28 September 2012

This Craft of Verse (Jorge Luis Borges)

I thought I'd never hear the brave librarian speak. Posterity saved the lectures that Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) delivered in Harvard University in the fall of '67 and spring '68. The Argentinian was nearing 70 when he gave this series of lectures. The recordings were discovered from the university archives and were transcribed and published in book form in 2000.

Borges's voice boomed across space and time. I found it ideal to listen to the lectures while following along with a transcription posted in a blog. It may be a better experience than just reading the transcriptions. Here is the free audio download page of the lectures.

He spoke in a clipped, staccato manner, catching breath and thought at once. He groped for ideas, rather like a blind man groping for things in the dark. But he always found them, and he brought them out to the light. We can sense him groping for ideas several moves in advance, building a construct from his previous readings, and then revealing the final elegant construction of the library of the mind, the library in his mind.

The audience listened intently, keenly, as the penetrating gaze of the master pierced through the lines of poetry and gave his literary interpretation and appreciation. He spoke the six lectures impromptu, with perhaps only a few days preparation for each topic.

The range of his subjects are as varied as colors. He began with the "riddle" of poetry and continued with metaphor, epic poetry and the novel, word-music and translation, and "thought and poetry". He ended with sharing his own creed as a poet wherein he "try to justify my own life and the confidence some of you may have in me, despite this rather awkward and fumbling first lecture of mine."

It was hardly awkward and fumbling. In every lecture he demonstrated utter erudition which was to be expected but still there's a pure kind of magic in the words he was unleashing. He had a way of saying things in a punctilious manner, of punctuating ideas even if they were, in retrospect, obvious observations. Like, for example, "Happiness, when you are a reader, is frequent." Or on reading lists: "The danger of making a list is that the omissions stand out and that people think of you as being insensitive." And on long books: "Though we are apt to think of mere size as being somehow brutal, I think there are many books whose essence lies in their being lengthy." And this came from a writer who never wrote a novel.

Among the verses he discussed included lines or passages from Keats's "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer", the sonnet "Inclusiveness" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Robert Frost and Browning, and a translation of San Juan de la Cruz. He recited them with feeling, bringing out the stresses where they fall, sometimes going at length in describing the choice of words of the poet and pointing out their distinctiveness, what makes the lines go on ringing in the reader's ears. Sometimes it felt like he was sharing his conversations with the old masters from Greek and Old English, giving us an exclusive preview to an anticipated blockbuster movie.

Aside from erudition, two other things marked the genius of these lectures: humor and humility. The speaker's rapport and interaction with the audience were amazing. One imagined the listeners hanging on to every word, as when he shared his propensity to book-buying:

Sometimes, looking at the many books I have at home, I feel I shall die before I have come to the end of them, and yet I cannot resist the temptation of buying new books. When I go, when I walk inside a library, I find a book on one of my hobbies—for example, Old English or Old Norse poetry—I say to myself, "What a pity I can't buy that book because I already have a copy at home."

That last statement elicited laughter among the listeners who also broke into a hearty applause. There are many similar moments in the recording that were given to the audience's acknowledgement of the speaker's humor. The interaction between speaker and listeners was just precious.

The lectures also revealed a man of humility and self-effacing disposition, one who acknowledged his forebears and influences, and the sources of his metaphysical ideas.

If I were a daring thinker (but I am not; I am a very timid thinker, I am groping my way along), I could of course say that only a dozen or so patterns exist and that all other metaphors are mere arbitrary games.

In fact he said them, those things about the patterns and the games of metaphors. But he always gave fair warning on what and what not to expect from him. But still the things he spoke about!

His thoughts on translation were as timely as ever. In his lecture on translation he debunked the supposed inferiority of translations to the original text by stating, "I suppose if we did not know whether one was original and the other translation, we could judge them fairly." It's one of the best defense of translations I've read.

On the strange beauty of literal translations, he had an interesting take:

In fact, it might be said that literal translations make not only, as Matthew Arnold pointed out, for uncouthness and oddity, but also for strangeness and beauty. This, I think, is felt by all of us; for if we look into a literal translation of some outlandish poem, we expect something strange. If we do not find it, we feel somehow disappointed.

He erroneously assumed, however, that FitzGerald's translation of Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát—from which he quoted a quatrain as an example—is a literal one. And I'm not sure what he would make of Nabokov's extremely faithful Eugene Onegin.

That only a very few patterns and rhyming schemes existed in poetry led the poet to declare that free verse is much more difficult to pull off than rhymed poems.

I began, as most young men do, by thinking that free verse is easier than the regular forms of verse. Today I am quite sure that free verse is far more difficult than the regular and classical forms. The proof—if proof be needed—is that literature begins with verse. I suppose the explanation would be that once a pattern is evolved—a pattern of rhymes, of assonances, of alliterations, of long and short syllables, and so on—you only have to repeat the pattern. While, if you attempt prose (and prose, of course, comes long after verse), then you need, as Stevenson pointed out, a more subtle pattern. Because the ear is led to expect something, and then it does get what it expects. Something else is given to it; and that something else should be, in a sense, a failure and also a satisfaction. So that unless you take the precaution of being Walt Whitman or Carl Sandburg, then free verse is more difficult. At least I have found, now when I am near my journey's end, that the classic forms of verse are easier. Another facility, another easiness, may lie in the fact that once you have written a certain line, once you have resigned yourself to a certain line, then you have committed yourself to a certain rhyme. And since rhymes are not infinite, your work is made easier for you.

This idea, unorthodox as it is, was way more interesting than William Childress's rant against free verse. The latter's arguments was sometimes occluded by fundamentalist attitudes. In contrast, the poet here spoke with a fire in his voice, a bibliophile's enthusiasm that was hard to resist. Perhaps because he primarily thought of himself as essentially "a reader".

As you are aware, I have ventured into writing; but I think that what I have read is far more important than what I have written. For one reads what one likes—yet one writes not what one would like to write, but what one is able to write.

And here I am thinking all along that Roberto Bolaño's line, "Reading is more important than writing", was his own. Borges practically said everything, as the Chilean writer himself acknowledged.

"When I write", the poet confessed, "I try to be loyal to the dream and not to the circumstances."

Of course, in my stories ... there are true circumstances, but somehow I have felt that those circumstances should always be told with a certain amount of untruth. There is no satisfaction telling a story as it actually happened. We have to change things, even if we think them insignificant; if we don't, we should think of ourselves not as artists but perhaps as mere journalists or historians.

A similar aesthetic was taken to heart by the late W. G. Sebald, who featured Borges in The Rings of Saturn. Writers, take heed.

On novels, it was clear he doesn't like the narrative strategy of Ulysses. He liked epics instead. He disdained self-conscious stories. By epic, he meant the simultaneous singing of a verse and telling of a story. By self-consciousness, he meant stories where "the hero is the teller, and so sometimes he [the hero] has to belittle himself, he has to make himself human, he has to make himself far too believable. In fact, he has to fall into the trickery of a novelist."

If we think about the novel and the epic, we are tempted to fall into thinking that the chief difference lies in the difference between verse and prose, in the difference between singing something and stating something. But I think there is a greater difference. The difference lies in the fact that the important thing about the epic is a hero—a man who is a pattern for all men. While, as Mencken pointed out, the essence of most novels lies in the breaking down of a man, in the degeneration of character.

So, better to fall into the trickery of a poet than novelist? It was possible the lecturer was averse to the encroachment of postmodernism on the novel. Like many critics, he saw the "death" of the novel:

I think that the novel is breaking down. I think that all those very daring and interesting experiments with the novel—for example, the idea of shifting time, the idea of the story being told by different characters—all those are leading to the moment when we shall feel that the novel is no longer with us.

What is to be done? The poet was not worried. "Because we are modern; we don't have to strive to be modern", he said. "It is not a case of subject matter or of style."

Even if we are now postmodern, we are still modern. He was confident that something was at hand. He prophesied the comeback of the epic:

Maybe I am an old-fashioned man from the nineteenth century, but I have optimism, I have hope; and as the future holds many things—as the future, perhaps, holds all things—I think that the epic will come back to us. I think that the poet shall once again be a maker. I mean, he will tell a story and he will also sing it. And we will not think of those two things as different, even as we do not think they are different in Homer or in Virgil.

Things could only go up from there. The epic novel was nigh. Maybe it was already with us. Maybe the metaphor was already made. He had made the suggestions, pointed to some interesting directions, and these were enough to fertilize the mind.

Anything suggested is far more effective than anything laid down.… When something is merely said or—better still—hinted at, there is a kind of hospitality in our imagination.

That's what it felt like listening to the poet. One was a visitor being treated to the hospitality of an estimable and kind imagination.

"All writers in Argentina have had to find themselves against Borges", said César Aira, the Argentinean writer who chose an anti-Borgean path. "He is cold; he is an Everest of intelligence and lucidity uncontaminated by reality." In these recordings compiled as This Craft of Verse, the poet was not cold. He exuded warmth, like a grandfather. And the mountain of intelligence and lucidity had chosen to be accessible and scalable. The climb was memorable. The view from the summit was a postcard.

There's this end-of-the-year Argentinean literature doom-fest, with Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) at the helm.


  1. Rise - what a banquet! I look forward to listening to this when I get some time.

  2. I'm glad you decided to do a post on this wonderful resource.

  3. Borges is a marvel. He is simply one of the greatest lovers of literature of any major writer.

    I should correct your italicized last sentence. Richard is doing all of the steering. I am just helping him kick things off next week with one of Borges's doomish forebears.

  4. Have reread this Rise & it is wonderful, as with Borges there's a warmth & a love of the subject in this post, that makes me want to revisit the man's work. Thanks for dragging these lectures up into the light of day.

  5. Scott, yes indeed, but it's a feast that made me hungry for more, more.

    Gary, it's wonderful to hear him, it's like one was part of the audience himself.

    Tom, an endless marvel. And the man is just quotable. On the last sentence: Er, of course. I mixed up the readalong with the reading event.

  6. Like the others have intimated, Rise, a wonderful and juicy post! Thanks for contributing this to the opening of the Argentinean Lit of Doomfest, and thanks for sharing Borges' regret about how sad it is not to be able to buy books one already owns--a new classic in book buying remorse!!!

  7. Gracias, Richard. It's my pleasure. That line of his never fails to make me laugh.

  8. Excellent post, Rise! Borges was a great lover of books, as these excerpts show. Some writers are just writers' writers, but he was a readers' writer and, more importantly, a writers' reader.

  9. Obrigado, Miguel. I second your observation. It isn't hard to be caught up in his enthusiasm.