Borges on poetic inspiration

February 10, 2012

In the preface to his poetry collection The Unending Rose, Jorge Luis Borges writes about the romantic notion of the Muse (“what the Hebrews and Milton called Spirit, and what our own woeful mythology refers to as the Subconscious”) and says the process for him is more or less unvarying:

I begin with the glimpse of a form, a kind of remote island, which will eventually be a story or a poem. I see the end and I see the beginning, but not what is in between. That is gradually revealed to me, when the stars or chance are propitious. More than once, I have to retrace my steps by way of the shadows. I try to interfere as little as possible in the evolution of the work. I do not want it to be distorted by my opinions, which are the most trivial things about us. The notion of art as compromise is a simplification, for no one knows entirely what he is doing. A writer can conceive a fable, Kipling acknowledged, without grasping its moral. He must be true to his imagination, and not to the mere ephemeral circumstances of a supposed ‘reality’.

Much of this is, I think, equally true and valid of other kinds of creative activity: the vague beginning; the patient waiting; the getting out of one’s own way; the elusive, unpredictable development of the work. The importance of faith in a good idea. But Borges is talking specifically of writing and poetry, and a little later he goes on:

The word must have been in the beginning a magic symbol, which the usury of time wore out. The mission of the poet should be to restore to the word, at least in a partial way, its primitive and now secret force. All verse should have two obligations: to communicate a precise instance and to touch us physically, as the presence of the sea does.

Book spine mashups

July 20, 2010

There was a minor book avalanche here last weekend. I removed one from its tower, which toppled unstoppably against its neighbour, and so on, with results that need hardly be described at length. Luckily there were no casualties: no toes crushed or book spines broken, just a torn cover getting torn some more. I took the hint and arranged them more stably. (And yes, I need a new bookshelf, or a dozen.)

It prompted me to carry out a plan that had just taken seed. A little earlier I had come across Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books project and immediately wanted to try it. The tangling of titles, the possibilities of ‘found form’ and cut-up wordplay — as a game it was irresistible. I took photos of a few, and have written them as mini-poems for ease of reading and to see how they appear in verse:


How it is

How it is, the way that I went
Into the wild ancient world
Where the wasteland ends.



Chew on this moondust –
Good enough to eat.


Click for more book spine mashups

Ulysses, Ulysses, soaring through all the galaxies

June 16, 2009

I have never taken part in Bloomsday. Perhaps I should say: I have never deliberately taken part in Bloomsday, though I – like everyone and everything else – could be said to participate tangentially. In the world of Joyce, a connection between any two things is implicit in their existence, and remains only to be spotted, plotted, or forgotted. This was also a legacy of Einstein’s: that no atom could be satisfactorily defined without reference to every other, i.e. to the rest of the universe.

Objectivity never stood a chance.

Infinite interconnection is an idea both beguiling and intuitively true, but long displaced by a default fragmentation. It’s easy to miss or disregard those connections as we go about our daily lives. Were we to afford them our devoted attention, we would surely become infinitely distracted – as we do, momentarily, when our gaze falls on the infinite star map of a clear night sky. The great physicists of the last century rediscovered Indra’s Net, and in Ulysses Joyce mapped it onto a day in Dublin for the perpetual puzzlement of posterity (or at least some of its scholars).

Or did he?

The Irish answer: he did and he didn’t.

le brocquy joyce 23 detailConfession no.2: I have not read Finnegans Wake. At least, not from start to finish, not yet. I read Ulysses only last year, so I’m catching up slowly. This is no place for a book review, but I’ll put on record that I loved every exasperating cascading serenading page of Joyce’s masterpiece. When I finished it I raided the Joyce corner of my mother’s bookshelf for Joyce-related essays, memoirs, and biographies. So I am on a course leading to Finnegans Wake, but before it there is Richard Ellmann’s biography, which I have more than half a mind to begin reading today. It’s either that or the reissued 1922 text of Ulysses.

[Image: Image of James Joyce (detail) by Louis le Brocquy, 1978; oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm.]

This post was originally intended to be a long and careful tribute to Joyce – “that bizarre and wonderful creature who turned literature and language on end”* – but instead it is medium-sized and extemporaneous. The post title, by the way, refers to a French–Japanese cartoon my sister and I were enchanted by in the 1980s.

1980s, 1880s, 3080s, it’s all the same and it’s all in bloom.

If you are interested in taking part in the general merriment of Bloomsday, the James Joyce Centre website has information aplenty; if time and geography are against you, here is a short recording of Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake. (After 8½ minutes you can beginagain.) The accent and musicality of his speaking voice are a delight, and there is accompanying text here, if you wish to read along.

I leave you with a poem:

Invocation to Joyce

Scattered over scattered cities,
alone and many
we played at being that Adam
who gave names to all living things.
Down the long slopes of night
that border on the dawn,
we sought (I still remember) words
for the moon, for death, for the morning,
and for man’s other habits.
We were imagism, cubism,
the conventicles and sects
respected now by credulous universities.
We invented the omission of punctuation
and capital letters,
stanzas in the shape of a dove
from the libraries of Alexandria.
Ashes, the labor of our hands,
and a burning fire our faith.
You, all the while,
in cities of exile,
in that exile that was
your detested and chosen instrument,
the weapon of your craft,
erected your pathless labyrinths,
infinitesmal and infinite,
wondrously paltry,
more populous than history.
We shall die without sighting
the twofold beast or the rose
that are the center of your maze,
but memory holds the talismans,
its echoes of Virgil,
and so in the streets of night
your splendid hells survive,
so many of your cadences and metaphors,
the treasures of your darkness.
What does our cowardice matter if on this earth
there is one brave man,
what does sadness matter if in time past
somebody thought himself happy,
what does my lost generation matter,
that dim mirror,
if your books justify us?
I am the others. I am those
who have been rescued by your pains and care.
I am those unknown to you and saved by you.

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni.

* Description by Richard Ellmann in the preface to the revised 1982 edition of his biography of Joyce. I edited the post to include the quote and this footnote.