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/