Sant Jordi – A Sonnet

So today is St George’s Day. Not just in England, though, but a whole host of other places (so Wikipedia informs me). One place where I can definitely vouch for George’s and this day’s importance is Catalonia where La Diada de Sant Jordi is a much more celebrated day than the semi-forgotten, slightly embarrassed thing it is here in Britain.

Two traditions mark the day of Sant Jordi in Catalonia – the giving of roses by guys to girls, and the giving of books from anyone to anyone. Rose-giving goes back to the 15th Century, but books weren’t involved until 1926, when someone decided to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, Spain’s great novel.

In 1995, UNESCO took up the idea and declared the 23rd of April ‘World Book Day’, also commemorating the day on which Shakespeare passed through nature to eternity. ‘Book Day’ began as a parallel but soon became absorbed into the festival of Sant Jordi, it becoming a tradition to give a book to someone close. The fervour with which this tradition has been taken up is seen in the fact that nearly half of all sales of books written in Catalan are reaped on this day – no wonder authors do their utmost to promote their book at this time!

And so now, Sant Jordi is firmly established as the day of the book and the rose, taking on the feel of St Valentines’ – not really celebrated by the Catalans – and so becoming a day of love and literature! Not a bad combo in my opinion. Oh, and here’s a Sonnet…

Sant Jordi – A Sonnet

Quixotic hearts attest romance’s power
And Jaques will sigh that ‘All the world’s a stage’.
We play our part in each and every age,
And dance alone until the calling hour
When Love descends from long forgotten bower
To free the heart that built itself a cage,
Put pen to ink and fill an open page,
Take a hand and place in it a flower.
If all’s an act, explain this touch I feel
That lights my skin and sets my heart on fire.
The veil is torn and mysteries revealed.
My soul is won, with love forever sealed,
By nothing more than purest pure desire.
Love is what shall write this fiction real.

– Ben

(This post draws on a blog I wrote during my time in Catalonia, which if you just absolutely have to do so, you’re very welcome to click here.)

Santa Eulàlia

I came with camera clutched in hand.
My entry fee was my demand:
Another tourist out to claim
Another piece of culture to their name;
A stroke of depth upon a stoneless wall
For looks and likes and thoughts from friends and all.
And then I looked,
Looked up into the heavens’ store,
Looked up and thought of likes no more,
Looked up and felt this groaning body soar
Into a space of light
And peace
And awe.
We burn to share the moments that we feel
Have weaved in us another realm of real.
Yet surely not to show them who we are,
But ask if this is only just the start.
For light,
Such light as falls and fills and breathes
Could change the heart of what a man believes.

– Ben

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Santa Eulàlia is Barcelona’s Cathedral, tucked into the heart of the city in the beautifully dark Barri Gotic. Here are some more pics (No, I didn’t completely let go of my camera!)

Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)
Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)
Portico, Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)
Portico, Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)
Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)
Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)
Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)
Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)
Cloister, Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)
Cloister, Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)
Crypt, Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)
Crypt, Santa Eulalia, Barcelona (Ben Wright, 2012)

Claramunt

Here come the sounds of many feet
Upon the path in soldier-beat –
Attack before the midday heat
Has drained away our fight!
Now passing through the wisps of cloud
That cloak the mountain all around,
And hide us in a deadly shroud,
The castle comes in view.
We stand before the mighty gate
And walls that tell of fallen fate.
Upon our orders we await
For battle to commence.
Inside we find an empty shell,
And ghosts of those who used to dwell
Within these walls before they fell.
In valiant defence.
We spread across the sun-scorched stone
Of Claramunt, which stands alone
Upon the mount that we now own,
Surveying our new lands.
We sit upon our victory gains –
The journey made was not in vain.
This castle shall not fall again,
For we are Catalans!
Ben W.

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Claramunt Castle (Castell de Claramunt in Catalan) was the site of the first field-trip I made in my role as English Conversation Assistant at the school of Mare del Divi Pastor. We made our way on foot from the nearby village of Capellades, where both I and the school were located, early in the morning, reaching the village of Pobla de Claramunt while the clouds still hung low. The castle – which was built along with a string of others within Catalonia to push back the borders of Moorish Spain during the Reconquista – sits atop an impressive mount. At the top, from the castle’s ramparts you can see out across brilliant swathes of Catalonia – a sight worthy of the sweaty slog up there!

Time for a change

Time for a bit of a change.

Those select and much appreciated followers of this blog (thanks to all of you!) will know that so far, I have been posting translations of poems by Catalan authors, with a few biographies of those poets thrown in for good measure. I hope I’ve managed to provide a little, but worthy, flavour of Catalan poetical literature, and its Catalanitat, its essence that makes it something different, something unique.

I’ve really enjoyed doing this, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them. However, translating – and especially translating poetry – is really quite time consuming (it is for me, anyway!) and time to do this has for me become really concentrated lately.

As such, I’m going to change tack for a while, and do something a little less time intensive. Having spent an unforgettable year living in Catalonia, I have a massive store of memories. Some of these I’ve written down elsewhere; click here to take a look if you’d like! But to put them down in poetry is something I’d really like to do, and Project Poesia would seem the perfect place to have a go, as it still combines two things I love – Catalonia and poetry.

So, I’ll be posting some of my own poems for while (gulp!) about my experiences in Catalonia. I know it’s a bit indulgent, so forgive me! But hopefully they can still give you enjoyment, and take you to a place you might not have even heard of, let alone been! As ever (I wouldn’t put them up here if I didn’t) I’d love to have feedback, so if you’d like, please tell me what you think!

Fins aviat, amics!

Ben

Joan Salvat-Papasseit – Fighting Time

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.

Statue of Papasseit on Barcelona waterfront (Wiki Commons)
Statue of Papasseit on Barcelona waterfront (Wiki Commons)

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 social reform. 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.

Work by Joan Miro - 'The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings' (1953)
Work by Joan Miro – ‘The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings’ (1953)

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.

Painting - 'El Puente de Les Escaldes' (1933) by Catalan artist Joaquim Mir i Trinext. Les Escaldes was one of the sanatoriums in the Pyrenees were Salvat-Papasseit stayed during poor health (reproart.com)
Painting – ‘El Puente de Les Escaldes’ (1933) by Catalan artist Joaquim Mir i Trinext. Les Escaldes was one of the sanatoriums in the Pyrenees were Salvat-Papasseit stayed during poor health (reproart.com)

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.

Futurist work by Giacomo Balla - 'The Flight of the Swallows' (1913) (Wikiart.com)
Futurist work by Giacomo Balla – ‘The Flight of the Swallows’ (1913) (Wikiart.com)

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.

Salvat-Papasseit near the end of his life (bcncultura.cat)
Salvat-Papasseit near the end of his life (bcncultura.cat)

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.  

This post owes a lot of thanks to the biography of Salvat-Papasseit at http://www.lletra.net/en/author/joan-salvat-papasseit

Josep Carner – ‘Prince of Catalan Poets’

It’s not without considerable effort that one becomes initiated into royalty of any kind. Impossible, you might say. Perhaps then royalty is inherent in some, ready and waiting to be discovered and gloried in.

Josep Carner i Puig-Oriol, to give the man his full name, must have known from a young age that he was uncovering artistic greatness. He was 12 when he first saw his articles in print. By 18 he had gained a law degree, and by 22 – as if being a law graduate wasn’t enough – he earned an Arts degree too. Throughout the following years he unleashed an incredible amount of poetry, articles and translations (as diverse as writers such as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens) on the Catalan public. Small wonder then that by his mid-30s he had earned the epithet ‘Prince of Catalan Poets’.

Eugeni d'Ors, coiner of the term 'Noucentist'.
Eugeni d’Ors, coiner of the term ‘Noucentist’ (credit: udg.edu)

Carner’s work – particularly his poetry – is characteristic of a cultural movement that emerged in Catalonia in the 1910s, Noucentisme.

The term ‘noucentist’ – coined by Catalan essayist and philosopher, Eugeni d’Ors – was meant to capture the movement’s desire for newness. It played on the Catalan word ‘nou’ which means both ‘new’ and ‘nine’, signifying the ‘ninth’ century of the millennium, and its potential for new ideas.

It was also a term designed to distance itself from the ‘modernist’ cultural movement, with its radical, individualist perspective, preferring instead the order and objectivity of classicism.

Noucentist art - 'Apollo and two nymphs' by Joaqium Torres Garcia (credit: sidissabteplou.cat)
Noucentist art – ‘Apollo and two nymphs’ by Joaquim Torres Garcia (credit: sidissabteplou.cat)

For poetry then, this meant a painstaking attention to word selection and meaning, to verse form, and – of course – to metre and rhyme. While both Carner and Joan Maragall (almost contemporaries in Catalan cultural circles) believed in the power of the word, the modernist Maragall felt that spontaneity was required to draw a true essence of that being represented. In contrast, ‘noucentist’ Carner held that to represent beauty needed full consciousness, and truth was only kept by absolute control of words used and their meanings.

That Carner had significant influence in the institutionalization of the Catalan language will therefore come as no surprise. He was invited to join the ‘Institute of Catalan Studies’ where he collaborated with  Pompeu Fabra, a man who is synonymous with standardising the Catalan language, i.e. forming a common language for all of Catalonia, where before local dialects could be quite different.

Pompeu Fabra, standardiser of the Catalan language (credit: nuvol.com)
Pompeu Fabra, standardiser of the Catalan language (credit: nuvol.com)

Noucentisme was strongly allied with Catalan politics, and along with his influence in linguistic matters, Carner also walked in high political circles. This was in particular thanks to his friendship with Enric Prat de la Riba, first Catalan president (1914-1917). Yet his political position meant he and his family faced real dangers as the sociopolitical situation in Spain darkened. In 1921 he left for Genoa, Italy where he was Spanish vice-consul.

In 1939, General Franco’s victory in the Spanish civil war was confirmed. Carner – a Catalan nationalist – became a full exile. He moved to Mexico during the War, then to Belgium afterwards, where he taught at the Open European University of Brussels.

Nationalism is just as fierce today as in Carner's day, in Catalonia especially (credit: Guardian.com)
Nationalism is just as fierce today as in Carner’s day, in Catalonia especially (credit: Guardian.com)

Until his death in 1970, Carner – despite what he had witnessed, and despite his own nationalist sentiments – was a strong pro-claimer of Europeanismbelieving in a shared European identity based on common norms and values that transcends those of individual nationalities. What ‘Europe’ is, and whether its people have a ‘European’ identity is hotly debated – anyone living in Europe knows that all too well. This lack of definition is what makes ‘Europe’ so easy to attack by the ‘Euroskeptics’.

Perhaps (and this is only a unthought-through final thought!) Carner’s noucentist approach of truth and beauty through order and objective clarity could be adopted as a framework for European identity? But then what is truth? What is beauty? Can anything be truly objective? 

Sources: http://www.lletra.net/en/author/josep-carner/detail;  http://www20.gencat.cat/portal/site/culturacatalana/

All Of Us, Castellers – by Salvador Espriu

‘Castellers’ are the participants in a Catalan cultural phenomenon known as ‘Castells’ (Castles). This amazing tradition, begun in the 18th Century, involves teams of representatives from Catalan towns and villages competing against each other in the assembling and deassembling of incredible human towers. The tower is complete when the ‘enxaneta’ (almost always a tiny child as young as five years old) raises into the air four fingers, in a gesture said to be symbolic of the four streaks of the Catalan flag. Check out this video showing Castellers in action in Vilafranca, a Catalan town famous for its Casteller group.

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All of Us, Castellers

They raise up towers
in half-erased vestiges
of dances deathly.
They knock on the doors
of oblivion. They free
light, and wings, and air.
Oh naked beauty,
name alone over number,
festal explosion.
We desire strength
within an order perfect
of exact measure.
In complete balance,
slowly upward we arise
as castles of dreams.
Oh Sense, could we not
forever shelter ourselves
within your refuge?
As upright beggars,
with neither tears nor terror
we come to princes.
Persons, the stature
of worlds. We break silences,
victories and voids.
We are united
underneath the splendorous
peace of a long day.
To serve the only
lord that we all have chosen:
our lord, our people.

Salvador Espriu (1913-1985)

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Original Catalan Text:

‘Nosaltres Tots, Castellers’

S’aixequen torres
en esborrats vestigis
de mortes danses.

Truquen a portes
d’oblit. Desempresonen
llum, ales, aire.

Nua bellesa,
nom sol enllà del nombre,
esclat de festa.

Volem la força
dins l’ordre perfectíssim
de la mesura.

En equilibri,
molt lentament ens alcen
castells de somnis.

Seny, no podríem
acollir-nos per sempre
al teu refugi?

Dreçats captaires,
sense plors ni temença
venim a prínceps.

Homes, la mida
del món, rompem silencis,
triomfs, abismes.

Agermanem-nos
sota l’esplendorosa
pau d’un llarg dia.

Per servir l’únic
senyor que tots triàvem:
el nostre poble.

(Text sourced from: http://www.xtec.cat/~evicioso/index.htm)