I will write verses blank
where every word shall hang suspended in the air,
where nought shall speak of aught
beyond the meadow’s peace, oblivion
where I am no more and ceaselessly live on.
When once I wished to be it all,
Now do I but live within
that bird that looks at me and I see not,
that creeping twilight,
that death that waits for me.
Think of me as if I were but a shadow,
as that which lingered written upon the water.
Incessantly have I loved you all
and that alone shall preserve me.
Joan Teixidor (1913-1992)
Original Catalan text
‘Testament’ – per Joan Teixidor
Escriuré versos blancs on totes les paraules quedin suspeses en l’aire, on res no digui res fora la pau dels camps, l’oblit on ja no sóc i em perpetuo. Quan volia ésser-ho tot, ara ja només visc d’aquest ocell que em mira i que no veig, d’aquest crepuscle lent, d’aquesta mort que m’espera. Penseu en mi com si fos una ombra, allò que va quedar escrit sobre l’aigua. Però sempre us he estimat i això només em salva.
Well weighed, the days
of youth are worth much
to give them not a high price.
If they were rich in fire and in deed and attendant
– a starry night
you must not disdain, it is not worth less than wastelands
ridden by death.
If you were
a failure, longing and loneliness and remnant
of the spark that sets forests ablaze
and not only a
project of greed-driven gain
in hypocritical realms,
above all if you were
pure in purity, I will say you made
the measure of a man.
Joan Vinyoli (1914-1984)
Original Catalan text
‘La Mesura d’un Home’ – per Joan Vinyoli
Ben sospesat, els dies de joventut valen molt per no donar-los un alt preu. Si fóren rics de foc i d’acció i disponibles a tot -una nit estelada no la desdenyis, no val menys que els erms transitats per la mort. Si fóres fracàs, anhel i solitud i reserva de la guspira que encen boscos i no sols projecte avar de guanys d’hipòcrita domini, sobretot si fores pur en el pur, diré que vas donar la mesura d’un home.
The Avant-Garde of Catalonia is unthinkable without one Joan Salvat-Papasseit (what a name, by the way). In his tragically short life Salvat-Papasseit took an obscure, abstract idea and made it into personal, lived reality, spearheading a movement that sent cultural shockwaves through Catalonia and into Europe beyond.
Born in Barcelona in 1894 and raised within a working class background (greengrocer’s apprentice and seafront nightwatchman are a couple of his early jobs) the desire to see social reform was present in Salvat-Papasseit from a very early age. His membership to the Catalan Socialist Youth and his leaning towards Anarchism testify to this. This desire led him to the Avant-Garde movement.
While today Avant-Garde has come to be almost uniquely seen as a cultural movement, pushing at the accepted boundaries of art, it originally also encompassed a strong desire for socialreform. The Avant-Garde saw themselves as the cultural vanguard, using their cultural non-conformity not simply to raise stiff eyebrows, but to push and break-up the social status-quo, thereby freeing the working class masses to march up behind them and secure better lives.
Salvat-Papasseit founded the Llibreria Nacional Catalana – a grand bookstore – which became a focal point for the Catalan Avant-Garde, and in the process formed important friendships with other artists encompassed under the Avant-Garde umbrella such as the surrealist painter, Joan Miró and the Constructivist painter, Joaquín Torres Garcia. These influential artists would, along with others, contribute to the various Avant-Garde publications Salvat-Papasseit produced, thereby raising its (and his) prestige and spreading awareness among Catalan society.
Careering down the path of socio-political activist, Salvat-Papasseit continually met with road blockages along the way caused by his fragile health, which resulted in frequent stays in sanatoriums throughout the Pyrenees. His times in these solemn yet tranquil settings, coupled with the obvious deterioration of his health, had a deep impact on his writing, none more so than in turning his focus towards poetry, a focus he never lost, right up to his death.
Salvat-Papasseit very much took the Avant-Garde ethos into his poetry, which was consistently concerned with themes such as freedom, youth, sincerity, heroism and struggle. He advocated a poetry in line with the fledgling Futurist movement in Italy, which admired technology and the triumph of man over nature, praising originality and newness over traditional ‘good taste’ (while still managing to express strong nationalist tendencies). This was tempered with the simplicity of Le Corbusier’s L’esprit Nouveau – an art ideal that sought newness in ‘pure’ geometric forms, rather than the complexity of Cubism – and ‘Nunism’, a movement that celebrated the here and now, placing the present, earthly moment above any transcendent realm or heavenly future.
Salvat-Papasseit’s focus on humanity’s mastery of nature, his need to be in the present, and his urge to bring the future into that present are perhaps best understood when taking his physical state into account. Throughout his life, his health was of such delicacy that the spectre of death could not but help hover over his imagination. Encased in his fragile, frustrated frame and forever having the eternal unknown held before his face, it is unsurprising that Salvat-Papasseit reveled in Human triumph over Nature, and looked to bring the bright, hopeful future into his present reality.
It’s perhaps the biggest truism there is, but death comes to us all, and when it does, it seems that a person’s real, deep feelings finally come to the fore, no longer obscured by fancy and vain hope. This can be seen in the late poetical works of Salvat-Papasseit – In La gesta dels estels (The epic of the stars – 1922) he set about mythologizing everyday reality, perhaps as a way of reaching out to something more magical he hoped was beyond the reality he lived. Finally in Óssa Menor: fi dels poemes d’avantguarda (Ursa Minor: An End to Avant-garde Poems – 1925) he abandons all that has concerned him in his day to day life, as he prepares for the anguish and nearness of his death.
Joan Salvat-Papasseit died of tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 30. His influence on early 20th century Catalan culture is all the more remarkable considering the bitterly short time he spent here. We all know how tragedy can raise a profile, but this man’s earnestness and intensity are surely rightly celebrated. At the end of his life, I really hope – as I do for everyone – that he found the future he had been longing for, even if it probably wasn’t as he’d expected.
A chimera have you made the elusive grace
of a wish and now you are deserted, oh mind.
Oh solitude bereft of gentle thought
and mad procession without living word!
Yet what is done, if in your sweet oblivion
enduring, restless angst goes deeper and deeper?
Even now, the joy upon the flesh does cease,
bearing the announcement of a song unsaid.
And he is holy fire setting your eternal flux
upon the ashes of your lament;
peace is not your wish for void eternal, oh mind,
Oh fool that dared to glimpse yourself uncloaked.
Carles Riba (1893-1959)
Note: this poem originally rhymed (abba, cddc, eaae, as you can see below). I hold up my hands and say I found it just too hard to translate AND rhyme this time round. I might have another crack at it in time, but hopefully you can enjoy my translation anyway!
Original Catalan text
 – Del ‘Llibre Primer d’Estances’ – per Carles Riba
T’ha enquimerat la gràcia fugitiva d’un desig i ara ets deserta, oh ment. Ai soledat sense dolç pensament i foll traüt sense paraula viva!
Però ¿què hi fa, si dins el teu oblit la inquietud pregonament perdura? Encara el goig sobre la carn s’atura, duent l’anunci d’algun cant no dit.
I ell és el foc sagrat que et perpetua damunt les cendres del desolament; no vulguis calma en ton oblit, oh ment, oh folla que has gosat mirar-te nua.
A year ago, a thousand years, a day ago no more,
Not even that. I feel at once that urgent joy
With fearfulness and dread and heart maniacal
Of adolescence, pressing for the coming day to find you
New, absolute, abounding in promises and desires,
Of seasons fruitful, of Septembers eternal,
Where forever be confused the fruits and the surprises,
The memories and the wait.
Not but a single day has passed,
Still I do not know you, yet you I have known and seen
And I long for you as ever. With each day comes clearness new,
Each day my blood ignites in fire and in flash,
And my flesh is more flesh for it knows you will come.
A year it’s been, just a year, and I have known you forever.
Of life you have made a garden of delights:
Yet have we a thousand years, to lie amongst these, our daisies.
Narcís Comadira (b. 1942)
Original Catalan text
‘Aniversari amb Margaridas Grogues’ – per Narcís Comadira
Fa un any i fa mil anys i fa un dia només, i ni això. Sento ara aquesta joia forta que, amb neguit i basarda i amb cor esbojarrat d’adolescent, pressent per l’endemà trobar-te nova, absoluta, fèrtil de promeses i afanys, d’estacions madures, de setembres eterns, on es confonguin sempre els fruits i les sorpreses, els records i l’espera. No fa ni un dia encara, encara no et conec i et tinc sabuda i vista i et desitjo de sempre. Cada dia és més clar, cada dia la sang s’incendia i fulgura, i la carn és més carn perquè sap que vindràs. Fa un any, només un any i et conec des de sempre. De la vida n’has fet un jardí de delícies: tenim mil anys encara, i aquestes margarides.