Very few people can offer us a satisfying definition of poetry. Enumerating the technical qualities of literary verse, as English teachers do each day, seems like a paltry explanation of what poetry is and does. Even the poets themselves have struggled mightily to find the contours of their art, only to end in gnomic koans or exasperated sighs. “A poem should not mean / But be,” concludes Archibald MacLeish’s “ Ars Poética,” after telling us a poem should be “dumb,” “silent,” and “wordless.” MacLeish’s contemporary Marianne Moore famously spent five decades revising her attempt, “Poetry.” Finally, she reduced it to three irritable lines in which she confesses her “dislike” and “perfect contempt” for her own art, however “genuine” it may be.
These pinched modernists not only resisted didactic conceptions of poetry put forth by the ancients, but they also turned away from the grandiose rhetoric of the Romantics, who saw poets, in Percy Shelley’s unforgettable phrase, as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Perhaps they were right to do so. Perhaps also, there is another way to approach the subject, a way open to one poet only—Jorge Luis Borges. No one but Borges could make the claims for poetry as he does in his "Arte Poética" in such a moving and persuasive way: Poetry, he tells us, is the knowledge of time, of death, of infinity, and of our very selves. “Humble and immortal,” poetry allows us “To see in every day and year a symbol”
Of all the days of man and his years
And convert the outrage of the years
Into a music, a sound, and a symbol
To see in death a dream, in the sunset
A golden sadness, such is poetry
With reference to the mystical pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus in the first and last stanza, Borges makes his case with statements that seem the very opposite of humility, and yet feel utterly right; poetry is immortal, it is “a green eternity,” like Ulysses' Ithaca, it is “endless like a river flowing.” Or at least we feel it should be. Borges gives us a Platonic ideal of poetry, and it is one he might say, humbly, every poet should aspire to.
At the top of the post, you can hear Borges himself read his poem, in Spanish with English titles, in a video shot in Uruguay and Borges’ native Argentina and featuring a stirring Spanish guitar score augmenting Borges' solemn voice. Be sure to read the full text of Borges’ poem. As readers often do after finishing one of the Argentine master’s profoundly poetic works, you may find yourself for some time afterwards under a kind of spell, from an incantation that seems, at last, to unlock the secrets of art, of poetry, and of so much more.
Borges Explains The Task of Art
Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967-8 Norton Lectures On Poetry (And Everything Else Literary)
New Jorge Luis Borges-Inspired Project Will Test Whether Robots Can Appreciate Poetry
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Mirar el río hecho de tiempo y agua
y recordar que el tiempo es otro río,
saber que nos perdemos como el río
y que los rostros pasan como el agua.
Sentir que la vigilia es otro sueño
que sueña no soñar y que la muerte
que teme nuestra carne es esa muerte
de cada noche, que se llama sueño.
Ver en el día o en el año un símbolo
de los días del hombre y de sus años,
convertir el ultraje de los años
en una música, un rumor y un símbolo,
ver en la muerte el sueño, en el ocaso
un triste oro, tal es la poesía
que es inmortal y pobre. La poesía
vuelve como la aurora y el ocaso.
A veces en las tardes una cara
nos mira desde el fondo de un espejo;
el arte debe ser como ese espejo
que nos revela nuestra propia cara.
Cuentan que Ulises, harto de prodigios,
lloró de amor al divisar su Itaca
verde y humilde. El arte es esa Itaca
de verde eternidad, no de prodigios.
También es como el río interminable
que pasa y queda y es cristal de un mismo
Heráclito inconstante, que es el mismo
y es otro, como el río interminable.