Ungaretti, in the Morning

Giuseppe Ungaretti in Milan (1888–1970)

It’s no easy task; writing poetry. To make a point, I’ll tell you exactly what bothers me about my own.

Each stanza suffers the same stretched out yawn as in the prose; unnecessary length. I like to compare it with meat on a hotplate; left too long to stew in its own flavour, developing wrinkles that are telling of a type of dullness. Simplicity evades me — the same type that even in a long, epic poem such as In Memoriam A.H.H. or Yevgeny Onegin, is still there in the background, working hard with it’s themes. How do they manage to so harmoniously mesh the two?

And then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, placed firmly by the gates of hell: social media poetry. Sure, I’m referring to the equally deified and despised Rupi Kaur. But also Bukowski’s-sentient-butt-wart himself, R.M. Drake. With his fancy typewriter, tea-dyed paper and snore-inducing girl troubles that are as ‘Bukowski’ as talcum powder; Drake has fashioned himself a style of work made for people without the patience for poetry, and who have grown up on the parables of Drake (the rapper one) instead of Nick Drake (the artist one). But it’s no wonder they’re popular. Since social media is entirely about cultivating self-image, both Kaur, Drake and their league of disciples offer users’ the final accessory to their online persona: depth.

Would Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888–1970) be an Instagram (or Tumblr) Poet? The Italian’s sparse, rhythmic work indirectly influences the likes of Kaur (who will claim to have drawn from Plath or Walker). But what the Poet has that the other’s don’t is acknowledging syntax and meter as aesthetic not limited by space (or short attention-span) but a universe of hidden meaning, song and depth that can match a short story; poetry that is isolated and calm, like a fly in milk. It’s for reasons like these that he’s considered one of the most important poets of the 20th century.

One of my friends enjoys this one; Soldati (Soldiers):

Si sta come
sugli alberi
le foglie

Translates: We are as / in autumn / on branches / the leaves.

It seems simple, but my take away is that work hopelessness and nihilism (I think) with the pleasant nostalgia of Mother Nature. There’s something going on here; mystery and tone.

Ungaretti was born to Tuscan parents in Alexandria, Egypt. His childhood, and his affection towards Alexandria is similar to that of Albert Camus and Algiers. I entertain similarities between the Italian and the Frenchman, particularly in their experimentation of alienation and absurdity; the poem I am Alive can hopefully justify this to some length.

But what follows his emigration to Europe is an ongoing tragedy; from the trenches of The Great War (it was as a war poet that Ungaretti cut his teeth) to the death of his son Antonietto and a transition to old age which he himself described — with great melancholy — as a series of seasons.

Rhyme, space, time, beats, tones. What more? There is more, but it’s buried. Each intricately crafted line that Ungaretti had written in his career is worth mulling over for a long time. Within each word, with every apostrophe and line break are numerous messages that play with interpretation like a journey. I found myself revisiting a particular work days after only to discover that it had changed since I left it. All it takes is looking at a single word in a different way; and then the poem transforms. And while I believe this can be said for a lot of worthy poetry, this is the only poetical experience I’ve encountered which entertains its message as if it were a Russian doll. At once, a poem could be joyous, and then the week after: heartbreaking. An example:

Mattina (Morning):


Yes, that’s a poem. Competent translators consider Mattina (Morning) as impossible to convert to English. So I won’t attempt (with all seriousness) to translate it myself, but it goes along the lines of ‘I am illuminated / of the immensity’. Or is it ‘The immenseness / illuminates me’? In which case what is the immensity, and if it was the former, what caused the illumination (and then what is ‘illumination’ — is it faith/age?) and so on, and so forth.

But is the immensity even good? This is another aspect of Ungaretti’s work, which in Italy has (unfairly) the same reputation as Akhmatova in Russia; misfortune. But far from finding cynicism or bitterness in his work, there is only remorse, guilt and sorrow. In numerous examples, as in Mattina, Ungaretti comes across as both in suffering and hopeful. He radiates a spirit that is content with his lot, and yet not enough — as he guiltily reflects on his own tragedies or failures. If life is straddling the line between both Happiness and Sadness, then Ungaretti’s work is a slack-line. We should cherish it.

As he well knows; words on a page give us neither comfort nor caution, only meaning. What we do with that meaning is entirely up to us; we use it validate (or sometimes justify) how we feel at the time. What a pleasure it is to read a poet that allows his lines to be a workout for the soul. I project my own insecurities into Ungaretti’s poetry, and find it rewarding each time. And exactly because I, like you, am a complicated creature, the answer is never simple.

Read Ungaretti, and then re-read him again; you’ll have a hundred poems to read a hundred times for the very first time.