Hear the Enchanting Jorge Luis Borges Read “The Art of Poetry”

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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