In 1911, two years after Marinetti spawned Futurism, the all-but-unknown Umberto Saba (1883–1957) wrote his own manifesto, which sadly never had the impact of Marinetti’s; it remained unpublished until after Saba’s death. His tract, titled “What Remains for Poets to Do,” begins with typical directness: “It remains for poets to make poetry honest.”

Today, when much poetry seems merely honest, it may be difficult to appreciate Saba’s prescription. But Italian poetry was emerging from the decadentismo of Gabriele d’Annunzio, who could falsify “passions and admirations … for the sole wretched end of gaining a more striking stanza or a more resonant line.” Saba’s charge mirrors Auden’s indictment of his younger self for espousing in “Spain” a “wicked doctrine … simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective.”

The Italian avant-garde in 1911 was even more dishonest than the arrière-garde. In their zeal for newness, Futurists jettisoned what Saba (a classicist at heart) saw as the virtues of their poetic heritage. Their innovations, as Joseph Cary points out in Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale, “were the dragooning of so-called ‘free-verse’ as a counterblow to the traditional hendecasyllable, eccentric suspensions of normal syntax and punctuation, a plethora of short-lived onomatopoetic coinages, the cultivation … of the fragment, … and an impudent, jazzy, informal ‘oral’ style.” It was, Saba felt, mere novelty that arose from what he dubbed their “uncontrollable desire to be original.”

The path to authentic originality led, he believed, through the forest of the self, and his was more dense and difficult than most. Religion, nationality, sexuality—elements that, for many, are cornerstones of identity were for Saba lifelong question marks. Born Umberto Poli to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father who left before his son was born, Saba grew up among Jews but admits, “I never felt myself anything but an Italian among Italians.” This national identification was complicated, however, since for half his life his native Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His sexual identity, too, was blurred: homosexual love poems stand alongside love poems to his wife. Even that emblem of personal and familial identity, the patronymic, was abandoned—as his father had abandoned him. Giuseppe Ungaretti once referred to Saba as “the poet of himself,” and indeed he seemed to forge his vexed identity in the reflective, autobiographical poetry of his principal work, Il Canzoniere, first published in 1921 and revised and enlarged until his death.

Saba ignored trends such as Futurism and Hermeticism all his life. While this fact makes him hard to pigeonhole, it helps explain why the honesty and updated classicism evident in these poems remain compelling long after the fashions changed.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 6, on page 35
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