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This Craft of Verse

A marvelous writer once stated with regard to a lesser writer (I shall spare you both their identities) that "self-conscious eclectic literariness" was the genuine sign of postmodernism, that dreadful beast that has Grendeled our beautiful world.  That designation is only true by virtue of the inclusion of "self–conscious," the hallmark of the modern mind who thinks so much about himself that he either forgets that other people’s opinions may be superior to his, or so much about others’ opinions that he fails to see his own genius.  Another marvelous writer — at times, the most marvelous — had a lovely observation on this fact:
I think that one of the sins of modern literature is that it is too self–conscious.  For example, I think of French literature as being one of the great literatures in the world (I don’t suppose anyone could doubt this).  Yet I have been made to feel that French authors are generally too self–conscious.  A French writer begins by defining himself before he quite knows what he is going to write.  He says: What should (for example) a Catholic born in such–and–such province, and being a bit of a socialist, write?  Or: How should we write after the Second World War?  I suppose there are many people all over the world who labor under those illusory problems.
Far too many, but their number is no longer legion.  We are returning, little by little, to a world with values — eternal, moral values, the only type that resists all movements, waves, and so–called revolutions.  People are growing sick and tired of relativism, or hearing how whatever one throws on a defenseless canvas or page must be deemed equal to the great masterpieces of all our centuries.  What the proponents of the smears and bangs that compose modern “art” perhaps do not know is that there has been inferior stuff floating about in every century; there have been puppets and pantomimes and infantile attempts at significance that make anyone with a drachma of aesthetic taste shudder; but history has wisely chosen to obliterate them.  True art defies all these mindless categories and rises above them to a greater arena: that of the morally admirable.  And of all twentieth–century writers, perhaps no one is as morally admirable as Jorge Luis Borges.   

978-0-674-00290-6-thumb.jpgIf you have never read Borges, this short collection of six lectures he gave from memory at this renowned institution of higher learning forty years ago will readily impart the bones and twigs of his fortress.  For those of us who read Borges every week, we get a rare opportunity at seeing himself present his ideas orally and, most interestingly, in English (Borges, owing to familial diversity, was bilingual from an early age).  Borges is obsessed — and all great writers are obsessed — with certain works, lines, authors, periods of language (Old Norse and Anglo–Saxon, for example) but not really with big, bland ideas, the fodder for the literary criticism he so shunned.  His lectures, he claims, are about poetry, but then he adds prose and verse are "all one."  He postulates some ideas about translation, a field in which he often exceeded the work he rendered into Spanish, then quickly retracts them.  He retracts any idea pursued to too great a length for the simple reason that he wishes it to remain a hint or suggestion and not to become an argument:
As I understand it, anything suggested is far more effective than anything laid down.  Perhaps the human mind has a tendency to deny a statement.  Remember what Emerson said: arguments convince nobody.  They convince nobody because they are arguments .... But when something is merely said or — better still — hinted at, there is a kind of hospitality in our imagination.
This explanation, coupled with Borges’s admission that he does not write novels out of laziness (only half–true) and owing to novels’ inherent padding (movement from scene to scene, continuity, etc.), gives us the core belief of his world: that poetry, even poetry expressed in prose, remains the only way in which anything of any substance can be conveyed.  When we think back on our lives, we want our memories to be poetic, we want each last promise, farewell, or ecstasy to suggest more than it could say explicitly.  We want a world of hints, allegations, and mystery, because that way we remain at least partially undiscovered, still waiting for the perfect soul to understand us.  Like any good poem or novel waits patiently for its perfect reader.

Since these lectures are given from memory (Borges was almost completely blind at the time), there are repetitions that may lead the casual reader to think Borges the type of older gentlemen ensnared in a handful of trivial detail that he likes to inflict upon younger generations as his contribution to the world of Truth.  Borges surely loved detail and does have certain favorite themes and authors, but he was far too careful a speaker and interviewee to allow himself to get more than superficially embroiled in a dispute that could only be resolved in writing.  For the purpose of his talks, he limits himself to literary moments where he finds real poetic insight, including lines or phrases from Keats ("thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!"), the Ode of Brunanburh, Lugones, Chesterton, Stevenson, Carlyle, Frost (especially his pre–sleep miles), and an obscure quote ("a rose–red city, half as old as Time," referring to this city, one of the Seven New Wonders of the World) from an obscure writer whose name even Borges cannot recall.  An amazing fact if one believes the story that Borges still remembered in 1976 an eight–stanza poem recited to him by a Romanian refugee in 1916, although Borges himself never spoke Romanian.

The web of these notions (to borrow Stevenson’s metaphor) comprises what one thinks of when asked to define poetry, which Borges calls, very tentatively, "the expression of the beautiful through the medium of words artfully woven together."  He and his readers all know that this definition is insufficient because poetry defines itself by expanding its reach over what we find poetic.  Over time and many pages, we come to understand the difference between what is vulgar, platitudinous and morally indefensible, and what is just, poetic and moral.  Whether morality itself is inherently poetic may be a matter of scrutiny and perhaps even of taste, but as Borges warns all frivolous relativists: "if a reader thinks that you have a moral defect, there is no reason whatever why he should admire you or put up with you."  And not having any moral defect at all is the divine word itself, from poet or god, that he so worships.      

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