Poets usually write about themselves, even when they are pretending not to. But few can have put themselves forward quite so much as Umberto Saba, the Triestine writer who has sometimes been rated one of Italy’s best poets of the twentieth century and who, in his own opinion, was quite simply the greatest since Leopardi. What is strange is that the more you read Saba, the less the “autolatria” or self-worship, as Montale called it, seems off-putting. Rather than self-aggrandizement, it comes over more as an unstable, knowing series of self-projections, which the reader is implicitly asked to recognize and empathize with and which, when everything goes well, give rise to poetry. Saba freely acknowledged that it didn’t always go well, but the one thing he was convinced about all his life was that great poetry, including his own best work, provided a special kind of enjoyment that made up for the misery and confusion from which it emerged, not just for himself (he was a lifelong depressive) but for everyone. You don’t have to take him at his word to feel that some of his poems combine wonderful qualities of song with emotional density in a way that is rare in modern poetry and that others subtly and often ironically recast traditional Italian poetry from within rather than by taking it apart. “M’incantò la rima fiore / amore, / la più antica difficile del mondo”, he wrote in a short late poem – “I was enchanted by the rhyme June, / moon, the oldest and most stubborn in the world”, in the version given here by George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan who find plausible English equivalents for the rhyme “fiore / amore” but distort “difficile” with “stubborn”. Perhaps it was indeed a kind of lowest common denominator of the Italian tradition that he worked with, though he added a dose of Heine to give it a tart edge and a certain syntactic awkwardness which stops the reader from being too carried away by the flow.
more from Peter Hainsworth at the TLS here.