Why Poems in Times Without Poetry? Notes for the Reconsideration of Poetic Form

 

Chilean writer Micaela Paredes Barraza. Photo: Revista Descontexto.

The birds aspire to escape from the circle of the language tree, a disproportionate undertaking, all the more risky, the more success they achieve with it in the process. If they manage to escape, they ignore the tree and language. They disregard the silence and themselves.

Juan Luis Martínez

 

I

In these non-poetic times of widespread disenchantment of the world, literature and especially poetry have been given less and less attention, relegated to the enclaves of elites or those who are largely marginal in society (often those extremes are the same). If the very essence of the poetic phenomenon—understood in the broad sense as a form of vital experience, a relation between subjectivity and one’s environment—has been mutilated, discredited as a real expression of being in this world and making sense of individual and collective becoming, what seems inevitable is that the same process of impoverishment is lent to the more reduced scope  that constitutes the very bedrock/foundation of the poetical experience in poetry, made into fact circumscribed to the language and categorized as a literary genre.

He used to say—he says, in the ever-present space in the poem—Juan Luis Martínez, the recently highly studied and as yet misunderstood, that, like the young birds, “some writers and musicians now suffer due to the excessive freedom and they are in search of the lost father.” The first part of this contention continues to be valid even more than 40 years after its original context, but incarnating its truth to such an extent that it has generated the negation of the second as a consequence. As such (there are always exceptions) young contemporary poets seem to have repudiated the “lost father,” or rather the roots that connect them to tradition. Killing the father: already deconstructing him in theory, already denying wholeheartedly that he once existed. There is no lost paradise or belonging to a cosmic order; the world is purely imaginary and humankind is a homeless orphan, condemned to the exercise of his freedom. This Sartrean premise is what has formed, I dare to say, the manner by which poetic writing is understood in our time, and the consequences could be summed up as a rebellion that has confused insubordination with ignorance, originality with gimmicky novelty and creative freedom with subjective whim given over to the illusion of total independence with respect to the tradition that preceded it — and which, in reality, made it possible.

 

II

A century and a half ago, Nietzsche declared the definitive desecration of the world, and shortly thereafter the death of God, his Zarathustra asked himself, intuiting the response, if we would really be worthy or not of the magnitude of creation, if we could take the reins of our own destiny. Several decades later, his children, the existential atheists, continued suffering the consequences of his death: without basis, without a superior order that precedes and organizes existence, human beings have in their hands the dizzying responsibility to create it themselves. From submission before a superior power to condemnation that posits free will. Eduardo Anguita, in all his brilliance, evidences the inherent contradiction in regard to Sartre’s idea: if there is no God, if there is no Father, if there isn’t any guiding order, who dictates the sentence? Who mandates our freedom? I don’t pretend to answer this question, but if I believe that the available space left by God was occupied by a new dream: the enslaving subjectivity tinted by freedom and understood as the limited exercise of satisfaction from the small and monstrous needs of the ego.

Just as the necessity to validate the ego which is driven by the global village and its neoliberal dynamics is manifested in the strong defense of free speech and the right to property, in the field of poetic production the justification of this right finds its correlate in a notion of creative freedom that arises necessarily opposed to the submission inherent in tradition, especially in regard to what formal elections refer to. This rejection of the forms inherited from the past, from those that believe that nothing new should arise—was going to say good, but that is no longer a valid criterion—is evidenced in some ways and with different degrees of extremism.

There is, in many cases, a negative a priori weighing of the cultivation of certain classical forms, linked to metrics and rhyme. Tolerable may be the argument, depending on how it is raised, that writing taking into account the number of syllables per verse and establishing corresponding sounds with certain regular patterns may be an outdated practice. Of course, the imitative writing of Gongora-style sonnets would be anachronistic. But I think that even in that hypothetical situation, the same context of production and conscience of the writing poet, inevitably conditioned—for better or worse—by the spirit of the times, would endow the poem with a degree of timeliness. One doesn’t have to make an effort to be contemporary; whether we want it or not, our space and time determine what we do.

Other times, the argument transgresses largely aesthetic implications and confuses the stylistic choices with that of ethics. Some poets refuse to not only write sonnets (a completely respectable decision) but also to read them and to consider them as a worthy form of poetry, finding that hendecasyllable or Alexandrian poetry retrograde in itself, ideologically conservative. The arbitrariness with which this stigma operates is curious, as certain strophic structures of minor art that are connected to our popular culture (the lyre, the decasyllable, the cueca) do not suffer the same fate as the sonnet (no one would think of criticizing Violeta for having sung and written in decasyllable, instead of songs and poems in free verse, or for having known to apply final accents.) On the contrary, these forms have begun to be revalued and studied by the so-called cultural criticism, as well as continued and renewed by popular and not so popular contemporary writers. On a par with the sonnet and the sestina, the decasyllable and the lyric were cultivated in the 1500’s in Spain by a cultured social elite, most often conservative, among which were priests and military figures, but after their arrival in the Americas, and over time, they started taking on new meanings and occupying new spaces. In that regard, it seems reasonable to say that the formal structures are not in themselves conveyors of ideology, even if at the different times of their historical development they can go on acquiring and mutating their political and social meanings.

It is one thing not to cultivate formal and classical metrics in the poetic production itself, but a very different one, a less respectable one in my opinion, to boast total disinterest in making the time to familiarize oneself with them: not being able to recognize and evaluate their elements and the expressive possibilities that they offer. Many contemporary poets retch when they hear technique, function, craft of poetic language, as if the words were simple means toward the achievement of an end (affirmation of identity, complaints of various kinds, expression of opinions and an extended etcetera) instead of a living, vibrant material, complex, with which we can establish a sensible relation and in whose significant possibilities we risk being.

 

III

The affirmation that metrical forms or being bound by certain laws of construction somehow restrain creative freedom, and that they don’t permit the poet to express his subjectivity in a genuine way supposes the idea that they know beforehand what they want to say and, as such, that what’s captured in the poem responds to an exercise more of representation (no matter how tight or realistic it may be) than of exploration of subjectivity. The poet would control the language at will, obliging it to say exactly what they want it to say. The poem, under this premise, doesn’t transform the poet’s reality. The poet doesn’t need the poem.

Returning to Anguita, who sheds light on the subject when he affirms that poems favor the possibility of synthesis of polarities, of the subjective—a free manifestation of one’s own will—and of the objective, that is “that which resists me, which exists independently and before which there is only submission. Or pure protest.” It is in this space of tension where poetry emerges. It is linked, as we have already outlined, to the protest, to the tantrum of a subjectivity that claims to know itself and have the right to everything, among which is to deny credit to the participation of the past—or at least to a certain part of it—in its current possibility of being and manifesting. If we are willing to accept with Anguita that language always has a dimension that is beyond our control, and that for the most part it is what it tells us it is and not the other way around, the defense of absolute creative freedom isn’t only an example of pride, but rather also of naivety.

There is another curious arbitrariness in determining what are the dimensions of the past that are important and necessary to remember and those which deserve to be forgotten. We are in the era of themes to the detriment of form. What is often overlooked is that this apparent dichotomy always ends up dissolving in the evidence that both terms require each other and don’t exist independently of the other. We cannot focus on themes if we do not, at the same time, do it on the formal elections that we use to portray them.

 

IV

In 1933, Manuel Rojas, pondering the state of contemporary Chilean literature, stated that it had no personality, no depth of thought, spirit, or expression. He said that it lacked “the desire for permanence through time, the will to give literary work our internal plasticity, if we have any.” Perhaps poets took too seriously these words and extended them to an absurd extreme, confusing the cultivation of personality—of style, of the particular aura that gives a work of original character—with the anxiety for novelty, the need to differentiate oneself from the old. What is paradoxical about any dichotomy is that the difference it poses between the extremes necessarily requires the affirmation of both: the new cannot exist without reference to the old. That’s where the novel differs from the original: the first poses a conflict with its opposite, the second reconciles both terms. Being original is not denying its foundation, rather returning to it in order to recreate it from a new perspective.   

Parra and Lihn, two of the referents that have determined and guided the development of Chilean poetry since the second half of the 20th century until now, were aware of what originality implies and lucidly cultivated it. Not so much some of their self-proclaimed heirs. Some of the best texts by Parra are poems, not anti-poems. Undeniable is the conquest of new idiomatic possibilities in the context of the poem through the twist that he makes, for example, with the hendecasyllable turning to a colloquial and direct but still lyrical language. Lihn also tried measured verse, with the parodic sonnets in the Terrible Tetas Negras, published in Paris, situación irregular. The use of classical forms did not define his poetry, but it is clear that in his long and reflective flow there was awareness of the rhythm, masterfully captured. Both Lihn and Parra managed their expensive means, and not the other way around.

Knowing the tools that language offers us is not equivalent to having total control over what the poem ultimately says about ourselves and the world. The tension—between what you want to say, what one can say, what is actually said and the unsayable—is constant. Whoever has tried to write using some metric form knows that the demands that language imposes wind up leading us to say exactly what we didn’t want to say, or to saying things that we hadn’t conceived until after writing. The same demands, despite what many wish to believe, are raised by free verse which, far from lacking all kinds of conditioning, forces us to sharpen our ears to make the poem decant in its own way.

 

V

For many poets young and old alike who are hungry for novelty, Rimbaud continues to be a model of rebelliousness, a reference for their poetic endeavors. Certainly, the French adolescent reviled Beauty. But it tends to be overlooked that, to do so, he had tossed her on his lap before, savoring her: making her his. Before cutting off heads and revolutionizing the way of doing poetry, the young poet critically read and reread all of the preceding tradition, not only the work of his contemporaries. He explored all forms of language. His relationship with this was insolent, but not negligent. He learned well the nature of the material he was dealing with. To know is a form of love and the true resignation is an act of love. Rimbaud love the beauty of words so much so that he decided to give it up. The flight, the escape,—“Je me suis enfui”—is not the same as rejection. The latter denies the existence of what lies before it, while the former affirms its truth, assuming its defenselessness in front of it. Rejection results in hate, and we can only hate what we don’t truly know; the difference, the Other. We know, at the same time, that the other is one of the faces of the same. Perhaps, until we integrate that truth into experience—in the word—we will continue to be tied to the illusory conflicts that dichotomies pose to us and that afflict us so much as beings made of language—that is to say, also, still, of poetry.

Translated by Stephen Anderson

Languages

Elicura Chihuailaf
Number 16

In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elicura Chihuailaf

Dossier: Andrés Neuman

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Latin American Literary Criticism

Fiction

Poetry

Essays

Interviews

Brazilian Literature

Chronicle

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

Nota Bene