Giuseppe Ungaretti in Oklahoma: The Old Captain’s Last Voyage

June 1, 2020
A black and white photo of four men standing in tuxedos
John Ciardi, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Luciano Rebay, and Ivar Ivask after presentation of the award certificate, Norman, Oklahoma, March 14, 1970 / Photo by Jim Lucas

Today (June 1) marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888–1970), the legendary Italian poet who traveled to the University of Oklahoma in March 1970 to be fêted as the very first laureate of what would come to be known as the Neustadt Prize. The following recap by Ivar Ivask, then-editor of Books Abroad and the visionary behind the prize, will be reprinted in Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: Fifty Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, forthcoming from Deep Vellum Publishing in October. The anthology, edited by WLT’s current editor in chief, Daniel Simon, gathers the acceptance speeches by the first twenty-five laureates of the prize along with tributes by the jurors who nominated them.

Balugina da un faro
Verso cui va tranquillo
Il vecchio capitano.

Vacationing amidst the solitary Finnish woods and lakes, I am trying to order my impressions of the dramatic events that occurred in connection with Giuseppe Ungaretti between 7 February and 4 June of this year [1970], and in which I was to a certain degree involved. True, I had very briefly met the Italian poet on 17 April 1969 after his highly successful reading at the Poetry Center in New York, where he was presented by Professor Luciano Rebay from Columbia, with English translations of his verse read by Isabella Gardner, Allen Ginsberg, and Louis Simpson. But little did I then surmise that about a year later, Ungaretti would be the first recipient of the just-established international literary award. My reaction to his exaggerated manner of reading—ranging from a barely audible whisper to a hoarse shout; now angelic-looking, now more like the grimace of a Kabuki actor—was ambiguous. This was probably the case because I then honestly preferred the often obscure complexities of Eugenio Montale to Ungaretti’s sparse, essential lines. It was for this reason that Montale became one of my candidates when the jury met in Norman, 5–7 February 1970. (My other candidate was Jorge Guillén.) Since Montale had advance support by several other jury members, his chances were quite good. However, when he politely declined to accept any international literary prize at that time, this changed considerably the situation confronting the members of the jury who had gathered for their deliberations. Since the story of the first jury has already been told in these pages (see BA 44:2) and in the Saturday Review (see the issue of 21 March 1970), suffice it to recapitulate here that it was my vote as chairman which broke the tie between Pablo Neruda and Ungaretti in favor of the latter.

This was the first dramatic event. No less exciting was the visit of the eighty-two­year-old patriarch of Italian letters to Norman and New York. Ungaretti arrived at Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers Airport on Friday 13 March together with Professor Luciano Rebay and John Ciardi who had joined him in New York. The poet was totally exhausted from an uninterrupted flight all the way from Rome. No one had at that time any idea that he had not slept much even before leaving and that he had broncho-pulmonary troubles. I hardly recognized the poet whom I had met only last year in New York; he had let his white hair grow to shoulder-length locks and refused to shave his white stubble with the explanation that it was important to renew one’s appearance from time to time. Ungaretti was furious, his cane flailing the air, because he believed that his suitcase had not arrived. Yet the one suitcase from Rome was vehemently disowned by him, and he only grudgingly accepted it when I demonstrated its obvious contents to him: several copies of Vita d’un uomo and a tuxedo (among other things).

Came Saturday morning 14 March, the day of the solemn presentation of the award, and Ungaretti said he did not feel up to reading his verse or giving any speeches. Understandably so, what with his prolonged sleeplessness, and the change in time from Rome to Oklahoma, his not too stable health at the advanced age of eighty-two. Yet it was also quite vexing to all organizers who had made infinite preparations, and already the guests were arriving, including a crew of Radiotelevisione italiana . . . The success of the evening was far from assured. Fortunately, in the afternoon things began to look up: the maestro had had a good nap and together with Ciardi and Rebay, the four of us sat down around a small table in one of the university cottages where Ungaretti was lodged. He went through his collected poems page by page in order to make a selection for the reading. “This one is not bad, is it?” Ungaretti generously consulted us. Mostly we nodded our “si, si” assent, although worrying a bit that this part of the program might both tire the laureate and exceed the allotted span of fifteen to twenty minutes, since after each original poem, Ciardi or I would read the English version by Andrew Wylie. Ungaretti’s final choice for the occasion was eighteen poems, which spanned half a century of productivity: “Agonia,” “Veglia,” “Sono una creatura,” “Solitudine,” “Girovago,” “Caino,” “Tu ti spezzasti,” “Cori descrittivi di stato d’animo di Didone, I, IV, VIII, X, XVIII, XIX,” “Variazioni su nulla,” “Ultimi cori, nos. 12, 24,” “Proverbi I–IV,” and “Dunja.” (The selection was determined, at least in part, according to which poems happened to be available in Wylie’s translation, which Ungaretti obviously preferred.)

The evening program, a black-tie affair, began at 6:00 p.m. I have carefully leafed through the photographs of the poet reproduced in Leone Piccioni’s Vita di un poeta Giuseppe Ungaretti (Rizzoli, 1970), a moving interpretive biography, but it seems to me that Ungaretti never looked better and more the magician that he always was than during the last months of his life—what with his beard and long white hair; the earlier severity was gone, a compassionate openness marked his face. I had the honor of saying the opening words. One of the real connoisseurs of Ungaretti’s oeuvre, Professor Luciano Rebay, pronounced the encomium. Then J. Herbert Hollomon, at that time president of the University of Oklahoma, rose to present the hand-lettered certificate, bound in blue leather, to the first laureate of the Books Abroad International Prize for literature, and said:

This land and this place is for Western man, young, vital, unreasoning, irrational, hopeful, lustful, and youthful. We honor today and he honors us, a poet who at any age is young and hopeful, innocent, loving, and rational. It is this combination of the Dionysian and Apollonian that makes life have any hope at all. It does us great honor that he comes to us as the first laureate of a prize based upon a tradition of interest in literature at a university only a little more than half a century old, from a place and a time of great tradition from which all of our art, our music, our poetry, and much of our prose comes. It is, I believe, a signal beginning to what I hope will become a great tradition in Western European America as for the whole world: to award a prize to someone in literature without consideration of his background or ideology and without reference to political boundary. But recognizing someone somewhere who brings to man the hopefulness and the despair of man’s short time alive. In a very deep sense, Ungaretti has brought to the world a sense of love and of hope and of feeling that lies, unspoken often, within all of us.

“It is, I believe, a signal beginning to what I hope will become a great tradition in Western European America as for the whole world: to award a prize to someone in literature without consideration of his background or ideology and without reference to political boundary.”—J. Herbert Hollomon

It therefore does me honor to be able to present to him, the first laureate, the Books Abroad University of Oklahoma Prize for Literature.

Giuseppe Ungaretti responded with the following words (translated here into English):

I am very moved by this ceremony in this distant land. It was exhausting to get here: it was far away, it was farther than I ever would have imagined, but finally I did get here to receive the honor that was bestowed on me this very moment, which is an honor surpassing my merits, and this honor was accompanied by most kind words. I find myself at a university which is a model of a university—a model for encouraging studies, but also for the diffusion of poetry. Hence I am happy to be here not only on account of the honor, but also for having seen in a distant land, which seems isolated from the world, how much can be done for the support of culture and for the diffusion of poetry—with determination, with grace, and with a well-guided intuition.

“I am happy to be here not only on account of the honor, but also for having seen in a distant land, which seems isolated from the world, how much can be done for the support of culture and for the diffusion of poetry—with determination, with grace, and with a well-guided intuition.”—Giuseppe Ungaretti

I was comforted to read in Piccioni’s spirited account that microphones hardly ever work when Ungaretti reads his verse since his voice fluctuates so much. We had the same difficulty in Norman. But enough of the man’s unusual intensity came through to move his audience, who listened intently to the hunched figure of the old poet seated in the pit of the amphitheater-like modern auditorium of the Oklahoma Center for Continuing Education. (I myself was strongly reminded of Vainamoinen, the Finnish god of song in the Kalevala, and indeed Ungaretti’s forebears—the name means literally “Little Hungarian”—had migrated centuries ago from Hungary to Tuscany.) Suddenly the complete unity of his life and poetry became clear to me, the perfect overlapping achieved in such lines as “La morte / si sconta / vivendo,” “Ora sono ubriaco / d’universo,” “In nessuna / parte / di terra / mi posso accasare,” “Cereo un paese innocente,” or “Fui pronto a tutte le partenze.” The immediate truth of “S’incomincia per cantare / E si canta per finire” became clear, alas, only in retrospect.

It was a moment of cordial simplicity in spite of all solemn appearances, potted palms, popping flashlights and whirring television cameras. It was Ungaretti’s moment and he placed on it his unmistakably vigorous imprint. The standing ovation seemed so insignificant in the presence of this tiny, stooped, white-haired old man who almost seemed to have come to us from another reality, to which he had witnessed as the prophets of old. Two and a half months later this creature of myth was dead.

No one entertained seriously this possibility at that hour of fulfillment. The reading over, the crowd descended to congratulate the poet, have copies of his books autographed, take more pictures. Tired but obviously pleased, Ungaretti complied. He inscribed for me then and there the copy of Vita d’un uomo from which he had just read, combining Italian, Arabic, and French words, thus representing the three cultures which most decisively had shaped him.

At the banquet, toasts were made as candles fluttered: by President Hollomon, the Italian minister plenipotentiary, Giulio Terruzzi, John Ciardi (in the name of the American poets), Professor Lowell Dunham, chairman of the department of modern languages at the university, and Ungaretti was made an honorary citizen of Norman by the mayor’s representative, Professor James Artman. I read some of the telegrams and greetings that had arrived for the occasion: from Governor Dewey Bartlett, Jorge Guillén, Francis Ponge, Octavio Paz, Professors Thomas Bergin (Yale), Glauco Cambon (Connecticut), Zbigniew Folejewski (British Columbia), etc. I would like to quote also here some of these messages. Jorge Guillén, hospitalized in Puerto Rico, wrote:

Ungaretti’s presence always brings such a sharing of happiness, of vitality generously given, that to be with him always means a celebration and a joy. This time, Ungaretti’s celebration will be in Norman, Oklahoma, because he is the poet who is being honored.

With all my heart I am glad that the light of this prize has focused on a truly illustrious figure, abounding in years and merit. The marvelous precision of Ungaretti’s language has been for all of us an unsurpassable model of disciplined expression.

Francis Ponge gave this opinion in his letter to me dated 3 March 1970:

J’ai été ravi . . . que mon cher grand ami Ungaretti ait été désigné par votre jury ce qu’il est, effectivement: le plus grand poète vivant. Voilà qui rachète l’injustice stupidement commise par le jury Nobel. . . . Bravo donc!

Octavio Paz in his turn commented:

It was a great joy to know that Ungaretti was the first laureate, a most deserving and welcome choice. For once an international jury did the right thing. I hope you will manage to keep this high level in subsequent choices.

Glauco Cambon’s telegram put it succinctly and memorably:

Dear Ungaretti, I wish I could share this happy occasion with you tonight, but your poetry makes it possible for me to be with you anywhere because poetry is the only antidote to exile.

Allen Ginsberg’s short poem in tribute, “Ungaretti in Heaven,” can be read in this issue; it, too, seems to have acquired a prophetic ring.

The feted poet expressed his thanks very simply, praising the beautiful women near him and again the university that went to such lengths to reward poetry. The mood remained festive and no one wanted to break it. President Hollomon summed it up by saying that it had been a perfect day which nevertheless had to end just as we have one day to die, yet the experience of these hours cannot be destroyed. Said it and extinguished grandly with his palm the candles on the candelabra in front of him. It seems strange that someone would bring up the subject of death at such an occasion, but it seemed right and, looking back, uncannily so. Later Ungaretti commented favorably that the president of a university should have those rarest of talents, wit and style. The poet withdrew to a deserved rest, while the other guests continued to celebrate his victory.

Although we hardly believed that Ungaretti would take up our suggestion to use the next day before returning to New York for a visit to Anadarko, the “Indian Capital of the World,” he enthusiastically accepted. So we went there by car, Ungaretti, Rebay, my wife and I. It was a windy, cloudy Sunday afternoon with Ungaretti alternately taking naps and engaging in lively conversation, while the not very varied south Oklahoma landscape rolled by. We went first to the Indian Village, an open air museum of dwellings used by the various Southern Plains Indian tribes, faithfully reproduced by the Indians themselves. It is located a mile out of Anadarko on the Tonkawa hills near the site of an Indian massacre. Ungaretti was too tired to take the full guided tour by Miss Dolores Buffalo, an Otoe Indian, and so he just looked at some of the tepees, observed the landscape with typical stretches of red clay bleeding here and there. It was evident that he felt the almost sacral character of the place belonging to the original inhabitants of this red earth. When a group of Indians performed some of their authentic war dances, Ungaretti was as fascinated and delighted as a child. It later turned out that the leader of the group had been among the first American soldiers to liberate Rome from the Nazis and hoped to return there with his dancers as part of a European tour. In town, we visited the small but well-arranged Southern Plains Indian Arts and Crafts Museum. Ungaretti could not admire enough the exhibited samples of Indian beadcraft and silverwork. He commented that the Indians possessed the best sense of color in the world. This, coming from one who had lived in Paris and known most of the great modern painters there, was no superficial judgment. He bought samples of bead and silverwork, as well as suede moccasins for his granddaughter Annina. That this encounter appealed strongly to the basically nomadic nature of Ungaretti, always open to new exotic adventures, be they in Egypt, Brazil, or Oklahoma, is reported by several people with whom he later talked about it, and was expressed in the last letter I received from him, dated 6 May: “La ricordo continuamente e ricordo la sua sposa e le loro straordinarie cortesie e gli incontri inaspettati con gli indiani.”

Monday morning 16 March, Ungaretti boarded the plane for New York, accompanied by Luciano Rebay. He looked now really ill, complaining about various aches and pains. None of us had been easy about the state of his health during the past strenuous days, but now we were frankly worried. The medical diagnosis in New York confirmed the worst, and the poet was committed to the Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia University with bronchopneumonia and a congested heart. What a sad epilogue to the festive days in Norman! His son-in-law, the architect Mario Lafragola, flew in from Rome, and so did his good friend, Signora Nella Mirone from Milan. Fortunately, the poet’s health responded well to the medical treatment, and he was permitted to return to Rome on 26 March—just before the erratic layoffs on account of the sick calls among the air control personnel. During April and May, Ungaretti was recuperating at Salsomaggiore. He sent several letters promising various contributions to the issue I was planning in his honor for the autumn. I was to discuss these matters with him personally during our stay in Rome early in June. We arrived in Rome on Monday, 1 June. 2 June was the day of the Italian Republic, marked by colorful military pageantry. During that day, I phoned the poet, who lived with his daughter Ninon, and was informed that Ungaretti was not at all in Rome, but in Milan; neither was his daughter available. I should call back on Wednesday, at ten in the morning. This sounded strange. The mystery was resolved when I learned Wednesday morning from the housekeeper that I could not see the “professore” because he had died in Milan, Monday night, 1 June, from a lung clot at the home of friends. . . . In my shocked disbelief I could only express amazement that the news had not yet been publicized anywhere. Could it really be true? Yes, yes, the news was to be released later that day and the burial services were to be held Thursday 4 June at the church of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, the burial following at the cemetery of Verano.

It was still difficult to believe. None of the newspapers carried the front page news that Italy’s greatest modern poet had died. I wandered into Rizzoli’s bookstore to buy the second, enlarged edition of Vita d’un uomo, discovered Piccioni’s just-published biography of the poet, and discreetly inquired from the clerks whether they had by chance heard the news. No, indeed, and how could it be true when nobody knew about it? Died on 1 June, and still the fact was unknown on the morning of 3 June? Thus I wandered around Rome, obviously belonging to the very few who were aware that the life of that great Roman poet had ended. Visiting in the afternoon the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti and his wife, the writer María Teresa León, in their Andalusian-looking apartment in the Trastevere district, it was I who had to break the news about their friend to them. Then, the afternoon and evening papers finally carried the news. Why was it withheld for two whole days? It seems to have been the poet’s own wish that the announcement of his passing and his actual burial come as close as possible, to avoid elaborate preparations.

One would almost have expected a state funeral, just as de Gaulle ordered for Paul Valéry back in 1945, but the poet got his wish of a simple funeral by ordering the delay of the announcement. The Early Christian basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, several times rebuilt with its high ceiling of rugged wooden beams, was nevertheless filled with about one hundred of the poet’s relatives and friends. Next to us sat the poet and critic Piero Bigongiari, who came to Norman with his wife to present Ungaretti as his candidate and saw him win. Among those who had come to pay their last respects were Carlo Bo, Mario Luzi, Giancarlo Vigorelli, Leone Piccioni, Oreste Macrí, Libero de Libero, Giorgio Bassani, Leonardo Sinisgalli, Carlo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, Maria Bellonci, Alfonso Gatto, Murillo Mendes, Attilio Bertolucci, Vittorio Sereni, Renato Guttuso, and Guido Piovene. But also a number of students, even hippies, paying last homage to the poet who kept always close to the young and their aspirations, only recently reading a poem, “Greece 1970,” at a rally directed against the regime of the Greek colonels. Cardinal Dall’Aqua blessed the casket and then it was carried out into the bright sunlight by Luzi, Piccioni, Bo, Vigorelli. No speeches in church and almost none at the tomb until the critic and longtime friend of the poet, rector of the University of Urbino, Carlo Bo, stepped forward to say a few words. He stressed that Ungaretti had not only been a poet, but poetry itself, and above all a companion, the companion. At the same time, he lamented the absence of any high government official. The coffin was placed in the tomb next to that of the poet’s wife, Jeanne (who died in 1958), and the opening closed with concrete. Someone advanced and incised with a dry branch in large letters the name Ungaretti, and added a cross. Milena Milani inscribed the word “poet,” somebody else wrote the poet’s often-repeated self-characterization as “Uomo di pena”—man of sorrows. The crowd dispersed, casting one more look at the plain epitaph—even this spontaneously created, but later probably to be covered with a more finished marble plaque. The huge wreaths sent by the University of Rome, where Ungaretti taught for so many years, the Writers’ Syndicate, the Italian premier, the Association of Italian Editors and Authors, the Editions Apollinaire (a friend from his first Paris years), shook in the breeze. I met the daughter of the poet, Signora Ninon Lafragola, who told me that I was probably the first in Rome to learn about her father’s death. We walked away in the company of Ungaretti’s last secretary, Ariodante Marianni and his wife. He told me how much our award had meant to Ungaretti, who came very close to getting the Nobel Prize in 1969. He returned full of excitement from his last American trip, planning to write down some of his impressions of Oklahoma for the issue of Books Abroad in his honor. It turned out to be his last great joy in life. We talked at length about the issue, now in memory of Ungaretti, and went to the railroad station to send off Carlo Bo and Piero Bigongiari with his wife Elena, who were returning to Florence. We did not feel like joining them and going from Florence on to Umbria as we had originally planned. Ungaretti’s death had changed everything.


I had met Ungaretti briefly in 1969. Then followed those three incredible days spent in his company in Norman during March of this year. Our correspondence had lasted but three months. But never has someone won me over so completely and in so short a time, as a human being and artist, as did Giuseppe Ungaretti. Our encounter was of a rare intensity and openness; the loss the more cruel and real. Fortunately his life and poetry were and still are completely fused, Life of a Man, which communicates to us all that he was and always will be: “Poesia / è il mondo l’umanità / la propria vita / fioriti dalla parola / la limpida meraviglia / di un delirante fermento,” as he wrote back in 1916 as a soldier in the trenches of World War I. He wrote and acted out of such a “delirious ferment” which made him travel like a restless nomad, made him try out every new way of poetic expression. Prudence was not part of his character. Who but Ungaretti would have literally risked his life, ill and eighty-two years old, to fly halfway around the globe just not to disappoint those friends who had gathered in Norman to hear him read his poetry and receive a new international literary prize? The present issue praises the poet for his original achievement and mourns the disappearance of an extraordinary human being from our midst: an almost equally grave loss for those who had the privilege to have been his friends of a lifetime and for those who knew him but a few years, months, or even days. For future friends, the man will be the poetry.

University of Oklahoma

Editorial note: First published in Books Abroad 44, no. 4 (Autumn 1970): 543–51.

Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888–1970) was born into an Italian family in Alexandria, Egypt, where he was educated in French and began working as a journalist and literary critic. He moved to Paris in 1912 but enlisted in the infantry in World War I and fought in the trenches in northern Italy. World War I served as the catalyst for Ungaretti’s venture into poetry, and he published his first collection in 1916 (see Edward Hirsch’s 2002 column on Ungaretti’s “In Memory of Locvizza,” written from a wartime trench). Among the many literary affiliations that influenced his work were dadaism, hermeticism (which he helped to revolutionize in the 1930s), symbolism, and futurism. Ungaretti’s books of poetry include L’allegria (1931), Sentimento del tempo (1933), Un grido e paesaggi (1952), and Vita d’un uomo (1969; Eng. The Life of a Man, 1958).

Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1927, Ivar Ivask served as editor of Books Abroad and World Literature Today from 1967 to 1991. He inaugurated the Neustadt Prize in 1969.