Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Few Moments with Jorge Luis Borges



I read this story this morning and it made me laugh. It seems there are no new problems (or personalities) in the poetry world. Remove Daneri's name in the final sentence of this excerpt and insert that of the poetry blogger of your choice. Present company excepted, of course:


On the thirtieth of April, 1941, along with the sugared cake I allowed myself to add a bottle of Argentine cognac. Carlos Argentino tasted it, pronounced it "interesting," and, after a few drinks, launched into a glorification of modern man.

"I view him," he said with a certain unaccountable excitement, "in his inner sanctum, as though in his castle tower, supplied with telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, wireless sets, motion-picture screens, slide projectors, glossaries, timetables, handbooks, bulletins..."

He remarked that for a man so equipped, actual travel was superfluous. Our twentieth century had inverted the story of Mohammed and the mountain; nowadays, the mountain came to the modern Mohammed.

So foolish did his ideas seem to me, so pompous and so drawn out his exposition, that I linked them at once to literature and asked him why he didn't write them down. As might be foreseen, he answered that he had already done so -- that these ideas, and others no less striking, had found their place in the Proem, or Augural Canto, or, more simply, the Prologue Canto of the poem on which he hd been working for many years now, alone, without publicity, with fanfare, supported only by those twin staffs universally known as work and solitude. First, he said, he opened the floodgates of his fancy; then, taking up hand tools, he resorted to the file. The poem was entitled The Earth; it consisted of a description of the planet, and, of course, lacked no amount of picturesque digressions and bold apostrophes.

I asked him to read me a passage, if only a short one. He opened a drawer of his writing table, drew out a thick stack of papers -- sheets of a large pad imprinted with the letterhead of the Juan Crisóstomo Lafinur Library -- and, with ringing satisfaction, declaimed:

Mine eyes, as did the Greek's, have known men's
towns and fame,
The works, the days in light that fades to amber;
I do not change a fact or falsify a name --
The voyage I set down is... autour de ma chambre.

"From any angle, a greatly interesting stanza," he said, giving his verdict. "The opening line wins the applause of the professor, the academician, and the Hellenist -- to say nothing of the would-be scholar, a considerable sector of the public. The second flows from Homer to Hesiod (generous homage, at the very outset, to the father of didactic poetry), not without rejuvenating a process whose roots go back to Scripture -- enumeration, congeries, conglomeration. The third -- baroque? decadent? example of the cult of pure form? -- consists of two equal hemistichs. The fourth, frankly bilingual, assures me the unstinted backing of all minds sensitive to the pleasures of sheer fun. I should, in all fairness, speak of the novel rhyme in lines two and four, and of the erudition that allows me -- without a hint of pedantry! -- to cram into four lines three learned allusions covering thirty centuries packed with literature -- first to the Odyssey, second to Works and Days, and third to the immortal bagatelle bequathed us by the frolicking pen of the Savoyard, Xavier de Maistre. Once more I've come to realise that modern art demands the balm of laughter, the scherzo. Decidedly, Goldoni holds the stage!"

He read me many other stanzas, each of which also won his own approval and elicited his lengthy explications. There was nothing remarkable about them. I did not even find them any worse than the first one. Application, resignation, and chance had gone into the writing; I saw, however, that Daneri's real work lay not in the poetry but in his invention of reasons why the poetry should be admired.

-From "The Aleph," (1949) by Jorge Luis Borges

2 Comments:

Blogger The Weaver of Grass said...

I enjoyed reading your post. There is a wonderful RS Thomas poem about reading someone's poetry which is awful and finally deciding not to tell him so. The trouble is, we struggle to say what we want to say - often say it quite badly - but the poem is our baby and we want to hear good of it. If the answer to the problem is to stop writing poetry then let's keep writing bad poetry I say! Happy New Year to you.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Brian Campbell said...

Oh so familiar. Quite a few poet-bloggers talk a good line, but then disappoint me when I turn to their so-called poetry. Present company excepted.

10:48 AM  

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