Expansive Poetics 17 – Fernando Pessoa – 2

Portrait of Fernando Pessoa by Almada Negreiros, 1954

AG: “I’m going to take off my tie!”…

Student: Wow, he was a pretty restricted guy!..

AG: Yes, but in his imagination, Whitmanic… but funnier than Whitman, in a way. It’s a parody of  Whitman. It’s taking Whitman up on his word totally and taking it to such a total extreme that Whitman becomes a reductio ad absurdum. And, at the same time, it gives us the same sentimental good wil, charm, humane imagination, tolerance, amusement as Whitman. Just taking Whitman further and becoming a Whitman-freak, a Whitman fanatic, taking him to where William Buckley, or the anti-Whitman cynic, could take it, parodying it, but, at the same time, some ultimate Whitmanic enthusiasm (there) that wins out, enthusiasm and sympathy. It does win out. It’s like Whitman broke out in(to) this St. Vitus Dance, and all of a sudden these people on Wall Street, in Portugal, are sort of breaking out and taking off their clothes and taking off their ties and saying, “I, too – Me too”. And there’s a world plague, everybody suddenly getting the Whitmanic fury, Whitmanic fever on Broadway (or Scarsdale (New York), and suddenly declaring themselves to be the universe, also. Well, like a bunch of acid-heads, basically.

Pessoa wrote under the name(s) Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis (and) Alvaro de Campos

Student: Oh

AG: He wrote (in) all forms, including sonnets. This..[Allen points to Honig‘s translations] (is) Swallow Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1971. I can understand how this book never got to be a best-seller, because it’s just terrific! –  (There are) many, many, many great poems in here, with the same energy and vivacity and exuberance.

It’s this type, or this style, that I had in mind when I called it “heroic” (or “expansive”, certainly) – “Expansive Twentieth-Century Poetry” – Certainly the breath is expansive, the spirit is expansive. It’s not scared to be ridiculous. There is actually a seizure of imagination. The guy gets hold of an idea, of a perception, of a great perception, and then unobstructedly, unabashedly, without check – unchecked – pushes it to its extreme. Like a single idea – or a single slightly impalpable perception he makes palpable in many different ways until you get the basic idea,  but you’re not sure exactly what the spirit is, or whether it’s a hoax. I mean, is it a hoax to think that you can be everything?. In other words, if you say the mind is infinitely variant, and the mind is uncontrollable (the mind is the mind, and the mind goes everywhere) and the mind has capacities for infinite empathy and compassion, and for infinite insight, and for infinite emptiness, if it is the mind, by its nature, without you having to be a big egotist to have one, because, simply, it’s not your mind, it’s just the mind, so it has nothing to do with you, it’s just a thing that’s going on all the time. If someone posits that, and further says, “Because I am this mind, therefore, why not? I’m God, I’m Buddha, I’m Walt Whitman, I’m Alvaro de Campos, I’m Fernando Pessoa, I’m the “prisoner with the drop of sweat dropping from my trembling moustache lip” – Is there some logical discontinuity there? In other words, you start out with saying that the mind is endless and you wind up saying, “I’m an idiot, I’m an angel,I’m Walt Whitman (and if he doesn’t like it, I’ll beat him to death and take over”. Because, in a sense, that’s the ideal..what do you call it? – (Mark David) Chapman, Chapman’s relation to John Lennon. “I am John Lennon”. Bang! . “I know you want me, John Lennon, here I am. I’m going to take over and relieve you of your destiny. We will be one.” Boom!

Student: Ugh!

AG: De Campos’ or Pessoa’s parodying it. I think he can do this same sort of thing in a short poem. Would you like to hear some brief….

Student: Are these all translated by Edwin Honig?

AG: All translated by Edwin Honig. I was able to send for and get this book several years ago. There’s a copy in the library for you to consult and read, incidentally. There may be another one. There’s also another book of translations. I haven’t examined this thoroughly. I have it around the house, and I think there’s one in the library also. This might have other poems I don’t think as well translated.

Under the name “Alvaro de Campos” – “I have a terrible cold/. And everybody knows how terrible colds/ change the whole structure of the universe/Making us sore at life/Making us sneeze till we get metaphysical/My day is wasted, full of blowing my nose,/My head aches vaguely,/A sad fix for a minor poet to be in./Today I’m really a minor poet/ Whatever I was turns into a dream wish that disappeared/Fairy queen, good-bye,  forever!/Your wings were sunbeams (and) my feet are clay./I’ll never be well if I don’t go to bed/ I never was well unless I was stretched out across the universe/Excusez un peu.. What a terrible physical cold!/ I need some truth and aspirin.”
That’s like a little tiny same thing. So he’s really an inspired, interesting, poet, full of mind-tricks.

Student: How was he appreciated in Portugal?

AG: Oh, he is the Portuguese twentieth-century national poetry hero

Student: Ah!

AG: Everyone knows him in Portugal.. It’s just dumb Americans (and Frenchmen and Germans) who’ve never heard of him.. and China-men, I suppose. But this is the national literature of Portugal.

And the thing that I’ve been finding in examining all these national literatures, is, that in the twentieth-century, almost every language and country has some really funny guy in the twentieth-century, has some really great poet, who, just sort of comes out of a farm or a city street or banking house or Columbia University [sic] and writes some poem that changes everybody’s head, somewhere between 1905 and 1956, I’d say. In Hungary, Juhász, Ferenc Juhász (and also, Attila József), in France, (Guillaume) Apollinaire, let us say, to begin with, and many others besides. In Russia, people like (Velimir) Khlebnikov and (Vladimir) Mayakovsky (Khlebnikov is like this in a way), French West Africa, (Leopold) Senghor (as those who have been studying with (David) Henderson in that (Naropa) Negritude class might dig), 1926 America, I’d say, Vachel Lindsay, almost. A lot of poets in America. We already had a Whitman – but every country has one.
So the purpose of the anthology I was doing was doing a survey and finding all of the terrific expansive poets I could find (which is actually an infinite task, because there’s too many countries to cover and too much literature to read. But if you ask people from different countries, they usually do have one candidate, or two, and one specific (one) that really caps it. So what we’ve been doing this last year is trying to collect such poems (like collecting stamps, sort of). So it (the anthology) is ready to go to the printer.

There’s another long long poem (from Pessoa). Let’s see. Well, here’s something

 – “Poem In A Straight Line” –  “I don’t know a soul who ever took a licking,/My friends have always been champions at everything/ And I, so often vulgar, so often obscene, so
often vile,/ I, so deliberately parasitical,/Unforgivably filthy,/I, so often without patience to take a bath,/ I, who’ve been so ridiculous, so absurd/Tripping up in public on the carpet of etiquette,/I, so grotesque and mean, submissive and insolent,/Who’ve been insulted and not said a word,/ And when putting a word in growing still more ridiculous,/I who strike chambermaids as laughable/ I who feel porters wink sarcastically,/I who’ve been scandalous about money, borrowing and not/paying it back/I, who when the time came to fight, ducked/As far as I could out of punching range,/I, who got ino a sweat over the slightest thing – /I’m convinced no one’s better than I at this sort of game/  No one I know, none of my speaking acquaintances,/Ever acted ridiculous, ever took insults,/Was anything but noble – yes, all of them princes, /living their lives../How I’d love to hear a human voice from any one of them./Confessing not to sins but to infamies,/Speaking not of violent but of cowardly acts!/But no, each one’s a Paragon, to hear them tell it./Is there no one in this whole world who will confess to me /he’s been vile just once?/All you princes, my brothers,/ Enough – I’m fed up with demigods!/Where are the real people in this world?/ Am I the only scoundrel and bungler alive?/  Maybe women don’t always fall for them./ Maybe they’ve been betrayed.But ridiculous? Never!/ And I, who’ve been ridiculous but never betrayed,/How do I speak to their Highnesses without stammering?/I, who have been vile, so utterly vile,/ Vile in the meanest and rottenest possible way” –

That’s the way he leaves it. That’s the end of the poem.

Student: Oh

AG: “Vile in the meanest and rottenest possible way”. Well, this is certainly…

tape ends here – tape continues   

[Audio for the above may be heard here, starting at approximately fifty-one-and-three-quarter minutes in and concluding approximately sixty-two minutes in (Allen’s reading of “I Have A Terrible Cold” begins at approximately fifty-seven minutes in, and his reading of  “Poem In A Straight Line” begins approximately sixty minutes in)]  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *