On Life and Poetry
Essay by Joan Margarit
Translated by Anna Crowe from Catalan
Dec 4, 2016
IT WAS NOT FAR-OFF OR DIFFICULT. It is here now, this time which is not mine, in which I live in a bittersweet mix of proximity and distance. I feel how strange everything around me is becoming. Already I no longer recognise some values and modes of behaviour that today are commonplace. Landscapes are changing too quickly. No, this time is not mine, but it is now, in large measure thanks to poetry, that I feel some gusts of calm happiness that years ago I never knew.
It was not far-off, this age in which nobody hesitates to think of me as old, though always with some precautions that make me smile, since they are due to the absurdly bad press that this word receives, especially when it is followed by the noun, man. Nor was it difﬁcult to come to a natural, even pleasurable understanding of some feelings from which the young make great efforts to distance or defend themselves. Solitude and sadness, for example. I think that the acceptance of these feelings is a kind of clockwork mechanism that life sets about activating in order to place death on a familiar horizon. I have understood the most dangerous replies that the proximity of death may generate and which are to be found between two extremes: despair and headlong ﬂight, that is to say, submission to the values of youth. And thus, too, a kind of desperation. Equidistant, there is lucidity, the step before dignity. And wonder, the threshold of love, as the alternative to resentment and scorn.
These last few years, I have realised that, while the capacity for learning dwindles, there arises, as counterpoint, another capacity which will end up being the most important: that of utilising, in order to explore new intellectual and sentimental territories, everything that has been learned in life up until now. In this way one can achieve the lucidity necessary for understanding fear. But this new capacity depends on how the development of the inner life has been achieved. There is no way of avoiding a certain irreversibility of the situation. That is what determines whether this ﬁnal stretch may be the most profound, but also the most banal of someone’s life.
Fear is nothing more than the lack of love, a pit we try to ﬁll – futilely – with a huge variety of things, acting directly, with no subtleties, a never-ending task, for the pit remains as empty and dark as ever. When you don’t understand fear, all you can attempt is this un-nuanced action, which is that of selﬁshness, because it can take account only of ﬁlling one’s own emptiness, without knowing whence it comes. At this point, love is perhaps not faroff, but it is difﬁcult. You have to go back to the time before the pit, and know when and how it began to open up. At my age that is ineluctable. The substitution of fear by lucidity is what I call ‘dignity’. It is then that it turns out that love was neither far-off nor difﬁcult.
The word ‘dignity’ comes from the Latin dignus, ‘worthy’, and this meaning evolves into the more complex ones of ‘worthy of respect’ and, more importantly, that of ‘self-respect’, which is the meaning that interests me. This dignity which is respect for oneself leads towards love, which penetrates at the same time through intelligence, feeling and sensuality, which occurs inside each one of us and which is only circumstantially to do with public activities dedicated to the most needy, actions which belong, whether implicitly or explicitly, to the realm of politics.
Loving is complex enough to need all the tools and skills we acquired during our apprenticeship. I have found no better way of loving others than through the practice of poetry, sometimes as reader and other times as poet – I have stated more than once that for me the two options are one and the same – and putting, whether composing or interpreting a poem, the same honesty that I would desire and attempt to practise in any aspect of public or private life. I think that this exposition is possible because poetry has the intensity of truth.
Whatever a poet is, that will his poems be also: and there is no one harder to deceive than good readers of poetry. In the long run, a person of culture is someone who can tell Xuang Tsé from a guru of famous singers, a work by Montaigne from a self-help book. There is not a single good poem in which its author has not implicated himself or herself in some way right the way through. It is this that makes of it an act of love. ‘somebody loves us all’, as the wonderful ﬁnal line of ‘Filling Station’, by Elizabeth Bishop, says.
In the midst of all this, the kind of poetry that most continues to interest me moves in a territory that I would call prudent, avoiding, in its relationship with the mysterious, the two extremes towards which the fallacy of originality is always attempting to push it. On one hand, there is the devaluation of the mysterious, which has already converted one part of the contemporary plastic arts and music into something that is alien to risk and emotion, and therefore to truth. The other extreme consists in emphasising it in an exaggerated way, that is to say, in ignoring the fact that even the mysterious, or especially the mysterious, ought to be treated sensibly. That the meaning or explanation of something may be unknown does not imply that any explanation whatsoever may be acceptable, however outlandish it may be. In spite of its exactness and concision, poetry can never be a short cut.
My own time has ﬂed and left me alone in another time but my solitude is a luxurious one. It makes me think of Machiavelli’s ﬁnal exile in the rural world of his childhood, of those inns where, as he relates in his memoirs, he talked only to rough, uncultured peasants. But when night came he set a great table with the best and ﬁnest cloths, vessels and glasses, which he had brought from Florence, and he supped and talked with the wise men of Antiquity. As for me, in this other exile which is, by its very nature, the ﬁnal stage – long or short – of life, I feel that I myself am my own interlocutor. I do not now have time to improvise, I should have already spoken, long since, with the wise men of ancient times or of now, so that, through my poems, I might ﬁnd myself with myself in the territory of dignity. The dignity of not being afraid of my fate.
But there comes a day when the past demands order and, thus, special attention for the mysterious question of memories. Because past and future disappear at the same time, as if by some law of physics, and more and more I have the feeling that the mind has not kept random fragments but rather the essence of the past. That is, what we remember, albeit not true, is, however, the truth. And truth – and I think this is what Josep Pla means when he speaks of poetry and biographies – is the deep aim of poetry. Therefore, the poetry that one has read, just like the music that one has listened to, are some of the elements, and probably not the least important ones, that intervene in the making of this essence.
Because poetry is a tool to manage pain and happiness, especially in their most domestic aspects, sadness and joy, the management of which depends on what is saved from the past. This essence is the subject of the poems in this book. As I was writing them, verses would emerge around a memory, which would ﬁght with strength to get hold of the poem. Then I had to return it harshly to the exact role that it had to play, because what the memory wants to explain when it appears is still very far from the truth.
I feel that I come from a time marked above all by the fear at the end of the civil war, by the silence of executions and of prisons with which the victors exerted their vengeance. With the elders in the house taking care that I wouldn’t be cold or hungry. That is where my Houses of Mercy come from. The ultimate meaning of every poem. But I realise that in order to understand a memory I must be able to connect beginnings and endings, that in order to understand what my grandmother represented for the beginning of my life I had to be able to compare it with what the life of my daughter Joana, as well as her death, represented much later in my life. I need to connect the time during which I wrote my last books of poems with the time that I spent alone with my mother in that village where she was a teacher.
And I also have to link my current idea of what poetry is with the teacher who taught me to write without grammar, directly. It took me years to distinguish a preposition from an adverb, but from the ﬁrst moment he taught me to write correctly. The poet that I am has lived off this. Of course he taught us all this in Spanish, because I never heard Catalan at school. This repression carried out by means of the amputation of speech is one of the most durable and cruelest ones. I know now that I will die with this fear and this fragility surrounding the perception of my tongue, which means, also, of my life.
Something cries out in our ﬁrst memories. Their austere clarity, like a bird’s ﬁrst ﬂight. They are the only primal thing that we have left. A ﬁerce joy despite having been born amid the horror of a murderer’s country. The child knew what the old man can conﬁrm now: that we must know how to use loneliness as a way of dealing with pain and misfortune, and with the cruelty with which this country has always imposed oblivion. All this is now part of my order, my common sense.
I know it is not cautious to search the places of memory if I don’t want to endanger the meaning, feeble and distant, that those days still have. I must never look for the places of memory in real sites. There is a relationship with one’s own falsehoods that could never bear any type of existence beyond the mind. I look at the sky, I see the clouds moving like noiseless trains. The sky is the only thing of which I can say that it is – despite Heraclitus – the same as in childhood. Illusion is the sky’s strength. I mistrust memories, just as I mistrust sex, but both tie me to life. We always mistrust the most important things, it’s our cowardice.
Beyond the mezzo del cammin, life also gets us used to the presence of distances, whether we look backwards or forwards. This becomes more and more evident as we grow older, of course, until one day we realise that the distances have gradually disappeared and that wherever you look everything is equally close. It is not an uncomfortable feeling at all, because it means that after a life of playing against so many forces one begins to have one of the most powerful forces on one’s side, namely indifference.
But indifference in the sense of a lack of feeling in favour or against, and thus applicable to a person as much as to a star. Not indifference in the sense of an absence of interest, which is close to the meaning of the word selﬁshness. The indifference I refer to avoids the anxiety about that which is not fundamental and for that which is inevitable, that which, being important and even transcendental, we will never be able to change. A neighbour of lucidity, it liberates us precisely from what is superﬂuous and from what is useless.
So far, poetry has been my life, and it continues to be so. Nothing has had power over me if I have been allowed to write. The circumstances that without poetry would have weakened me have made me stronger. The language I speak and the language in which I write poems are the same. So did the poets from whom I learned this, like Gabriel Ferrater or Philip Larkin. Others, on the contrary, have stressed the difference between spoken language and the language of the poem, as in the case of Josep Carner. But all of them have taught me that inspiration cannot come from anywhere but one’s own life, however distant or odd the poem may seem.
The reading of a poem, which is a very similar operation to that of its writing, is also done through the life of its reader. This is why I think that before doing an erudite reading one should really read the poem: leaving on one side signiﬁcations, interpretations or critical analyses, letting nothing interfere, let alone observations made from places very far from the simple and profound penetration of words in our mind.
To put it differently: it’s necessary to be left alone with the poem. This loneliness may be uncomfortable sometimes, and we may then shut ourselves off with the verses, surrounded by a library – real or made of accumulated readings – of literary and philological studies. Then, obviously, there are diverse, perhaps many, possible interpretations, all different from each other, and one would not know with which one to agree. We may leave the real reading for another occasion, or it may happen that we decide to adhere to one interpretation and to consider the poem to be read thus. It’s the same thing that can happen to someone who looks at the paintings of a museum while they listen to the ﬂood of information coming from an audio guide: that they ﬁnish the visit without having really seen the works.
If a poem moves a reader, it does so through their life. And it does so, not through that which is accessory in the moment of reading, but through that which is fundamental. As if each life were a well from which to descend to one single stream. The poet descends from his well: the only characteristic is that a good poem reaches this deep stream while a bad poem does not go deep enough, it remains too high, dry.
Even if they are not very learned, if a person feels with emotion that what they have read expresses some aspect of their conscience or of their life, then this person has understood the poem. It is for this reason that a poet will always be wise to listen to and to consider an observation about a poem, whoever it may be coming from, as long as it originates from this kind of reading. Because anyone who reads a poem in this manner is using their most noble faculties on the highest level. Incidentally, in this book I have to thank Mariona Ribalta, Pilar Senpau, Ramón Andrés, Luis García Montero, Josep Maria Rodríguez, Mercè Ubach and Jordi Gracia for readings of this kind. And, especially, in this English edition, I have to thank the poet, Anna Crowe, my friend and translator. If the best of me is in my poems, she has always managed to convey this to English readers.
Poetry is the form of expression that least resorts to artfulness, ornament, the one that is farthest from persuasion or from the trickery of pretending to offer what it does not offer. A poem does not manifest itself anywhere but in relation to the life of whoever is reading it, and the poet will have only been its ﬁrst reader. Knowledge and culture act in the long term, they impregnate and change the person, leaving them in a state of reception more powerful and reﬁned. But good teachers know that if someone approaches a poem with the help not of their own life (and therefore of their formation) but only with the help of information, then this person has not yet begun reading the poem.
We must stay alone with the poem, that is, stay alone with our own fear and ignorance. To accept that we cannot concretise the order that we are gaining in our interior in anything material. That we cannot say why our strength increases as we read it. All this can cause anxiety and even fright and, sometimes, it makes erudition be understood as a reassuring security net. It reassures but at the same time it prevents us from running the risk of poetry and of feeling its vertigo when a poem speaks to us directly. This is why poetry is one of the most serious resources to deal with morality’s bad weather. Its appearance must have been a crucial milestone in the history of humanity. As crucial, for example, as the appearance of the house, of architecture, that liberation of the human being from the cave, a ﬁrst sign of individuality.
Because that which is impersonal, that is to say objective, cannot help to mitigate the effects of moral suffering with dignity, which is basically caused by loss and absence. No consolation can be of use if it doesn’t speak directly to a you. This is why, tired of ideologies and abstractions, to suddenly encounter a force that works, without any kind of intermediary, on our subjectivity, that accesses the centre of sadness, which is what poetry does, can be so important. If our interests are only occupied by issues like politics, it means that we are putting the accent on what is gregarious in us. And everything that is gregarious tends to nourish contempt. Profound admiration, the type that is not mimetic, comes from individuality. That is, from the you to whom the poem is addressed.
Sant Just Desvern,
September 2010–September 2014
Reprinted from Love is a Place (Bloodaxe Books, 2016)