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.