Umberto Saba’s Bleat

So much of contemporary poetry seems to be a reaction against sentimentality and self-aggrandizement. To this end, many poets seem to be attempting to remove themselves as a direct presence in their poems. Persona poetry is one device by which an interplay of consciousness can exist without the complications of the troublesome “I.” Yet without the poet in the poem, so many poems of consummate craft fall short of the ultimate aim–to touch on the human condition in a way that transcends intellectual tinkering.

Even as Adrienne Rich speaks of “a permeable membrane between art and society,” so, too, does a permeable membrane exist between the inner and outer realities of the poet. Expressing this interplay effectively requires not only skill and sensitivity, but self-awareness.

Consider the following translation (mine) of Umberto Saba’s “The Goat”:

I was speaking to a goat.
She was alone in the field, tied up.
Sated with grass, wet
with rain, she was bleating.

That selfsame bleat was brother
to my own pain. And I replied, at first
in jest, then because pain is eternal,
a constant voice.
This voice sounded
in the groan of a lonely goat.

In a goat with a Semitic face,
a sound to represent all other woes,
all other life.

This is a poem of revelation, hinging on the moment where the speaker bleats back at the goat–“at first / in jest, then because pain is eternal.” It is also a moment of recognition, as mockery turns to empathy.

From here the recognition of the universality of this primal sound of pain opens outward, as the speaker recognizes the goat as having a “Semitic” face. Saba was of Jewish descent, and forced to flee his native Italy due to fascist racial discrimination laws instituted around the time of World War II. Here he not only sees the goat as one of his “people” ethnically, but recognizes the sound of pain within its bleat as representing (or “accusing itself of,” an alternate interpretation of the Italian) “all other woes, / all other life.”

This poem effectively explores the interplay between the outer experience of the lonely goat and the inner experience of the speaker’s own pain through this moment of well-observed revelation. The moment is well-observed inwardly, as the speaker admits to the complexities of the relationship–at first in jest, and then in a moment of recognition. The moment is also well-observed outwardly, as the recognition of the universality of pain is not forced down upon the poem through artificial means–it is drawn out through the external description of both man and goat.

In this way, Saba gives us a poem with a certain veracity akin to the bleating itself. He is alive to the experience of man and goat, reporting the interplay between inner and outer, between the “I” and the observed goat, in a way that does not feel forced. Instead, through this recognition and report, we are given a powerfully symbolic account that feels genuine, and strikes us as a momentary but essential remark on the human (and animal) condition.