A few years ago, a boy who was an avid surfer told me that he knew how deep a wave was by the light; the light that led to the water’s surface, the way towards the mouthful of air. This is a child’s beautiful and moving vision of the depths of our cold and often unforgiving waters.
Because I am one of those people who drowns in a glass of water, today, as I am whirled about within the hollow of my armchair, the image has submerged me in even deeper waters, in waters that may be more terrible than our ocean, and I am reminded of the two rivers of literary hydrography that specialists speak of. As C. Bonald notes, the difference between a piece of writing that wishes to faithfully reflect reality and the artistic expression of that reality will become increasingly evident. In the first type we would include texts that offer objective information, such as is found in reports; in the second type, however, we would place the texts that intend to be a transposition, an artistic version of reality.
I call the texts in this second type literary, and they have nothing to do with difficulty, the laws of the market or beauty. When a deep look at reality, much like gazing upon the ocean floor, is joined with appropriate expression, the allure of literary language emerges. The key is found there, in the language itself.
Writers are swimmers who plunge into deep waters in search of the right word. Often times, when reality itself overwhelms us, it becomes difficult to find that word. The poet P. Ezkiaga employed a beautiful metaphor to name this reality that is beyond all expression: “the heart of melted snow”. Patxi deeply admired T.S. Eliot, who wrote in his poem “O Light Invisible”: “Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward/ and see the light that fractures through unquiet water./ We see the light, but see not whence it comes/”. The days pass and the swimmers are still on the ocean floor, searching for the right word.
I know that I am not special: the wrinkles in the topography of my skin are a vestige of the first woman; when kissing, I am borne by the ripples from the first shudder; and the name of my love unfolds itself inside the echo of the first lover’s name.
I’ve also been fascinated by the origin of speech, the first cave paintings and the first humans’ need to beautify their bodies and their artefacts. We know the various scientific theories, but what amazes me is humankind’s drive to create, its imperative to seek beauty. I am aware that a creation is deemed “art” by our gaze—or the fearsome laws of the market—but still I believe that the first human beings would discern the differentiating nuances of every painting. I do not mean the hand that paints or carves, nor the lips that narrate. Valuing authorship puts me in mind of a later age, and this shift takes on the devastating force of a cyclone in our civilization that tends to morph into mere spectacle. What I wish to highlight is the difference between each piece of art. An artistic ray lights the hands in “The Cave of the Beasts” in Egypt, the slender figures of Valencia’s honey collectors, the waist of the dancer in El Cogul and the graceful movement of the stone Venus in Galgenberg.
The stories told by those first lips would possess the enchantment bound up in words, the same enchantment that leads a child to ask, “again…”. The most banal or terrible event—a word, a look, a feeling—can become the seed of a compelling story. Words are the only modest and essential tool. Later, the creator will work on combining words with the utmost care, just like a tailor or craftsman, sitting on a stool, day after day, learning from the masters. When G. G. Márquez read Pedro Páramo,he was enthralled. After that first reading, his apprentice’s admiration led him to analyze the very carpentry of the book, his only goal being to learn.
Another human gift is rhythm. When rhythm, melody and the features of different sounds are added to a word’s reflection, we are at the beginnings of lyricism (we should not forget that this word’s etymology is found in ‘lyre’). Although the spoken word is an important part of our culture, the controversy surrounding the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has not had much impact on us. Where would we find the lines that delineate a bertso, a poem or a song? We could add many examples to this; our ‘too muches’. It is true that each genre has its own particular characteristics, but who could claim that many of the bertso by Lizaso’ or Maddalen are not poems, or that many of Mikel Laboa’s or Anari’s songs are not lyrical? Such pairs of pearls represent each art form in our very fertile sea; they are examples of a legacy that we should take great care of and pass on responsibly.
The origin of the first poems seems to be closely tied to narrative. Boundaries and classifications can be useful, but they can also be unfortunate, as we see with literary genres. Poetry adds its gifts to narrative just as narrative can enrich poetry. It is for this reason that we love the pleasant and natural melody of the long sentences by Proust or Luis Mateo Díez; they make reading sweet and simple, like a pleasant walk through a meadow, footfalls softened by the silent moss.
We lovers of poetry know that our words of love sway on docile waves, on the very same waves in which the first words of another love swam. We lie in the water, looking up at the sky and we hear the sound of the ocean floor; the echo of the first songs. At that moment we realize that good poems are like lighthouses, guiding us in the same way that Baudelaire understood the great paintings in his poem “The Beacons”: “Cést un cri répété par mille sentinelles,/ un ordre renvoyé par mille porte-voix;/ cést un phare allumé sur mille citadelles…” (“They are a cry passed on by a thousand sentinels./An order re-echoed through a thousand megaphones;/They are a beacon lighted on a thousand citadels…”).
Paul Theroux, in The Great Railway Bazaar, writes the following: “The difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows. Fiction is pure joy.”
This, I think, is the feeling that many of the authors that I love have. Among them are great poets: they find themselves faced with reality, feeling the very force of the unexpected wave, their skin being bruised as the result of a hard blow or feeling the heat of a sweet caress; inside, there is a tremor, a pulsing, the sting of writing. The difference between a poet and a writer and a narrator and a writer is the same; the poet can also be a creator of fiction to the extent that he transcends his experiences. And, nevertheless, even in those situations we will notice his presence throughout the poem: in the world created, in the viewpoint chosen and behind every word we perceive the presence of the poet.
I believe that inside his compulsion the writer finds both happiness and suffering. It’s just a way of life, but I’m certain that it, like the sly little snake, can grant happiness and inflict the most terrible suffering. A way of life; nothing more. A way of reading and expressing life. Its core is the same as the one found in painting, dance, sculpture, music and cooking; it’s also the one found in craft-making, agriculture, business and sewing; it’s the same one found in any type of creation. We all create something during the day: our hairstyle, attire, food, etc.; any simple gesture contains within itself a creation. For J.M. Arzak, the world is represented on a plate, multiplying possibilities into infinity: a leaf, beautiful paintwork, the marshmallow devoured by a child’s eyes…; any experience can become a catalyst. Juan Mari observes the world and in his mischievous look we can see his imagination is buzzing. That look is the same as the writer’s.
Those eyes will stir words about as if they were white sheets being pushed about by a north wind or lifted by a gentle breeze. The embryo of a poem has emerged. Next, the poet will yearn for a pencil and sheet of paper, the computer or a crumpled up bit of newspaper. He will write down that imperative word during the night, switching on the bedside lamp, in the book that was left there just before falling asleep; or the idea will emerge underneath the hot water of a shower, and he will be compelled to scramble, naked, out of the shower and over to the first notebook he comes across, without noticing that the puddle at his feet grows larger, becomes deeper. He will push the child’s stroller, repeating in his head the word that, given the impossibility to writing it down, he would tattoo on his skin, repeating it over and over, insistently, with the anguish of a prayer. He will write after the children are put to bed, becoming a hollow-eyed night owl; he will write on the beach, in the darkness of the movie theater, in the solitude of a cubicle and during his work break. And later, the solitude of his room will become his sailboat. He will read, read and read; he will do nothing else. Those around him will watch as the books overflow his writer’s den and engulf him. He will work, work and work; he will do nothing else until he writes the poem that will timidly approach the much admired masterpieces, the perfection of the dreamed poem. And those around him will worry; they will think that he is going mad, but then, at the least expected moment, he will emerge from his den, and then, above the dark circles under his eyes and in the depths of his pupils, they will see the faint ray of fragile happiness.
A. Machado died on February 22nd, at four in the afternoon. Three days later, his mother died. His brother José found two wrinkled sheets of paper in the poet’s coat pocket: “Estos días azules y el sol de la infancia” (“These blue days and the sun of childhood.”)
A few years ago, a student began to read a book in class. Our school’s bell is the sound of the txalaparta, which is able to wake up any student, and even the dead. The spell of that rhythm is followed by the thunder of chairs, as if an earthquake were taking place. I was frightened: the student kept reading; perhaps it was due to some strange condition, maybe a catatonic fit. The only thing I was sure of was that it was not an overdose. He was breathing, at least, and every once in a while a smile appeared on his lips. I started to relax, resembling a photographer who had immortalized the moment. Finally, he looked up and said to me, in a state of wonder: “Maixa, I can see the story in my mind, as if it were a movie…”
The event was as unforgettable as it was serious, as this student was twelve when he first immersed himself in a book. The students at my secondary school are mostly immigrants, their families occupying the lower socioeconomic rungs, and this has always made me feel quite responsible, as I am certain that the only books they’ll read in their lifetime are the ones they read in school.
The number of passionate readers in my classroom has rarely changed: in the best of cases, three. The rest only read what is required. I know that many specialists are against forcing children to read, but if we care about the inner world of our students as much as we care about their physical condition, if we make them eat healthy food and play sports, what can’t we demand that they read? The first step should always be to transmit to them, with passion, that which we love; agreed. When they are children it’s easy to swim with them in the wonderful world of children’s literature. It is in adolescence, however, when the first barriers appear in those waters. Reading requires effort and today’s young people are surrounded by many distractions. For this reason, I defend “Amish moments”, those indisputable moments that, little by little, will become habits. The results have been the best gift this school year.
Next will come my work as a guide, the same thing that the teachers that I admired did. I’m a teacher of Spanish language and literature, and this year my students’ reality has made me rethink the books we read. It pained me greatly, but the students’ response made it worthwhile. As another teacher noted, it is a beautiful thing to see a student who looks like he was born in the Bronx immerse himself in a tender love story. Nevertheless, we must also take care of that passionate minority and be glad in the knowledge that those from the graduating class have made the treasures by I. Calvino, M. Rivas, A. Méndez, G. G.Márquez and P. Levi their own.
This article finds me thinking about how to work with poetry in the next school year. I will have to be the guide: haikus, rap, songs, selected poems… This year I realized that students read poems as if they were riddles and I was amazed when they worked out the theme of C. Bonald’s “Rash Judgement.” These are pats on the back that keep us working; it is our responsibility to accompany them as they acquire sensitivity. In this way, they will be able to enjoy those very special moments that poetry gives us, of those magical moments that resemble the hours when “the swallows weave the air” (Sarrionaindia).
This article was published in Hitzen Uberan on June 29th, 2018, the day after the passing of P. Ezkiaga, the poet referenced in the text.
It offers some reflections on literature, teaching and reading, borne of my experiences as a teacher, mother and writer. It could also serve as an example of poetics…