Thursday 28 January 2010

Jaime Gil de Biedma

"I dress and drink like an Englishman".

This quote is from Jaime Gil de Biedma, a key figure in 20th Century Spanish poetry. It hints at many of the paradoxes and layers to be found in his character. An upper-class Marxist who had to hide his bisexuality in Francoist Spain, his writing is often labelled "Poesía de la Experiencia". In fact, Gil de Biedma's poems play with the notion of experience and identity, drawing on the hypocrisy that necessarily formed part of his life.

Gil de Biedma's wealthy family enabled him to travel widely. He spoke excellent English and spent time in the U.K., where he read avidly and came under the influence of Auden's poetry. It's important to bear in mind that Gil de Biedma has been a crucial point of reference for many contemporary Spanish poets, so he has also been one of the few conduits between the two countries' poetic aesthetics. Just as many Latin words come to English through French, so I would argue that certain momentary nods towards Auden in Garcia Montero often reach us through Gil de Biedma.

His life and work are currently in the media spotlight over here in Spain, as a controversial biopic has just come out, titled "El Cónsul de Sodoma". Beyond the arguments about its veracity or focus on sexual escapades, I just hope it generates more readers for Jaime Gil de Biedma. Here's a terrific example of his own self-awareness from his poem "Después de la muerte de Jaime Gil de Biedma", "After Jaime Gil de Biedma's Death", in which he addresses his other self and ends with these lines...

"Aunque acaso fui yo quien te enseñó.
Quien te enseñó a vengarte de mis sueños,
por cobardía, corrompiéndolos."

"Although it might have been me who taught you.
Who taught you to take revenge on my dreams,
out of cowardice, corrupting them."

Saturday 16 January 2010

Gwen Harwood

One of the major benefits of reading anthologies such as Emergency Kit is that they draw your attention to poets who have previously passed under your radar.

I had heard of Gwen Harwood and was aware of her standing in 20th Century Australian poetry, but I'd barely read any of her work. However, three poems by her in Emergency Kit were outstanding and got me googling. I was even more attracted by what I found - articles, anecdotes and further poems - so one of my forthcoming purchases will be her new selected poems from Carcanet, titled Mappings of the Plane.

Sunday 10 January 2010

Emergency Kit

I buy poetry books as and when I can - my budget doesn't allow for anything else - and I tend to avoid anthologies in favour of getting to grips with individual poets. However, Emergency Kit for a quid at a local charity shop was too tempting this Christmas.

I've got many quibbles with it, starting with the premise that the 20th Century was an especially strange time. Well, the 17th/18th/19th Centuries weren't exactly straightforward or exempt from huge changes, revolutions, genocide, etc, either. The editors' claim that Borges was a magical realist, meanwhile, is a leap too far for my understanding of the term. As for the poetry itself, it seems selected to fit into a specific identikit vision of the genre.

Nevertheless, I do feel that the most intriguing part of the anthology is its introduction, where the editors (Matthew Sweeney and Jo Shapcott) justify their work. Above all, my interest in the comparative qualities of English-language and Spanish poetry means that I was immediately drawn to the following statement:

"...however far and freely (the poems) travel, they always come back to the world we wake up to, illuminating, from whatever angle, our day-to-day concerns. Other poems in the bookmay be more ostensibly realist in manner...but even here there is always the glint of...the surrealism of everyday life".

In other words, the poetic aesthetic of Emergency Kit is rooted in daily life - any steps back from this world are taken so as then to come back to it with fresh eyes. This is a pretty big anthology - almost 300 pages of poems - so my question is the following: could such an extensive anthology have been compiled of contemporary Spanish poetry with this same aesthetic?

I don't believe so. What's more, the editors' stance doesn't seem particularly controversial in terms of a vast chunk of current English-language poetry, whereas my experience tells me of the row that would brew if I backed such a statement when surrounded by most Spanish poets! All in all, an excellent example of the divide between the two languages' poetries.

Thursday 7 January 2010

The Frogmore Papers

2010 sees me back in Spain again after a few weeks in the U.K., where I stocked up on calories and poetry books.

Meanwhile, the new year has also brought its first acceptance, from The Frogmore Papers. This is the third time I've had work in Jeremy Page's excellent magazine and I look forward to seeing my poem in the September 2010 issue. Here's hoping the coming months continue in a similar vein!