Sunday, 13 January 2013

The real modern poem is life without poems: the poetry of Álvaro de Campos

After writing about Alberto Caeiro and Ricardo Reis, I believe I owe my readers a post about the last of Fernando Pessoa’s three poetic heteronyms, the urban pessimist Álvaro de Campos. There are certain characteristics that distinguish Campos from the other two: he was the only heteronym that moved through different styles – whereas Caeiro remained always a singer of Nature and Reis never stopped preaching fatalistic philosophy through his poetry, Campos changed from a young decadent to a futurist, to finally end up as a nihilistic observer of the quotidian. Campos was also Pessoa’s longest-living heteronym: the other two were bright but transient flashes of genius, whose fulgor, after the initial stage, became hard for the author to recapture. Campos, on the other hand, accompanied the author from the 1910s to his final year in 1935. Campos also had the distinction of being the only heteronym Pessoa published in the seminal modernist magazine he co-founded, Orpheu. It has been said that Campos was the heteronym whom most resembled Pessoa in temperament and worldviews, and that the author had a particular affinity for this alter ego. What is certain is that Campos produced more poetry than Caeiro and Reis put together.

Like the other heteronyms, Campos has a biography. He was born in Tavira, on October 15, 1890. He studied in the lyceum and then was sent to the Glasgow to study naval engineering. He’s 1,75 meters high (my age), slim and clean-shaven. He wears a monocle. His poetic career starts aboard a ship en route to the Orient, circa 1913. At this point he’s unemployed and his earliest poems, written while at sea, speak of his feeling of tedium, his lack of interest in life, and a debilitating sense of futility. Then on a poem dated March 1914, Campos, having arrived in the Suez Canal, reveals his genius with his first great poem, “Opiarium”, dedicated to Pessoa’s poet friend Mário de Sá-Carneiro.

“Opiarium” is one of the most famous Portuguese poems and the first stanza begins like this:

It is before the opium that my soul is sick.
Feeling life makes one recuperates and atrophy
And I’m seeking in the consoling opium
An Orient to the orient of the Orient.

That’s right, Campos was an acid head. These first lines already contain many of his poems’ marks: decadence, the search for new sensations, sadness with life. The poem continues:

I cannot be in any single place. My
Country is where I’m not. I’m sickly and weak
The steward is crooked.
He saw me with the Swedish woman… and he can guess the rest.

Campos has a very negative outlook and is perhaps the most down-to-earth of the heteronyms. Reis was a classicist and even Caeiro, in spite of his anti-intellectualism, had a lofty way about himself. But Campos is concerned with the tawdry: the intrigues, the gossip, the urban bustle, lunch. Maybe it’s because he’s also the one most concerned with the physical sensations, the human senses, and the one who most uses poetry to talk about himself. He’s the only one who would worry about a steward misunderstanding his sex life. Still for the one seems to experience life the most, he’s the most fatalistic of the three:

I belong to a type of Portuguese
Who after India was discovered
Was left without work. Death’s certain.
I’ve thought about it many times.

Campos thinks Portugal has reached the twilight of its history after the great 15th and 16th century discoveries, and he may be right, and so for him there’s nothing else to dream or do. What is certain is that he’s fed up with life and is seeking an escape from it, that orient to the Orient, a mythical place away from everyone, but that most likely doesn’t exist. This poem is too extensive to be fully transcribed here, but it’s a remarkable piece of literature.

I wrote Campos is the most self-analytical of the three heteronyms. He turns his poetry into a mirror of his inner life, and the reflection is detestable to himself:



I’m vile, I’m petty, like everyone else,
I have no ideals, but nobody does.
Whoever says he has them is like me, but lies.
Whoever says he’s searching is because he lacks them.

It is with imagination that I love goodness.
My low being however doesn’t permit me.
I pass, phantom of my present being,
Drunk, through intervals of a Beyond.

Like everybody I don’t believe in what I believe.
Perhaps I can die for that ideal.
But, while I don’t die, I speak and read.

Justify myself? I’m who everybody is…
Change myself? Into my equal?...
“Put an end to that, o heart!”

This is another lengthy poem – of the three heteronyms, he wrote the longest poems – but this excerpt encapsulates his disenchantment with life and his sense of worthlessness. As do these two lines:

River water, running dirty and cold,
I pass like you, without being worth more…

But this was the first phase of his poetic life. Then Campos read Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto and abandoned his decadent poetry to celebrate the modern world. The poem that marks this stylistic shift is the magisterial “Triumphant Ode,” a panegyric to modernity. This was his first Ode, dedicated to progress, speed, industry, science, sound – it’s full of onomatopoeias – movement, and it’s as unpoetic as possible. It’s a poem that goes beyond merely admiring cars or trains. It’s a true love letter to the spirit of the age, its filth, its squalor, its violence, its wars. One of my favourite passages starts like this:

The wonderful beauty of political corruptions,
Delicious diplomatic and financial scandals,
Political beatings on the streets,
And once in a while the comet of a regicide
Which lights up with Prodigy and Fanfare the
Common and lucid skies of quotidian Civilization!

A few pages later the poem continues in this triumphant tone to celebrate mediocrity and vulgarity:

Ah, and the ordinary and filthy people, who always look the same,
Who use swear words as if they were normal words,
Whose children steal at the doors of grocery shops,
And whose daughters aged eight – and I find this beautiful and love it! –
Masturbate men of decent aspect in the staircases.
The rabble that moves on scaffolds and then goes home
Through almost unreal byways of narrowness and rottenness.
Wonderful human people who live like dogs,
Who are above all moral systems,
For whom no religion was made,
No art created,
No policy destined for them!
How I love all of you, for you’re like that,
Neither immoral for being as low as you are, nor good nor bad,
Unreachable by all progresses,
Wonderful fauna from the bottom of the sea of life!

Campos’ poetry is ugly, scatological, insulting, petty – in his ‘salutation’ to Whitman he calls him ‘God’s faggot’ – and completely disgusted with everyday life, no matter how much he claims to love it. In a poem he even implies that the modern world has rendered poetry outdated:

The real modern poem is life without poems,
It’s the real train and not the verses that sing it,
It’s the rails’ iron, the hot rails, the wheels’ iron, their turning,
And not my poems speaking of rails and wheels without them.

And yet his poetry, in spite or because of its rage and contempt, continues to be fascinating in this new world he dedicates it to:

Poetry has lost nothing. And now there are also machines
With their poetry too, and the whole new type of commercial,
Mundane, intellectual, sentimental life,
Which the era of the machine has brought to our souls.
Travels now are as beautiful as they were before
And a ship will always be beautiful, only because it’s a ship.
Travelling is still travelling and the faraway is where it’s always been –
Nowhere, thank God!

Thankfully for us, Campos doesn’t give up poetry and continues to rediscover the nuances of life in unexpectedly original language. Like Marinetti, who considered wars hygienic, Campos celebrates them in his “Martial Ode,” but he finishes it with one of the most moving passages in his entire oeuvre, when he addresses the mother of a soldier fallen in World War I:

You still have his cradle in a corner, at home…
You still keep his little clothes, from when he was smaller…
You still have in some drawer a few broken toys…
Now, yes, now, go look at them and cry over them…
You don’t know where your son’s burial place is…
He was nr. something of regiment one whatever,
He died over there in Marne in some place… He died…
The son you had in your arms, whom you suckled and raised…
Who turned in your womb…
The young man who said jokes and you laughed so…
Now he’s rot… All it took on the German line
Was a piece of lead, the size of a nail, and your life is sad…
You’ll receive a prize from the State. They’ll say your son was a hero…
(No one knows, in any event, if he was a hero or not)
He’s an anonymous unto history…
“20 thousand men died in such and such battle…” He was one of them…
And your mother’s heart has bled so much for that hero history will say nothing of…
The war’s most important event for you was that one…

In his “Salutation to Walt Whitman,” a poem written between admiration, envy and hatred of the American poet, Campos, who was obviously inspired by him, claims:

I’m one of yours, look at me, there from God you can see me the other way round:
From the inside out… My body is what you guess, you see my soul –
That one you can see yourself and through its eyes my body –
Look at me: you know that I, Álvaro de Campos, engineer,
Sensationist poet,
Am not your disciple, am not your friend, am not your singer,
You know I am You and you’re happy with that!

This Futurist phase is perhaps his loudest one, where he’s being as scandalous and unpleasant as possible.

Then his poetry changed again and into something more contemplative, more reserved but also darker and more cynical. His final, misanthropic phase is really my favourite one. His disgust for the world is equal only to his devastating self-criticism. How can one not love a poet who feels “nausea of being contemporary of myself”? The fact is this third period puts his enthusiasm with life and progress behind and turns into a sort of masochist game:


I never met anybody who took a beating.
All my acquaintances have been champions at everything.

And I, so many times petty, so many times dirty, some many times vile,
I so many times unanswerably parasitic,
Indefensibly filthy,
I, who so many times haven’t had patience to take a bath,
I, who so many times have been ridiculous, absurd,
Who have publicly rolled up my feet on the mats of etiquette,
Who have been grotesque, miserly, submissive and arrogant,
Who have endured abuses in silence,
Who when I haven’t been silent have been even more ridiculous;
I, who have been comical to hotel maids,
I, who have felt busboys’ eyes blinking at me,
I, who have made financial embarrassments, borrowed money without paying,
I, who, when the punching time arrived, stooped
Away from the possibility of a punch;
I, who have suffered the anguish of small ridiculous things,
I realize I have no equal in all of this in the whole world.

Everyone I know and speaks to me
Never made a ridiculous gesture, never suffered an abuse,
Was never but a prince – all of them princes – in life…

I wish I heard from someone the human voice
That confessed not a sin, but an infamy;
That told, not a violence, but a funk!
No, they’re all Ideal, if I hear them and they speak.
Who exists in this wide world that confesses he was once vile?
O princes, my brothers,
Damn it, I’m sick of demigods!
Where is there people in the world?

So am I the only one who is vile and mistaken on this earth?

The women may not have loved them,
They may have been betrayed – but ridiculous never!
And I, who have been ridiculous without having been betrayed,
How can I speak to my superiors without stuttering?
I, who have been vile, literally vile,
Vile in the petty and infamous sense of vileness.

The man who once wanted to feel all things and sensations is now exhausted with life:

No: I don’t want anything.
I’ve said I don’t want anything.

Don’t give me conclusions!
The only conclusion is dying.

Don’t bring me aesthetics!
Don’t speak to me of morals!
Get that metaphysics away from me!
Don’t preach complete systems to me, don’t list to me the conquests
Of the sciences (the sciences, my God, the sciences!) –
Of the sciences, the arts, modern civilization!

What saves this poetry from being hopelessly bleak is that even Campos at his most nihilistic can find the right balance between lament and irony, and a habit of always turning everything upside down in the last verse:

I’m nothing.
I’ll never be anything.
I can’t want to be anything.
Apart from that, I have in me all the dreams of the world.

He says he has ‘failed at everything’ and criticises his own genius:

What do I know what I’ll be, I who don’t know what I am?
To be what I think? But I think of being so many things!
And there are so many who think of being the same thing that there can’t be so      
Geniuses? Right now
A hundred thousand brains are conceiving themselves in genius dreams like me,
And history won’t mark, who knows?, not even one,
There will be but manure from so many future conquests.
No, I don’t believe in myself.

And after having wrestled with the shadow of Whitman in the past, now he aims even higher:

To use time!
But what is time, for me to use it?
To use time?
No day without a line…
Honest and superior work…
Work a la Virgil or Milton…
But it’s so hard being honest or being superior!
And so highly unlikely to be Milton or to be Virgil!

In his final phase his poetry becomes very interested in the act itself of writing, it becomes his Ars Poetica. It’s a fascinating invitation into his own way of thinking about his work. And of course it’s filled with a sense of inactivity. “All verses are always written the next day,” he writes. And in another poem judges his poetry in these terms:

I have written more verses than verity.
I have written mostly
Because others have written.
If there had never been poets in the world,
Would I be capable of being the first?
I’d be a perfectly compliant individual,
I’d have my own house and moral.
Miss Gertrudes!
You cleaned up this room badly:
Get these ideas away from there!

After writing about machines and ships, Campos starts retreating into the world of dream more and more:

Ah, open up another reality for me!
I want to have, like Blake, the contiguity of angels,
And have visions for lunch.
I want to find fairies in the street!
I want to unimagine myself from this world made with claws,
Of this civilization made with nails,
I want to live, like a flag in the wind,
Symbol of something up on the top of something!

When he writes about the quotidian, it’s always with a sense of repulsion:

I pay the ticket through the gaps,
And the driver passes through me as if I were the Critique of Pure Reason…
I paid the ticket. I did my duty. I’m vulgar.
And those are all things not even suicide cures.

Perhaps no other poem of this period captures the intensity of his hatred for mankind than this poem:

I know everything is natural
But I still have a heart…
Good night and shit!
(Crackle, my heart!)
(Fuck all mankind!)

In the house of the mother of the son who was run over,
Everybody laughs, everybody plays.
And there’s a great racket of horns totally unheard of

They received the compensation:
Baby equals X,
They’re enjoying the X right now,
They eat and drink the dead baby,
Hurray! They’re people!
Hurray! They’re humanity!
Hurray: they’re all the fathers and all the mothers
Who have sons that can be run over!
How everyone forgets when there’s money,
Baby equals X.

With that a house was wallpapered.
With that the last instalment on the furniture was paid.
Poor baby!
But, if he hadn’t been run over to death, what would happen to the bills?

Yes, he was loved,
Yes, he was beloved
But he died.
Patience, he died!
What a pity, he died!
But he left something to pay bills with
And that’s something.
(Of course it was a disgrace)
But now the bills are paid.
(Of course that poor little body
Was wrecked)
But now, at least, there’s no debt in the grocery shop.
(It’s a pity, yes, but there’s always a relief.)

The baby died, but what there is are ten contos. (1)
That, ten contos.
You can do a lot (poor baby) with ten contos.
Pay many debts (beloved little baby)
With ten contos.
Settle many things
(Beautiful baby who died) with ten contos.
We know it’s sad
(Ten contos)
One of our children run over
(Ten contos)
But the sight of the refurbished house
(Ten contos)
Of a rebuilt home
(Ten contos)
Makes many things be forgotten (how we cried him!)
Ten contos!
It seems he got them for God
(Those ten contos)
Poor wrecked baby!
Ten contos. (103)

Curiously, one of his final poems was a strange and unusually emotional and honest poem about love letters:

All love letters are
They wouldn’t be love letters if they weren’t

I also wrote in my time love letters.
Like the others,

Love letters, if there’s love,
Have to be

But, after all,
Only the creatures who never wrote
Love letters

I wish I were in the time when I wrote
Without noticing it
Love letters that were

The truth is that nowadays
My memoirs
Of those love letters
Are the ones that are

(All proparoxytone words,
Like all proparoxytone feelings,
Are naturally

This was quite strange considering he doesn’t even speak of love or women in his poetry.

Álvaro de Campos was, for me, the funniest, darkest, strangest, most complex and most ambitious of the three heteronyms. When I think about the work of Fernando Pessoa, I’m amazed at the scope of his work. Any poet would gladly sacrifice something valuable to have the talent of just one of them. That Pessoa was able to be all three, and still himself, at the same time is one of the most remarkable events of modern poetry.

1 conto: an old type of Portuguese monetary unit.


  1. These poems are all so interesting - I particularly like the references to other poets. Thank you for the post!

    1. Lucy, thanks for the kind words, I'm glad you liked the poems. I'm sure there are better translations in English, and there are many anthologies of Pessoa around. Give them a try.

  2. "the references to other poets" - It is fun, isn't it? Pessoa had so much fun that he created an entire literary tradition for himself.

    Miguel, have you read much Marinetti? If so, what do you recommend? If not, what is tempting?

    1. Tom, well, I've perused his Manifesto, and I think it's morally repugnant, the misogyny, the praise of war, "the world's only hygiene," the strident nationalism, isn't something to be taken lightly. One thing's to read a false poet idolize war, another thing is to read the systematic thoughts of a man and think, "Wait, does he really believe this nonsense?"

      So, you know, I think it's well worth reading. Also Mafarka is on my TBR.