One of the characteristics of 20th century Brazilian poetry has been its organization in the “form” of literary movements, echoing European and later North American literary and visual art vanguards. “Form” here is understood in Wittgenstein’s sense, in the Tractatus: “The form is the possibility of the structure.” The first of these movements, Modernism, launched in 1922, by Mário and Oswald de Andrade, raised issues that remain alive even today. Oswald de Andrade’s “Brazil-wood Poetry Manifesto” (1924), received some affirmative response in Concretism in 1956, and in Tropicalism in 1967. Oswald advocated an international Brazilian poetry open to exchanging ideas with other poetries on an equal basis, and was interested in the incorporation and reconstitution of foreign influences into an active and original Brazilian poetry. Up to the 20’s, the feeling was “never exportation of poetry,” reflecting the idea that Brazilian poetry did not have a sufficient identity to create dialogue.
Oswald: “Just being Brazilians of our time. Only the necessary chemistry, mechanics, economy, ballistics. All digested. Practical. Experimental. Without bookish reminiscences. Without backing comparisons…”. Concentrated here are the issues that every Brazilian poet of each movement — and even the independent poets — have sought to address. Exporting Brazilian poetry meant — and still means — putting Brazillian poetry in active dialogue with the poetry of other poetries so that it ceases to be only the passive receptacle of influences. Exporting Brazilian poetry disrupts the condition of “being peripheral”. Still alive and essential, the challenges presented by Modernism, and not only by Oswald, found sound answers in the poetry of Raul Bopp, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira, Murilo Mendes, and later, in that of Vinicius de Moraes (creator of the Bossa Nova, a movement, from the musical viewpoint, richer than Tropicalism), and João Cabral de Melo Neto.
Later, these challenges were readdressed by Concretism, which restated the need for acting in an exploratory, experimental way as the main path for the creation of the Brazilian poetry. Besides “inventing” a Brazillian form of quality literary translation, Concretism launched, and more or less bound together, even if only temporarily, good poets such as Haroldo de Campos, Ferreira Gullar, Augusto de Campos, Afonso Ávila — not to mention Mário Faustino, up until his untimely death. The issue of a Brazilian exploratory art remained alive in the Tropicalism of Caetano Veloso and Torquato Neto, a movement that fused “high” and “low” cultures via pop music. As of the 1970’s, Tropicalism’s significance began to fade as creativity waned , above all, its discourse lost the vital “movement” content of group interaction. Certainly, one of the causes was the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. The lack of hope for a socialist utopia — for solidarity -was a second cause. In any case, by the 1970s, the collective proposals of Concretism (such as parting with the “romantic” concept of authorship) and Tropicalism (such as the rethinking of local/universal, developed/underdeveloped) had become frozen in the work of their creators. Indeed, these movements seemed to transform themselves into literary-musical schools with their own “standards.” On the one hand, this allowed for a strong regrouping of the ever-present conservative poetics that is opposed to social and aesthetic change (which nowadays is neo-Parnasian, late neo-Modernist, and a visual poetry of repetition). On the other hand, the dissolution of these movements allowed a space for creative individual responses – with the disadvantage that such responses had little visibility in terms of Brazilian poetry’s identity as an inventive art. However, the most consequential result of the lack of a collective and renewed “agenda” for innovation was the establishing of an authoritarianism in the public representation of the activity and thinking of poets, critics, scholars; that is the spreading of the myth that there was but a “single model” for innovation (Concretism), a myth that enforces “conservativeness” without acknowledging it. The issue of what it means to be Brazilian at this particular time in our history was never — has never been — addressed. Almost everyone accepted this or that labeling under the umbrella of a poorly conceived and diffuse idea of “post-modernism”.
Torquato Neto (1944 – 1972) anticipated this crisis situation in the post-tropicalist text “you call me up”: “you call me up / I wanna go to the movies / you bawl me out / and my love doesn’t please / you love me / but that train’s already moved on / how much time / that time’s been gone.” In this context, it is important to note the differing consciousness that enfolds in the poem: a consciousness that is at first naive (“I wanna go to the movies”) and loving (“my love doesn’t please”), but then abruptly reveals, in language and content, the consciousness of an era (concretist and “pop”) that is over: “how much time / that time’s been gone.” The perception that “that time’s been gone” and that now there is an emptiness echoes the sense of many younger poets in the 70s and 80s about the state of Brazilian poetry. (There are remarkable,coincident similarities between L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry, — the poetry of the lung — and the texts of the dispersed Brazilian authors.1 ) The “certitude” that “that time’s been gone” reappears in the 80’s in “Traveling Theater” by Duda Machado (1944 – ) — that reports, in a parody, the story of actors that performed for three years the same play and routinely and successfully became alienated from the original text. The poem “depicts” the uneasiness caused by the “loss of the original” and, ironically, the joy of recovering it, but now under the condition of its repetition or “school”: “In the dressing rooms, the actors could hardly look at each other. Only later, over dinner at the hotel restaurant, did they realize, with excitement, that they had followed every dialogue, every scene, from the original play…”.2 Duda’s poetry, in another text from 1980’s entitled “Happening” recovers the need for innovation, now with positive and complete inflection, different from the ones proposed by concretist and tropicalist movements: “anybody / some nobody / someone else / who / in turn / mirage / of mirrored reflections / point / of intersection of the real / it was / it is written.” The subject abandons the mirage form (impossibility) or the mirrored reflection (copyist) to affirm, arriving in the present time: “it is written.”
Resuming the innovation in tone — in a different way (in Brazil, more than the “anxiety of influence” there is the “anxiety of the influential”) — was a constant in the life and work of Paulo Leminski (1944-1989). Some of his lines, extremely critical and bitter, may be read in this direction:”let me vanish / let me melt / let me fall apart / until / after me / after us / after all / nothing but charm / is left,” a poem from 1979 whose strength reflects, among other things, the emptying out of the vanguards, which have become consumer products.
There is, however, a poem published in Leminski’second collected work, Polonaises (1980),that synthesizes the tensions that I seek to address here about innovation and contemporary spirit from a Brazilian perspective of independence and dialogue: “once / we were going to be homer / the work an iliad no less / later / things got tougher / we could maybe manage rimbaud / an ungaretti some fernando pessoa / a lorca a ginsberg an éluard / finally / we ended up the minor provincial poet / we were always / hiding behind the many masks / time treated as flowers.” The poem foregrounds issues of imitation and provincialism, among other things, present in all Brazilian poetry of the 2Oth century. (We continue, at last, “after all,” to have a strong poetry but with ineffectual worldwide dissemination.) I want to focus, however, on one aspect of Leminsi’s poem :that of the rescue — through denial — of the capacity for innovation and diversity that characterizes contemporary Brazilian poetry,a capacity that goes beyond the militant discourse and rigidity of movements. Regarding this poem, I quote Wittgenstein: “It is essential that the thing be a constituent part of a state of things.” Literary movements, that is, movements that inaugurate new “standards” of perception (French symbolism, Portuguese futurism, Surrealism, Beat poetry, etc.) are represented (ironically) by their authors (is Pessoa more important than Portuguese Futurism ?), only to be, in the last stanza of Leminski’s poem,reduced to masks,as fragile as short-lived as flowers.The awareness of transitory nature of all “movements” is the touchstone of this poem — that constituting a new state of things displaces the “scholastic” and emphasizes the need for the permanent invention of an OTHER — anyone one, no one — giving clues for a new poetry, not only Brazilian,but a poetry of present:
EL CANTE HONDO
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
More often than not cante hondo
ignores this distinction :
its most plaintive lament
ends in a explosion.
So taut is its tension,
so living flesh its repertoire
that, unsheathing into song,
it shatters the sheath and explodes. (4)
1. For an approach of the concept of Language Poetry, a movement that refused to become a school or the idea of movement, in the traditional sense, I quote a passage of the introduction by Douglas Messerli to the anthology “Language Poetries” (New Directions, 1987): “… For these poets, language is not something that explains or translates experience, but is the source of experience. Language is perception, thought itself; and in that context the poems of these writers do not function as ‘frames’ of experience of brief narrative summaries of ideas and emotions as they do for many current poets…”Or still: “Language is not a movement in the traditional art sense, since the value of giving an aesthetic line such profile seems counterproductive to the inherent value of the work…”.
2. Notice the coincidence of the text My Life, by Lyn Hejinian, and “Traveling Theater” by Duda Machado. I quote here the beginning of Hejinian’s poem: “Summers were spent in a fog that rains. I had claimed the radio nights for my own. There were more storytellers than there were stories, so that everyone in the family had a version of hístory and it was impossible to get close to the original…” (Language Poetries, p. 34.).
3. All poems discussed in this essay are in Nothing the Sun Could not Explain: 20 Contemporary Brazilian Poets, ed. Michael Palmer, Régis Bonvicino and and Nelson Ascher (Sun & Moon Press, 1997): “you call me up,” tr. Dana Stevens; “Traveling Theater” tr. Regina Alfarano and Dana Stevens; “happening” tr. Regina Alfarano; “Let me vanish” tr. Regina Alfarano; and “once” tr. Robert Creeley and Regina Alfarano.
4. The final citation is a poem by João Cabral de Melo Neto, in the book Museu de Tudo (José Olympio Editora, 1985, Rio de Janeiro), tr. from the Portuguese by Guy Bennett and Régis Bonvicino.