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.
But not always and not by default. If I may borrow a very popular buzzword among footballers, “take each game as it comes”. It sometimes resists, it sometimes gives up, and it sometimes merely exists.
Unless, of course, one understands resistance as a mere statement, as a way for us to chase down our ghosts and fears, either external or coming from within. In that sense, even conformity and celebratory poetry, such as Mayakovksy’s, could be resistance poetry.
But I’d rather look at poetry as a tool of resistance whenever resistance is needed and nothing more. To resist, to denounce, to riot.
Poems were invented to help people survive. Babies, children, animals (particularly cats) are all very fond of rhymes, as the pleasure of rhymes helps cope with stress. Adults, not all of them, also enjoy rhymes.
Poetry is about marrying words and such marriages bring joy and strength. To the poet and to the readers. The pleasure of the text helps one survive.
I speak of rhymes in a common sense, but also in a broader sense: the attraction between sounds and images.
an amber in the palm of your hand
the colour of hollowed honey
it does not seem finished
so just and adjusted
mute and soft and
to the eye translucent
source that mirrors
so much of the history of the earth
a grain a wing a flower
and then what was imagined.
there goes the stone
between the fingers
it climbs the earth that calls it
in the water surrounding it
it changes riverbeds and shape
it irradiates then
pure liquid glow
that in the depth
of memory illuminates
the forms it has taken
the ones it is still to take
*The translation of the poems included by some of the authors is a literal rendering meant to provide the English-speaking readers access to the original wording.
I was writing this poem (or perhaps its earlier version), when the mailman arrived with the letter containing the Lyracom invitation. I stopped writing, I read, I stared back at the poem and questioned myself: where is the resistance here?
I searched my Latin dictionary for resisto/resistere and the first entry read “to stop and to look back”. I was restless. That is not a habit of mine: to stop and to look back. But the amber… I simply stared at the light coming from that rock that the wet river bank almost swallowed away.
So I thought: to resist is, first and foremost, to “stop and to look back”, then. But in Latin, as I checked next, it also means, “to face” and “to oppose” the road we are taking; but now without stopping and without looking back. It’s not just looking away anymore as it is to face the road ahead of us.
And so I keep thinking: perhaps those are the two possible ways to resist: to stop, to cease staring at what is in plain sight; or to stare, to see, and not to accept. Not resisting must thus be persisting on that road, which, like all roads, has been walked by those who walk the roads and their bridges (and in this case, their makers¹). To resist is not to follow that road, choosing either to turn our back on it or to face it. And, since it is poetry we are talking about, everything happens around words.
I believe that poetry, as a means of searching for subjective truth (objective truth is pursued by science), must always make one of these two choices: turning our backs on what we see from our vantage point in order to glance at other landscapes, or keeping on the road ahead of us but not without making opposition, always by words; by transforming one word into another, for instance, or by intertwining a word (Varro Atacinus: viere) with others, following the different rhythms and harmonies of primordial things but never heeding the noise caused by the wheels rolling on those roads, furrowing them further and further. Unless the goal is to face those wheels and gears and toss them off the road. That can be quite beautiful as well. Sadly, though, they always return as animated characters – and that is what they actually are.
This is why one can sometimes hear, in these trails of obedience, that somewhere four doctors are missing, or four judges, or four bricklayers, or four drivers, or four supervisors; but never will one hear that somewhere four poets are missing. Thankfully.
¹TN (TN): check etymology of word “pontifex” (pons= bridges + fex = makers), which later evolved into the direct translation of “pontífices”: “pontiffs”.
At my age, if I were asked if poetry is a form of survival, I would have the answer right at the tip of my fingers. But the way the question is formulated makes me reply that I am resistance myself.
And it would have even come in handy if I could have stated in a rather pretentious fashion – almost like Fernando Pessoa – that my homeland is Portuguese poetry. If I had been asked in such way, that would be that; I would speak about language alone, and with a sincerity that also reminds me of Pessoa, and which is typical in this sort of questionnaire, I would have simply pushed away a series of ghosts, who are more alive than the people living next to me, and I would have simply made a patriotic dissertation on poetic survival.
But, having been asked this way, and recalling the cloudy, undecided thoughts of Bernardo Soares – for whom life is absolutely untouchable – I’d say that the word resistance sounds to me as the ring of a clarion in a parade, as a sacred calling from ancient times, as a sort of catechism, almost like a commandment.
I’ve lived for quite some time now, I’ve gone through the mills, I’ve served the causes; therefore, I believe I am old enough to deserve retirement from poetry, at the very least. I can speak for myself.
So, it’s understandable if I take advantage of my old age to surrender to the refined expression of pure poetry, to the primacy of the aesthetics of forms, to the secondary position of content in the architecture of a poem. In other words: a final commitment to the disturbing adventure of essences, in pursuit of the gods and the angels revealed in the text; to the quest for the core in an ever uncertain reality, undefined by language; to the words spilt in the name of passion for eternity or for a greater god.
Your question has diminished resistance: it is yet another attitude taking part in poetic work. What this means is that contexts and their diversity may lead the author (on account of ethics, civility or simply culture) to embrace what seems to be the higher value at that time: resistance.
And yet, the least I can ask myself when I’m writing my verses, when I’m entangled in a word flow or in the days passing by or through me, is that I don’t lack the words that have always been with me. Words that have accompanied me in my disquiet writing, which is provoked by my mere experience of existing, by the absurd vision of my own world, by the vision of others, of everyone; by the sharing of evil which comes from the absence of good, by the just for the unjust (without ever knowing, deep down, who is who in the text); by the impotence when in face of fear, by the carnage, by this global stupidity and by so many other commonplaces on this global stage, on this ever-accelerating race towards catastrophe.
And all of this as I am more and more alone with myself, guided by intuition – that compass within the vast expanses of the soul¹, as Bernardo Soares used to say. He, who resigned from living, he who hated any action, as if he were a hothouse plant.
And it is from this, from the consciousness of this, that resistance emerges. Resistance doesn’t take time off or choose appropriate occasions. And perhaps, hypothetically, resistance may bring the ever-desirable beauty of the text, purposeful, frail, complete.
But how can a poor poem resist?
By its mere existence. It has no other foundations. Existence equals resistance. If, besides translating into a convulsion or an innovation in textual terms, poetry ever becomes relevant to society, politics or the world, well, that is a totally different story. A set of words is no bombshell. At most it may be a pamphlet, a manifesto, a denunciation – and this is only in case of inflamed contestation. My own poor poetry has always been suspicious of the disguises put on by the act of fleeing towards nothingness. If, by chance, it is allowed to circulate some more – and one of these days it won’t be – my poem, sensing a threat to its petty, ridiculous expression of singularity, will claim it resists against its own negation. Which amounts, after all, to a negation of freedom and life.
Because poetry has always been about resistance: first, to the conformed act of resisting textually; then to father, mother, homeland, the ironing press of standardised forms, contents, theories. It is about resisting the power of the word that demotes, that imprisons. To resist the definitive kingdom of global consumerism, not just of things, but of souls, of the spirit, of our own singularity. To resist those sophisticated ways of luring what goes from the mind to the bodies: the core of that living and unchanging creature known as human being, in an inevitable process of dehumanisation.
And to conclude, I request that young fellows writing poems these days may look at that adventure or gesta of today’s capitalist world. Never has economic collapse been so shamelessly sovereign in our minds: young minds, old, poor, remedied, more or less innocent. It is therein, in that adventure – certainly original in finding ways to destroy economies, countries and people – that you, young poets, may find the epic so sorely missing in today’s world. What are you (what are we) waiting for?
¹TN: Translation from Zenith, Richard, 2001, The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa, New York: Grove Atlantic.
I believe in poetry as a way to form that attitude. That implies a work of consciousness and sensitivity, naturally. With its several ways, language contains both. Until a certain point, it makes us understand one another; afterwards. It sets limits, it constrains us. It is not enough that we feel things; we have a brutal need to expose them, to reveal them, to establish chains of thought and to echo them.
For ideas to be clear, we must become owners of the concepts and references that truly matter. To put language through an effort, to create a personal relation with language so as to achieve and present a unique view of the world: that is what sets us free. Fit to re-create ourselves, to escape trends, to run away from simple mechanisms of participation – if not involuntary, at least convenient and conniving – in the most basic and foolish forms of citizenship.
Thinking isn’t enough, merely existing doesn’t matter. We only gain identity when thought becomes dangerous, when we become capable of embarrassing the most generic common sense, when we are truly in favour or against something, in favour or against a choice. More than questioning them, we must destroy the high spirits of the crowds. We must force the members of these crowds to justify themselves and the overwhelming rhythm imposed by their daily repetitive actions.
In fact, by considering the development of aesthetic thinking in Portugal roughly until Modernism, one concludes that the subordinate position of art in relation to morality has become a recurrent habit. If we wished to point out a high or a low point of that subordination, we could choose the times of the Counter-Reformation. Aí está um contexto social, político e cultural que permite considerar a arte em função dos valores ideológicos e à sua luz, ou então à sua sombra, condená-la ou exaltá-la. Therein is a social, political and cultural context that allows one to regard art as a function of ideological values and to condemn art or to praise it in their light (or in their shade).
Obviously one can say that what exists can resist, and then add that what was condemned or praised is the best image of that resistance. But a bad poem written with good or bad will, conforming to values evaluated merely by ethical or ideological perspectives, is not even a poem. What remains there, then, is that which does not exist. And that which does not exist is condemned to not resisting. That is the only way we can state that poetry is a form of resistance.
However, those were exceptional times. In today’s societies – at least in the so-called West – it’s not exactly about fighting an explicit tyranny, but about fighting in a different way. So I go back to my initial statement and repeat that, in a broad sense, poetry always implies resisting. However, I find that the less it attempts to fight out of mere provocation, the more effective it is.
Para mim, a prática da poesia nunca envolveu o desejo de me afirmar contra quem quer que seja, e desagrada-me que o panorama poético actual possa ser visto como uma renhida luta de galos em que cada um procura pôr-se em bicos de pés, tentando ganhar algum protagonismo pela agressividade ou violência dos seus escritos.
Practicing poetry has never implied a desire to promote myself in opposition to others, and I don’t like the fact that the current poetry landscape may be seen as a relentless cockfight where all striving for prominence and resort to aggressiveness and violence in their writings.
Such an attitude is diametrically opposed to what I consider the deepest resistance of poetry: a resistance to any cultural orthodoxy that seeks to put poetry on a pedestal or to frame it into predefined or void values, according to which there are certain rules deemed acceptable or considered “good poetry”. With that in mind, it is clear that poetry must resist – and it has resisted, for instance, a certain idea of market that is affecting the literary scene, for better or worse, with rituals such as launches, interviews and the like. In fact, poetry is bought and sold by very few and stands at the margin of major publishing business deals. And that gives poetry a certain freedom; the downside is a lesser collective relevance. In that sense, it is understandable that most publishers don’t promote poetry as much as other literary genres. Poetry is a side refuge which can grant publishers some prestige but which is not worth much investment.
Would the solutions then be an aggressive poetry promotion strategy, or the proselytism of those defending poetry whenever they feel it is under threat? I don’t think so. Poetry, as love or lust, can be a paradox or a contradiction. Poetry sometimes prefers to be resisted: to shun those who defend it and embrace, here and there, those who actually resist it. This means that poetry tends to resist a certain institutional setting, which, by attempting to promote it with the best intentions, may actually smother it instead. What I mean by all this is that poetry justifies itself – serving the needs of those who write it or of those who read it; and that, at its core, poetry does not exist to be taught in schools, to be reviewed in newspapers or to justify any academic or institutional career. This may only be understood by someone with literary experience in its strongest, most radical sense, and not by those for whom poetry has become a dull obligation or an often self-destructive, aseptic and lifeless professional occupation.
In other words, after all, this implies writing against something, but not as a provocative attitude. It’s about writing or reading with no compass or itinerary, resisting inertia and understanding that sometimes friction becomes essential. And it is resisting ourselves, mostly – our own little tricks and addictions, to get, for better or worse, to an unknown place. The only worthy place. For that to happen one must take chances, resist the most usual horizons of expectations, leave the “comfort zone” (that’s how they call it now), be on the razor’s edge. Or, as Ponge recommends somewhere, things must upset us, they must be a wake-up call. Which is also a form of resistance.
That being said, are poetry and poets exempt of any responsibility – as in a form of ethical resistance – especially when facing a society whose only value increasingly appears to be money? I believe so, that this resistance still makes sense. Nobody lives in an ivory tower. I don’t believe, however, that such resistance should make poetry a weapon or turn the poet into a spokesperson for some cause, as if the poet were on some mission to make them superior to others. No, that would seem quite presumptuous to me. So, poets’ greatest form of resistance isn’t political or social: it is mostly against themselves and those around them; the purpose being to remain faithful to their true selves, to what inspires them to write at a particular moment. Without fearing to displease others, without caving in to modern trends or to precepts from a society that wants them to correspond to a certain stereotype of the capital letter “Poet” (or with an emphatic lower case, depending on the trends). Knowing how to resist those stereotypes is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the hardest ethical commitments of those who write – and that is, after all, one of the most decisive forms of resistance in poetry.
However, and as I have noted on other occasions, protest and, even less, pamphleteering were never the dominant traits of neorealist poetry. This becomes clearer when one thinks of poets such as João José Cochofel, Políbio Gomes dos Santos, Manuel da Fonseca, Álvaro Feijó or Carlos de Oliveira.
The fundamental question is, perhaps, to determine whether the expression of resistance to the oppression of a dictatorship is much stronger than the lyrical value of poetry. That is, does poetry become a mere verbal weapon, losing its artistic specificity, or can the poet reconcile the need for thematising protest and anger with the demands of a language that does not give up its creative force as art?
For those who wrote in that period, it became nonetheless clear that the act of writing was, in itself, a form of resistance, regardless of whether or not there was a more or less explicit reference to the dominant social reality.
Poetry would always be a “clear shout”¹, the title chosen for the first booklet of the A Palavra [The Word] collection, which was also the first collection of António Ramos Rosa’s poems. And the name chosen for such collection, published in Faro, roughly at the same time as Cadernos do Meio-Dia, proved how the cry for freedom was intrinsically part of the language of poetry, or inextricable from it. That is, only “Poetry, free freedom” could duly convey the poet’s urgent “cry of liberation”²: “I can’t put off my life for another century / nor my love / nor my cry of liberation”.
Social and political poetry, which would be embraced by many poets in the 1960s, from Sophia de Mello Breyner to Alexandre O’Neill, from Ruy Belo to Fiama, showed a deep awareness that protesting and denouncing oppression were justified in poems only if consistently allied with the universal values of poetry: verbal density, the weight of words (Carlos de Oliveira: “Rough and light, heavy are the words / more than stones, more than life”³), the ability to surprise.
In Portugal, this way (the only possible way, I think) of conceiving the language of poetry finds its most relevant theoretical expressions in António Ramos Rosa (Poesia, Liberdade Livre – Poetry, Free Freedom4) and in Ruy Belo (Na Senda da Poesia – On the Track of Poetry5).
Today, I believe, it makes perfect sense to speak of poetry as a form of resistance to the all-too-frequent watered-down uses of language and discourse, which are prosaic in the worst sense of the word, since great artistic prose distinguishes itself from such uses as well. And when poetry deliberately resorted to such uses, back in the distant 1930s (the name of Irene Lisboa immediately comes to mind), it did so with sophistication, wit and innovation, clearly within the novelties brought about by modernity – which could never be the case of some of today’s dull prose writings.
Ruy Belo had this in mind when he drew a contrast between the “poetic word” and the “practical word” in Poesia Nova [New Poetry6], an essay included in his book Na Senda da Poesia [On the Track of Poetry]:
As a useful and practical word, the word is no longer a source of knowledge and even forgets it has ever been so. It becomes part of the purely sensitive core of man. It turns into a vehicle for raw feelings, a vehicle no one can relate to, as it is outside art. It is no longer subordinate to voice; it no longer serves this voice with a genuine servitude that enables it to be itself. It mediates instead of being immediate. It ceases to have a value in and for itself. It is bound by a specific purpose.
The poetic word resists always and thus endures this decay. As Ruy Belo goes on:
The condition of a non-significant word is so degrading that it starts by not being a term for a concept. Although the logical word is a ‘servant’ word, not free as the poetic word, which, as we saw, is responsible for itself, it is still a human word. The non-significant voice, however, is not [human].
The idea is, then, to distinguish “poetic meaning” from “logical meaning” or even from “non-meaning”. This is why António Ramos Rosa, in his essay O poema, sua génese e significação [The poem, its origin and meaning7], talks about the “irreducibility of poetic meaning” after analysing Fernando Pessoa’s work, namely the poem Depois da feira [After the fair”8].
Even when poets don’t give up on their “duty to speak”9 (a position long kept in a known poem by Cesariny, and ultimately replaced by the “will to speak”10- which, as a statement of will, may not significantly alter the initial purpose of the author), they know they cannot betray the nature of their art – the invention of a language, that creation of “new poetry” mentioned by Ruy Belo. And such consciousness will always drive them to resist all forms of oppression or conservatism, resistance being a clear synonym for freedom or for an unstoppable quest for freedom, regarding their relation with the world, their “dialogue with the universe” and their writing as well. Which is, after all, the same thing.
¹TN: Free translation of the title, by Richard Zenith, available at https://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poet/item/4644 (accessed on February 4, 2019)
²TN: Free translation by Alexis Levitin, 1998, available at https://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/4766/auto/0/I-cant-put-love-off-for-another-century (consulted on February 5, 2019)
³TN: Free translation, as no officially translated version was found.
4TN: Title translation available in Santos I.R., 2008, “A Poetics of Ignorance: António Ramos Rosa and Wallace Stevens”, in: Eeckhout B., Ragg E. (eds) Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic, London: Palgrave Macmillan, consulted on February 7th, 2019.
5TN: Free translation, as no officially translated version was found.
6TN: The title and the two excerpts below were free translations, as no officially translated versions were found.
7TN: both the title and the verse are free translations as no officially translated versions were found.
8TN: Translation by Wevill, David, 1935, To build my shadow a fire : the poetry and translations of David Wevill, Missouri, USA: Truman University Press.
9TN: Free translation by Richard Zenith, 2005, available at https://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/4904/auto/Mario-Cesariny-de-Vasconcelos/YOU-ARE-WELCOME-TO-ELSINORE, accessed on February 7, 2019.
10TN: Free translation, as no officially translated version was found.
(poetry is written against everyone)
It is tedious to complain about all obvious statements of principle.
We respect the attributes and instruments of criminality: aggression, provocation, subversion, corruption. We want to know how radically against the world we are by exercising ourselves within our poems. Poems begin to build the foundations of their understandings through poetry. It is also the moment when we disappear and it would be gratifying to see how our faces can inspire fright in hearts that are accustomed to cordiality.
To force someone to push away the words, such foliage of gold implanted in the eyes and ears, to discover the zoological face that not even a film camera could capture or domesticate. Impertinence offers architecture lessons. There are many people to inhabit houses. But we only care for explosive workshops.
We are against all workers. The work of some and the capital of others aren’t enough to put us on a lease, even though we are usually available. They launch searches, at times of seduction, to find out where we live. But we disappear out of irreversible availability. We are worthless until we reach what we could call, by chance, our address.
God’s head is too heavy; it fully occupies that saddlebag where we carry bread. One may even believe that a tap on the shoulder is abusive as it may momentarily shift the burden. God sleeps, deeply so, hence the head is so heavy. Sometimes we intend to awaken it to make it lighter. Everything is dead within us except the death of godly things, precisely. It is in poems that we transport this food for all deaths. The harmful celebration becomes politics of personal ignorance, which we force ourselves to take on until the very end, so as to maintain the only possible science that does not lead to citizenship. One can immediately notice our pedagogical absence and when others reach for us to teach them, we are no longer there and, if one asks the people, maybe one can find out we’ve never been there after all.
Poetry is made against everyone, and by one alone; by one alone, every single time. Glory would be to help death in others, and not out of pity. Greatness is measured by the conveniences of evil. What they say of beauty is an entrapment. Pity they don’t practice fear, all of them. It would mean profit for our trade and small contentment for those who seek to make it even worse.
And you may read this as you please, as it will always be wrong.
(Herberto Helder, Photomaton &Vox, 4ª edição, Assírio & Alvim, Lisbon, 2006, pp. 152-153)
(Herberto Helder, Photomaton & Vox, 4ª edição, Assírio & Alvim, Lisboa, 2006, pp. 152-153)
The association of the two words – ‘poetry’ and ‘resistance’ – usually corresponds, in a rather superficial vulgata, to a set of ‘poetics’ or the so-called protest texts, whose purpose is to blow the whistle on a criminal and repressive political regime.
It seems, I don’t know if by definition or by doubt, that poetry has been since immemorial times a form of resistance to dominant discourse, to slavery routines, the repetitive torpor of the hours, to any sort of finitudes. From the ancient verbal traditions to the romance or the chansons de geste which, thanks to timely collections, have lasted until our modern days, we can equally remember the long-lasting work songs which live on in Portugal’s dwindling rural world.
Poetry is certainly another look beyond common sense and beyond all social, moral, aesthetic or other constraints. As Arthur Rimbaud said, no mandate can guarantee possession of La liberté libre.
When I read a new poet, I want to be surprised, I want to enter an otherwise unknown view of the world, I want to leave book of poems with something I had never had before. A poem will be all the more surprising the more it changes a reader’s perception. This will preserve the poem from the passing of time and, beyond the acceptable and necessary circumstantial elements, poetry will resist.
It is however possible to symbiotically merge several “resistances” in one text alone. I shall quote, for instance, Paul Celan and his famous poem Todesfuge (Fugue of Death)¹, which managed to resist all sorts of titles:
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
we drink it at noonin the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden hair
In our Literature, one must highlight the lyric of resistance to the dictatorship regime which lasted from the late 1930s to 1974 and which even saw some of our authors face time in prison (Jaime Cortesão, Miguel Torga, Casais Monteiro, Borges Coelho or Veiga Leitão). Others used their poetic discourse to report the unrighteousness of the repression by singing ‘The new day clean and whole’ of an all-recovered freedom’² (Sophia de Mello Breyner).
Just to finish off this brief statement, I wish to dwell on two great examples which are seldom associated with the “poetry-resistance” binomial. One is Fernando Pessoa, who could only overcome the constraints of an unambiguous voice, of one sole subject, through heteronyms. He then built a “drama in people”, where all intersubjectivities are possible. Another example is from the 16th century but surprisingly applicable to modern-day Portugal:
No more, my Muse, no more, for now my Lyre
Untuned lies and hoarse my voice of Song;
Not that of singing tire I, but I tire
Singing for surd and horny-hearted throng.
Favours which Poet-fancy mostly fire
Our land gives not, ah no!, ‘tis plunged too long
In lust of lucre, whelmed in rudest folly
Of vile, austere and vulgar melancholy.
(The Lusiads [Os Lusíadas,] Book X, Stanza 145)¹
But as unfortunately one can tell, we are already in the 21st century and still resisting the vile, austere and vulgar melancholy of the 16th century, as we read these brilliant decasyllables.TN: translation of The Lusiadsby Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1880.
It is in life that one truly resists. Not in its fringes, in the margins. That is the easy way, the effortless way. To resist is to take action; it is not (and has never been) to give up.
I don’t regard the word as a form of resistance. The real form of resistance is silence. Better: the inaudible (silence). It means to be forgotten and not to say anything; to be disregarded and not to speak up; to be uninvited and to give silent answers.
To be insulted, defamed, envied and to respond to it all with outrageous silence.
Silence is an art to be learned. It is slow, frail, patient, yet the only everlasting form of answer. One can only reach that capacity with time. This is why resistance, in poems by Herbert, Brodsky or Milosz, is not so much in what is said but in the hidden intention of those words, in what is said between the lines, in the way verses become silent at the end of each line, in the pauses between stanzas. On a white curtain.
That’s right. The true form of resistance in poetry isn’t the word but the blank page. Therefore, I really shouldn’t extend my answer any further.
Obviously, no critical appreciation or aesthetic judgement (arising throughout history in distinct conceptual formulations) may impose itself as a dogmatic aesthetic principle or key. To Susanne K. Langer, for instance, poetry is the creation of illusory events, even when it is an opinion.
Poetry, as a work of appropriation (of tradition, which it then corrects and redefines) and as a slip-up (no longer the classical definition of language choice), seeks a fair voice, sudden enlightenment, a discourse made of images [Mário Luzi]; it is a profound testimony to dissatisfaction. It is ecstasy, powerful imperfection [Longino].
This weaving of language, uncertain and inconclusive, creates actions, not alienation: in its strangeness, it is bound to the future, either distancing or committing itself to the (poetic) vulgata. It is a vulnerable statement not associated with utility, eminent and obscure; it is quietness and turbulence of sound; it is perversion conducting to beatitude, disenchantment and joy.
Ever-lacerating, poetry affects the mundane; ever-secret, poetry creates timelessness. Poetry is a form of resistance: poetry resists poetry. TN: Translation by S. H. Butcher (1932), adapted version accessible in https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69372/from-poetics, consulted on February 7, 2019.
Bearing that in mind, a poet cannot but declare war on all sorts of clichés: verbal clichés, firstly, but also political, philosophical, psychological, etc. Without ever losing sight of the fact that, in times of mass communication, this war is as unequal and ludicrous as that of an (angry) sardine declaring war on a (steel) oil tanker.
When de Andrade told me this story, I asked him if he knew which poem the young man had read. Astonished, he replied, “I have no idea, can you believe it?”
Poetry is a form of resistance, yes. But it doesn’t need to know it is.
Poetry, so approximate to what we could deem the real presence of the word, has a “natural” propensity to resist language corruption. Umberto Eco says something of the sort, “Where the doorman doesn’t speak may the poet stay silent.”¹ This does not mean (I hope) that poetry should stick to a doorman’s language, but that poetry uses (when it does so) ordinary language without being limited by it. Quite to the contrary, it embraces that language and forces it, just like the metaphors that Warren and Wellek classify as “latent”, to confront its specificity, its inner originality. This is how poetry disrupts “its anaemia [of ordinary language] with some fresh blood” (João Cabral de Melo Neto).
“How can poetry resist?”, we may ask, by saying things such as, “the Earth is blue like an orange”, “birds are the very first morning thoughts”, “morning’s daughter, Aurora and her rosy fingers”, “a tapestry of men” (a battle), etc. “And what does it resist?”: journalism, television, advertising, the parlance of entertainment prose and all jargons or idiolects that impoverish language like parasites: “politish”, “economese”, “educationese”, the stereotypes of “legalese” and the language of the social sciences, the butter-soft language of business markets and diplomacy, conceived to deceive, and so on.
When this happens, then yes, poetry is indeed a form of “political” and “social” resistance. TN: Free translation, as no official translated version was found.
Poetry, like all art, is a form of resistance to death, to monotony, to the dullness of days and words. In the current Portuguese context, poetry can (and should) also be a form of resistance to the infamous Acordo Ortográfico [Orthographic Agreement], whose implementation will bring the most undesirable, unpoetic ambiguities to the Portuguese language, among other adverse and hardly justifiable consequences.
Poetry resists because resisting is its condition, for all great poetry arises from a great urgency to speak up, more than from a choice or a project.
As a genre practised and followed by no more than three hundred people (this could be called “the Rui Pires Cabral constant”), Portuguese poetry almost heroically resists the growing indifference shown by editors, literary supplements and booksellers. Authentic and noble, poetry resists because it doesn’t intend to reach thousands of readers and because, unlike plastic arts, it doesn’t want to become a form of material livelihood. Poetry resists because it cannot be postponed – to another time, place or voice. In that exact sense, as Goethe stated, poetry is circumstantial. And it resists/responds, quite often, to circumstances as specific as they as recognisable: mourning, a meeting, a concert, a journey.
Good or bad, the last poem I published was an attempt to resist the acclamation of poohets (sic) who represent, as I see it, everything that poetry shouldn’t be.
for José Miguel Silva
The truth, whatever they say,
is that we had very little luck
with our contemporary poets (?)
One was born in Galveias and tattoos himself or needles himself to hide an evident void; another likes to walk naked in Braga,
long after – and not as well as – any Pacheco.
(They both ignore that the only cock bigger than the world was João César Monteiro’s.)
A third one, whose name I shall never write,
is the modern woman of blind publishing
and daily wrongdoing. The fourth
and the fifth (I praise those who can tell them apart)
belch melancholy and do not admit
a minimum deviation from the sacrosanct transfiguration of lyricism.
The sixth – no, I don’t feel like talking about the sixth one.
Our consolation, indeed, is that in the meantime some have become novelists (clink clink), and the others
will soon become government ministers
or simply scumbags (the same thing, after all).
Meanwhile, from sewer to sewer,
Portugal advances by leaps and bounds,
and one of these days it may very likely
be hit in the face by another Nobel prize.
(Piolho 006 Magazine, September 2010, Porto, Edições Mortas / Black Sun Editores)
It may well be [a form of resistance]. Always, by default, that is, in certain social, political or cultural contexts. Today, in some of those places where the history of long-lasting modernity endures to leave its trace, some poetry still resists. It resists the huge amounts of barbarity that persists in each and every age. It perceives the threats of every historical moment and provides answers according to both the nature of the danger and its own form of opposition as well as the desire inherent in its poetics. It thus keeps the kingdom of possibilities and transformations open to the human race.
To say that poetry resists is to claim that poetry denies its full absorption by the mind or by the spirit. It is to think about the materiality of its work (poiesis and poiema), withholding it from the course of action of any politics of the spirit.
For Plato and Aristotle, poetics is a tool to think politics. But Plato and Aristotle are in opposing fields, representing different parties. And one must even admit the invention of Nietzsche’s philology, according to which philosophers and poets born before Socrates were masters of life. Or to say it in other words, poetry was – as was philosophy before Socrates – a way of life.
As a way of life, poetry is a stage for language happenings; it co-moves the senses and people’s body and souls. It mobilises knowledge, ethics and aesthetics; it crosses them, summons them. Kant distinguished three spheres of culture, but didn’t completely give in to the temptation of transforming such distinction into a separation, as did many after him.
Nos finais do séc. XIX, Rimbaud procurava ainda uma língua. Trouver une langue – será a infindável tarefa que muitos dos mais fortes se darão ou retomarão de outros e de que apresentarão várias versões. De William Blake a Jean-Arthur Rimbaud, de Hölderlin a Mallarmé, de Rilke a Paul Celan encontramos cartografias ou marcos de resistência que nos permitem mapear a rede das opressões, a fisionomia por onde a barbárie se acende, tentar perceber a diferença dos tempos.
On the edge of the modern capitalist era, a colossal figure, Dante, chose the language he would write the Commedia. Engels, in 1893, described him as the last poet of the Middle Ages and, simultaneously, the first modern poet (preface to the Italian edition of the Communist Party’s Manifesto). In the late 19th century, Rimbaud was still searching for a language. Trouver une langue – that shall be the endless task that many of the greatest will have to take on or to resume; and they shall present many versions of it. From William Blake to Jean-Arthur Rimbaud, from Hölderlin to Mallarmé, from Rilke to Paul Celan, all have provided cartographies and hallmarks of resistance, enabling us to map out the network of oppressions, the settings in which barbarianism arises, to understand the differences in times.
Man has learned much
Since morning, for we are a conversation,
And we can listen to one another. Soon we’ll be song.
The poet is, then, he who steals the fire.
He/she is in charge of humanity, even of animals; he/she must make us feel, grasp, hear his/her inventions; if what the poet can bring from underneath has a shape, he/she will provide such shape; if it informs, he/she will provide the information. To find a language.
When the endless servitude of woman is broken, when she lives for and by herself […] ²(Rimbaud)
Because it is not about elementary sounds produced by the brass, strings, woods, but the intellectual word at its purest point that must lead, with plenitude and undeniably as the ensemble of links existing within everything, to Music.
Narrate, teach, even describe, that’s fine and even if it were enough for each of us perhaps, in order to exchange human thought, to take from or to put into someone else’s hand in silence a coin, the elementary use of discourse harming/serving the universal reporting, in which, except for literature, all genres of contemporary writing participate.
Here is a (historical) version of what poetry does or what it may resist, even if that is all it can do: the empire of that global report, which Mallarmé had already given away and which, today, does not only threaten to take over all discourses and all contemporary writing genres, but which has also begun to contaminate and dissolve all sectors of literature, as well as to expropriate those most exploited, most humiliated, most offended, from their rights to express themselves and to show their scarcity, their shortage. That global report is no other than the dominant, universal discourse produced by financial and economic powers and by their officers, within the bureaucratic political apparatus and within several other means of communication. This discourse blows into a devastation of the audio-visual space, conditions writing spaces and even sources of promotion of an intellectual culture. It conveys a unique line of thought and is a vast sham of a subjectless voice, a subjectless voice of a mass media culture, which is blurring, erasing, evaporating that complex and rude sound which is discourse among humans.
Mass media culture develops with the market valuation of cultural artefacts and their transformation into consumable assets in show-form; with the creation of a working environment which heavily restricts invention and imposes a hardware that heavily restricts the software options.
TN: Unofficial translation accessible in https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/modules/en354/syllabus/seminars/rimbaud_-_letter_may_15_1871.pdf(consulted on February 5, 2019)
TN: translation from Lloyd, Rosemary, 1999, Mallarmé. The Poet and his Circles, Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.
TN: translation by Barbara Johnson, 2007, Crisis of Verse, p. 210, in Michon, Pascal, “8. New Artistic Rhythm Practices and Conceptions (1857-1897) – part 2”, Rhuthmos, 8 July 2016, accessible in http://rhuthmos.eu/spip.php?article1836(consulted on February 5, 2019)
Mais tempo, admito, gasto a passar mal
por relativo amor e altivez
do que a fazer política, e prezo
sobre o consenso o rasgo original,
herança doentia do burguês
de génio, que nega ser geral
o raio que trilhou seu ideal,
e deixa que o isente a lucidez
da rota rigorosa da unidade
além da sua esfera. Mais consola
levantar os óculos à verdade,
suspensa ao clamor mudo lá do fim
da literatura, onde não rola nada
excepto, além das massas, o sublime.
Precário verso, se o gesto
o não redime –
paira só na frouxa linha acima
dos meus ombros
onde ruo assolidária e sem assombros.
Agora, se descerem os médios
à rua e os verdadeiros pobres a gente
atenta e recíproca a encher de pulmões ar
canto atrito resistência e translação,
a derrubar ditas classes consumo e capital,
o cómodo sem afecto, a sôfrega avidez pateta,
e o que a todos sobre os ombros nos carrega,
aí então. além de sublime e ser poeta,
talvez mais do que busque eu dê entrega.
It is then important to define those two forces within their field, which is language. The first is the power of inertia, the habits of speaking and writing, the set phrases and ideas; the other, the force of the poetic word seeking to counteract that ordinary, normative system and to build an alternative way to express what has become ordinary and instrumental in communication. Literature is the quintessential vehicle for such an alternative; and within literature – yet sometimes overcoming it – it is poetry that is leading the way of a language that, as Rimbaud said, doesn’t follow any action but stays ahead of it.
If we deem this a form of resistance, I believe this is the only meaning of the word we could convey into poetry. The mere act of writing a poem is, in this sense, a gesture that shows such opposition to the norm, to the pre-established order. We are already in the field of poetic art; and one must start from our own conception of writing to insistently and effectively reject commonplaces. It is evidently a subversive, transgressive attitude; but, as the people say, that’s where the rubber meets the road. In fact, the avant-garde ideas of the 20th century, on the one hand, and the literature of commitment, on the other, have caused great confusion between subversion and poetry with an ideological purpose or agenda – which is nothing more than an “illustration” of manifestos or of political or aesthetic projects. On the contrary, any poem (an actual poem, obviously) is a transgressive act against normative writing; even in cases in which such writing does not convey an expression of disruption (I’m thinking of poems by Pascoaes, Florbela Espanca, José Régio, David Mourão-Ferreira, among many others whose aesthetics go back to traditional forms). Also, in such cases, one can sense Mallarmé’s idea of “vibration”, even though applicable to other aspects of the effect that the poem has on the reader.
This is also the origin of the misconception triggered by the concept of resistance. I have already shunned the political aspect; but there is a perversion within such an ideological connotation to aesthetics, by those who regard literature as a permanent quest for originality and difference. In some moments, that quest actually made sense, as it was a part of what represented a change in dominant language at that time. From futurism to surrealism, which was the revolutionary project of the practitioners of those literary models. But one must not confuse revolution with resistance. From Marinetti to Breton, we have statements of strength which, while fighting literary movements acknowledged at the time, couldn’t really be deemed acts of resistance, given that they knew they’d come out from their battles as winners – despite being attacked or rejected by scholars or by traditionalists. In a way, the likes of Rilke or Stefan George, Saint-John Perse or Lorca, not to mention Claudel, were the finest representatives of a resistance that urged to destroy poetic expression or to make it uniform – more than Marinetti or other surrealist poets who were mere machines repeating programmed recipes.
I then associate resistance in poetry to the presence and the affirmation of a subject in writing. This subject will eventually be associated to a Self, or to multiple selves, as Pessoa and his heteronyms; and the poem shall project the individual as a Being, as a verbal object that, without this essential dimension, would be nothing more than a playful artefact. Writing a poem is, then, a continuity of that crucial relation between word and subject. This is its deepest raison d’être and it resists the appeal of repetition, of programmed writing, of creative schools giving birth to serial products of what many claim to be “consumable poetry”, but that have nothing to do with what I believe a poem should actually be.
Poetry lacks a committed, caring look, I’d even dare to say compassionate (but not pitiful). Levinas’ ethics suits it well, “l’étique du visage” – the ethics of the face, of the look – impossible to escape, impossible not to look away as it draws our eyes into it. It asks us to be interested in and to take responsibility for the other’s fortune, especially when that other is a victim of violence and intolerance. It is here that poetry and politics (politikós, made for and by the citizens) should become entangled. In this sense, poetry can also be considered resistance, as it seeks, regardless of its scarce resources or its poverty, to rescue the other from oblivion, from nothingness.
Poetry finally resists by not ceasing to chase beauty: the uncomfortable beauty, served cold, not the formatted beauty, hollow and lustrous. Ever more a twilight art, poetry will no longer exist the moment when it ceases to create beauty, even if beauty seems a chimera, a victim of too much use and abuse. If it gives up on beauty, poetry will probably reduce itself to yet another form of escape, just like all the other forms of escape we are offered these days, instead of becoming, as it should, a haven (of slow, austere resistance). But we see that beauty is on the verge of being defeated by style, by dynamicity, by fashion, among other illusions. Because the aesthetics that rules the art of our time is the aesthetics of ruins (where have we seen this before?) – nothing is more fashionable than debris, empty buildings and, consequently, abandoned, surrendered, crushed people. But then, what to do to the halo beaming, still and forever, from all things and all beings, that cosmic light from deep down, that ejected matter in candle form, when the stars themselves succumb, incapable of resisting their own mass? TN: Free translation from tunY Partnership, 2014, Poetry Installations, Europe (project co-funded by the European Commission, accessible in https://issuu.com/joaofonseca/docs/poetry_installations_2.1(consulted on February 6, 2019)
But then casuistry ends up scrambling things up: in the 20th century, there were more or less right-wing poets far more important than more or less left-wing poets, who posed as great symbols of resistance. Fernando Pessoa, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Saint-John Perse, Vitorino Nemésio are worth more than the entire Neo-realism and the poetry defined as “anti-fascist” or committed to that cause. The exceptions are Miguel Torga, a great poet who never ceased to be a resistant, or Carlos de Oliveira, whose literary concerns transcended his initial prerogatives and intentions.
Naturally, it is a good idea to look at the answer given by Surrealism. But in this movement, transgression is meant to be so all-embracing, so corrosive and so deep that it becomes more about destroying whatever is the current setting and making poetry coincide with life in revolutionary terms –or so say the surrealists. That is, it is more about destroying than about resisting. Moreover, almost all surrealist poetry is rather bad, in my opinion. And it only ceased to be so when (or if) poets began to abandon the movement’s playbook. That was the case of Alexandre O’Neill’s finest poems and some of Cesariny’s poems. At this point, a certain type of humour and the idea of “a resistance” do match.
There are obviously “resistant” poets whose poetry isn’t exactly related to that posture. Eugénio de Andrade poses a very interesting case. The little poetry he wrote with slight political intention is hard to distinguish from that of others regarding style or metaphor processes. Not to mention the fact it was all – or almost all – written, I believe, after the 25 April revolution. At the time when an attitude of resistance, politically speaking, could leave its mark on us, his poetry had nothing to do with it. But the poet himself considered it a form of implicit resistance, when it came to using erotic metaphors, proposing them as liberation from taboos in a society that was not very interested in the body’s impulses and obsessions.
Por outro lado, também posso encarar a questão de uma perspectiva mais genericamente antropológica e dizer que a poesia é uma forma de resistência do ser humano contra todos os obstáculos redutores (tanto a guerra como a doença, tanto a morte como as catástrofes, tanto a ditadura como a banalização e o convencionalismo, tanto a hipocrisia e o politicamente correcto como a estupidez).
Para lançar mão de uma terminologia talvez mais própria da segurança social (aliás em crise, nos tempos mais ou menos amorfos que correm), se a poesia pode resistir é porque, mesmo no seu registo mais amargurado, constitui uma «prova de vida».
But I may also approach this question from a generically more anthropological perspective and say that poetry is way for human beings to resist all obstacles (war and sickness, death and catastrophes, dictatorship and banalisation or conventionalism, hypocrisy and the politically correct or stupidity).
To make use of a term taken from the sphere of social security (which is faced with a crisis in our amorphous times), if poetry can resist, even in its bitterest form, that’s because it is “proof of life”.