Is poetry a form of resistance? Can it always, by definition, be described as such? Or rather, only in certain contexts, i.e. social, political, or cultural contexts? How can poetry embody resistance and to what?
The poets have spoken.
In utilitarian life, we use our reasoning, and, in particular, critical reasoning, to learn about, deal with and control the world around us in order to satisfy our needs or whims. The words “critical/criticism”, let us not forget, come from the Greek kritikh/, which comes from the verb kri/nein, meaning “to separate”, “to distinguish”, “to decide”, and so on. To criticise is to separate or to distinguish.
Since naming things, defining them, classifying them, etc. are ways of distinguishing them from each other, these activities are manifestations of critical reasoning. Thus, critical reasoning is a condition of language itself, which, in turn, enhances it. Theoretical thought, for example, distinguishes the concepts of means and ends, subject and object, substance and properties, matter and form, signifier and signified, body and spirit.
Critical reasoning makes similar distinctions in practice, even before organising them into themes or naming them theoretically. These are conditions that enable us to become familiar with and use the things that exist: so that we may know them in order to use them, and to use them in order to know them. The very concepts of objective knowledge or the objectivity of knowledge, for example, would not be possible if the unity of being had not been divided by critical reasoning into subject, on the one hand, and object, on the other.
But the utilitarian and instrumental perception of being, whilst being absolutely necessary, is not the only possibility available. An aesthetic perception of being is also possible: the willingness to embrace its manifestations is such that the utilitarian and instrumental distinctions established by critical reasoning momentarily cease to prevail. Obviously, however, it would not be possible to achieve such perception by simply renouncing language. This, if it were possible, would be nothing more than a regression to an inarticulate state. Poetry can neither simply refuse language nor simply be submitted to practical or cognitive language. It would not be possible or desirable to erase the light of critical reason.
What poetry can and does actually do is to use language in a way that appears perverse from the point of view of practical or cognitive language, since it refuses, for example, to accept the distinction between signifier and signified, which constitutes a necessary condition for the use of words as signs, regarding them instead as concrete things.
In general, the enjoyment of poetry requires more free time than the enjoyment of other forms of art. We do not need to focus on a song or a painting or a sculpture or the architecture of a building to be able to take pleasure from them. We can enjoy them in passing, so to speak. This is not the case with a written poem. Anyone who reads a poem as if it were a newspaper article, for example, is not able to enjoy it in the same way. In order to appreciate a poem, one needs to devote time to it. In an era when everyone is complaining about lack of time, there are clearly more than enough arguments for those who claim that there is no longer a place for poetry nowadays; those who claim that poetry has been left behind, and that it has been surpassed by video games, for instance.
Well, I believe otherwise. It is precisely in these frantic, accelerated times that poetry becomes more desirable. In fact, if we have practically no free time, it is because virtually all of our time – even time that is supposed to be free – is constantly held to ransom. Held to ransom by what? By the utilitarian and instrumental perception of being. We are almost never free because we live in a utilitarian chain in which the meaning of all the things and people in the world, including our own selves, is instrumental to other things and people.
Nothing and no one are worth in and of themselves, but only as a means to another thing or person which, in turn, also functions as a means to yet another thing or person, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. It could be said that we participate in a kind of perpetual and vicious assembly line, which constantly offers us immediate “distractions”.
But it’s precisely the concentration that poetry demands of us that also enables us to access another dimension, another space-time, which is not only disconnected from this utilitarian assembly line, but incompatible with it. Strictly speaking, a poem is of no use. Hence, it wastes the time of the ideal reader, who takes delights in taking a leisurely stroll through the lines of a poem that merits a reading that is slow and light, reflective and intuitive, introspective and connotative, prospective and retrospective, linear and nonlinear, immanent and transcendent, imaginative and precise, intellectual and sensual, naive and informed. It is in this sense that poetry is a form of resistance.
For poets who, like me, are not critics, talking about one’s own poetry may seem like an exercise in narcissism and pretentiousness. It seems to me that everything I have to say is better said in the body of my poems. Of course, there is intense prior reflection, but it does not achieve the clarity that the written text requires. To this day, I think that the author who best expressed his poetics in a brief, objective, and unpretentious way was Francis Ponge, in his book, Méthodes. I turn straight to him whenever I get doubts as to why I write. There is a saying in Portuguese that states that when it comes to either holy water or pretentiousness, each one of us may use as much or as little as we want. This essentially means that there are no established limits where vanity or devotion are concerned. I fear that offering explanations of poems and their key points will result in trivialisation and vanity. Therefore, I will try to give a broad outline of how I understand poetry and I would like ask forgiveness for using some quotations, but I like to use the ideas of others when mine are not fully there.
To begin with, I have always pursued what is real in poetry. “A poem has always been a circle drawn around something, a circle where the bird of reality gets stuck,” explained Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen in one of her statements. My poetry is rooted in lthe soil of Minas Gerais; it speaks of the earth, the rocks, the animals, the tools, the stover; all that is not poetic. To speak of things is also to seek a place of justice for human beings. I think of poetry as a way to unalienate human beings and allow them to establish another relationship with the world around them and reconnect them with their inner feelings. In this sense, poetry acquires a meaning of resistance.
Forever keeping your eyes open and very attentive to the real world and everyday things also has its disadvantages. I recognise that my poetry is spoken in a low, grave voice, and is not accustomed to high flights of imagination, red-hot metaphors or lofty tones. It is poetry with an understated tone, which for many, reasonably, might seem overly realistic and unimaginative.
Like every poet, I also think that attention is fundamental to the emergence of poetry. I once read a passage quoting Walter Benjamin, saying that “attention is the natural prayer of the soul.” I later learned that this sentence is actually a verse by Malebranche. Using other words, Simone Weil says that absolute attention is a form of prayer.
Being attentive to things and being able to see them through the same fresh eyes of a child: this is one the qualities of a poet. It is from this absolute attention that the poet “rediscovers” the primordial meaning of things. I imagine poetry as being a continuous education of feelings. It is an education that requires constant puzzlement and capacity for wonder. Everything reveals itself to the poet with such power that s/he is excited to discover speech arising from the “mute world.”
Poets also work in a world of uncertainties and often have to grope around in the dark. When Apollo’s light comes and shines, they must be attentive enough to try and capture it. Except that this fulguration, this sudden illumination, is very brief. Poetry is always escaping from the circle that we are trying to fix it to. We get the feeling that the breeze passed us by, but that it left us with some lint and dust. There is no technique to prevail over this continuous groping. Each poem constructs a technique that falls apart along with it. None of this will be useful in a future poem. There has always been this temptation to unmask the process, to reproduce, in a laboratory, that which has been done before or which emerged out of nowhere from the depths of darkness. This attempt to rationally master the technique behind the creation of a poem does not bear fruit. It is a long discussion that does not fit here, but I remember the two essays by EM Cioran and María Zambrano on Paul Valéry’s poetry..
Therefore, I do not believe in poetry as a craft in which the poet, with each finished poem, perfects his art and produces ever more perfect artefacts. I do not believe that even the most constructivist poets write poems after having rigorously planned them. There must be some kind of sudden spark, since there must be something that serves as a catalyst for creating a poem. Of course, from then on, a long process of writing and rewriting, cutting and modifying begins. I believe that poems should take a long time to “hatch”, and then they should be reread and reformulated, if that is the case. I still believe that the poem itself begins in the unconscious mind, where it starts as a seedling and takes time to express itself.
I believe in the evocative power of words. I work within a particular mythology, connected to my family and my region. I still believe in memory as the great well where the poet always comes to drink. I think that poetry still has the power to consecrate people, things, landscapes. I do not like things to pass by, turn to dust, and go unrecorded. I want to record everything I can about this tiny, fragile, disappearing world and people’s clash against the metropolis. In a way, and despite all the pessimism and melancholy that I put in my verses, I still believe in the expressive power of words. Perhaps out of naivety, I have not yet reached the point of absolute negativity that sees the futility of all efforts. My reading of Ascesis by Netos Kazantzákis, translated by the great José Paulo Paes, had a profound influence on me. I could identify with his brand of heroic nihilism, which does not fail to take action even though it fails to believe. I recognise that, like all contemporary poets, I am overcome by great doubts about the place of poetry. In the meantime, however, I struggle against my melancholic tendencies to give up. Action is still necessary, despite knowing that the world is disillusioned. Poets must remain attentive. Poetry is freedom. And, therefore, it has a certain degree of gratuitousness.
It reaches a small number of people. It has lost much of its resonance. I believe it is still necessary to restore the vigour of language, and to renew it and expand it. For those who have an inner life, poetry still exists and resists. Nonetheless, it runs the risk of becoming an esoteric exercise practised by a small group.
Bosi emphasises the strange forms taken on by modern poetry in the face of the consolidation of bourgeois ideology (the “lofty autism” of closed symbols, the “sneer-word” [palavra-esgar], the cry, the silence), forms that, he believes, are less connected to poetry’s “being”, than to the possibility of its existence in a given historical context.
From this perspective, he distinguishes the different faces of resistance: the mythical face, devoted to the re-sacralisation of collective memory, to the “unrepression” of childhood; the lyrical face, in which interiority and the melody of affects are mobilised as a defence mechanism against reification; the metalinguistic face, of a satirical or parodic nature, an antidote to the automation of language and taste; the prophetic face, in a utopian or apocalyptic sense, which challenges the coordinates of the present by imagining or suppressing the future.
This essay offers a vast number of indications to enable us to recognise that poetry is, by definition, a timeless form of resistance to ideology, to the dominant style and mentality, to social routines, and to the status quo. Even at times when taste and formal performance standards reach a crisis point, when style is separated from practice and presents itself as a by-product, a disguise, or a sham, even as the distance between public expectations and the poet’s expressive needs grows, the dissent introduced by a poet’s words can play an ambiguous role. Such role may combines ideological and counter-ideological vectors, sometimes feeling satisfied with accommodating criticism or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, with aporetic negativity.
I say all of this in very abstract and generic terms. However, in the case of contemporary poetry, it may be possible to better specify what I mean by resistance. For example, when faced with the challenge of capturing the tensions inherent in the urban experience in Brazilian megalopolises, marked by violence, socioeconomic inequality, the privatisation/militarisation of public spaces (such as the “deprived” central areas occupied by the low-income population and coveted by real estate speculators), does poetry dealing with these phenomena constitute any kind of symbolic resistance?
By depicting violence, does poetry propose some type of subjective mediation or does it simply include violence, reflecting it without actually reflecting about it? Is there a degree of spectacularisation of catastrophe and abjection, in tune with the “pornocapitalist” voyeurism of reality TV shows? Is there an indirect representation of socially produced anguish? Does the poet hover above the disaster, like an untouched demiurge, or is he swept away, wounded at the heart of a sentence?
I think that such questions can be formulated even in relation to works impervious to “social” themes, for resistance depends less on thematic realism than on the discovery of formal solutions that are not arbitrary or dictated in advance by dominant taste standards. Rather, these solutions stem from thedemands that the theme of the verses, whatever it may be, imposes on the poet’s sensitivity..
Finally, I believe that resistance also depends on a relationship with the legacy of a poetic tradition that is not pacified and consumerist, that does not “museologise” the past or use it in a combinatory manner, as if it were not necessary to distinguish the living from the obsolete, as if the treasures of tradition did not come from a long conquest and could be inherited (plundered?) without repeated efforts to update it. And here I use the idea of frivolous retraditionalisation proposed by Iumna Simon in articles such as “Considerations on Brazilian poetry at the end of the century” (Novos Estudos, no. 55 São Paulo: CEBRAP, November 1999, p. 27-36) and “Condemned to Tradition” (Piauí, n. 61 Year 6, October 2011. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Alvinegra, 2011, p. 83).
To conclude, as far as my work as a poet is concerned, I think that, especially from Novo Endereço (2002) and Baque (2007), the interest in the “intimacy of the outcasts” (in the lives of the homeless, nutjobs, scoundrels, and the unemployed) and the exploration of the universe of disease and disfigurement may indicate a certain “ideal” of resistance to anti-urban, sanitising discourse(fuelled by the panic of social heterogeneity), to the demonisation or medicalisation of sadness (with the corresponding “depoliticisation” of happiness), to market eugenics, to the criminalisation of poverty, etc..However, I think that this ideal, which is not always fulfilled in the vain struggle of poems, is not limited to the obsession with certain themes and motives. It also implies the search for some instability in the writing process, an instability deriving from the mixture between different registers of language (in which the colloquial tone sometimes gives way to solemn and archaic expressions or to specific slang), blurringthe origin of utterances; from the counterpoint between lyricism and narrativity; from the dismantling of certain proverbial elements; from the corrupt use of mythical or religious images,and so on..
I believe that this desire to “destabilise” writing, to produce a ‘seized discourse’ (like a seized engine), and force perception out of the ordinary is fundamental in the face of the shock-absorbers and “lubricants” used in ideological discourse.
Sometimes, even when I am told that my writing is more akin to fiction than to poetry, that my verses are nothing more than “cut-out prose,”, that I mimic what other people say using a mixture of different registers and I am therefore overly artificial… I wonder whether , this type of criticism is actually based on frozen standards of taste or adjudicative apriorisms preconceived ideas of about the boundaries of verse, genres, or the uses of speech (in the case of the latter, this disregards possible linguistic freedoms in a “non-documentary” piece of writing).
Of course, such thinking can simply be a form of self-deception; a way of converting to the writer’s advantage certain shortcomings or stalemates in the formalisation process.
The solution, which is always provisional, is to continue exploring new forms of imbalance whilst not cheating gravity and not taking pride in the fall.
Parece recorrente esta questão:
Resiste a poesia? Resistente
seria a tudo e todos? Ou somente
alguns poetas podem ser, ou são?
Respondo por um cego que a visão
perdeu e revoltou-se: o bardo sente
a dor mais dolorosa, o sol mais quente,
o amor mais amoroso e o chão mais chão.
Si amar é resistir, resiste a lyra.
Si odeio quem me opprime, ella resiste.
Si anseio ver, resiste quem delira.
Em summa, resistente por ser triste,
ou mesmo quando alegre, o bardo tira
de lettra a dor, da lagryma faz chiste.
Do estar sendo
A transmissão do saber, posteriormente o
Faz da atividade simbólica oral da poesia
E, recentemente, Lorca, antes
E no Poema Sujo – Gullar
Shaks in the pair
Poesia e resistência ou Poesia e oráculo
É um processo de denominação do Ocidente
Dialético e com consciência da
Desigualdade e das injustiças econômicas e
Preconceito SS SS SS SS SS
Há de ter resistência como Homem
Como Poeta Existência
O Clamor do Poeta ou a Fala de sua
Gente fruirá como frui tudo em
Prana e na Epifania. Inclusive a Beleza e o
H OO R R
What remains to be seen is whether poetry is necessarily in disagreement with the discourses I have just mentioned, or if it is simply different. Because I firmly believe that this “being a stronghold” does not need to be thematised in poetry writing and I think that this stronghold can also be reinforced by speaking outside the limits imposed by the global discoursing of the market age. We’re talking about counter-discourse because of its declared divergence or its constitutive diversity; be that as it may, we’re talking about resistance.
Or rather, only in certain contexts, i.e. social, political, cultural contexts? How can poetry embody resistance and to what?
Poetry is a child of history, much like everything else. This statement seems simple/self-explanatory, but it isn’t: I do not believe in a poetic core independent of historical time because I also do not believe that the poetic word has anything to do with revelations or with religion; that is to say that it has nothing to do with anything that is claimed as being beyond history, existing in a limbo of eschatology. Counter-discourse has an interesting position: it seeks to pierce through dominant discourse but, due to its diversity, it cannot be offered as a replacement model. It successively points to states of otherness that deconstruct the centrality of the global logos. I think that it is precisely this non-standardisation that guarantees the future of poetry. See how the explosion of the literary canon, among other things, reinforces the situation of tacit challenge to discursive hegemonies accompanying poetic talk at the threshold of our age of information reproduction.
An addendum by a university professor and a poet who did not grow up in this kind of universe: there is much talk about the current decline in the quality of poetic texts, about improvisation, and about the misuse of freedom on the Internet. As it happens, most of the young people who publish poetry in cyberspace are exactly that: young people. More established poets feel less comfortable in such spheres. As these young people grow older, and they become aware of the omnipresence of history (besides other topics), their texts will also be purified. I am optimistic and I believe that poetry is just beginning to give its message to our shitty brave new world [in the original Portuguese: admerdável mundo novo, where the neologism ‘admerdável’ is a witty compound of the words ‘admirável’, meaning ‘brave’, and ‘merda’, meaning ‘shit’]. Its resilience is also a fact of history across the board. Poetry is the trilobite of speech.
If it were its vocation, it would resist it is useless to fight against nature but there were hours of profound distress the substance failed sometimes it was not able to take shape it had to resist tides and elephants even internal cogitations above all darkened the ceiling it had to resist those who were called to the verbal exercise of duels it had to nourish its clay fingers and had to eat paper resisting without craft without agenda without vitamins and without shirt in the wind playing the flute giving shape to feelings without a confirmed opinion without guarantees changeable as the leaves resisting pyramids variations of the body in the tegument of the mushrooms we drank building hot air balloons without knowing how to live like this the vocation must be fulfilled surreptitiously leaving the confraternities who root plot confabulate plan take important decisions resisting the importance of listing species the nomenclature of things utterly disjointed and confused but happy losing ground losing memory losing teeth but persistently playing the same invisible flute galloping among imaginary sounds leafy vocation to do nothing with your face of brown lioness standing still drumming where there is no support withstanding the bites and pinches with vanity the others’ cross the range of options the nuisances keeping on moulding the sense of touch touching trying to resist distress the burning knees the itching saying goodnight singing exploding filled with joy sadness all the impossible variations all the passions and the “maybes”
(From the book, Argumentos invisíveis. Rio: Rocco, 1995)
If it is born in an inflexible state, poetry is not given to obedience — for example, poetry hates to have to give in to good taste as well as to bad, since poetry is not interested in flavours that do not agree with its palate. Poetry, at least what I regard as poetry, is an ethics in and of itself, since it accuses human beings before other human beings; it puts before our very eyes the extreme discrepancies in our humanity and the radical possibility of feeling that resides in aesthetics. Poetry resists even those who love it – whilst music, for example, imposes itself on our ears for our pleasure or fury, poetry is discreet and awaits its readers and resists them, for it only gives itself to them at the cost of a great deal of hard work on their part. Even this gift is complete only in terms of its precarious instability, or a participant in a ‘becoming’ to which we have arrived late.
Talking of poetry makes me think of poems, and I am able to use a term that Jean-Luc Nancy used in his Résistance de la poésie, to refer to poetry/poetics in general: “access”. The thinker ponders/reflects on plurality, which leads me to suspect that poetry resists uniformity, not singularity.
Poetry is resistant in a rather unusual sense: it is almost unbreakable. Poetry resists just as a sturdy object resists, a glass, for example (“Do not touch the objects around you./ Harmony burns”, wrote Herberto Helder, who invested in the poetical madness of things) or a floor, which is another possible example. If poetry is the opposite of the aforementioned glass and floor, because it’s not there to be lightly sipped or roughly stomped on; it’s there for drinking and walking; in addition, the words “glass” and “floor” are both at the violent disposal of poetics. Is poetry unbreakable? No, because nothing is; much less delicate things. But what can break an age-old poem that has lasted for many centuries, longer than Duralex tableware.
Poetry resists and keeps on resisting. In a text called “Breve programa para uma iniciação ao canto” [Brief programme for an initiation to singing”], a preface to his other literary work “Transporte no tempo” [“Transportation through time”], Ruy Belo once said, “Poetry is an act of insubordination at all levels, from the level of language as an instrument of communication to the level of conformism, from collusion with an order, any established order.” Poetry resists dictatorships, also certain crypto-totalitarian regimes. Today, poetry resists the speed of modern living that causes stupidity and thoughtlessness; it resists supermarkets and cute things. It resists a certain kind Brazilian poetry that resists, with lots of smiles and little substance, and helps Brazilian poetry to just be poetry.
Poetry is not necessarily a form of resistance, especially if we think of it in generic terms, i.e. “social, political, or cultural terms.” It so happens that, in certain circumstances, poetry presents itself, instead, as a form of support or, alternatively, as a form of sublimation. Of course, it can be (and has indeed been) a form of social, political or cultural resistance in various cases, many of which, especially in authoritarian contexts, have involved and continue to involve deaths, disappearances, and voluntary or compulsory exiles.
Regardless of this, it is interesting to note that resistance, regarded as a characteristic element of poetry, has already been sufficiently requested by critics and poets, even in a less immediately pragmatic, perhaps less immediately instrumental or “political” manner. For example, there is no dearthof proposals that would have us understand poetic resistance via inaugural nomination, utopia, or “restricted action”, by emphasising other types of language use, or even by negating all that is political. I conclude that the very insistence on the theme “poetry and resistance” is relevant to an understanding of the subject. I have no doubt that it is. However, if the critical commitment to the subject proves that there is an interest in seeing poetry associated with the value of opposition, one cannot fail to see that much of what we call poetic “modernity” (i.e. what we are, what we would like to be or cease to be) rests, historically, on a resistant, firm, tense stance, whatever its content may be; that is to say that poetry “resists”, in this sense, whatever interpretation it proposes for the game of powers in which it participates.
In other words, if it is true that poetry often goes against the flow or in the “wrong” direction, it is also important to note that it does so by placing itself in an unstable and uncomfortable situation: one that might be nostalgic or combative, rebellious; fragmentary or inconclusive; ironic but also wishful. What is uncomfortably tense within the idea of resistance has, deep down, less to do with the nature of circumstance than with the way poetry is embedded in that particular circumstance, that is, in a specific moment in time and space. At its core, what is most fundamental in the idea of circumstance, when it comes to poetry, is not something that presents itself as stable information from a historical, linguistic, or other point of view. It is not a fixed point on the game board of powers that have already been given. As a result of this (the necessary complication not to reduce much of what we understand as poetry), the uncomfortable or attractive tension of poetry is related to its taking place, to the way in which it takes place.
To answer a question about the relationship between poetry and resistance, I would speak of tension and occurrence. The tone (tonus/tension) of the poem is the way or the attitude by which it is placed in relation (contracted or elastic) to its circumstance. The poem is not anchored or grounded in the circumstance; nor is it notable for swimming against the current; rather, it simply hovers over the shipwreck (returning to a figure that is quite exploited in poetry) and, at the same time, it names it, a vortex to which the poem is bound to go. To say that poetry is a circumstance, in this sense, is to also say that it elaborates contraction and elasticity in the manner of a conflicting establishment, which is that of its own occurrence. The dating or toponymic practice characteristic of poetry are evidence of this seduction and discomfort in the definition of its time and place. What is at stake in the dating and toponymy of poetry is the desire for it to have a specific time and place.
Hence, if there is anything at all that we can call poetic resistance, this resistance would manifest itself in the tense relationship between the homogeneity of facts and places, that is to say, in the joyful stability (or sameness) of it all. Before being a form of opposition to empirical historical authority – which it obviously is – it manifests itself in a sense of discomfort in relation to the control of meaning. Although situations of political restriction are unfortunately very common, one cannot fail to extend the restriction of freedom to all phenomena that impose homogenisation (i.e. when it comes to speech, expression, attitude, or purpose). It is not difficult to see how, even in “complete democracy”, many cultural devices (advertising, market, awards, educational and cultural policies), under the pretext, for example, of serving the interests of the “majority”, end up serving precisely the purpose of controlling events, of imposing a stable and homogeneous ‘one time’ and ‘one place’ on the artistic experience.
Would reacting to homogeneity be a form of political “resistance”? Maybe. But it is probable that the word has already been worn out (perhaps it resists very little, it’s not really adhesive, it lacks the roughness needed to produce its meaning and effects); it may continue to carry traces which cannot necessarily be assimilated from the point of view of homogeneous criticism – the stability of the subject, the idea of a force exerted against another specific force; beyond the very definition of the poetic within the formal scope of a genre.
What word would we risk using instead of the word “resistance”? Other words have already been suggested. For example, to resist is also to endure. That which endures, tolerates, endures a burden, carries this burden (the burden of meaning, the burden of duty) is also something that is communicated through a medium (for example, the medium of language), with tolerance of the medium, with the ability to accept or receive the event.
There are several ways to rework the idea of resistance. However, in the context of the question I have been asked, I would prefer to explore another, somewhat complementary aspect of the same problem. I would prefer to say that the resistances of poetry and the resistances to poetry are a necessary part of a reflection about resistance as poetry.
I have tried to understand resistances not simply as a function or as a strategy, but as a starting point for poetry; not only in terms of how poetry reacts to constraints, but also in terms of how it is able to endure this game of forces of resistance as part of its process (either creative or historical).
Resistance, in this sense, would be something whose biographical and historical elements, which are all part of a poetic event, should be taken into account. It is from resistance to meaning that sense is born (for example, the sense of resistance). Thus, resistance is directly and immediately concerned with what is poetic (as a form of knowledge) and with poetry (as a historically situated genre), but, more specifically, as a part of that which it itself endures and redrafts as the truth of its situation.
More concisely, I propose to associate poetry with that which is irresistible. This is what seems to be at stake, when resistance is thought of as a starting point: in terms both of the resistance of poetry and the resistance to poetry.
Let me explain.
First, poetry is a way of withstanding the drama of the erasure of what is irresistible. Put another way (to make it more accessible to our ears), poetry is what sets out the drama of resistance, the drama of the mismatch between what we decide and what we want, between what we judge something to be and what we can actually see.
Poetry is the medium that resists the erasure of what is irresistible. It is attentive to the implications of what belongs to ‘intuition’, ‘inspiration’, impulse, allure, the surprise of adherence, the explicitness of assumption, phrases coming from ‘nowhere’, sublime seduction and terror or anything that presents itself as such, even before any conscious or strategic decisions. Resisting the erasure of these aspects of the irresistible seems to be a task for poetry. The irresistible must not be denounced or praised. The only thing that must be done is acknowledging that it is a necessary element for the thought of resistance, whatever its modality. And this is seen in poetry, as poetry.
In other words, clarifythat whichdoes not allow us to resist is an important aspect of how poetry works on our interest in resisting. This does not nullify its strength or, let’s say, its political interest. On the contrary, it establishes an interpretation of the political as something that must be understood in relation to the irresistible, without prejudice to militant voluntarism. What I call the “crisis” discourse, in poetry, has historically been a way of thinking the irresistible, that which impairs the rationale of homogeneous time and space. “Prose” is one of the names used for what is the irresistible to poetry today, that by which poetry opposes itself.
Second – and this is perspective which cannot be dissociated from the former – many also regard poetry as irresistible in the sense that it cannot be resisted. Poetry has been posited (from Plato, but in a peculiar way in the last two centuries) as that which personifies the nonsense and the inappropriate nature of the uncontrollable.
Poetry is that which bedazzles, consecrates, conquers through the illusion the sublime; it is that which misleads our relation with life by placing us in the perspective of subscribing to the ethereal, to the idea of artistic distinction, of proud autonomy, of a kind of voice which is both alien and, perhaps, “authoritarian”.
By personifying the irresistible, poetry is therefore “elitist”; it is the place where compliance must be challenged. It is not exactly resistant: it is the object of a resistance that opposes the seduction of its own sublime. The result of this resistance or suppression (depending on our point of view on the subject) symptomatically accompanies the multiplication of possible horizontalities, the self-regulation of profitable passions, intolerance to any kind of thinking about the difference that distinguishes and about the autonomy that deregulates. It would be naive to fail to see that, from this point of view, the insistent mapping of the “crisis of poetry”, its failure, or its contemporary decline, is closely associated with strategies of promotion or cultural substitution, in which the slogans of ‘horizontalisation’ or of spectacular hybridism play an important role.
Poetry for me has (or has had) a place. It is (or has been) my way of discovering, of experimenting or enduring the tension of the event, of confronting what escapes any politics, and, at the same time, of confronting the policies or discourses of “facts.” This is another way of saying that poetry, to me, is (or has been) irresistible.
And when we limit it, as was done more than 30 years ago by Alfredo Bosi, an essayist who was concerned with this subject, it was only to specify the proper way for a type of poetry to constitute resistance to the hostile world of capitalism. Bosi’s example is interesting not only because poetry is identified with resistance in modern times, but also because – as it implicitly recognises that there is such a thing as integrated poetry, poetry that does not resist – it is resistance that becomes, at least in Bosi’s opinion, the path to “true poetry.” That is, identifying poetry and resistance is also a way of qualifying it. “True poetry” is resistance; false or non-poetry lacks resistance. And, therefore, true cinema would embody resistance; as would true architecture, true fiction, and so on and so forth. It is the same as saying that, art in general embodies resistance in a capitalist society,. Or rather the only true art (or contemporary, in the sense of being correctly situated in its time) is that which consists of resistance.
If I adopted this point of view, I would answer yes, with the necessary modalisation: true poetry is resistance, it is so by definition in any context in contemporary times. Or, if it isn’t, it is not art. That is to say, going back to the same point: art is resistance. This would be a difficult thesis to uphold when considering concrete cases: can the art of Picasso be considered resistance? And what about Andy Warhol’s art? Or Hitchcock’s and Bergman’s films? And what about John Ford’s work? What about the public buildings designed by Niemeyer and Gaudí’s houses? And the music by the Rolling Stones and Keith Jarrett? Somerset Maugham’s literature and that by Gabriel Garcia Marques? Not that it would be impossible, but it would require the concept of resistance to be so flexible that it would become useless, or it would require a drastic selection of what is artistic, especially with respect to the most popular arts, such as cinema and music. In fact, what such a procedure would mean in my case is that I would try to use the concept of resistance (broadening it and modalising it if needed) to attribute truth to objects that I find interesting or that are sacred by tradition. It would not be so only if I had a fixed point of reference, always equal to itself, that could be a sealer of the truth and the straight path – the mind of God, for example, or the “human essence”, only momentarily distorted by capitalism. As I do not have such a point, I cannot answer in those terms.
Therefore, I prefer to think of what it means to ask a question such as the one I’m trying to answer. Let me begin with the fact, which I have mentioned above, that this question is not common in the field of study of the other verbal arts – except if we think of all of them along the lines of: “Is literature resistance?” – But in this case, I imagine poetry subsumes the other types of art included in the word “literature.” I could conclude with the assumption it implies, of a unit of “poetry” that does not require any type of qualifier. It should also be noted that the modalisation of the questions following the first one shows that a positive answer is expected.
My intuition is that we should have a two-way rationale: to ask if poetry is resistance is also to ask if there is resistance to poetry in our society; and whether a positive answer to the first question also implies an answer to the second question If we ask this question, however, we realize that there is resistance only to some types of poetry, not to all.
As for mutual resistance, João Cabral de Melo Neto presented a very clear picture in his texts from the early 1950s.
In his opinion, the main responsibility for the crucial question of the abyss separating the poet and the public lay in the form and scope of the typical modern poem, inaccessible to the reader and restricted in theme. Resistance to poetry was thus a response to the unsuitability of poems. His proposal to overcome the impasse was for poets to seek communication with readers by creating poems that were more suitable to modern times, even taking advantage of the new mass media, such as the radio. The movement known as Brazilian concrete poetry arose out of this same concern. At first, it sought to be included in the universe of industrial products and in the modern world, but it soon returned to the typical position of resistance to the reading public, whose taste or background would not allow them to produce a positive response to poetry. It thus went back to its classical place of vanguard poetry, producing poems for a future audience or for poets who would prepare a still non-existent audience.
But we must not deceive ourselves: the lack of integration – or mainstream success, to use a harsh word – only affected one type of poetry: the one that deserved critical consideration. After all, poetry for the masses has always existed but it has usually been denied (and is still denied) the status of serious art, or even of art itself.. As a counterargument to the thesis on the incommunicability of poetry in the twentieth century, let us cite, among other possible references, the large number of reprints of J. G. de Araújo Jorge’s poems (his 1938 book, Amo!, sold 80,000 copies) and the psychographed poetry by Chico Xavier (his book, Parnaso de Além Túmulo – Parnassus from Beyond the Tomb, sold more than 100,000 copies – and continues to sell today).
These reflections bring to the forefront a form of resistance that characterises modern canonical poetry and that deserves to be highlighted: the resistance to the loss of the value of novelty, the value of strangeness that poetic language must have to be recognised as such; resistance is indeed part of the definition of the type of poetry that we identify as significant and contemporary, but at a complex level, which combines the refusal of repetition and the affirmation of the autonomy of poetic discourse.
At the same time, I suspect that the assertion of autonomy has often been simplistically mistaken for the effectiveness of strategies aimed only at provoking resistance from the wider public.
Yet one last consideration – which confirms my inability to answer the questions: the praise of poetry as resistance is one of the great themes of modern literature and literary criticism. It’s no wonder that it has swiftly gone from being a theme or a description to being a prescription. Indeed, the prescriptive character imposes itself, since it is one of the requirements for the postulation of what modernity is – an important value and a qualifier which a fewer and fewer products seem to deserve in our day and age.
Finally, as far as my poetry writing is concerned, I understand (while answering this questionnaire) that it contains a fundamental form of resistance: resistance to organised programmes, to the imperative of always creating something new out of a historic outline which defines a specific evolutionary line, to the idea that the ordinary reader is dispensable or, in general, unable to understand good poetry, or to the proposition that the modern world is more hostile to poetry than any other world, as well as to critical poetry jargon brought into the poem or to the pursuit of established procedures, which function as a sort of trademark or a guarantee of the authenticity of the product. Finally, as far as this particular moment is concerned, resistance to the idea or the banner of literature as resistance. That is, I end up realising that I have a paradoxical resistance to the idea of resistance.
And, as a poet and as a scholar of literature, that is all that I can say at this very moment.
I agree with him: I also feel that it is very difficult to give names to people in my texts. My poetry resists that. It resists the novel. There are some people in my poetry, but very few, as I prefer non-human beings (water, insects, trees, for example). My latest book, Figurantes (2011) [literally, Extras], is a long parade of nameless “invaders.” They are not protagonists, just extras; bugs or insects maybe. When you only see extras in a book, it is poetry; when there are protagonists, heroes and heroines, it’s a novel. Giving a name to an extra is the worst thing a poet could possibly do.
I do not know where novelists find so many different names and surnames. I would feel ridiculous if I had to name everyone the way they do. So, poetry has freed me of having to do that.
Funnily enough, my last few pieces of work have been novels. Or rather, “novels”. In 2012, Iluminuras, the company that publishes my books, launched Enrique Flor. I always thought it would be impossible to name one of my books after a character. But it happened. However, the name Enrique Flor is not one of my creations. It’s in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the greatest novel ever written. I’ve never read a better novel. In it there is a character that profoundly affected me: precisely Senhor Enrique Flor [literally Mr. Henry Flower], a Portuguese musician who goes to Dublin. Portugal and Ireland were both completely deforested countries in the early twentieth century. Every time the prodigious Enrique Flor plays his organ, he manages to reforest the environment and people turn into leaves, tree trunks, whole trees, and flowers. I decided to tell (to imagine) the end of Enrique Flor’s life, and then I brought him to Brazil, where he experiences the jungle. This changes his music forever. It makes him conceive the “sex appeal” of plants in a different way.
So, to conclude, I wrote a certain kind of novel, a poem-novel, so to speak. But the characters came from Joyce’s novel. I did not have to think up names and surnames. I do not like to do that, I do not have the patience for it. I merely followed Joyce, referencing and translating the names and surnames that I found in Ulysses, especially the surnames, which are very resounding and suggestive. A poet may imitate a novelist, but s/he will not be a pure and committed novelist. A novel without conviction is the novel of a poet.
Following John Cage’s method of drastically summarising a great book (in every possible way), in order to read it aloud and in public, I decided to summarise Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas [The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas] by Machado de Assis: “Writing for the second time through Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas”. I avoided names, as they seemed unimportant in this summary. I mentioned some key situations and commented on them, giving them an “image”, creating a new “scene” in the process. (I made the most of the notion of posthumous text.) This “novel” was recently included in a magazine published in Rio de Janeiro, Lado7, by the publishing house, 7 Letras.
These two recent works are proof that poetry resists the novel and writes against it, but at the same time, thanks to this, it is able to modify it, clean it, and expand it in other ways, that is to say, poetically, for the lack of a better word. Obviously, I’m talking about my own personal case. After Ulysses, the novel I consider to be most important is The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas. In chapter 13, I found this name, which I consider incredible: Ludgero Barata. It is the perfect name and surname for a poor teacher. I’m thinking of writing Professor Barata’s “poem” (his story): a spurious fragment of the posthumous Brazilian writer I admire the most. I could not have created this last name myself, but I feel more than happy to be able to “steal it” from Machado de Assis. So, I am more and more convinced that I will never ever have to invent any names or surnames. I’m not a novelist; thank goodness for that!
The poet feels this type of happiness — that of being able to find, in the novels that have already been written, the names that s/he could not possibly invent, because s/he knows, and will always know, that giving names and surnames to characters is too ridiculous. It is the novelist’s job. (A novelist must not find it ridiculous to write surnames, it is something that comes naturally.) So the poet constantly resists acting like a novelist, but without ceasing to “observe” the novel…
I use the word “observe” on purpose. I have always defined poetry as being an observation post. I appreciate descriptions, images, and comparisons. So I observe. Amongst other things, I observe and describe novels. It’s a way to avoid repetition. As long as poetry resists the novel, it will have something of its own; something very specific to offer the reader.