For Fiona Sampson, in grateful friendship
The confinement from which I write is at the same time both a sentence and a luxury.1 Like many other people across the entire world, I have spent several months without leaving the house in order to protect myself—and to protect others—from the pandemic we will be talking about for the rest of our lives. In such circumstances, the act of writing is as much an escape as a return to reality: on the computer screen the poem appears, but so too the thronging news reports from around the globe and the noise of all those private lives paraded on social networking sites. In the world context, truth and lies, the anodyne and the profound, noise and music end up being indistinguishable.
I write from there: facing the light of that same screen in which I sometimes find silence, in which I also search for the occurrence of slowness and contemplation. The radiance that falls onto the keyboard and the percussion of the text brought into being are my way of dancing before the fire, like the first poets must have done when language was barely invented. I write, I imagine; I see literary tradition as a tangle of vines all with a common ancestry: the desire to translate silence, to say the unsayable.
Poetry is a family of stems that touch and interlace, that sometimes compete, one against the other, for a space in the sun, or water, but never strangle one another. Some are famous for their blooms. Others for their fruit. Others still, for their thorns or foliage. The existence of all is necessary if the vine is to be what we, who find solace in poems, need it to be: a living network that might save us (that does save us) from the abys. An answer to death, with whom we keep up a constant dialogue.
A hundred years ago, in the first decades of the 20th century, many poets from the same stem, raised their voices in order to define (once again) the meaning of poetry and, hence, that of their own existence and existence itself. All poetry and all poetic art are at once, a creed and a justification for life before the cosmos. In defining the function of poetry, the poet makes a declaration for their own work before the world, bares their essence and their face. Defines and is defined: makes a stand against nothingness. It justifies the lightning bolt of their life in the dark night of time; it is the ray of speech in the eternity of silence. Each manifesto, every piece of poetic art, is a response to two questions: what is poetry for? And, what is the purpose of this life I have dedicated to poetry?
Historically, the so-called Avant guard were about wanting to break everything, to dynamite not just the language, but also the silence, the status quo and the way in which we approach art. Beauty (the same beauty that earlier, Rimbaud, the father-child of the Avant guard had sat upon his knee and found to be bitter and insulted) was scorned and was altered by the shock, by being excluded from the central focus of artistic value. With this shift, the foundations of art were shaken, and art remade.
The Avant guard poet was a creator of tremors, a species of Titan. If the romantics and the modernists were always the highest form of humanity, the Avant guard from the beginning of the 20th century were, quite simply, creators of universes. They were believers in Heidegger’s concept of poetry as the foundation of being through the vehicle of words (even if the poets put this into practice before the philosopher wrote his words); they felt themselves masters of all that could be named and the makers of everything. Huidobro expresses this better than anyone: “The poet is a little God”.2
Today, such poetic licence would be destined for ridicule, or at least justifiable mistrust. Nowadays, it is impossible to entertain the idea of a poet as a little God. Even those characteristics that might make a particular author exceptional in some way (history, race, suffering some illness, their way of approaching poetry, etc) link the poet to the rest of humanity, rather than separating them from it. The contemporary poet does not observe others from a distance: they observe from amongst us and recognise themselves in everyone. And this proximity is, in essence, the currency of poetry in our times.
Things that before were insignificant and had no place in the poem—daily life and its issues, the commonplace loneliness as a counterpoint to the exceptional loneliness of the romantic, or the sanctified loneliness of the damned—are today a fundamental part of poetic discourse, since whoever writes departs from there towards the verbal conspiracy of the unsayable, towards the utterance of mystery.
Avant guard, the vanguard. What modern poet would found a movement and allow it be named for a term of war referring to the front line of battle? Those who write poems today don’t think about themselves, nor about life, nor even the writing itself, in such terms: they don’t found artistic movements nor organise aesthetic brotherhoods. They don’t write manifestos—or, if they do, then it is of an exclusively personal nature or openly satirical— nor do they think of themselves as people in possession of some kind of truth that must be accepted in the wake of shattering all previous truths.
Born after the fall of the utopias, the failure of revolutions, the poets of today are unbelievers in all political parties and organised political movements. They don’t present themselves as shepherds or saviours; they know that they are neither before nor above anyone and systematically doubt themselves. They don’t attempt to steer; they accompany and are accompanied. Doubt and intuition, rather than categorical affirmation, are the origins of their writing. Their work creates slowness, spaces to enable—in the midst of so much indistinguishable noise and information—the visualisation of the eternal. What was once the vanguard has become, simply, the guard: the silence guard.
The impetus of this modern guard, like that of the Avant guard, is rupture. In this freshly begun century, rebellion takes the form of a return to silence and to origins, of a search for communion in what it is to be human.
The Avant guard had solid certainties: they believed in their literary movements, in their political creeds, in the communist party (if such were the case), in the justice of their ideals, and in the necessity to dynamite everything and rebuild it all, in their own personal talent. Their belligerence was the result of their total surety of conviction. They were militant dissidents, atheists who pontificated, practitioners of an orthodox madness that came to be exclusive and even systematised; they were the Masters of Art for all time. Little gods, know-it-alls capable of showing we mortals the out-dated nature of our social structures, ways of thinking and producing literature.
Distinctively, one of the most important voices of today, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, best expresses the importance of not knowing, of doubting oneself and everything, for the contemporary poet who needs the space to doubt in order to create. In her acceptance address for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996, we read:
… I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.
Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that’s absolutely inadequate to boot. So, the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their “oeuvre”.3
Contemporary poets don’t simply embrace doubt, but also the complete certainty of error as part of their task: infallibility (or its appearance) belongs to those little gods of the last century. Nowadays, simple people, human beings, write poetry. Anne Carson, another central poet of our times (she has already been announced as this year’s recipient of the Princess of Asturias prize for letters) speaks about error as liveliness and creativity. For her, error is everything a poet can aspire to. In a poem entitled “Essay on What I Think About Most”,4 she says:
Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself
In the act of making a mistake.
He pictures the mind moving along a plane surface
of ordinary language
that surface breaks or complicates.
At first it looks odd, contradictory or wrong.
Then it makes sense.
Metaphors teach the mind
to enjoy error
and to learn
from the juxtaposition of what is and what is not the case.
de la yuxtaposición entre lo que es y lo que no es.
There is a Chinese proverb that says,
Brush cannot write two characters with the same stroke.
That is exactly what a good mistake does.
“A good mistake”, an approximation whose perpetual insufficiency guarantees the space to keep attempting the exact word, is the aspiration of whomsoever dedicates their life to poetry.
Between us—I speak here about all those people who have accepted this calling—twine the tendrils of that vine, uniting us with all those before us who asked the same questions and found different answers, and with those who will do the same after we are gone. The silence guard is one of the stems of contemporary poetry, the most necessary, and the one that interests me the most. I realise, of course, that there are poets who still trust in their vocation for leadership and wish to maintain their aura of enlightenment, but these are the exception, not the rule.
The poets of today, the—never systematically organised—silence guard, do not (perhaps) have any hope in the future nor any faith in humanity. We are not betting on a new system or placing our trust in a possible revolution. Nevertheless, we cannot stop believing in the poem. This precarious yet unbreakable faith could be sufficient to save us from ourselves. For this reason, and because we cannot do anything else, we will keep walking the earth in companionship with all human beings, accepting that we don’t know and trying to write a good mistake, an approximate translation of silence, until the end of our lives.
Translated by Hebe Powell
1 I had planned to write a version of the present text in the solitude of an artistic retreat in England during March 2020. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic this trip was cancelled, and the writing was completed during an incarceration of a very different sort: at home, beset by uncertainties extending from the personal to the global. Some of the outlines of the original idea have been transformed by this new context. I present it here as testimony to the times we are living through and the way in which I see poetry working in moments like this.
2 El poeta es un pequeño Dios. Translated from Spanish by Jorge García-Gómez.
3 Translated from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1996/szymborska/lecture/
4 “Essay on What I Think About Most”, by Anne Carson, which appears in the collection Men in the Off Hours (2000). A translation into Spanish by Berta García Faet, presented in the original Spanish version of this article, can be found here: http://www.vallejoandcompany.com/poema-ensayo-sobre-las-cosas-en-las-que-mas-pienso-de-anne-carson/