Poetry has been with me for the past forty years. I have lived longer with it than with my wife. I have called it lover, destiny, vocation, mystery; but I do not know exactly what it is. I have always felt it, however, like a feminine entity, and therefore superior. It is a goddess, perhaps.
I have never thought of leaving or deceiving her; but I fear some day it may be she who leaves me for a lucky, younger man. To avoid that, I treat her with respect and make sure that I am worthy of deserving her occasional favors.
Poetry doesn”t appreciate hypocrisy or tricks. It doesn”t like excuses, deception, or hollow words. It loves numbers and music, and knows some magic. Poetry never ages; it lives longer than men and their languages, and longer than the memory of the things it sings. Poetry loves children and poets, but hates those who recite it. It fears bad poets, novelists addicted to the market, and indifferent teachers because they are the only ones who can harm it.
I once wrote that the classroom is, frequently, the scaffold of poetry. The poem arrives there like a dissected butterfly which does not want to illustrate the movement of creative flight but rather its failure. Dried up, isolated from its central fire, they proceed to the autopsy, which will determine if the lepidopteron died from 11-syllable verses, if its organism was polluted with metaphors or prosopopoeia, or if the consonant rhyme was its cause of death. Poetry cannot be dissected. It is a creature of air, almost an element of breathing. How do we teach its sense of movement and the sound of its flight? More importantly, how do we show the destination of that flight?
Now that the teaching of values is in fashion, we must begin by recognizing the value of poetry. The value of things depends on their power to make us care. Philosophers say that things we don”t find indifferent are those that have value. The true value of things is objective, it exists in itself, and it doesn”t depend on tastes, esteem, or the opinion of others. There are those who do not care about poetry. However, that doesn”t mean that it lacks value; it only means that there are people blind to its value, like there are people blind to the value of divinity or to the value of justice or to the value of freedom.
Poetry has value, I repeat, because we are not indifferent towards it. There is no society without poetry. Poetry lives in the words of the tribe, in the song of the shaman, in the intonation of the jester, in the hymns to the rain. Poetry has lived and has been important in all languages, in all times, in all latitudes. Poetry – which has been Egyptian, Greek, Latin, Saxon, German, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, etc. – is one and all. It lives in the collective memory, in the clay boards of Mesopotamia, in the exquisite words written on papyrus, in the skin of vellum, in the ink of printings, in the paintings on the walls, in the virtual labyrinths of the Internet.
How much is a poem worth? If the question inquires for the price of poetry, it will be necessary to respond that a poem hardly has value; that poetry is poor merchandise; that its exchange value is almost void. From an economic point of view, poetry is worthless. What is a poem good for then? A poem is of no value because in the Kingdom of useful things, poetry is a seabird on the deck. Can something that has no value be worth so much, to the point that no human society has done without it?
Important poets, who should know something on the matter, have never doubted poetry”s objective value. In his acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize in 1982, Gabriel García Márquez said these beautiful words on the value of poetry:
“I want to believe, friends, that this is, once again, an homage to poetry. To poetry by whose virtue the overwhelming inventory of ships that Homer numbered in his Iliad is visited by a wind that pushes them to navigate with its timeless and hallucinated speed. The poetry that sustains, in the thin scaffolding of the triplets of Dante, the dense and colossal factory of the middle Ages. Poetry that rescues our America in The Heights of Macchu Picchu, by Pablo Neruda, the great, the greatest and where our dreams without outlets distill their millennial sadness. Poetry, that secret energy of daily life, which cooks chickpeas in the kitchen, and contaminates love, and repeats reflected images on the mirrors.
In each line I write I always try, with some luck, to invoke the spirits of poetry, and with each word, I try to leave testimony of my devotion to their virtues of divination and to their permanent victory against the deaf powers of death.”
Almost twenty years before, in the same solemn occasion, Saint John Perse, Alexis Saint-Léger Léger’s pseudonym from Guadeloupe, the first Antillean to receive the Nobel Prize, accepted the award in the name of poetry. Of his beautiful speech I highlight two paragraphs:
“Poetry doesn”t expect anything from the century. Tied to its own destiny and free from ideologies, it compares to life itself without justifications. And with one arm, like a single, giant living verse, it knits to the present everything from the past and future; it fuses human things with the superhuman and all planetary space to the universe. The darkness that is questioned doesn”t come from its own nature which is to unveil, but from the night itself which it explores; the soul and mystery that surrounds human beings…..and that challenge is no less demanding than that of science.
Poetry does not receive honors frequently…. The schism between poetic work and the activity of a society subjected to material servitude seems to increase. And this accepted estrangement, not sought by the poet, is something that also exists for the wise if the pragmatic applications of science did not mediate… On that originating night in which two trembling, blind men move, one equipped with a scientific instrument, the other only accompanied by gleams of intuition, which one leaves sooner, carrying a fleeting phosphorescence? The answer is irrelevant. It is a common enigma, and the great adventure of the poetic spirit is never inferior to the intense dramatic entrances of contemporary science.”
I insist on some of Saint-John Perse”s fundamental ideas that will resound in these pages: First, his view on the social marginalizing of poetry. And I wonder: is that marginalizing also reflected in our hearts, in schools and universities? In second place, a brilliant idea: poetry is a single, giant living verse that aspires to wholeness. Since Homer, since the epic poem of Gilgamesh, since the songs of the Aztec poets, from El Cid to Dante, to medieval romances, Garcilaso De la Vega, William Shakespeare, Goethe, Rubén Darío, César Vallejo, Luis Palés Matos… poetry is a unanimous great voice. And wonder: what should the responsibility of our hearts and schools be, if any, to this universal voice?
I also wish to highlight Saint John Perse”s idea of the voyage; a voyage in the dark night of mystery, the night of the unknown. Poets travel guided by intuition and scientists are guided by reason. Both creation and investigation are equally valid. Does the educational institution recognize this? Poetry seems to have little space in the academia because its main content is revealed knowledge, the mortal jump of intuition that reason traditionally distrusts.
José Saramago also spoke of poetry when he received the Nobel Prize in 1998. In the case of the Portuguese poet, practically self-taught, books were his best poetry teachers. Books and school texts don”t contain poetry, but they are, according to Saramago, means for its discovery. On that occasion, speaking of himself in third person, he said:
“Of his poetry lessons, he already knew some things he had learned from his text books when he was in a vocational school in Lisbon. He was preparing for the occupation that he exercised in the beginning of his professional life: that of mechanical locksmith. He also had good poetry teachers in the long hours he spent at night in public libraries, reading books and catalogs at random, without orientation, with no one to guide him, with the same creative astonishment of an explorer that invents each place he discovers.”
I have turned to the authority of the Nobel Prize to underline, with the words of some who have been worthy of the prize, the undoubted universal importance of poetry; to unveil its value because the value of things should be discovered objectively. The value of something appears before us one day with unquestionable evidence. And it isn”t discussed. There will be those who don”t perceive a value, but the value is there in spite of the spectator”s blindness. The nutritional value of food doesn”t vary, whether we like or dislike its flavor. We might like a poem more or less because of the skill or thoughtlessness with which it is written, but our opinion of the poem doesn”t affect the value of poetry itself.
How can someone be able to speak of poetry, write it with dignity, or teach it at least with certain effectiveness if he or she is not convinced of its value and place in the hierarchy of values? It is true, it has already been said that poetry doesn”t have useful or economic value. It probably doesn”t have scientific value either. Does that mean that poetry is worthless? It only means that in the hierarchy of values, poetry occupies another place. Poetry, let us say once and for all, has an aesthetic value; but moreover, it has a spiritual value. Art is the fusion of sound and sense.
But its purpose transcends the effect of beauty and reaches, as García Márquez said, powers of divination; it explores, like Saint John Perse said, the night of the soul and the mystery that surrounds human beings. I insist: is it possible to teach poetry? Is it possible to teach its essence or, at least, the probable definition of poetry? It is important to try. These pages, in part, intend to feed the fire of enthusiasm.
Gonzalo Rojas, the intense Chilean poet that has recently deserved the Cervantes Prize, once said:
“My poetry is air: it is necessary to read it breathing, to toss Píndaro through the nose so that it enters sparkling into the ear, but it is also the eye. Eye of seeing … with the result that when I write my wanting lines as an endless apprentice, the first thing that I do is stand up and read them aloud.”
And the poet is right. Poetry is air, articulate sound and graphics, that is to say, letters on paper. Poems, and with them poetry, reach us through the ear and eyes simultaneously. To read a poem is to listen to it, to hear its sonorities, pauses, intonations, and recurrences. In the same way, for a good listener, listening to a poem is almost seeing it written in the air, guessing its graphic disposition, seeing its short or long lines, its broken feet, and its letters hanging at the end of verses or hemistiches. Eye and ear, sound, feeling and sense together, that is a poem.
Poems, heard or read, come to us like a wave, like a mass of sounding water and they envelop us with their abundance, where their sense is a swimming fish. But how many times does a bad reading, an intonation error, kill the poem and its poetry from the start. Huidobro said that when an adjective doesn”t give life, it kills. Likewise, reading a poem, silently or aloud, raises or kills the latent life in it. To listen to a poem is to enter the area of its enchantment, undergoing its magic, and at the same time, surrendering to its captivating gift. But it requires some minimum cautions of the reader: highlighting melodic accents, respecting the intonation and the final pauses of the verses, effectively connecting the verses, recognizing the sound effects of rhyme, without over emphasizing them; the relationship that words establish among themselves, in short, it requires of the reader the correct interpretation of the score prepared by the poet.
But reading a poem imposes ulterior demands. A poem not only requires being felt, listened, savored, enjoyed; it also demands to be understood. In other words, the poem doesn”t oppose our intellectual need of understanding. It collaborates with us in the adventure of knowledge. This implies, however, a challenge to the powers of intelligence. Poetry doesn”t surrender like a tame creature; it offers flavorful resistance. Only difficult things are stimulating, said José Lezama Lima, the diver of darkness. And that challenge, the poet insisted, is no less demanding than that of science.
It would suit the poetry reader to be well prepared before beginning the trip toward the night of the poem. Few things challenge us as much as a poem or a verbal math problem. They both write in code a great amount of information in limited space. The linguistic signs, in both cases, establish narrow and intense relationships to each other.
The poem is a microprocessor that stores an immense amount of information in a reduced amount of space. The reader doesn”t have, in this case, the support of explanatory lines. Instead, he receives the flash of the unveiled. The poem doesn”t try to inform or entertain; neither does the verbal math problem. A news article informs; a novel entertains. However, figuring out the code in a poem or solving a math problem is a gratifying experience. Both, the poem and the math problem, send us beyond the text, to a magnitude or idea that the reader tries to discover. They both come close to being an enigma. They are both suitable texts for the gymnastics of reading and thinking. Whoever possesses the intellectual tools to understand a sonnet or to solve a verbal math problem gracefully, will be better prepared to read the coded texts of life.
To avoid poetry because it is considered too obscure is a crime that perpetuates the true darkness of indolence. Will we exclude algebra, calculus, physics, and singing from our lives and from the school curricula for the same reason? In the frustration that surrounds contemporary education, passing theorists sometimes propose relevance as a formula. Relevance, when it is disguised hedonism, dresses in fashion and only entrails the easy review and repetition of immediate topics. Instead of the existing relevance of the classics, they propose an unreasonable substitute. It is important to learn how to read, think, write, and speak well. It is important to understand what the number and the poem say, and to accept them as they are.
In one of his passionate books on poetry, Johannes Pfeiffer took the bull by the horns:
“Lyrical poetry teaches us that it is difficult to use poetry like a distraction because a lyrical poem is not amusing, but boring. Lyrical poetry shows us that it is difficult to relegate poetry to a type of substitute for life, because a lyrical poem is not touching, but rather monotonous. Lyrical poetry teaches us that it is difficult to conceive poetry like disguised philosophy, because a lyrical poem does not offer a clear understanding of anything, but rather an undecided twilight, lit by the temper of the spirit. …poetry is not distraction, but concentration, it is not a substitute for life but rather the illumination of the self, it is not clarity of understanding but truth of feeling.”
But to seize the serpent of sense that moves between verses and sentences is not enough. It so happens that a poem is also composed of words full of meaning. Words subjected to the intensity of poetry brush past one another in the tight structure of the poem. And in this promiscuity, words suffer semantic accidents, they raise echoes, provoke alliances, synonymies, analogies and unsuspected semantic turns that illuminate the dark areas of revelation. Lezama Lima has said it beautifully.
“One of the mysteries of poetry is the relationship between the analogous or the connective forces of the metaphor that advances creating what we could call a substantial territory of poetry, going to the end of this progress through infinite analogies, up to where the Image is, which has a powerful regressive force, able to cover that substance…. The image is the reality of the invisible world… I believe that the wonder of a poem is that it creates a body, a resistant substance located between a metaphor that advances creating infinite connections, and a final image that assures the survival of that substance, of that poiesis.”
Poetry, Lezama says, creates a body, a semantic substance that advances by means of the connective forces of analogies until it shows the reality of the Invisible world. The adventure of reading is also to travel down that road to the invisible that poetry opens for us.
José Luis Vega
Poet and Professor
Director of Puertorican Culture Institute
President of the Puertorican Language Academy
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: January 16, 2008.
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