The Rigors of Necessity
Your Excellency Dom Austregésilo de Athayde, President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, who has received us so warmly in this House, Distinguished Speakers who have preceded us at the podium, Esteemed Members of the Academy, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is an incomparable privilege to have the opportunity in this solemn session of the Brazilian Academy of Letters to address to you words of praise in honor of one of your most illustrious poets, His Excellency Ambassador João Cabral de Melo Neto, twelfth laureate of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
With the recent and deserved recognition of the universal value of his work, the Brazilian poet João Cabral de Melo Neto takes his indisputable place in what is being defined as the literary pantheon of our century. The eleven great writers who preceded him already figure among those who have defined our literary canon in the second half of the twentieth century.
To arrive at the final outcome, our newest laureate, so ably advocated by the Brazilian writer and our admired friend and colleague Silviano Santiago, had to compete with the significant qualifications of such eminent writers as the Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina, the English novelist John Berger, the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto, the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, and the Japanese novelist Kenzaburō Ōe, to mention a few of the candidates who were presented to the 1992 jury. What proved most impressive for the international jury of writers in the Cabral oeuvre was its rigorous honesty and profound humanity. Despite the scant quantity of his poetry available in English—a scarcity we shall ameliorate shortly with the publication of a collection of his poetry in translation—the quality of his work stood out, eliciting the admiration of the jurors, whose international and linguistic diversity converged upon the felicitous consensus that brings us together today in this historic place to celebrate this historic occasion.
Scarcity is one of the fundamental principles of João Cabral’s poetics. In an interview with Selden Rodman in 1974, Cabral affirmed that poetry originates either in abundance or in insufficiency. As exemplary poets of overflow, he cites Walt Whitman, Paul Claudel, Pablo Neruda, Vinícius de Moraes, Allen Ginsberg. For his part, João Cabral de Melo Neto identifies himself with poets who write from a basis of dearth, citing as examples George Herbert, Stéphane Mallarmé, T. S. Eliot, Paul Valéry, Richard Wilbur, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop—poets who write in order to compensate for a profoundly felt necessity or insufficiency.
Beginning with his earliest works, João Cabral has sought a form of writing that corresponds to what Ralph Waldo Emerson in the last century called pleonastically “our necessary poverty.” For Emerson, that necessity is the very insufficiency that incites creative impetus, an impetus that is as strong as it is invisible, that is mysteriously sparse but tenaciously powerful. In this economy of sparseness, João Cabral has fashioned a poetic world, a world so spare that it excludes the very figure of the poet himself, or at least that figure as subject with the voice of a personal pronoun. When the inevitability of the lyrical subject becomes indispensable, our poet laureate turns apocryphal, as in the unforgettable poem “Dúvidas Apócrifas de Marianne Moore” (Apocryphal Doubts of Marianne Moore), where the Anglo-American poet serves the reticent Luso-American laureate as screen and even as pretext:
I have always avoided speaking of me,
speaking to me. I wanted to speak of things.
But, in the selection of those things,
might there not be a speaking of me?
Might that modesty of speaking me
not contain a confession,
an oblique confession,
in reverse, and ever immodest?
How pure or impure is
the thing spoken of?
Or does it always impose itself, im-
purely even, on anyone wishing to speak of it?
How is one to know, with so many things
to speak or not to speak of?
And if avoiding it altogether, is
not speaking a way of speaking of things? (trans. Kadir)
So much reticence! Nevertheless, João Cabral de Melo Neto characterizes himself as a social poet. And he is, in the strict sense of the word, since his poetry is founded in the social and human context of the geographic region that engendered him, that arid region of his native Pernambuco, which is as dry as Cabral has sought to be in the economy of his poetic language. His is a needful geography whose necessity he converts into the felt need of a poetic principle that demands of the poet a lapidary genius and the ingenuity of a stonemason and an engineer.
Shunning the rhetorical flourish and the ideological megaphone, Cabral has labored at his wordsmith’s bench with quiet diligence and eloquent concision. In his remarkable terseness, he has endeavored to show rather than tell, and to show without being seen, an achievement best characterized by his own words as “song without guitar,” “unceremoniously” wrought in “civil geometry.” His trademark thus has been a visual poetry as opposed to a musical fanfare. And he has often reflected on the relationship between painting and the language of poetry, a language that aspires ceaselessly to become lapidary and constructivist. A number of his verse collections reflect this preoccupation with stonemasonry and engineering even in their titles. And like the builder at his task who fashions his edifice stone by stone, João Cabral has always labored with the painstaking awareness that poetry is made word for word, often letter by letter. In this sense, his poetry carries the unmistakable mark of a sculptor’s chisel or a painter’s brush, metaphorical instruments wielded by the poet with deliberate and measured reserve. And his decorum carries the mark of the humble rather than the haughty, deliberately linking itself with the modest but vital endeavors of the folk that engendered his poetic calling. Chores like fishing or culling beans, for example.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where my path happened upon João Cabral’s poetic vocation a quarter of a century ago, when, having fallen fortuitously through the crevices of time and space, I found myself transported from the life of a young shepherd in the mountains of my native Cyprus to the halls of Yale University studying philosophy and literature. I discovered then in the Portuguese of this Brazilian poet that it was alright to be there, even for those who come from a life of such modest endeavors. Cabral’s poetry taught me that there is a viable continuity between the most humble occupations and the loftiest preoccupations of philosophy and poetry. That was in 1966, when my second-year Portugueselanguage class allowed me the temerity to pick up a recently published volume of poems, a 111-page volume titled A Educação pela Pedra (Education by Stone) which had just been released in Rio de Janeiro in July of that year. That temerity and the fates would lead me to the even greater and more terrific impertinence of the moment, delivering an encomium for this great poet in his own House, directing myself to you, esteemed Academicians, in the language of my poor apprenticeship, here in the most august House of this language. I beg your most merciful indulgence for such audacity. And though it be the work of destiny, I do accept fully my responsibility in this predicament, and I do so in the spirit of the Stoic’s philosophy that has its origins in the island of my birth.
Cutting my Portuguese teeth on Cabral’s poetic stones, I came across something a bit more malleable in that pedagogic quarry. It was a poem entitled “Catar Feijão” (Culling Beans), and it evoked most vividly for me the gnarled hands of my grandmother culling beans, hands whose agility and uncanny intelligence I have yet to learn how to imitate. Being as instructive as any statement I know on the art of poetry, and as illustrative as any of our laureate’s lessons in the poet’s masonry, “Catar Feijão” could well be a manual, a vade mecum of any poet and student of poetry:
Culling beans is not unlike writing:
you toss the kernels into the water of the clay pot
and the words into that of a sheet of paper;
then, you toss out whatever floats.
Indeed, all words will float on the paper, ice-cold water,
its verb small and green and commonsensical:
in order to cull that bean, blow on it,
and toss out the frivolous and hollow, the chaff and the echo.
Now, there is a risk in that bean-culling:
the risk that among those heavy seeds any-old
kernel may enter, of stone or study-matter,
an unchewable grain, a tooth-breaker.
Not so, for culling words:
the stone gives the phrase its most vivid seed:
it obstructs flowing, floating reading,
it incites attention, luring it with risk. (trans. Kadir)
Not knowing, for lack of precedent, how well the voice of a Pernambucan poet and the inflection of a Cypriot might harmonize, the present exercise is fraught with great risk indeed. In the face of such risks, let us call these beans the pebbles of Demosthenes, those stones the stammering father of our rhetorical tradition put into his mouth when he went to declaim phrases to the sea. These are the hard-rock impediments the poet must perpetually overcome, as does the reader. For João Cabral teaches us not only how his kind of poetry is written, but also how it is to be read. And lest our reading facility ebb into the facile, we are waylaid, forced into the rigors of having to negotiate stone-hard obstructions and to absorb the necessary lesson of their difficulty. Language, of course, is poetry’s greatest difficulty and also its greatest danger. And language becomes most perilous when it would yield with ease to one’s facility.
João Cabral’s poetic career consists in shunning the temptation to succumb to the facile and the gratuitous. That is why, I suspect, he has been averse to the musicality of poetry, preferring, instead, the sparsely pictorial and the assonantal rhyme to the jangle of consonantal sonority or the bombast of the declamatory. His is another sort of eloquence. And being a self-declared poet of need and insufficiency, Cabral has labored diligently to pare down the magnitude of need’s necessity for fulfillment, not out of parsimony, but from an unmistakable sense of generosity. This is the poetic generosity that endeavors to allow the human subjects of his poetry to show forth on their own terms. In this sense, the geometrical and mathematical rigors of self-curtailment in Cabral’s poetry, far from being the cold and mechanical acts of a formalism, represent the rigors of a poetry that is profoundly human and socially connected. And, as his wife, the poet Marly de Oliveira, has noted in her foreword to the second volume of his collected verse, Cabral’s is an emotive poetry, a poetry laden with lucid emotion, the lucidity inherited from Paul Valéry’s mathematical verse.
Our laureate is an artfully subtractive poet engaged in the labors of winnowing, culling, paring down. A poet who opts for the economy of the minimal with maximum effect. He practices a laconic art of deference in a poetry that curtails its own voice, as well as the ego of its author, yielding to the human context that links poetic vocation with daily life and worldly experience. In this self-circumscription, the poetry of João Cabral has transcended its own conscientious and deliberate limits, emerging as a universal cultural phenomenon that is admired by poets and lay readers all over the world. Because of his diligent labors and self-effacing devotion, João Cabral has been adopted by the Brazilian people as their reigning national poet, a status reconfirmed most recently by the São Paulo Prize conferred upon him by the government of that Brazilian state. For all these reasons, in March 1992 an international jury of his peers selected João Cabral de Melo Neto as the laureate of the 1992 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
I am truly honored by this opportunity and the privilege of addressing you on the merits of João Cabral de Melo Neto’s poetry, and doing so in this solemn session of the Brazilian Academy of Letters in the House of the great Machado de Assis. Thank you.
Rio de Janeiro
August 31, 1992
Translated from the Portuguese by Djelal Kadir
From Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, edited by Daniel Simon (Deep Vellum, 2020).
Djelal Kadir (b. 1946, Cyprus) is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor (emeritus) of Comparative Literature at Penn State University and served as the seventh editor (1991–1996) in the history of Books Abroad / World Literature Today.
In our eighteenth issue, we feature the work of beloved Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez alongside that of João Cabral de Melo Neto, renowned Brazilian poet and third Latin American winner of the Neustadt Prize. We also highlight Latin American women poets, indigenous literature from Brazil, new works in translation, and a return to the essay through the words of Mariano Picón Salas.