Poetry and society

Peter McClure, Silent Melody, 2017.


Excerpts from a conversation with Guto Leite

A definition of poetry

Two words that, in my opinion, distinguish the concept of poetry are breadth and variability. Any extreme rigidity in the attempt to define what poetry is will harm the perception of the historical, social and literary importance of this human phenomenon. To appeal to common sense, it is necessary, at least, to consider that the boundaries of this specific work with language are mobile and that such boundaries vary over time, under the conditions of the historical process. It will be up to poets and readers to decide which, among the definitions of poetry, best suits their experience of producing meaning through the poetic.

That said, to directly address your question, I like the idea of ​​thinking about poetry as an aesthetic form that is constituted through a very peculiar use of language. A use that intensively explores the expressive potentialities of the language. And language, it is worth highlighting, is always a social, political, collective construction. The poem is written individually by the poet, who does so, however, with tools that were not created by him, nor do they belong only to him, they are constructions of the community to which he belongs. This is a deep link between poetry and the historical process.

In these terms, when I consider poetry as an aesthetic form, I think of something that reflects, through specific means, circumstantial reality and creates a new plane of relations of meaning, relatively autonomous, endowed with its own laws, which support its coherence and give it organicity and integrity. When producing a poem, the poet works with the world, processes it, using the intensity of the words, which are his raw material. In this scheme, which seeks not to restrict the concept, as I can understand, it fits, for example, Gregório de Matos and Francisco Alvim; or Byron and Olavo Bilac.

The poetic work

Perhaps we can adjust the terms of your first inquiry. For me, poetry is everyday work. If we consider poetry as a form of interpretation of reality that subjects that same reality to the radicality of the word and transforms it, and recreates it, I believe I can say that it is constant in my intellectual experience. A poet friend here in Brasília, Nicolas Behr, likes to say that “the poet is always writing”, even if it is not with pencil and paper in hand. Poetry is, from this perspective, before the poem happens, a certain type of attention to life, to the world, to oneself, crossed by a second-degree attention, which is linked to the concrete appeal of the word.

This is what generates a special type of awareness of the world, which is so necessary for the poem to occur, especially if we think about what the theory will call lyricism. In this way, I believe it is possible to find an affinity between researching, analyzing, teaching poetry classes and writing poems. I consider that literary art is, above all, as György Lukács would say, “critical of life”. This principle is fundamental in the activities that I am lucky enough to carry out in a multidirectional enrichment way, that is: teaching helps with writing, which helps with analysis, which feeds on research, which supports the class... and so on. It seems somewhat circular, but, across the board, what I take advantage of is accumulation, advancement.

Poetry in the classroom

My book Poetry in the classroom is based on a principle that seems inescapable to me when we think about “teaching literature”: the place of literature is in school, but it is necessary to deschool the teaching of literature. By this I mean that the school is the space that allows access to the right to literature. However, for this right to be effectively achieved by readers in training, they must be encouraged to actively participate in the production of meaning, which is only possible due to the aesthetic dimension of the literary text.

If we think about “poetry at home”, I think it is possible to conceive forms of domestic interaction in which poetry becomes more present in everyday life. From this aspect, it seems to me that oral forms, such as songs and other manifestations of our popular culture, play an important role. In my case, for example, I can say that I was introduced to poetry and became interested in it because of these types of oral manifestations that were constant in my daily family life.

Poetry and popular song

Brazilian popular song is the cultural system in which a strong conception of poetry developed in a more amplified and consistent way. Our song experience in the 20th century fully attests to this. Going over the theoretical nitpicks of the distinction between poem and song, we will see that, in Brazil, the most well-finished form that poetry found to reverberate and make everyday sense in people's lives was the popular song. So much so that many popular composers came from literature and many poem authors came from popular song.

As I mentioned in the answer to the previous question, my experience with poetry was mainly driven by attention to popular songs, which were encouraged to me from an early age. I am part of a generation of writers, and more specifically poets, who began writing because they formed their sensitivity to words through daily immersion in popular song. To this day, when I write a poem, I like to experiment with dialogues with phrases, rhymes and rhythms from popular songs.

Dialogue with Carlos Drummond

The dialogue between my poetry and Drummond is more conscious and therefore perhaps more explicit than in the case of other influences. It is his “realistic” tuning fork that interests me, that is: a tension between subjectivity and objectivity that is presented without exaggeration, without emphasis, without effects, illusions or self-indulgence. Drummond writes by placing this vital tension naked, hot, in front of the reader. This is what his poetic language reverberates and what fascinates me about it. A world that is both described and interpreted, in a movement that reveals a tense and problematic balance between the individual and society.

However, there are other more deep-rooted influences, which appear naturally when I write poetry: Bandeira (which I read a lot as a teenager), Cabral (which I read freely in my youth), Gullar (which I read a lot when I started to develop the tools of literary criticism dialectic). When I was more mature, I systematically read Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Pasolini and Dante. I always return to all of these, like a kind of encyclopedia in which I feed on ideas and sensations.

The poetic gesture

Most of the time the poem begins to come together for me through a sentence or two. Such a phrase is already the result of contact with a factor, so to speak, extra-form: a feeling, a fact, a landscape, a song, etc. This phrase that appears initially is already a poem and contains, perhaps, the best that the future text could result in terms of critical and creative appropriation of life. It already contains rhythm, rhyme, meter, figures, etc. Manuel Bandeira said that “Every great verse is a poem within a poem”. The subsequent poetic work, in general, consists of filling in the surroundings of this matrix phrase.

When I was a younger poet, I was very concerned that the poem present strong images that provoke the reader. Nowadays, I'm much more concerned with rhythm, which seems increasingly legitimate to me as the mainstay of a good poem. So, if I could choose (but we are not always given to do so) I would start to write a poem around the feeling of rhythm, so that it leads to the “setback” that is the existence of a poem, which exactly through the rhythm peculiarly, dialectically, it is distinguished and linked to the course of life.

What motivates me to write poetry is the restlessness inherent in the poetic process. There is no point in writing poetry if there is no restlessness. Therefore, poetry, for me, is always a search. I am often asked about a particular poem or verse: “What did you mean here?” I like to respond, in these cases, that I wrote it to try to figure out what I wanted to say. Also in this aspect, poetry is search, restlessness and dissatisfaction. A poet satisfied with his poetry suffers from alienation, in the worst sense of the term.

I think this modestly guaranteed some progress in my work. Twenty years ago, when I published my first book, poems were written to prove to others and to myself that I could be a poet. Today this concern no longer exists and I can write poems without the anxiety of being recognized as someone capable of writing them. Today I write for the poems and not for the poet that they will help to constitute in the eyes of others. Perhaps this is the basic transformation.

But, if we think about continuities throughout my work, even there, in those first poems, dissatisfaction with writing was a strong presence. Today I can understand the importance of this more clearly. It's like the verses of a Nação Zumbi song: “Without boredom, hungry for everything” – for me this is a motto that keeps the poet alive and seals his poetry as an antenna for the demands of life.

Poetry and translation

From the point of view of a poet, translating poetry is, above all, an excellent exercise. The work of translation teaches (or reiterates) the poet the immense value of each choice (vocabulary, metric, sound, etc.) and its consequences. Today, I certainly think and ponder every choice I make when writing my poems much more, thanks to the attempts at translating poetry that I have made. Translating poetry is also creating a new poetic text – as some important names in our literary translation have already said.

To a certain extent, the translator is a co-author of the poems in the target language, so he needs to be aware that he must respect what is expressed in the source language. However, this respect, as it is co-authorship, should not repress the creative possibilities of approaching the original material. Contrary to the old adage that distinguishes the translator as a traitor, I think that, in the best cases, the translator is an expander of meanings.

Why poetry?

In my book, I try to outline some important lines for working with literature in the classroom, more specifically poetry. One of these goals is not to distrust the intelligence and sensitivity of students, which is revealed in their ability to discover meanings, sometimes quite unusual, in artistic form. The methodology for approaching poetry in the classroom needs to include this guideline and, thus, not rob the student of the “right to discovery”, as Antonio Gramsci said, which I quote in the book.

Considering poetry in a broad way, which encompasses, for example, rap, embolada, cordel, sonnet, funk, elegy, popular song, is also fundamental in order to be able to move between the interests of students and the world of poetry furthest from his everyday life. The role of the literature teacher is to train readers and this necessarily involves encouraging the expansion of students' reading repertoire. “But after all”, the future teacher might ask, “why poetry?”

Let's get to the heart of the problem: capitalist society is based on totalitarian and monopolizing schemes, it lives and reproduces itself through monitoring, control and repression of the senses. The freedom it proclaims is exquisite, because it is pierced to the core by merchandise. Everything tends, in this aspect, to become fetishized. Literature has the ability to naturally rebel against this – it is the space of the historically new and of possible disalienation and needs to be available especially to those who think that it does not concern them.

Well, unless I'm mistaken, poetry can accomplish all of this in a radical way. Reading together with students and listening to them about what they read is essential for them to come closer to formulating their own and independent meaning for poetry in their lives. As the masterful Russian writer Anton Chekhov wrote in “The Bride”, one of his late short stories, “The main thing is to transform life, everything else is secondary”. It's funny that poetry awakens us to the truth of the first part of this statement being, perhaps, the most secondary thing in the world.

*Alexander Pilati is a poet and professor of Brazilian literature at the University of Brasília (UnB). Author, among other books, of Quiet Earth and other distance poems (Caravan).

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