Friday, April 29, 2011

Pleasing the eye as things do, \ They are what they are - Alberto Caeiro, poet

In a comment yesterday, Vince of the Philosophy of Romance blog reminded me that Alberto Caeiro’s writing often functions more as aphorisms than as poems, however he labels them.  His plain pieces often seem like settings for his maxims, or wisdom, or punchlines, or whatever I should call them, which can often be stripped from the poem without too much damage.

Whether or not his paradoxes are resolvable, or his wisdom is wise, Caeiro does his work in chewy fragments:

Only Nature is divine, and she’s not divine. . . (XXVII, HB)

For the only hidden meaning of things
Is that they have no hidden meaning at all. (XXXIX, PR)

Like the Universe, I pass and I remain. (XLVIII, HB)

I don’t care about rhyme.  You seldom find
Two trees alike, standing side by side. (XIV, PR)

That “seldom” (“raras” in Portuguese) is a hilariously fussy touch.   I think this is how I have been responding to him, as a sage, or a trickster.  As a philosophical stance, which I then try to understand, or, if I am Ricardo Reis, try to cram into my own stuffy poems.  But Caeiro was a poet, too, a narrow one, but real.  Here’s my favorite poem of his:

The soap-bubbles which this child
Blows from a straw for amusement
Are transparently a philosophy in themselves.
Shiny, useless and transient as Nature,
Pleasing the eye as things do,
They are what they are
In a precisely spherical and airy way,
And no one, not even the child who launches them
Claims they are more than they seem.
There are some you can scarcely see in the clear air.

They’re like the passing breeze which scarcely stirs the flowers,
Its passing known to us only
Because something quickens within us
And accepts all things with clear insight.  (XXV, PR)

Caeiro takes a step or two outside of himself in this poem, which does not hurt.  “Transparently” is a pun, an actual joke, as is, I suspect, “precisely,” a word that is often invoked to conceal imprecision.

The soap-bubbles are an effective metaphor for Nature, Caeiro’s idea of Nature, exactly because they are created by a person.  In Caeiro’s poems, Nature is often a setting for the human – a river has meaning (or no meaning) because it flows through his village; in one poem a ticking watch beside his bed somehow becomes Nature (XLIV); and, even if the physical objects are just trees and plants, there is always the observer, the poet, “a human animal produced by Nature” (XLVI).

The bubbles are also poems, of course, Caeiro’s poems, inspired by “something,” shiny, useless, and transient.  Can they really be no more than what they seem?  A bluff, a gag, a writer’s false arrogance.

Maybe I’ll get this little Portuguese project going and see how Caeiro’s poems look a few months from now.

PR is Peter Rickard’s translation of Caeiro; HB is Honig and Brown, whose translation I also used yesterday but forgot to mention.


  1. Hi A.R.

    I believe that poets often have irresistible urges to spout contradictions. This is OK if the contradiction enlightens us. That is, we see something mundane in a new light because of the contradiction.

    It is also expected by philosophers that when you posit a contradiction as wisdom that there must a an equivocation in play whereby the contraction holds in one sense and does not hold in the other sense. In these cases, when dual senses obtain, part of the joy is in the discovery both meanings. This works best when the juxtaposition is one few people have ever thought of before.

    Here are three lines from Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish published in 1926.

    A poem should be wordless
    As the flight of birds.

    A poem should be equal to:
    Not true.

    A poem should not mean
    But be.

    These lines remind me of Caeiro’s work. Especially the line: “A poem should not mean
    But be.”

    Consider: “A poem should be equal to:
    Not true.”

    In one sense ‘equal to: not true’ means a poem should be false. But in another sense it can mean ‘a poem should be equal to something that is not capable of being true or false. That is, it should ‘be’ and ‘not mean’.

    Also consider: A poem should be wordless
    As the flight of birds.

    A wordless poem would be a blank sheet of paper and we would not want to call it a poem. But the phrase ‘as the flight of birds’ suggests the action of ‘setting the imagination free.’ 'Setting the imagination free' is the result of an ‘act’ and not a 'meaning'.

    All these lines act as contradictions but they in turn reinforce the same message.

    How different from the above are these lines by Caeiro:

    For the only hidden meaning of things
    Is that they have no hidden meaning at all. (XXXIX, PR)

    This is what I mean by equivocation. I think doing this equivocation well is what makes the poet. A poet is so into words that such equivocation is a tool of the trade.



    Leaving, as the moon releases
    Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,


    I don’t care about rhyme. You seldom find
    Two trees alike, standing side by side.

    It just seems to me one of these poets read the other.

  2. You're right, MacLeish's poem has some fascinating similarities. Caeiro's poem was not published in Portuguese until 1925, so I will just presume that the poets were thinking about the same problems.

    How much difference does it make if the motive of the poets are different. Say, if one is playing with ideas about poetry, and the other is earnestly trying to use his poetry to build a system. Maybe no difference.

    Are you sure the blank piece of paper is not a poem?

  3. Hi A.R.

    I knew you would call me on that so I did not say it was not a poem. I said: “…we would not want to call it a poem,” meaning the community of English speaking individuals.

    I’m sure that there is someone who has presented a blank page as a poem. There must be at least one composer who has written a symphony called Silence to which there are blank sheets of music but no notes to play.

    I consider these works to be examples of reverse Emperor’s Clothes. In these cases the Emperor really is clothed but the subjects are naked.

    I think both these poets would probably say that the poet’s motivation or what the poet thinks is irrelevant. If a poem does not mean but rather just ‘exists’ or ‘subsists,’ then all we have is how the poem is ‘played’ in our mind.

    I believe no one reads the same poem as anyone else and no one reads the same poem twice no matter how many times it is read.

    Just as sheet music is not music but rather how to create music, a poem only exists as an actuality when it is being played in a reader’s mind.


    P.S. I know, you can now ask, “Are we then not talking about the same thing?” I would say, “Yes, we are talking about the same thing, just as we can both agree that a given apple is red. What I can never know however is what you are actually seeing in your mind when we agree something is red".

    This is the problem of 'other minds'.

  4. I'm happy to call the blank piece of paper a poem, if the poet does. The community of English speaking individuals can go have their own fun. I have seen the best-seller lists and am not convinced that I want to take their word for much when it comes to how literature works. They tend to be kind of hostile to conceptual art.

    That silent piece is by John Cage, 4'33" (1952), a landmark, for some reason, in modern composition.

  5. On second thought:

    What if a poet wanted to create a given feeling or emotional experience in the reader and was not after any meaning whatsoever? And what if that Intended emotional response was best stimulated by a blank sheet of paper?

    Then, what if that poet created an abstract sculpture that stimulated that same feeling or emotional experience in the reader as the blank piece of paper? Would not the sculpture be rightly called a poem?

    If “P” = “E” and “S” = “E” then “P” = “S”.

    But who are these poets
    who tell us poems
    should not mean?

    Are they then meaningless poets?

    Do their poems mean something without meaning anything?

    Are they metapoems?

    Must all poets think
    in contradictions
    and on reflection
    be like the women
    who come and go
    talking of Michelangelo

    in a wasteland
    of meaningless

    Am I less a poet
    for writing poems,
    that while being,

    Must a poet be a trickster?
    A cryptic coyote
    delighting the illuminati
    with music that
    can’t be listened to
    or even heard
    by God?

    Is it all just
    deriving its meaning
    from what wasn’t
    meant or said?


  6. Must all poets think in contradictions etc.
    Must a poet be a trickster?

    I won't go that far. Many poets are and were tricksters. Please replace "all" with "some." Then we are firmly in the middle of 20th century Modernism. "Prufrock" and "The Wasteland," for example, are deeply meaningful, and is meant to be.

    I will entertain all sorts of bad ideas, but I can tell you where I draw my line. When I read the poem-sculpture, or look at the sculpture-poem, I'm going to ask: "Is it a good poem? Is it a good sculpture?" I find that question a lot more interesting - it's a harder standard to meet.

    The art world sometimes seems like it has been conquered by the tricksters. Literature, fortunately, still allows a much wider - an amazingly wide - range of approaches.

    Your "J'accuse" is about right - I have trouble with "meaning" and am too quick to dismiss it. It's good to push me.

  7. I agree with your comments on literature.

    To me Eliot is the last poet. The poet who took meaning to the baroque. The poet with more prerequisites than perhaps any other individual possesses save Pound. A poet who launched a thousand compendiums.

    After Eliot: Poets need not make sense. Artists need not know how to draw. Philosophers need not have wisdom but only need prove that the failings of language itself makes philosophical truth impossible.

    Postmodernism: professionals blaming their tools for their lack of vision.

    I really enjoy your posts. They make me think and I never know what is coming next. Thanks.


  8. I just discovered some funny facts about Caeiro in an essay by Richard Zenith.

    Pessoa created him as a prank on his friend, Mário de Sá-Carneiro. Caeiro and Carneiro are similar names. Now, 'carne' also means flesh in Portuguese. In other words, Caeiro is Carneiro without the carne or flesh, a good joke for a poet that doesn't exist.

    Also, Caeiro is a shepherd. Carneiro is the Portuguese word for lamb. It all makes so much sense!

  9. All those introductions to all those Pessoa books, and no one mentions this. Or if they did, I forgot about it.