The Faber Book of 20th-century Italian Poems, by Jamie McKendrick

The best and verse of Italian poetry
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Of the 47 Italian poets included in this ambitious collection, four are incontestably great. They are Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo and the beguilingly witty and melancholy Umberto Saba, the bookseller from Trieste who only left his native city to hide from the Germans during the Second World War. Unfortunately, although Saba is represented with one of his finest poems, "The Goat", its sardonic and self-mocking humour is lost in a too-literal translation.

This is not a bilingual edition, which means that the curious reader is given no opportunity to compare the original poems with their versions in English. The absence of biographical notes is a more serious omission, since most of the poets are virtually unknown outside Italy. You could just about guess that Sandro Penna was a tormented homosexual, but a couple of lines explaining that his lyricism is rooted in frustrated anguish would have been helpful. Cesare Pavese is relatively well known, but something might have been said of his contribution to the neo-realistic movement of the late 1940s and 1950s in prose and poetry. The poems come at you out of nowhere in a variety of renderings - some inventive, some adequate, some faithful, some irritatingly obscure.

Ungaretti's "Watch" is one of the most resonant poems of the First World War, the equal of the best of Wilfred Owen. Patrick Creagh's interpretation of this brief masterpiece is accurate in every detail and the moving story certainly registers. That the music is not conveyed, the sheer beauty of the Italian words, is no fault of Creagh: his interpretation of "In Memoriam" is equally exact.

Duncan Bush and Geoffrey Brook provide excellent reworkings of six poems by Pavese: scenes from ordinary life set down in language that's appropriately colloquial. The truth is, the closer the poem is to a distinct narrative, the easier it reads in English. A good example is Jamie McKendrick's own version of Pasolini's withering attack on the newly dead Pope Pius XII. Pasolini's contempt for the pontiff, who refused to speak out against the Nazis and was indifferent to the lives of the Roman poor, is brilliantly demonstrated, as is his sympathy for the likes of the drunken Zucchetto, the man the Pope ignored.

This anthology has been thoughtfully and carefully edited by Jamie McKendrick. As his introduction makes clear, his knowledge of Italian literature and culture is profound. I was pleased to see Giorgio Bassani represented (he was born in Bologna, not Ferrara as stated), as well as Primo Levi. Attilio Bertolucci, Giorgio Caproni and Patrizia Cavalli should have been translated years ago. The first poet here is Gabriele D'Annunzio, whose influence the majority of the other poets were compelled to resist. He now seems a grand anachronism in his appalling confidence, a relic from an age that did not savour scepticism and doubt.

The reviewer's latest novel is 'Uncle Rudolf' (Fourth Estate)