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Umberto Saba is among the five major Italian poets of the twentieth century, but unlike his near contemporaries, Montale, Ungaretti, Quasimodo and Pavese, he is the least well known to a British readership. The reasons for this may have something to do with poetic fashion, assumptions about form, authorial personality or just difficulties of translation. Whatever the reasons, certainly there is no comparable selection of his work in English—one, that is, which seeks to reproduce the formal rhymes and rhythms of the original— and no other available on this side of the Atlantic.

Poetic fashions have always to some extent side-lined poets who don’t fit into self-appointed,or retrospectively constructed, movements, and modernism, with its self-aggrandising sense of making it new, is one of the most excluding and long-lasting. Unlike Montale and Quasimodo, whose hermeticist, imagistic writing fits the notion of a difficult, rule-breaking art of the twentieth century, Saba’s poetry seems, at least at first glance, highly traditional, metrical, rhyming, as well as effortlessly comprehensible. His subject matter tends to be low-key, domestic, personal: recollections of childhood, addresses to his wife and young daughter, tributes to his beloved city, Trieste, recollections of past loves as well as lovingly observed animals. This is a poetry which carries no obvious message for our times, no philosophy of life or manifesto for poetry, but which returns again and again to the details of a life seemingly lived on the edge of the century’s momentous cultural and political changes. Yet to dismiss it for such small-scale attention is short-sighted. What Saba offers is the challenge of work so finely crafted, so singing in its many registers, that it becomes another welcome reminder that poetry is also an art of the commonplace, but the commonplace become new


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