A word on Giuseppe Ungaretti

July 23, 2009

I’ve been working on some translations of poems by Ungaretti. I’m especially drawn to his early work – the poems that launched his long career, written while he was fighting in World War I. They are clearly the work of a young man first discovering the terrors of the world, sometimes confronting those terrors directly, and sometimes conjuring a more just or beautiful alternative, either as an escape from his present discord or as a sort of reminder that the world is not entirely horrific.

Although of Italian descent, Ungaretti was born in Egypt. His father settled the family in Alexandria when he landed a job helping to dig the Suez Canal. He died in a work accident when the poet was only two, but Ungaretti’s mother decided to remain in Egypt. She ran a bakery on the edge of the Sahara and enrolled her son in the Swiss School in Alexandria, where he learned French and had his first serious exposure to poetry.

When he was twenty-four, he moved to Paris, befriending many of the artists and writers he already admired, including Picasso, Tzara, and Apollinaire, whose poetry clearly influenced Ungaretti’s simple and lucid early style.

Ungaretti was a political idealist, so when World War I broke out, he was quick to sign up for the infantry. Like other great poets of World War I – such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon – his artistic coming-of-age occurred in the trenches.

Ungaretti the soldier-poet

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