Notes on Poetry by Luis Muñoz
Fragments by Luis Muñoz, From Behind What Landscape
tr. by Curtis Bauer
[embargoed text; not yet published in book form, please do not print or share]
When I am about to write a poem I often have the feeling of a last opportunity. Maybe because each poem, or the larvae of each poem, could be the occasion to write what in previous attempts I couldn’t, what I didn’t take advantage of, that ticklish web that comes up between the fingers, with multiple levels of depth and that seems to be full of possibility and feeling, but results in little. Maybe it’s also because all poems have something testamentary, an anteroom of silence. Because they want to contain a definitive combination of words, they want to transgress a zone of language in which everything abounds with meaning, and at this moment they say nothing more.
In Heroic Reason, Juan Ramón Jiménez wrote that “the most noble state of mankind is permanent transition.” I think transition, as well as being noble, is also inevitable. We are in transition because we move, or because something moves us, and stopping is an optical illusion and a historic illusion with errors of perspective.
Ever since I was a teen, and I think this period stays with us our whole life, I have felt a fascination for the dizzying movement of fish markets, for their extremes of cleanliness and filth, their beauty and hideousness, that hint of the sea and terrestrial prey inside them. “They’re alive,” say the ones who know about these things, as they scrutinize their eyes, their gills and the color of their scales, confirming that death has not yet left its marks. I think the poetry is in the yet. The poet works, like the fishmonger who cleans the fish, against time. He has in his hands material that is the promise of both nourishment and of rot.
The first poet I ever read, like so many Spanish children, was Juan Ramón Jiménez. In grade school we had to read Platero and I, and after reading a few fragments of that book, I imagined I had obtained a vibrant sense of reality and an enlargement of what was small, of the instant, of the invisible married to the visible. I felt like he included me in his lines; they didn’t force me to be a giant or to reject the negligible, like so many day-to-day situations, but invited me to be more observant of what was around me, and to feel the power inside tenderness. Then his poems, which I first searched for in his Second Poetic Anthology, opened up like a universe full of encouraging instructions, light musical games, like small music boxes that left their fingerprint on me in the form of understanding myself through life and poetry.
Juan Ramón Jiménez also awoke something strange in me: poetry not only protected me from life but invited me to join it, because it continuously selected, like a sensor, the important little things, which could be the smallest connections of the senses, like in the poem "Poet on the Horse":
Such violet quiet,
along the path, in the fading light!
By horse the poet rides out…
Such violet quiet!
When I read the poem I hadn’t yet ridden a horse, but I’d go to the country with my parents and siblings most weekends loaded with breaded fillets, orange soda, cinnamon cookies, and when we’d get there I’d remember, as if in a flash, the verses of Juan Ramón Jiménez, their emotional echo and their aura of sensual attention. I wanted to be Juan Ramón Jiménez, that sensitive, suffering being who the children, in one of the sections of Platero and I, called crazy and followed through the street, shouting at him; however, I didn’t want to write his poems, but to try my own, which always ended up being exercises in imitation of his work.
What always pulls at me, like a persistent hand tugging on my shirt sleeve or at my pant leg, is the poem I haven’t written. Hey, it asks me, when is it my turn?
The blank code of my unwritten poem is inflated with announcements of what it could be and swagger. Much more than a poem already written, where limitations have already ended up imposing themselves and where initial intentions end up lowering their head in embarrassment…
My unwritten poem drinks from the tap of several varieties of common language, from the language of my family, my friends, bus stops, buses, trains, cell phone conversations, television, internet…and it comes to a stop when it thinks it finds fresh nuances, shiny threads, newly unsatisfied necessities that it feels are urgent and intimate.
My unwritten poem believes, absolutely, in the expressive capacity of language, but at the same time it feels, naturally, its helplessness. Two points of tension and a resulting movement of words, which accomplish little but attempt everything, and which do not like to elevate themselves to another category unless it is the category of enormous effort, one of implied difficulty.
Even in spite of the visible shortcomings of my poems that one day took a step and passed through the thin membrane of writing, my unwritten poem—which bid them farewell with a white handkerchief in the same airport from which it hopes to depart one day—intends for its words to reach the many spaces that it imagines are reserved just for them. Spaces that it pampers and that have forms molded by a whim, some soft or brittle, others strangely offensive and airy.
My unwritten poem often thinks that it enjoys a kind of purgatory. Is it suffering for something, maybe it’s paying for someone else’s sins, or are they its own? Purgatory grants it, in any case, the possibility to imagine a formidable body for itself, elasticity, amusement, luminosity, strength, as well as unusual tours, reversible adventures, the astonishment of new landscapes and everyday landscapes suddenly discovered.
My unwritten poem thinks it is one of those who notices everything, and when it realizes how many things it misses, its first reaction is one of helplessness and anger, of demoralization and self-defiance, but immediately after, it feels the relief of its unwritten condition, of its coming and going without exposing itself, of the benefits of its long wait.
My unwritten poem has a clearly contemplative vocation, not only for the inevitable observation of things that it usually submits itself to, which comes from a kind of intimate slowness, but because it believes that poetry is born there—Santa Teresa de Jesús famously meditating “a long time on what water is”—and also because sometimes it aspires to represent the very act of contemplation in its own lines.
My unwritten poem thinks that poetry, more than any hybrid between the physical and metaphysical, or between the figurative and the abstract, is their coincidence.
My unwritten poem believes that its only possibility for growth is to connect with forms that promise a sense of the elusiveness of life—images, stories, ideas, sensations—and that to converse with and debate the poetic tradition, with the electricity of the right now, is one of these forms.
My unwritten poem has the illusion that it will belong to a family of written poems, among which are some by Ida Vitale, Juan Gelman, Luis Antonio de Villena, Adam Zagajewski and John Burnside, but also belong to their unwritten poems, those that it thinks it can sense, as through opaque glass.
My unwritten poem has, naturally, its collection of phobias, of aversions, but it doesn’t believe that now is the time for that.
I admit that I think of a reader who is like me, who has limitations like mine and looks for poems that resolve the tension that arises from two principle concerns that, according to Osip Mandelstam, confront the poet. The first is how to make the heart express itself. The second is how to make others understand you.
In my book Dear Silence I wanted to come to silence as if it were the first correspondent of these poems, and as a result their first reader. I thought of that ordinary and malleable silence, post-Mallarméan, imperfect, the impure silence of the day-to-day, which is one of the shapes solitude adopts. Silence is, above all else, the lack of a response, a kind of disturbing white wall.
Is it better to write poems than not write them? That is a question that poets often face. While I was writing the book I remembered something I was told as a child when I said something stupid or told a lie: “You’ve just missed a perfect opportunity to keep your mouth shut.”
Writing poetry is losing the opportunity to keep your mouth shut, that is, to leave intact that huge, perfect mass of silence, which includes everything, and it is also earning the opportunity to speak. We remain silent, Sor Juana said and Octavio Paz remembered, “not because we have nothing to say, but because we do not know how to say everything we would like to say.”
Poetry never stops defining and redefining its terrain. It has done so throughout history, since Aristotle, Cascales or Antonio Minturno. But this task, which seems like a kind of prison sentence, is also a fountain of intensity, a force.
Poetry is obligated to move, like a nomadic tribe. And in that motion, in the stops along that route that so often has the character of an escape and of exhaustion, it paradoxically becomes invigorated, fortified.
Poetry leaves its marks on history, and in doing so leaves marks in front of itself. The fingerprint of a poet is in that poet’s struggle to mark out the territory of the poetry of his time.
Since the end of the nineteenth century, if we can refer to the poetry I prefer, poetry has modulated its intonation—its intertwined specialty and its temporality—in its capacity to create symbols—episodes, stories, characters, images…the fleeting arithmetics that reveal something of the function of human nature.
But the poetry I prefer defines its situation as a zone of intersection between the world of what one has and the world that escapes us, between what one can know more or less logically and what one can only know intuitively. The poet is the hunter of symbols in this zone of intersection, which is also the zone that matches the same artifact in the verbal world of concepts, of attachments and sensations. A hunter, then, of correspondences, to use Baudelaire’s beloved word, who with the trajectory of his shots, unites.
Luis Cernuda writes in The History of a Book that “what’s marvelous about poetry is the inexhaustible possibility that exists in it.” This statement, coming from a poet as concentrated on his own world as Cernuda, so uncomfortable with verbal play and experimentation, seems illuminating. Because he informs us about one process, that of seeing poetry as an unlimited world with limits imposed upon it by the skills of the poet, his imagination, his expressive necessities and not any external prejudice. Miguel Unamuno also wrote, with intelligent cacophony that “all true poets are heretics, and the heretic is one who abides by postcepts and not precepts, to results and not premises, to creations, meaning poems, and not decrees, meaning dogmas.”
During the 80s and 90s certain schools of Spanish poetry circulated slogans; one was assembled around a poetry in the realist style and another around the metaphysical style; I think they served their function, because they contributed to the affirmation of the personality of a few poets and to define their aesthetic space, but seemed to be of little service to anyone else. That was the sensation I had while I wrote and thought about the poems in my book September. I admired some poets of the time, which comes through in some of the verses in the book, but I also saw that my way of understanding poetry didn’t coincide with either of the opposing groups. Or at least I did not coincide with the set of their ideas, nor was I on the list of poets who were and were not bandied about by either one.
One of Gabriel Ferrater’s ideas, that a poem should have the same common sense as a business letter, worked for some poets, among them Ferrater himself, but for me seemed sterile. My idea of what a poem could be wasn’t able to get past the comparison with a business letter. The protopoem dried up before even having a chance to become a poem.
A reflection of José Ángel Valente, that “all poetic acts consist, consciously or not, in an effort to perforate the infinite tunnel of remembrances, to drag them from or toward their origin,” paralyzed me, creating in my imagination a barrier of responsibility I couldn’t overcome.
I was unable in any way to assimilate the debates about clarity and obscurity, which in another sense have spanned the history of Spanish poetry like a reproach, because clarity and obscurity, as general objectives, formed no part of my early concerns. It was each poem that created its space of light and shadows.
The reading of Ungaretti’s poems and his essays and declarations about the nature of poetry helped me observe with a certain perspective this intersection of slogans in order to construct for myself a dialogue with different ways of understanding poetry, and most of all, to formulate my own questions around it. Ungaretti’s conception of his own work as that of someone who has reflected deeply on poetic rhetoric, but whose major concern was to find a mode of expression that would correspond entirely with his life as a man, which is what he says at the beginning of Ragioni di una poesia, helped me understand that the task is solitary and must work, as Ungaretti also said to reaffirm, “the integrity, autonomy and dignity of the individual.”
In one of the poems in my book Dear Silence, “Leave Poetry,” I listed possible motives for definitive silence, the silence of not writing. While I was writing it I began to realize that all of these reasons were reversible and that they could also serve as reasons not to give up writing poetry. On the other hand, I was attracted by the contradiction involved in addressing the topic of abandoning poetry precisely by writing a poem.
Silence works, with regard to poetry, like a provocation. To write is to follow the impulse of that provocation, so that silence, in a certain sense, causes the poem. And the poet, with respect to silence, behaves like someone pressing his ear to its tissues, trying to guess what is happening on the other side. The poet is a listener.