Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The poet is a faker \ Who’s so good at his act - a start on Pessoa

I have been reading Pessoa, and thinking, if that is not too strong a claim, about his poems and his project.  The examples I wrote about Monday and yesterday have certain Pessoan qualities to them.

Fernando Pessoa had been interested and had written in pseudonyms from an early age, but in 1914 he made or had a conceptual breakthrough, quickly writing a series of poems as if they were written by a fictional poet, a poet with his own biography and distinct philosophical and aesthetic ideas.  That poet was Alberto Caeiro, the naïve shepherd poet, the poems the bulk of The Keeper of Sheep.

At this point, Pessoa was not doing anything much different than writing in character, like Robert Browning writing dramatic monologues or a playwright creating a character.  The result was impressive – I think the poems that resulted are themselves extraordinary, certainly much more interesting than what I have read of Pessoa’s earlier poetry.

The next step, though, is the wild one.  Having summoned one poet, he quickly conjured a couple more, both of whom, in their fictional (but also real) writings claimed their Caeiro as life-changing, inspirational forebear.  The classicizing neo-pagan doctor Ricardo Reis was one poet; the ecstatic naval engineer Álvaro de Campos was another.  Pessoa wrote – and published – essays by each poet, discussing the influence of Caeiro on their work, and arguing with each other’s interpretation of their master.  At one point they even interview each other.  They both agree that Fernando Pessoa is a peculiar fellow who completely misunderstands Caeiro.


The poet is a faker
Who’s so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.

And those who read his words
Will feel in what he wrote
Neither of the pains he has
But just the one they don’t.

And so around its track
This thing called the heart winds,
A little clockwork train
To entertain our minds.

This is a Fernando Pessoa poem written in 1931, after Pessoa had been working on his heteronyms for fifteen years.  I like this Richard Zenith translation, and its forthright emphasis of the poem’s central paradox, better than its competition.*

“Fernando Pessoa” has at this point become another heteronym, another mask.  Attaching the name of Pessoa to a text simply means that the actual Pessoa is working with that particular character.  The real Pessoa, for example, actually wrote the poems of Alberto Caeiro.  The character Pessoa did not, and in fact is a disciple of Caeiro, just like Reis and Campos.  All three had their (fictional) lives changed by a lucky encounter with (fictional) Caeiro and his (real) unpublished poems, inspiring their own new and superior (real) poems.

If the poems were no good, none of this would matter much.  The most amazing feature of the conceit is that it resulted in great poems, and allowed the real Pessoa to be a great poet.  The second most amazing thing, to me, is that Pessoa was able to successfully create two quite different fictional great poets (Campos and Caeiro), one promising but self-limiting minor poet (Reis), and another messy, irritating, but occasionally brilliant one (Pessoa).

My plan is to keep writing about Pessoa until he exhausts me.

* Zenith’s version is on p. 247 of Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems (1998); an alternative on p. 167 of Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown’s Poems of Fernando Pessoa (1986 & 1998).  These are the two books of poems I will use as I mess around with Pessoa.


  1. Have you seen this neat website where you can compare 16 translations of the poem you quote?

  2. I've read the first verse of that poem before, because it's the epigraph of some novel, and it's always irritated me slightly because it's slightly missing the rhythm. I feel it would be better:

    The poet is a faker
    So good at his act
    He even fakes the pain
    Of the pain he feels in fact.

    The second line of the third verse is also completely wrong in the sense - the stress is all wrong.

    Translations of poetry irritate me - but more especially translations of poetry within novels, which are universally dreadful.

  3. Claudia - no, no idea. Thanks for the pointer. Fascinating.

    I knew this was a famous poem for Pessoa. It compresses a lot of relevant information about what he is doing, or might be doing.

    I feel obooki's version is better, too. And I agree about the line in the 3rd verse. It has another jarring problem, too - it somehow suggests that "winds" should be a noun. I don't know what "heart winds" are, but poets come up with things like that. Oh, you mean "winds a watch," not gusts.

  4. Aw, why do you consider Ricardo Reis a minor poet?

  5. Have you read José Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis? It's a great novel.

  6. "My plan is to keep writing about Pessoa until he exhausts me." Good plan, especially for those of us who are your readers, who only have to muster reading time and stamina. Obrigado! However, does this mean that Reis and the rest of the Pessoa-poets won't get written about? Which Pessoa do you mean?!?

  7. Which Pessoa? All of them. No, just a few - he used so many different names for different purposes. Richard Zenith's title for his book is a good one: Pessoa & Co.. It's also a reference to the title of Eça de Queiros novel!

    So Reis, for example - I hope do get to my idea of why I call him a minor poet, and if I am really ambitious I will argue that he is deliberately minor. I mean, as a distinct poet, I think he's minor. As a creation of Pessoa, he is ingenious.

    Miguel, I have not read the Ricardo Reis novel, nor any other Saramago book, which I always knew was an omission, and which looks increasingly like a huge omission.

    So I hope to read Ricardo Reis later this spring, if nothing else, after I have absorbed Pessoa some more.

  8. What a terrific poem. Irrelevant to any discussion about it, but it seems to support my one pet theory, which is that the script for Jules Dassin's film "Topkapi" contains a line or two for every possible occasion:

    "Like the old faith healer of Deal who said, 'Although pain isn't real, when I sit on a pin and it punctures my skin, I dislike what I fancy I feel.' I'm Cedric Page. How nice of you to come, Walter, and to bring Miss Lipp."

    But seriously, fascinating site, those 16 translations. And I'm eager to see how long it takes you to be exhausted by Pessoa.

  9. Topkapi! I love the idea that all human wisdom runs through a heist movie.

    Whatever difficulties the language presents, an advantage of (or problem with?) Pessoas's poems is that the conceptual aspect of them seem fairly easy to translate.

  10. Did you know Pessoa even had astrological charts made for Campos, Reis and Caeiro?

    My favorite of his poems, and probably his most famous in Portugal, is "Mar Português” (Portuguese Sea), which he wrote as himself. Many of us know it by heart, or at least the first two lines. It captures very well the country's psyche, or at least its stereotypes (melancholy, longing, "saudade", fate, pain, adventure).

  11. I did know about the astrological charts. Pessoa refers to their results here and there.

    "Portuguese Sea" is excellent - I think I will write something about the baffling Mensagem, and I should remember to mention "Portuguese Sea."