Giuseppe Ungaretti (Alexandria of Egypt, 8 February 1888 – Milan, 1 June 1970) is one of the greatest Italian poets ever existed but the Anglo-Saxon world had not yet fully grasped his depth. Ungaretti’s character was shaped by the traumatic experiences he lived in the trenches, even if Italy had joined the fray only on 24 May 1915 (some say 23 May).
One hundred years ago Ungaretti was demonstrating in the streets for Italy to enter the war alongside France and Great Britain and against Germany and Austria. He was an interventista and then, having reached his bloody goal, he volunteered and departed to the front.
During the war he scribbled 80 poems on a notebook and an officer and a friend, the poet Ettore Serra, being greatly impressed, had them printed in a small printing shop of Udine. Only 80 copies. The title was Porto Sepolto, or Buried Port. They still are, in my opinion, the best things he had ever written, and if he was killed by a bullet during that war he would be famous anyway, perhaps even more famous. We will be musing on what he would have produced had he not met death in the flower of youth.
After the war he published another great collection of poems, which are seen as late fruits of the war, but the title tells of his change of attitude: L’Allegria dei Naufraghi or The Shipwreckeds’ Mirth
His poetry is known as hermetic a term used to indicate the fact that words are few and inscrutable but each of them weight tons. I remember him during his late appearances in the Italian TV – when I was a young boy – and his extraordinary way of reading his poems and the Odyssey: his voice was like a blade being grinded on a polishing stone. I have a strange portrait of him hanging in my home, with words he had written under it: ‘Giuseppe Ungaretti, disegno di Eugenio…’
I drop the bucket here, I have no intention of writing his biography but I am going to dedicate to him a hermetic poem that I wrote some time ago, and which was honourably censored just before publication.
I would have not thought about it for a second more had it not been censored by a friend. It is censorship that set it apart from the awful lot: it is a confirmation of balefulness, of ugliness & beauty.
The poems of Ungaretti are great because Ungaretti wrote them – not the proverbial monkey at the typewriter – with his life, his failures and successes, with all the books and articles he wrote with his hands and mind. They are Giuseppe Ungaretti.
(to Giuseppe Ungaretti)
In old China dogs were boiled in winter,
Other dogs cried, smelling the grievous air.
They were crying for their brothers,
Because death is real and life it is not.
Beauty will not save the world, imperfection will,
Imperfection is the supreme beauty.
God creates refined prose and the devil owns all mistakes,
For written by nobody and nobody wrote are equal.