If a person were not paying attention, it might be easy to get the idea that Juan Gelman doesn’t think much of poetry, or of the power of words.
Were this truly the case, Gelman would be in good company. Many a rousing speech, good argument or solid critique has been written off by a detractor as “all talk” or “just words.” His body of work itself itself would seem to belie such a notion — the exiled Argentine poet with more than 20 collections of poetry to his credit, a number of prose works, and a long career as a journalist is the recipient of the prestigious Cervantes Prize and the Argentine National Poetry Prize. And yet, the expressions in some of his poems suggest that he might have come to the work with at least some reluctance.
The Art of Poetry
Of all trades, I’ve chosen one that isn’t mine.
Like a hard taskmaster,
it makes me work day and night,
in pain, in love,
out in the rain, in dark times,
when tenderness or the soul opens its arms,
when illness weighs down my hands.
The grief of others, tears,
handkerchiefs raised in greeting,
promises in the middle of autumn or fire,
kisses of reunion or goodbye,
everything makes me work with words, with blood.
I’ve never been the owner of my ashes, my poems,
obscure faces write my verses like bullets firing at death.
— Juan Gelman
The reluctance that seems to find voice ironically enough in a poem like “The Art of Poetry” comes, perhaps, from the nature of poetry itself, at least in those times when it can rise above the sentimentality of a Hallmark card (as Gelman’s undeniably does). Poetry is something he equates with work, and not only with work itself but also with the “hard taskmaster” driving him to it. And words, beyond “all talk, ” become as vital and alive as blood.
Gelman writes in blood, questioning the effectiveness of words, even as he weaponizes them:
While the current dictator or bureaucrat was speaking
in defense of the regime’s legally established disorder
he took a line or verse born of the cross
between a stone and a bright glow in autumn
outside the class struggle raged on / brutal
capitalism / back-breaking work / stupidity /
repression / death / police sirens splitting
the night / he took the line of poetry and
deftly opened it in half packing
more beauty into one part and then more
into the other / he closed up the line / put
his finger on its first word / squeezed
it aiming at the dictator or bureaucrat
the line shot out / the speech went on / the
class struggle went on / brutal
capitalism / back-breaking work / stupidity / repression / death /
police sirens splitting the night
this explains why so far no line of poetry has overthrown
any dictator or bureaucrat not even
a small dictator or bureaucrat / and also explains
how a verse can be born from the cross between a stone and a bright
glow in autumn or
a cross between the rain and a ship and also from
other crossings no one would know how to predict / in other words
births / marriages / the
shots fired by neverending beauty
— Juan Gelman
In the introduction to the collection Unthinkable Tenderness, translator Joan Lindgren says that Gelman saw “the need for a collision between language and reality.” Here, in the midst of lamenting the shortcomings of poetry — the most eloquent “line shot out” may not ever topple repression and death — he illuminates that collision, shining a light on poetry’s deep power in its “neverending beauty.”
Gelman surely understood poetry’s power, the potency of “just words” to effect change if even in a subtle revolution of our perceptions. Lindgren goes on in her introduction to Unthinkable Tenderness to note that Gelman’s work was one component of a linguistic study aiming to “locate in the function of language itself the capacity — or incapacity — to deny the humanity of ‘the other.'” It is this work of Gelman’s that I think becomes so important — the use of words to unearth and elevate our shared humanity.
In his short verse “The Word, ” Gelman finds poetry’s power in naming, recognizing the power of words to give (or take away) shape.
To Rigas Kappatos
The word that would name you rests in the shadows. When it
names you, you will become a shadow. You’ll crackle in the
mouth that lost you to have you.
Lindgren recalled the study cited in Ordinary Men of what it took to compel German police in the early days of Hitler’s regime to kill Jews: “Difficulty was encountered only if the Jew spoke German, ” observing the importance of Gelman’s grasp of the “human connection of language and intimacy.”
If we keep reading we find that Gelman does accept his assignment from the “hard taskmaster, ” goes on to commit what Eduardo Galeano calls “the crime of marrying justice to beauty.” But he refuses to do so without an acknowledgement that while she might be a lady, poetry is not for the faint of heart; that those “just words” are sweaty and calloused from “hammering verbs together”; and that the poem becomes an embodiment of the soul of a movement, words themselves the worker who cannot be carried off.
august went off arm in arm with the hydrangeas
and poetry has now settled down to work
regardless of the hot sunday
stretched out over the houses / quietly
transparent in her backdrop of light one she-bird doesn’t sing / one
tree doesn’t grow at the root of its silence / and
has seen august arm in arm with the hydrangeas and
has settled down to work breaking
the siesta’s contracts / ah lady who knows
why they picture you as someone peaceful when you may be
wearing leather aprons / must be sweating / must have
callouses from hammering verbs together or
driving off hatreds betrayals saving
the heart’s clarity / lady
seen in the thick of the fight
caring for the combatant / his childhood
surrounded by gunpowder or casualties / worker
the enemy cannot carry off / surrogate
for these embraces / these lives
We’re reading the poetry of Juan Gelman together, from the collection Dark Times Filled With Light. Join us in the comments with your thoughts on the poems featured this week. Next week we’ll consider Gelman’s expressions of loss and explore his deft manipulation of language. If you have the book, you may wish to read “Crestfallen, ” “You, ” “Quiet at Last, ” and “Exergue” in preparation.
Photo by Agustín Ruiz, Creative Commons via Flickr. Poems by Juan Gelman, translated by Hardie St. Martin, reprinted with permission of the publisher. Post by LW Lindquist.