating a longstanding or frequently repeated action in the past. The incommensurability between what the poet was able to say to the goat and the eternal sorrow of its "uguale" bleating is thereby emphasized; similarly in this goat with a "Semitic" face, a face of ancient traditions of lament that were Saba's birthright, he recognizes a mirror image that is as well not a mirror image.
The poem provoked a number of anti-Semitic responses from established critics: the young Slataper, ever self-promoting, criticized Saba as living "in uncertain nostalgic memories"; "non è classico italiano," another critic wrote of Saba's deeply classical work. Years later, in his Storia, Saba responded to these comments, writing that the "memory of his maternal blood line" informed many of his poems, but that "a goat with a Semitic face" was "predominately visual...it is merely a thumbstroke applied to the clay in shaping a figure." The goat's suffering has something to do thereby with its solitude and a too-ready stereotyping of its appearance. The Italian word ogni in the last lines--"ogni altro male, ogni altra vita"--is deftly able to express this, for the word can indicate at once "every," "each," or "all." Hochfield and Nathan have gone the sweeping route of "all other pain" and "all other lives," but the singular forms of "male" and "vita" at the end of the poem would lend equal value to "each other pain, each other life."
Placing Saba involves recognizing that the adherents of international modernism in poetry, cutting their ties to the meters, rhymes, narratives and voices of the past, were most often preoccupied with visual form and mechanical motion. Yet for Italian lyric poets, abandoning traditional sung and spoken forms was never an easy matter. Filippo Marinetti had called Trieste, in a 1909 speech, "our beautiful powder-magazine," and the city became the site of the first Futurist "serata" at the turn of 1910. Saba, however, just a year later defined himself in exact opposition not only to Futurist rhetoric but also to the longer declamatory poetic tradition of Giosuè Carducci and Gabriele d'Annunzio. Saba insisted he was a "cobbler" who wanted to resole old forms and ground them in "our earthly existence." His poems bear no record of the innovations of twentieth-century technology--no celebrations of airplanes, trains or radios. He saunters through every street of Trieste, catching glimpses of the city's manifold forms of life; his sky holds a little cloud that has haunted him from childhood; his real blackbirds eat real pignoli. Saba bears a loving skepticism toward the world that speaks to his long familiarity with the poems of Heinrich Heine. And it was Heine, his own books destined after more than a century to be burned by the Nazis, who knew that "where they burn books, they will eventually also burn people." In an era of noise and terror, Saba relied on poetry as a refuge of quiet conscience, describing how, during the Fascist years, he hid "more than ever within himself, plugging his ears--even literally--so as not to hear the voices of the loudspeakers."
The remarkably stable pacing of Italian syllables gives any Italian line a certain crisp exactitude; and the remarkably stable pronunciation of Italian vowels makes any ordinary sentence in Italian chime like a set of sleigh bells. Each member of the great triumvirate of Italian Modernist poets,Giuseppe Ungaretti, Montale and Saba, therefore, had to find a way to forge a Modernist poem under these essential features of the language and the great light that Italian lyric cast on all Western poetry. Ungaretti turned to minimalism, refining the language to its essence, honing his work to the mystery inherent in arrangements of crystalline words. Montale usually rhymed without pattern, breaking his lines before or after the expected hendecasyllabic measure and, above all, relying on image and irony. Saba, however, took a different path, drawing so deeply on rhyme and the lyric tradition, adapting them in such surprising ways to present circumstances, that tradition seemed to speak to and through modernity. He wrote, "I loved the worn words that no one else/dared use. I was enchanted by the rhyme fiore/amore," concluding, "I loved the truth that lies in the depths,/almost a forgotten dream, that pain/rediscovers as a friend." Using archaisms and local terms, taking up Dante's Tuscan accent, he addressed the humblest, most overlooked figures of Trieste--the city's servants, children, prostitutes, sailors and factory workers.
Yet the strongest formal influence upon these poems of relentless psychological honesty is Petrarch: his hendecasyllabic line, variations in sonnet and canzone form and use of refrain. A note in the 1913 diary of Saba's friend Aldo Fortuna gives us some sense of Saba's ease with Petrarch's meter. Fortuna records how, waiting for a doctor's visit one day, he proposed a waiter's litany to Saba as a "typical hendecasyllable for an Italian poem": "Venerdi baccalà, sabato trippa" (Thursday salt cod, Saturday tripe), and in a flash Saba came back with a rhyming hendecasyllabic response for dessert: "Mezza granita di caffè con panna." Coffee "shave ice" (as the Obama family calls it) with whipped cream.
Saba's poetry is autobiographical under conditions where having a life and the means to record it could not be taken for granted. Yet his work was not in consequence absorbed by its historical moment; his protégé Sandro Penna, who died in 1977, was his most direct heir, both in clarity of style and in homoerotic, often pederastic themes. Saba's straightforward language, use of traditional forms and realism also have had an impact on the work of many of the leading Italian poets today, including poems of everyday emotion by Valerio Magrelli, Patrizia Cavalli, Milo De Angelis and Antonella Anedda, and the intricately rhyming patterns of Patrizia Valduga. We can be grateful that Saba failed to fulfill the prediction of his "For a New Fable" (1947-48): "Every year a step forward and the world ten/steps back. In the end I have remained alone."