Thursday, 9 May 2013

Some Carlos Drummond

Things were different with Carlos Drummond. I’ve read him in three big volumes, collecting most of his poetry from Brejo das Almas (1934) to Farewell (1996). Carlos Drummond de Andrade was born in 1902 and died in 1987. Like João Cabral de Melo Neto he is considered one of the greatest and most influential Brazilian poets of the 20th centry. An important Modernist, if he had written in English he would be as worldwide famous as TS Eliot, Robert Frost, W.B. Yeats or Wallace Stevens.

It’s important to stress that I didn’t care about a lot of the poems comprising the 1360 or so pages of the collection. I particularly liked his earlier poems but think he became more predictable, and too repetitive, with the passing years. Some poets produce poem after poem that leaves me dazzled – Fernando Pessoa, Wislawa Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski, to name just a few. Then there are a few where I have to work hard to squeeze an interesting handful from the vastness of their work. Some, perhaps most, poets just have a few very good poems in them – everything else is a variation of previous successes.

I don’t want to write at length about Drummond’s poetry because a) I don’t presume to know enough about it and b) because I prefer to let his poetry speak for itself. The way I understand it, Drummond was the poet of the bittersweet feeling, of self-deprecation; his tone is melancholy and ironic. His frequent topics include love, friendship, Brazil, loneliness, existentialism.


What now, José?
The party’s over,
the light’s out,
the people are gone,
the night’s cooler,
what now, José?
what now, You?
you without a name,
mocking others,
you making verses,
loving, protesting?
what now, José?

You’re womanless,
you’re speechless,
you’re tenderless,
you can no longer drink
you can no longer smoke,
spit you no longer can,
the night’s cooler,
the bus didn’t show up,
laughter didn’t show up,
utopia didn’t show up
and everything ended
and everything fled
and everything withered,
what now, José?

What now, José?
your sweet Word,
your moment of fever,
your gluttony and fast,
your library,
your golden harvest,
your glass suit,
your incoherence,
your hatred, - what now?

With key in hand
you want to open the door,
there is no door;
want to die in the sea,
but the sea has dried;
want to go to Minas,
Minas no longer exists.
José, what now?

If you screamed,
if you moaned,
if you touched,
the Vienna waltz,
if you slept,
if you married,
if you died…
But you won’t die,
you’re tough, José!

Alone in the dark
like a wild thing,
no theogony,
no naked wall
to lean against,
no black horse
to flee the trotting,
you march, José!
José, where to?

This was one of the earliest poems (1942) I speak of that immediately carved its own space in my memory. There’s a mixture of sadness but also humour about this poet’s moment of reflection, this evaluating of where his life stands, that reminds me of the similar poems one of my favourite Portuguese poets, Alexandre O’Neill, would write during the ‘50s and ‘60s. The imagined José, perhaps the poet’s alter ego, suffers so much misery it veers on the absurd. I like how his generic problems – no women, no friends, no bus – are interspersed with more ambitious problems, the failed utopia, his inability to make verses; the lack of a theogony is especially delightful, the uprooting is total. Is there a poem more pathetic, in the strict meaning of the word?


I love you, you love me
Since times immemorial.
I was Greek, you Trojan,
Trojan but not Helen.
I left the wooden horse
To kill your brother.
I killed, we fought, died.

I turned Roman soldier,
Persecutor of Christians,
In the catacomb’s cave,
I found you again.
But when I saw you naked
Lying in the circus’ sand
And the lion coming,
I jumped desperately
And the lion ate us both.

Then I was a Moorish pirate,
The scourge of Tripoli.
I torched the frigate
Where you hid
From the fury of my vessel.
But when I was going to grab
And make you my slave,
You made the sign of the cross
And slashed your chest with the dagger…
I killed myself too.

Then (more pleasant times)
I was a Versailles courtesan,
Witty and debauched.
You had to be a nun…
I jumped the convent wall
But political complications
Took us to the guillotine.

Today I’m a modern boy,
I row, jump, dance, box,
I have money in the bank.
You’re a notable blonde,
You box, dance, jump, row.
But your dad doesn’t like it,
But after a thousand travails,
I, Paramount hero,
Hug and kiss you and we marry.

Drummond is a storyteller. His poems have a story, a narrative. Unlike João Cabral de Melo Neto, who develops an abstract concept, Drummond tells a situation involving characters, José, the timeless lovers here. Melo Neto is philosophical, concerned with the external world – architecture, time, etc – Drummond, with the interior; the I shows up a lot more in his poems. Also, the humour is a main part of his style: tragic love turns into film love, from Homer to Hollywood in a poem’s span.


Where I was born, I died.
Where I died, I exist.
And of the skins I wear
many exist I never saw.

Without me as without you
I can last. I give up
everything mixed up
and that I hated or felt.

Neither Faust nor Mephisto,
to the goddess laughing
at our chatting,

here’s me saying: I live
beyond, nothing, here,
but I’m not me, nor this.

It’s a rite of passage in Portuguese-language poetry, a poet has to write a poem about Fernando Pessoa sooner or later. Perhaps one day I should post all the ones I know. It’s a futile exercise, I mean the poets writing about him not my hypothetical post; Pessoa was the best poet about Pessoa. The fun about the others is seeing from what angle they pick up Pessoa, and how much you’re aware of the in-jokes. For instance, here my attention is taken up by the verse about Faust and Mephisto. Frustrated Pessoa was writing against many geniuses, Luís de Camões, William Shakespeare, and Goethe. So much so that he tried to write his own Faust. This is just Drummond flaunting his knowledge of the poet’s life, and now I’m doing the same. I like the minimalist feeling of the first verse, shades of Alberto Caeiro, a heteronym short on biographical details. The goddess reference may be just a shout-out to Ricardo Reis’ paganism, although the last verses are the opposite of his stoic philosophy; he’d say he lives here and nothing beyond. Perhaps it’s no longer about Reis but Pessoa’s own obscurity in life and posthumous discovery. Everything is symbol. Thinking about it, I think Fernando Pessoa is just the poet Carlos Drummond would like: ironic, self-deprecating, pessimistic, confessional. So far I’ve written about two very different poets, Drummond and Melo Neto. Next time we’ll continue with a poet too, but we’ll try his short-stories instead: Ferreira Gullar.


  1. I really like the poems that you have posted here.

    Good point about some poets having a vast amount of great work verses those who one has to pick through to find the gems and about the repetitiveness of some. I think that is true of many artists across many different art forms. I think that it says something about how differently peoples mind's work.

    1. I think the repetitiveness is connected to the artist trying to refine his ideas, perfect them, so that he ends up creating the same thing over and over again, but always trying to make it reach the zenith of its aesthetic possibilities.

  2. As you may recall, I gulped down Drummond (rather recklessly) when I stumbled on him last year thanks to Antonio Tabucchi, so I'm happy to read your post about him and to get another dose of his poems. That's a great paragraph about the Pessoa poem and the Faust connection (I almost suspect you're starting to lay the groundwork for discussing Grande Sertão: Veredas...). Speaking of which, do you know if there's an English translation of the Drummond poem about Guimarães Rosa that prefaces the GS:V edition you have?

    1. Don't worry, I'm going to translate it too.