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.
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 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.
Joan Maragall is a name you’re unlikely to be familiar with if you’re not Catalan. Yet read on just a little, and I think in this century-old Catalan poet, you might find some familiar traits and recognisable desires.
Barcelona, 1860, and Joan Maragall i Gorina is born into a family of wealthy textile merchants. He grows and quickly becomes initiated into the life and customs of the Barcelona bourgeoisie, the powerful, the wealthy, the cultured strata of Catalan society. His privileged position frees him to foster and pursue a growing passion for writing. Is this still the case today, or has capitalism democratised culture and creativity? Hmm, discuss!
Maragall’s bourgeois upbringing is critical in developing his writing style, for a simple reason: he finds it lacking. Surrounded by safety, by comfort and an unimaginative, conservative conformity, Maragall feels stifled and smothered by the stultifying stew of ‘high society’. Though later in life he will turn and point an accusing finger at the privileged classes, initially he sees himself as an inner agitator, stirring to life a somnambulant and indifferent goliath toward a dynamic, cosmopolitan ideology.
All through his life Maragall will feel proud of his homeland, and identify with Catalan nationalism. Having studied law at University it is only to be expected that this wealthy, educated nationalist will accept calls to join the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat. But he doesn’t (incidentally his grandson, Pasqual Maragall, did enter politics, becoming President of the Generalitat from 2003-2006). For Maragall, there is another way of changing the current order of things, and it lies not in the cold, hard power of politics, but in the more subtle and personal – but no less powerful – form of the ‘living word’.
Words, claims Maragall, have a life force. They are not merely marks on paper (or type on tablets, in 21st century speak, sigh…) but are linguistic expressions of an individual’s being. Therefore the more fervently the poet, the novelist or the journalist expends themselves in their writing the greater punch their words will pack. You might call it ‘writing from the heart’. But what message is Maragall trying to get across? Take a look at what he says here in these quotes, then have a read of one of his poems on Project Poesia (see sidebar):
“I believe that the word is the most marvellous thing in this world, because in her are embraced and entangled all corporeal wonder and all spiritual wonder of our nature. It seems that the earth expends all its efforts in leading mankind to a higher sense of itself; and mankind expends all the strength of his being in producing the word.”
– From Elogi de la paraula (Praise of the word), 1903
What do you think? Personally I think his poems are beautifully in-sync with what he wrote above. The words of Pirinenquesand La Fageda d’en Jordàare infused, even saturated, with the spiritual. Not the ‘religious’, I hasten to add, but filled with a hunger for and awareness of a transcendental reality, of something ‘more’ beyond.
Tantalizingly close, but ever just beyond our reach, in Maragall’s poems it is in Nature that we come closest to this other reality. In the natural, the wild and the wondrous places we find a beauty, a purity and a stillness that stirs us to feel as close as we can to that something other. Feeling is key for Maragall. Introspection can only take us so far towards true self-recognition. For this, we need experience, we need to go out there and experience sublime nature with all five senses (and maybe some others we don’t have names for).
When we experience this – and describing what ‘this’ is, is the fuel for myriad poems – we are spoken to in something other than mere physical sensation. Seek that! – Maragall cries through all his living words of poetry – Hold on to that unexplainable life society tells you is imagined, that inexplicable voice they say is just in your head…
It could just be the most real thing you ever know.
Click here to see a more detailed biography of Maragall (in Catalan) and some beautiful old photographs of the man himself.
Even here from the foot of the rise
I see those stand-out roses all
embroidering with tender branch
along the faces of the wall.
Already I feel those scents of yours
of jasmine and of lemon trees,
the unmistakable scent of home;
confused with another it cannot be.
Now I see my room beloved…
the windows there are open wide
just like dear friends that offer me
a safe and sheltered sleep inside.
I reach the top! And now, I am home
and all around I feel at ease.
Oh, the dear beloved plants
of my garden evergreen!
What splendid bounty of new leaves
the acacias and the almond trees!
And the branches of the pear
above the bench have spread their boughs
and the jasmine with its white flowers
infuse incense into the air.
Worthy of God! And the mimosa?
With what a bloom itself has dressed!
How lovely! there, at the crest of the tree
what seems like a crib yet must be a nest!
And high up in the canopy
a flock of little birds find rest!
Welcome all! for where they nest
is a home, they say, that God will bless.
Dolors Monserdà (1845-1919)
Original Catalan Text
Des del peu de la pujada ja veig sobreeixir els rosers brodant amb ses branques tendres los cantells de la paret. Ja sento les flaires vostres, gessamins i llimoners, aquesta flaire de casa que no es confon amb cap més. Ja veig ma cambra volguda… los finestrals són oberts com amics que m’ofereixen l’aixopluc de son recer .¡Ja so dalt! Ja so a la casa i arreu me sento a tot pler .¡Oh, les plantes benvolgudes del meu jardí sempre verd! ¡Quin esplet de fulles noves les acàcies i ametllers! Les branques de la perera per sobre el banc s’han estès i el gessamí amb ses flors blanques damunt seu fa d’encenser. ¡Valga’ns Déu! ¿I la mimosa? ¡quina florida que ha tret! ¡Oh, que hermós! ¡Al cim de l’arbre penja un niu que sembla un bres! I allà dalt de la teulada ¡hi ha tot un vol d’aucellets! ¡Benvinguts, que llar on nien diu que Déu la beneeix!