The Audacity of the Poem

Cy Twombly, Untitled (Bacchus), 2008


Author's introduction to the book of essays on Brazilian poetry

low letters

Usually, it is up to the introduction of a book to present the reasons that presided over the chapters that follow. This is so usual that introductions need not be justified. Something different happens with a book that belongs exclusively to a genre of fiction, the poem, which affronts the prevailing market taste. However, he ends up far short of what he conceived: to account for a substantial part of what I have not even mentioned.

It is not peculiar to an underdeveloped area that the general reader's interest has turned away from the poem. It is internationally known that, in the West, the XNUMXth century served as a turning point: the rise in attraction for the novel corresponded to a decline in interest in poems. If, among us, the XNUMXth century is far from the role it played in Europe, the force of attraction of novelistic prose shifted to the XNUMXth century, when it found another reason for explanation: not the secularization of thought, carried out by Enlightenment, but the independence of the country and the need soon felt by the monarchical power to summon the rala intelligentsia in the justification of political autonomy. Even if, at first, Alencar and Gonçalves Dias responded to the same appeal, it is not even an issue because, after all, the scales tipped in favor of novelistic prose, to the detriment of the poetic Indianism of The Timbiras.

From the point of view that matters here – the formation of the reading public –, political autonomy cannot be disconnected from the economic mode as it was, the slave mode. It was this that determined the minimum extent of those qualified to read, the owners, especially of the sugar mills. The reading public was restricted not only because the literate margin was small, but also because the ownership of land did not require intellectual qualification. Apart from the owner, being rarefied in cities outside of liberal professionals, who else would be part of the reading public if not his family and his small circle of associates? So it's fair to say that the reading public was sparse, as well as its enthusiasm for independence not lit by any flame more than well sparse.

The reminder above wins by contrast with what happens in England. As the theme is only outlined here, references to the novel in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries can be eliminated and we come directly to the XNUMXth century. Substantial help is provided by Fiction and the Reading Public, edited by Queenie Dorothy Leavis in 1932; just be careful not to overestimate the differences between the cases.

Leavis began by emphasizing that, “in twentieth-century England, not only can everyone read, but it is safe to add that everyone reads” (Leavis, 1979, p. 19), while, among us, now that almost a century has passed, in every big Brazilian city one has the feeling that the readership margin is thinning, with the increase in TV sets, with its superficial news, its programs for the general public and its ineffable telenovelas.

Even taking into account the enormous difference, the researcher's reading is validated by other observations. This is the case with regard to the circulation of newspapers. While Leavis notes that it was more common for readers to borrow books from municipal or circulating libraries rather than buy them, the book trade was not impaired because the major newspapers considered it to their advantage to pay well-known literary figures to have them published. they could present weekly reviews of what was edited. “Responsible booksellers will admit that Arnold Bennett, for example, should mention a novel in his weekly column for an edition to be sold […]” (ibid., p. 33). “It is true that the popularity of written fiction, concentrated in the novel, already knew the competition of cinema and that the man of letters was swallowed up by the movie star” (ibid., p. 28).

For the reason that leads us to highlight the work of QD Leavis, this note is important: “In contrast to what happened in 1760, when there was no stratification between authors and readers because everyone lived the same code and used common techniques of expression” ( ibid., p. 41), at the time the author was writing her book, such common language no longer existed. This favored a certain pessimism: “The critical minority, with access to modern literature, is isolated, repudiated by the general public and threatened with extinction” (ibid., p. 42). And “the reader not prepared to readjust to the technique of Mrs. dalloway ou to the lighthouse would have very little return for the energy expended on them” (ibid., p. 61).

If the 1930s admitted that a shadow of pessimism had fallen over the researcher, what would we say about ourselves almost a century later? From the outset, it should be noted that the poets studied in the second part of this book will pass for unknowns even by the small public of literature aficionados. The mediation that we had throughout the XNUMXth century between literature and the public, newspaper supplements, are now just in our memory. The situation gets much worse with the current political-economic scenario.

The progressive devaluation of the dollar makes it impossible for foreign books to circulate and increases the impoverishment of our already depleted libraries, while the Minister of Economy is pleased with the exchange rate of the dollar on the grounds that it favors exporters. It is not surprising that, in the quest to increase its revenue, the government considers taxing the book, under the argument that it is a luxury good. Furthermore, the disappearance of supplements corresponds to the closing of bookstores and the concentration of the television media in programs aimed solely at the general public.

Without going into further detail, just add: to speak of pessimism in broader cultural terms, and not just in reference to literature, would still be proof of incredible naivety.

The short notes above are enough to make us aware of the affront to market interests that represent the few hundred pages that follow. But the perspective that we see opening up for us still needs to accentuate another front. The role played by newspaper supplements in the XNUMXth century correlated with the role then played by literary histories. It is not strange that it has been said that, for the generation of literary critics before mine, the maximum to be achieved was to write a history of literature.

If literary supplements favored the reviewers' criticism and gave them visibility, the history of literature was the means of systematizing criticism. Systematizing it practically meant conceiving literature as an already known and recognized object, leaving its specialist to develop the temporal conjunction of its moments. Now, from the final decades of the 1932th century, the increasing mechanization provoked by progressive industrialization and the reduction of the scale of values ​​to the single value of financial profit made the work of Baudelaire and Mallarmé, followed in the first decades of the XNUMXth century by Pound , Eliot and Cummings, manifest the break in common language, which QD Leavis noted in XNUMX. As a result, the possibility of understanding the property of literary fiction by its pure historicization was reduced to its description, that is, it became unviable .

Between us, if we already had the difficulties pointed out, what can we say about the difficulties now imposed on his analyst, considering, above all, that he is required to have a capacity for reflection with which he was not educated. In short, while our theorization avoided contact with philosophy as something harmful, it was exactly this proximity that was now imposed. Literary fiction now lacks both a less restricted audience and an analyst who knows more than temporally localizing it. This means that a reexamination of the question of literature is necessary, considering that the main focus of its examination does not end with its historicization. The question that comes to be imposed has been developed in my last books. Here we will limit ourselves to the aspect that the poem came to have after Baudelaire. I will content myself with a few highlights by Pound and Eliot on the social context in which poetry was formulated since the first decades of the XNUMXth century.

In 1918, in writing the essay “French Poets”, Ezra Pound intended to present a kind of portable antilogy of French poetry, published from 1870 to his own day. My interest in his research is much more restricted: to accentuate what for Pound was quite marginal: the divorce of poetic production from the public. This aspect is evident in what he says about what he considers the “greatest poet of the period”, Tristan Corbière (1845-1875). Although its first publication dates from 1873, it “remained practically unknown until Verlaine's essay in 1884, and was hardly known to the 'public' until Messein's edition of his work in 1891” (Pound, 1935, p. 173). .

The proposed question was brought to the English side in the “Introduction” that TS Eliot would write for his essays collected in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Sidney's assumption that the role of poetry was to offer "delight and instruction" will change in the late eighteenth century. “Wordsworth and Coleridge were not just demolishing a degraded tradition, but revolting against an entire social order […]” (Eliot, 1945, p. 25). Much further on, he observes, with regard to his own generation, that he, Pound, and “our colleagues” had been called by an article writer literary Bolsheviks (ibid., p. 71). And, opening the pages devoted to Matthew Arnold, he quoted: “The rise of democracy to power in America and Europe is not, as had been hoped, the safeguard of peace and civilization. It is the rise of the uncivilized, which no school education can provide with intelligence and reason” (ibid., p. 103).

To the summary highlight of the breakup of the same code, provoking the separation between the poet and the public, it should be added that it corresponds to the differentiation of the poem in modernity. We will be even more brief when reiterating, with Iser, that in his language the function of the effect (Wirkung), understood precisely in his terms: “The effect results from the difference between what is said and what is meant, or, in other words, from the dialectic between showing and covering up” (Iser, 1976, v. I, p. 92), as a result of the junction of the “various layers of meaning that create in the reader the need to relate them” (ibid., p. 97).

Paradoxically, the stratification of language provokes, on the one hand, the distance between literary production and reception, and, on the other hand, the complex textual richness and the consequent need, on the part of critics, not to be satisfied with the contextualization of what analyze. The resulting situation motivates the leap that literary theory will take in the final decades of the XNUMXth century – and the work of Wolfgang Iser appears as its greatest achievement.

Exposing the panorama above, I make some final observations on the presence of national literary fiction. They will focus on re-examining the issue of national literature, because, as we have seen, the primary focus must be the qualification of its object and not its territorial character.

It is known that the differentiation of a discursive form as “literature” was only established at the end of the 1832th century; that it was accepted by the academy at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, under the rubric of history of literature, which at first accepted only old and national literature; that the historiographical criterion was so imposed that Gervinus, in the name of objectivity, stated in XNUMX that, “for the historian of literature, aesthetics is only an auxiliary means”.

We also know that the reaction against this reductive totalization manifested itself at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, with Croce and the Russian Formalists, and spread with the new criticism and it no longer allowed being accused of reductionism to the verbal properties of the text with the theorization carried out between 1960 and 1980. It is worth asking: what about between us?

For theoretical reflection to take root among us, it would have to contradict a way of thinking that, even though it was being refined, had been established since Gonçalves de Magalhães (1811-1882). In his “Discourse on the History of Literature in Brazil” (1836), literature was presented as the quintessence of what would be best and most authentic in a people. As the country had become autonomous without there having been a movement in favor of independence, it was imperative that literature, as a discursive form capable of reaching the most diverse regions, was in charge of propagating it. And, given the conditions of a rarefied public and without national access to university courses, it would have to rely on an excited, stimulating and soon sentimental word, which entered the ears more than required mental effort. Within this short circuit, interest turned to the formation of a unified state and little concerned literature itself.

It must also be considered that this conjuncture was fulfilled in a century in which technological development was beginning to evolve and that, in the field that came to be called the human sciences, deterministic explanations were sought, which seemed to extend the hard causalities, established by the natural sciences. Hence the importance that Sílvio Romero would assume and the timidity with which his opponent, José Veríssimo, attempted a reasonably close approximation of what constituted the literary text.

In short, nationality, historical-deterministic explanation, sociologism and easy-to-understand language were traits that kept the critical-literary work far away from the reflexive circuit. (It would be impolite to ask ourselves how long these assumptions will remain alive. It would be even riskier to ask whether the expression “until when”, even if its content softens, has acquired validity.)

Machado's genius would have suffered the same ostracism that buried Joaquim de Sousândrade (1833-1902) and forced him into exile if the novelist had not learned to adapt capoeira tactics to social relations. First sign of his cleverness: not to persist in the exercise of criticism. If he had insisted on articles like his “Instinct of nationality” (1873), and if even in the course of the article he had not sought to lessen his charge against the identification of literature with the expression of nationality, he would probably have multiplied ferocious enemies. In exchange, the initiative to create the Academia Brasileira de Letras allowed him to establish cordial relations with the scholars and the compadres of the “owners of power”.

In exchange, Machado's editorial salvation was due to the stabilization of the lines established with Pedro II's cultural policy. Thus, there were no conditions for us to thrive, nor the speculative vein that made Germany a reference center for intellectual inquiry, even if, in the eighteenth century, the nation was politically a zero to the left, nor the ethical line -pragmatics that would distinguish England.

Instead of one direction or another, we maintained, like all of Hispanic America, the tradition of the rhetorical word, without even bothering to consult rhetorical treatises. The author could employ a complicated, extremely complicated lexicon, as in the hinterlands, or even in Augusto dos Anjos, as long as all that was nothing more than a mist, with the appearance of a scholar. And Euclides, even if, resorting to the ethnic assumption, he intended to offer a scientific interpretation of the country, would continue to be understood as an unequivocal literary work, since he dealt with a question of our political history. And so it remains for Euclideans now.

The historicist mark on Brazilian literature was maintained during the golden years of international theoretical reflection (1960-1980). And it became a political watershed. Theorizing was confused with formalism and, coinciding with our most recent dictatorship (1964-1983), it was confused with a right-wing position. In return, the left was identified with the Marxist Lukács, to the exclusion of his early relevant works, The soul and the forms (1911) and The Theory of Romance (1920). Such identifications were simply disastrous, even more so because they were encouraged by important academic figures. Those who rebelled against it, like Haroldo de Campos, were marginalized and remain so. While, in those decades, the theoretical reflection on literature had repercussions in neighboring areas – in the reflection on the writing of history and in the reexamination of anthropological practice – strictly in literature, it was little practiced and, nowadays, it finds even fewer practitioners. (I include myself among them.)

The pointed inclinations do not make our case less endowed with a specific path. Although theoretical reflection and literary fiction itself no longer have the prestige that the former had gained in a short time and the latter had maintained since the end of the XNUMXth century, this does not prevent important theoretical and fictional works from appearing in the developed world, whereas, among us, with the exception of the novel, both poetic and theoretical works run the risk of their titles not even being known by the reader; and, as they do not circulate, the possibility of not finding editors increases.

This means that globalization corresponds to the creation of a greater abyss separating the developed world from the rest. Against such an abyss, it must be said that the study of literary fiction itself needs to be reformulated and that its drastic separation from neighboring areas, such as philosophy and anthropology, is catastrophic for it. How, for example, continue to ignore the consequences that Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has drawn from the “Amerindian perspectivism”, which he himself formulated in The inconstancy of the wild soul (2002)?

This happens for two reasons: on the one hand, literary fiction, as fiction – that is, a discursive modality that, not based on concepts, calls into question accepted truths, without itself presenting itself as truth –, is unable to become self-aware and, on the other hand, are unable to compete with electronic media products; let the multiplication of the fake news, taken by many as examples of fictionality.

Two immediate consequences arise from this: (a) the scarcity of theoretical reflection favors the perpetuation of traditional critical judgments. Our literary canon is maintained less for ideological reasons than for lack of inquiry; (b) with that, it increases the impossibility of effective comparison with works from other literatures, which then remain unknown and, while unknown, increase the abyss in relation to our works.

What is possible to do against it? It is appropriate to examine the issue of national literature, certainly not to deny it or to deny the function of history, but to penetrate properly into its object. Failure to do so implies that the concept of national has no limits. If so, why does nobody consider the nationality of scientific knowledge? The extension of the expression of nationality to literature and culture in general was inevitable in the context of the XNUMXth century. In addition to the code remaining common until the middle of the century, it defended the independence of areas that, in Europe itself, remained colonized or subaltern.

Nowadays, doing so means reducing literature to the documentation of everyday life, to the issue of gender or sexual identification. If such a reduction is no less absurd because it is widely practiced, how can it be overcome without theoretical reflection and the removal of obstacles that separate it from philosophical or anthropological inquiry? And how to establish it keeping in parentheses the understanding of the fictional?

* Luiz Costa Lima Professor Emeritus at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC/RJ) and literary critic. Author, among other books, of The ground of the mind: the question for fiction (Unesp).


Luiz Costa Lima. The audacity of the poem: essays on modern and contemporary Brazilian poetry. São Paulo, Unesp, 2022, 400 pages (

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