Recently I finished two different books of poetry. One was Soledades, galerías, otros poemas, by Antonio Machado, which has many of his books in English too, the other is a bilingual edition of Selected Poems by Pablo Neruda.
Reading poetry in Spanish is what made me, in particular, a constant reader of poetry. Before I found that elusive line that connects poetry with our being, I just didn’t get it. I had a thick crust, layers of too much control and too little patience. Poetry could not cut through my too wannabe analytical and my impervious habits of reading. I knew that for authors of literature, one needs to get used to the style, maybe even read a few good number of pages in the dark, until shapes start to emerge, and familiarity opens your eyes. Then we can see the vision the author is communicating. But I had never applied this knowledge to poetry.
Stevenson and A.A. Milne were good, but they also stop at the threshold of our grown up door. Antonio Machado was perfect for me because he connected my childhood with my adulthood. It was chance at the time, but years have proven this to be an important event. I was given a book of Machado’s poetry for children. One poem spoke to my adolescent self, and I decided to memorize it. It was this one you see bellow, Last Night as I Was Sleeping, (this is a fabulous reading in English, and then in Spanish, and the person reciting it explains in English the Spanish verses. Enticing.) When I was reading Machado’s poetry, it felt close to my heart, and it was a moving moment the day my reading came to that very same poem I still remember.
My only small complain when I hear the English version of it, it’s how bendita ilusión is translated. Marvelous error doesn’t seem to me equivalent to bendita ilusión. An ilusión to me is not exactly an error, but I understand the poet is telling us it was his perception error, his illusion, as in a dream, what he is talking about, thus the choice in English of the adjective ‘marvelous’. After a while, it sits well in the whole of the poem, yes, I approve the expression marvelous error, ha ha ha.
This was my second time reading this collection, and as familiarity kicks in, one sees more details.
In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. If one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it.
According to Nabokov, reading is in the details. (That was his very reason to recommend re-reading.) Isn’t it delightful to see how this process of sedimentation occurs in our reading life, and how it help us to appreciate authors or titles that start becoming the flesh of who we are as readers.
Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.
It surprised me to find that Nabokov almost missed Jane Austen’s riches. After reading Pride and Prejudice, and not being impressed at all, he was ready to give up on Austen, and throw her in the trash can of all the other women writers, -of whom he had a poor opinion. And then Mansfield Park happened. I’m no expert on Jane Austen, but, granted that she left us with just 6 main books, (owed to her dying so young), it wouldn’t hurt to go pass one or two of her titles, and see what the accumulation of her varied yet consistent with her style work has to offer.
Reading Nabokov’s essay on Mansfield Park in this book of lectures, I got to see what a writer saw in another writer’s book. Nabokov uncovers the skill and structure behind the scenes of Austen’s masterpiece. At the beginning of the book, I read again his famous essay, Good Readers and Good Writers. I always want to quote it in full! (The previous quotes are from that article.)
Also, as Nabokov explains, great authors invent a universe and language of their own. If this happens in literature, this is the trademark of poetry. We need to trust our poets, and give them time. Only after we soak in their language preferences, topic obsessions, we start to enjoy and anticipate reading the next poem. Collections work well too, if they are nicely curated. They give us a nice overdose under a theme, or a time period, something that makes us hold tighter each poem, until we feel that undercurrent that helps us navigate through the pages and enjoy the ride.
I must tell you, though, that Neruda was very different from Machado. Neruda was born in Chile in 1904, and died in Chile in 1973. Machado was born in 1875, Seville, Spain and died 1939, Collioure, France. Though Machado lived traumatic events marked by the war, (Spanish civil war was 1936 to 1939), and he also saw the death of his first wife at the age of 17, (he married when he was 34 and she just 15), his poetry is evocative, nostalgic, and tender. Neruda’s was raw, jarring, and too direct. (I had to skip some poems.) I know Neruda is known as a poet of love, but his love is not the more romantic ideal of other poets such as Bécquer, of whom adolescents are fond of, but love in the flesh. Remember his famous book is Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, and that Song of Despair is what gives away the clue of the tone of his love poems. (I’m venturing a bit, since I did not read that book, but in the Selections, there were many poems from it.) The pulse of the times was noticeable in Neruda’s poems. However, I feel a bit of an impostor talking about Neruda. I need to read his poems at least once more to continue understanding them while I enjoy them.
Both men, as men with trained eyes to look at the inconsequential, at those small things that the fool dismisses, applied ink and talent to write poems to such things as flies, (Machado’s case), and tomatoes, (Neruda’s choice.)
The Flies, by Machado
You, the familiar
the inevitable, greedy
you, vulgar flies
evoke in me things of all kinds
Oh! old voracious flies
like bees in April
old persistent flies
on the bald spot of my childish head
Flies of all times
of childhood and adolescence,
of my golden youth;
of this second innocence,
that leads to not believe in anything,
Flies of the first boredom
in the common living room
the clear summer nights
during which my own dreams were sparked
In the loathed school as well
swift entertaining flies
pursued, chased, sought
for the love of beings that could fly
I know that you had stopped over
my dearest of toys
my big hardcover book
my love letter
over the rigid eyelids
of the dead
Inevitable, greedy ones
you don’t cultivate like bees do
you don’t shine like butterflies do
tiny yet rebellious
you, wonderer friendly flies,
evoke in me things of all kinds
And here is another interesting blog post by someone who thinks that poetry can make anything beautiful.
If anything that probably sums up both of these songs/poems; the notion of looking at things from a different angle, for one never knows where beauty, art, and nostalgia might pop up. Does this mean that everything is art? No, of course not. I don’t care how postmodern we become, not everything can be passed out as art. Can anything become art? Probably, with the right about of talent, dedication and skill, and also, by looking at things slightly differently.
Ode To Tomatoes by Pablo Neruda
filled with tomatoes,
through the streets.
it enters at lunchtime,
its own light,
Unfortunately, we must
into living flesh,
populates the salads
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
of the roast
at the door,
the table, at the midpoint
star of earth, recurrent
its remarkable amplitude
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
of fiery color
and cool completeness.
There’s analysis of the poem that point to political and historical allusions. The more I read it, the more I thought it has that added layer. I felt he chose tomatoes to personify his beloved Chile. Whether you see that there or not, it’s perfectly fine (I say to myself, -grin), to just read it and enjoy it for whatever cords it strikes.
As for the promised Randomness, the Classic Club Spin was #3, and it corresponds to Persuasion. I’ll read or listen to it, and sometime this year, I’ll top off my reading Jane Austen adventure with Sense an Sensibility. Then, once all of her main 6 books have been read once, I have the rest of my life to start reading them for real, (re-reading them.)