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To unbaptize the world

Here, a very poorly translated poem by Roberto Juarroz. Octavio Paz, who has a flair for the over drammatic, says this of Juarroz, and he is largely right:

Each poem of Roberto Juarroz is a surprising verbal crystallisation: language reduced to a bead of light. A major poet of absolute moments.

My translation is rather clunky, but the poem is lovely. It’s one of the one’s I’ve asked the students to read, but not analyze.

His collections 1-14 were entitled Vertical Poetry 1, Vertical Poetry 2, etc. The poems were only numbered.


Unbaptize the world,
sacrifice the name of things
to gain their presence.

The world is a naked shout,
a voice and not a name,
a voice carrying its own echo on its back.

And the word of man is part of the voice,
not a finger pointing,
nor a file tab,
nor a dictionary profile,
nor a voice i.d.,
nor a pin-flag marking
the topography of the abyss.

The office of the word,
beyond the small misery
and the small tenderness of designating this or that,
is an act of love: create presence.

The office of the word
is the possibility of the world speaking the world,
the possibility of the world speaking man.

The word: that body towards everything.
The word: those open eyes.

Dedicated to Roger Munier

I was originally going to post a reading of this poem on the class blog to give them an example of what to follow. But, as I started reading it, my reading moved into two pages of single spaced type, and I, thought, I don’t want to scare the kids on the first day. So, I haven’t posted it.

I find the poem, Heideggarianism all, beautifully haunting. But, the fourth stanza, the first “Office of the word” stanza, I find utterly unconvincing. (another reason I didn’t post my critique… had they been PHID students I would’ve posted it.) He has just detonated language, separated the word from any kind of referentiality… but then he wants to define the task of the word, its office, as an act of love? He’s just rendered the copula inoperative and now he wants copulation to be the office of the word. I simply don’t get it. However, the second stanza of the word’s office, I find to be wonderful…

Also, I’m struggling to understand the word as witness… those open eyes.



I don’t speak poetry. I have written three poems in my life. One was a joke exercise. One was about the inability to write a poem. The other was about my wife whom I had not met yet. I think that only that last one is any good, but it’s only good between her and me.

What in nature, nurture or education creates a fluence in poetry? I have never been moved or particularly impressed by a poem, despite that I devour prose and will soak in a well-formed sentence in a well constructed paragraph.

J, when did you learn to speak poetry?

For some, I suspect it takes it takes a certain temperament. I’ve a friend who only reads histories and theological treatises. I’ve tried often to get him to read fiction. Given him books. He doesn’t. It just doesn’t grab him the way Leonard Allen does.

Then again, I had a prof, then head of the MFA in nonfiction writing program at UI, who confessed that, even though he’d just published a memoir and taught prose writers all the time, he had stopped reading everything but poetry years before.

In my experience, as a taste for good beer is gained by drinking good beer, the taste for poetry is gained by tasting poetry. Somewhere in poetry is the poem that will make you exclaim, “That’s really good.” Once you’ve found that, you’re hooked.

isn’t it in the fact that the word is only part of the voice? he hasn’t in fact unmade language; instead, he’s enumerated the parts of language separate from the word. “topography of the abyss” fulfills all those “nors” which define the unspoken. this allows him in the “office” stanzas to focus tighter on what the word is: love, creation, presence.

the first poem i really tried to read was milton’s on the death of a fair infant dying of the cough. i was fifteen, or so. and an idle high-school drop out bored to tears. i didn’t get very far at all. all that to say, my first encounter was a failed encounter.

g is somewhat right… it being a matter of temperment. he’s more right, i think, that it’s like wine… the more varieties one drinks the better one becomes at discriminating tastes and deciding on what one’s own tastes are. at the same time, some will never acquire a taste for wine.

my own tastes are omnivorous and very eclectic. i know people who make such statements as if you like john ashbury or charles bukowski you can’t like emily dickinson or john updike or ogden nash (there is no meaning to the links, they were the first to hand)... that, though, is just pretentious hog-wash. you may like one better than the other but they all have merits of their own.

i would say, though, that t.s. elliot, in all his maddening imagery, john donne and william carlos williams—and a little book of imagist poetry is where i learned to love poetry.

and, i believe that if you read donne’s religious verse you very might likely get on this hindenburg called poetry

I, like JRB, have always gravitated toward prose and tended to ignore poetry. My eyes just slide over it. Since I’ve been reading HR I’ve slowly developed more of a taste for it. It is, indeed, much the same as my developing a taste for wine and beers.

Actually I’ve always enjoyed immensely translating poetry out of foreign languages. Perhaps this is because one’s eyes cannot simply slide over things as they do in English.

My eyes slide over it, exactly. Let me not leave the impression that I haven’t tried and haven’t been exposed. My mom is an English teacher, and I was an English minor at ole HU. I’ve been to the river, but I haven’t yet connected. I like the wine analogy, but I think of it more as a natural wiring for language or music. I love jazz music, but despite some early efforts I cannot learn the language well enough to execute it, although I can hear and understand it well enough to love it. With poetry, I cannot yet hear it or execute it.

It took a lot of effort to learn to drink wine, but I was dedicated. Now I love it.

I considered an exception to my declaration this morning, the Psalms and other scriptural poetry, but I think that I read it as prose. Since I doubt that translators could reckon real translations of the poetic effect, I tend to read it without breaks and rhythm.

I don’t think the psalmic translators have any clue what Hebrew rhythm should be. The vocal tenor of the language is too long lost, and too few indications exist that dictate how the poems should be read. Most studies of what ancient Hebrew poetry that are concerned with poetry, that I know of anyway, are empirical studies of figures of speech.

Plus, poetry means something very different in our culture than it did in theirs.

g, your reading is duly noted… i was going to write out my reading… but i don’t have the time to translate it today…

when i encounter poems in the publications which i regularly read, there’s not a flicker of interest. a review of a collection of poetry is immediately identifiable by the variation of type in the text, a signal to immediately turn the page. i find that my brain balks at the switching of gears required for poetry-reading. at times this reaction makes me feel like a lazy philistine, but i tell myself poetry is just an art form that i can’t “do.” paintings and other visual art forms seem much more accessible. no reading required.

however, what about hymns? aren’t they poems? (of course, i’m thinking of those in the Episcopal Hymnal that i sing every sunday.) there are at least a couple of poems by George Herbert that have been set to such lovely music that i’m brought to tears. and J’s reference to Milton reminds me that a few years ago i was enthralled by Paradise Lost in a course offered at my church. so maybe poetry has to be connected to my religion to get my full attention.

Richard, I also require some connection to my religion in order to read poetry: I am currently having an absolutely tawdry affair with the Book of Common Prayer. The poetic prayers have a simple grace and beauty that I can never hope to match in my own writing.

I said, above, “Somewhere in poetry is the poem that will make you exclaim, ‘That’s really good.’ Once you’ve found that, you’re hooked.”

But that’s not quite right. It should’ve been this: Somewhere in poetry is the poem that will make you exclaim, “Only this poem could say that so well.” Once you’ve found it, you never stop looking for it.

Scott, your “simple grace and beauty”—though it sells your own writing too short—is something of what I was aiming at. It is also to identify poetry as devotion, correct?

J must chime in again soon, I think.

Robert Juarroz would agree… that is, with poetry being a form of devotion… which is why he uses a phrase like the office of the word, which connotes not just task, duty, job, not just function or position, but also the daily office, the office of prayer.

part of poetry as devotion is time/contemplation… which is why for religious persons poetry associated with their particular set of beliefs/meditative practices is often an exception to the rule of their general dislike. it is also part of their dislike, i suspect. will there be a tangible ROI conmesurate with the amount of time spent grappling with the poem?

devotion, i suspect, is also part of the reason why this language/creative writing prof got to the point where he only read poetry—being a man of the word, only that which approaches the word with the kind of reverence and care that he believes it should have merits his time and attention (can you tell this is total b.s. on my part; but, at the same time, i think it could be a very plausible reason, among many, for his retirement into poetry.)

though, the reason given to me by an editor at a university press is probably more likely—that is for why this guy has turned to poetry. she told me that she almost exclusively reads poetry for pleasure nowadays. as an acquisitions editor, she reads vast quantity of prose. this, in turn, has pushed her poetry, whether pellucid or opaque, because it’s a different kind of encounter with the word. (btw, she’s associated with jrb’s alma mater and she told me she’d publish my book if the passion with which i speak about the subject is there in my writing)

Richard, I was considering music as well, because I love a turn of poetic phrase as lyric, especially nuanced devotional lyrics. What distinguishes a song from a poem? For me, it’s rhythm, and that may be my realistic barrier to verse like J’s quoted here. I can’t imagine or impose rhythm on it that works. Now, I know that I’m limiting myself terribly by this confession. I don’t want everything to be mother-goose or singable, but I do believe that without an ear for improvised rhythm, I can’t get into these sorts of poetry. Then again, I’m not too keen on Shakespeare sonnets, either, where he serves rhythm up with a spoon.

(Is Robin Williams fixing to come rip pages out of my book?)

J, I have no doubt that you can write with sufficient passion. You’re doing it right now.

Give Whitman a shake, then. He wrote big for America’s sake. The following paragraphs are from the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman defines America, then defines the poet who best fits that definition. (Mid-reading, I also thought: Oh! At no time this century have we had a president like that! You’ll see why.) Far below, is a page image from that same edition. The rhythm of Whitman’s lines is tied as much to the width of the page—moreso, maybe—as it is to the sense of the sentence. The text and the image, of course, are from the Whitman Archive.

Other states indicate themselves in their deputies…. but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors… but always most in the common people. Their manners speech dress friendships—the freshness and candor of their physiognomy—the picturesque looseness of their carriage… their deathless attachment to freedom—their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean—the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states—the fierceness of their roused resentment—their curiosity and welcome of novelty—their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy—their susceptibility to a slight—the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors—the fluency of their speech—their delight in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul… their good temper and openhandedness—the terrible significance of their elections—the President’s taking off his hat to them not they to him—these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.

The largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen. Not nature nor swarming states nor streets and steamships nor prosperous business nor farms nor capital nor learning may suffice for the ideal of man… nor suffice the poet. No reminiscences may suffice either. A live nation can always cut a deep mark and can have the best authority the cheapest… namely from its own soul. This is the sum of the profitable uses of individuals or states and of present action and grandeur and of the subjects of poets.—As if it were necessary to trot back generation after generation to the eastern records! As if the beauty and sacredness of the demonstrable must fall behind that of the mythical! As if men do not make their mark out of any times! As if the opening of the western continent by discovery and what has transpired since in North and South America were less than the small theatre of the antique or the aimless sleepwalking of the middle ages! The pride of the United States leaves the wealth and finesse of the cities and all returns of commerce and agriculture and all the magnitude of geography or shows of exterior victory to enjoy the breed of fullsized men or one fullsized man unconquerable and simple.

... [A good paragraph which is a catalogue, typical of WW, of the things America has in it to sing about. I cut it here for the sake of brevity.] ...

Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest.

The page: Leaves of Grass, 1855, p.14—I tried to display it, but hermits made it look too funky. Better to see it in its fullsize glory.

(It is, so you know, my sworn duty to be a Whitman pusher. You know what Steppenwolf said of people like me. Keep it in mind.)

yeah you’ll kill our soul greg!

in terms of rhythm and meter JRB… you are right that Juarroz is unmeterd… but the lack of music is more fault than his.

but you are right, modern poetry’s sense of rhythm is much less connected to meter…

but, Shakespeare isn’t all iambic treacle… and even his iambs aren’t gooey, like the many bad poets who will write their funeral dirge in an unbroken iambic pentameter, not realizing that the rhythm of their line makes light of their grief

See, G? The prose moves my maudlin American sensibilities. The poetry? Not so much.

I appreciate y’all’s efforts.

You may see what I mean at the end of my fiction project. There’s a poem lurking, and good thing its writer isn’t supposed to be good at it.

but, notorious, that’s got rhythm; it’s got movement; it’s got cadence. that, as in papa whitman's prose.

read the poem above respecting only the punctuation.

read it aloud, as well.

one problem, though you may not be among those, is that people read poetry silently in their head… and that’s close to anathema.

for the poemists: a lot of people who don’t like poetry do like billy collins, a living American poet. (i often don’t like people who like his poetry, but this rule of mine recently found an exception, and then I liked one of his poems, so i feel ok recommending him.)
for myself, i don’t often read poetry for pleasure (and i have a terminal english degree!), but i do like pablo neruda and seamus heaney enough to break the prose habit.

Oops. I’ve been reading poetry silently this whole time.

I read it silently, but then I never learned how not to read aloud.

I promise that makes sense in my head.

don’t feel too bad jh… it’s not like ham and noah kind of anathema…

I would much rather have seen my father drunk, passed out, and naked than have deprived myself of the enjoyment of an unimaginably gargantuan corpus of literature.

It’s a good bet that a significant portion of that gargantuan corpus was written precisely because fathers got drunk and passed out, naked.

Mary: I, too, for a long time did not like Billy Collins… and I further dislike his imitators, of which there are too many.

RE ham and noah…

I’ve always thought that Ham seeing his father’s nakedness was a euphamism for him having slept with one of Noah’s wives.

I’ve thought this particularly because that phrase—to see someone’s nakedness—is repeated in the laws as such a euphamism.

and we all know how much poetry was written under the aegis of oedipus (but that has nothing to do with JH’s minor transgression of reading poetry silently)

i came upon a passage in the book i’m currently reading, Saturday by Ian McEwan, which reminded me of this conversation. the main character is a neurosurgeon “who read no poetry in adult life.” however, when his daughter turns out be a budding poet, he tried poetry again.

“But it cost him an effort of an unaccustomed sort. Even a first line can produce a tightness behind his eyes. Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time, through days, years or even generations. But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill like dry-stone walling or trout tickling.”

that’s a great quote!

i’d be very interested to know what richard thinks of the prominent role played by a poem in a pivotal scene near the end of that book. (don’t worry—that’s not a spoiler, and he’ll know what i’m talking about when he gets there.)

I’m quite late to the party, but I wanted to mention that there’s a wonderful line of CS Lewis’s, which I cannot quote exactly at the moment, as the book is at my abode and I am at another, but I promise to reproduce it here soon, as it has some bearing on the subject at hand.

I spent a summer or so reading almost nothing but poetry, and I fall back on the habit from time to time, when I’m having difficulty constructing coherent narratives in my own life.

I was also interested by this discussion because, as it happens, I just this evening took another stab at something I’ve never been able to get/do. I decided I’d try to play volleyball, because I thought maybe I wouldn’t hate it as much this time around. I was wrong. After the silent groans of the team began to be audible, I decided it was time to leave, and I don’t think I’ll be back. I think it’s worth taking a stab at these things one tries to avoid from time to time, but I also think it’s okay to say the hell with it.

The promised quotation, from the title essay of CS Lewis’s On Stories:

An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare’s Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he ‘has read’ them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that this settles the matter? Yet I think the test has a special application to the matter in hand. For excitement, in the sense defined above, is just what must disappear from a second reading. You cannot, except at the first reading, be really curious about what happened. If you find that the reader of popular romance—however uneducated a reader, however bad the romances—goes back to his old favourites again and again, then you have pretty good evidence that they are to him a sort of poetry.

the volleyball story was nice… i know that feeling well

the same u.p. editor, in the same conversation, said that her brother, who made it through college not having read one novel, recently discovered reading. she says he’s read the electric acid kool-aid test right around twenty times by now. she says she’s watched him get to the end of the book, sigh, look up, open the book at the beginning and start reading again.

What a strange book to read 20 times. I guess I hardly remember it, though, so maybe it’s not strange at all…I, too, appreciated the volleyball story. I could never figure out how to make contact with the ball in a way that wouldn’t absolutely kill my wrists and arms. I would always end up quitting the game early because of that. Alas, to be neither athletic nor tough. So sad.