Friday, April 28, 2017

And here I am, ridiculously alive - Juan Ramón Jiménez poems

I usually write up these ragbag poetry posts when a poet is giving me trouble – which is most of the time.  Pick out some good scraps – so, first, tear the poor poet to scraps – patch them together and take a look at the resulting quilt.  It looks like something, mostly.

Juan Ramón Jiménez looks like the kind of poet with whom I have the most trouble.  He was prolific beyond belief, with multiple styles or periods, apparently the cause of great disagreement among later Spanish poets – which are the best periods? even: which are the good periods? – although speaking generally, Jiménez is beloved.  He wrote that book about the donkey.

Jiménez often works with big symbolic words detached from any context but the poem.  It is a kind of abstraction.  Hard times for me, and likely for any translator. Jiménez becomes plain in translation:

from The Poet to His Soul

    Day after day you keep the branch protected
in case the rose may come; you go alert
day after day, your ear warm at the gate
of your body, for the arrow unexpected.
    Your rose shall be the pattern of all roses;
your ear, of harmony; of every light
your thought; of every waking star, your state.  (1914)

I am on p. 47 of Fifty Spanish Poems (1951), translated by J. B. Trend.  I know, “arrow unexpected,” a Hispanicism (“la fleche inesperada”) kept for the sake of the rhyme (the poem is a sonnet, a pretty one).  But the Spanish mostly seems a lot like the English.  Maybe Trend is too literal.  I often see the word “simple” attached to Jiménez’s style, for what that’s worth.  Rose, soul, light.

To compound my troubles I read, alongside the fifty-poem, career-wide overview, a Jiménez book that Trend would not even have known about, Invisible Reality (1983, written 1917-23, translated by Antonio T. de Nicolás), a set of poems that sometimes seem like fragments or gestures but with a coherent voice and poetics.  So it is a book, whatever Jiménez meant to do with it.

Compared to the published poems, Invisible Reality looks like an experiment in compressed personal mysticism.  A vision, for example, of a twilight in which “joyful gold” becomes “a cloud of ashes” in “the dirty light of gasoline” leads to a cry of ecstasy, or anguish:

I was not ready to give up.
I cried for it; I forced it.  I saw the ridiculous
irrationality of this candid fraternity
of man and life,
death and man.

And here I am, ridiculously alive, waiting
ridiculously dead, for death!  

The next poem revisits the twilight – the same one?  It’s just four lines, or five if the parenthetical counts:

That mauve cloud
pierced by the gold of twilight,
is it not, perhaps, my sad heart
pierced by the light of a love that is leaving?

In the next poem, Jiménez imagines he has a tree inside him.  Should I think of these poems as a sequence.  I picked these out not just because they were striking, but because a long stretch of poems seemed to tell an amorphous story.  Maybe they all do.

Ideal Epitaph

Book just read,
my own fallen flesh,
underground plough of my life!

A poet’s spiritual autobiography, perhaps, or a spiritual poet’s autobiography.


  1. These are some fine scraps, just lovely. Out of print, I think, but I see my university library has a copy. I hope I remember to check it out. I find everything you quoted here to be very attractive.

  2. Oh good. This is a case where, reading the poems, I was thinking that I was not getting this at all, but upon writing the piece, well, this is why we write the=se things, right? Thus the throat-clearing beginning, though.

    Next time I try the published poems, I will try a different translation. I think Jimenez will benefit from a variety of approaches. He would be worth trying in Spanish, too, one benefit of his supposed "simplicity."

  3. Here is a lovely website with "Platero y Yo" read in a gentle Castilian accent; the opening poems are also available in side-by-side translations. Once upon a time I was able to read him in Spanish; he was the first writer I read who wasn't in a textbook and wasn't an ALM dialogue to memorize...I am off to Barcelona and Northern Spain next week, and am mourning my loss of the ability to speak and understand Spanish (let alone Catalan), but I never cemented my fluency by spending time abroad (too poor at the time). I suppose it's never too late...

  4. Thanks for the link. I have not read Platero y Yo.

    Spain was exhausting. I have, or had, just enough Spanish that I always had to be turned on, which about did me in.

    Enjoy that trip, as if you had any choice.