About the poetry of my country and my time
Author of the Week: Spain – Barcelona
To mark the 2023 Barcelona Poetry Festival
The history of Catalan literature is above all the history of Catalan poetry. We could follow an almost perfect pathway, skipping from poet to poet and century to century without landing with either foot on a Catalan prose writer, let alone a novelist. We would overlook some first-rate names, but we could nevertheless construct a history of literature which, though dislocated and incomplete, would keep the deepest core of our literary tradition whole. In other words: if, in an act of literary terrorism, we struck out every line of prose and only poems remained, we would still be left with the spirit – or indeed the ghost – of the Catalan contribution to Western literature.
Until not so long ago, the poet’s profile was at the centre of literature, and something more than literature; in a peculiar, even atavistic way, contemporaneity has given it a crucial symbolic and not just symbolic role, in various more or less successful and incomplete attempts at national construction. Poets in Catalonia, from Jacint Verdaguer to Josep Carner and Carles Riba, not to mention Joan Maragall, have meant more than their craft, which is why Aribau, to give an example of a completely vacuous author, became the father of the fatherland by chance in an era eager for father figures. Guided by revivals and renaissances from the mid-nineteenth century to the Spanish Civil War, Catalonia required poets, and poets took it upon themselves to ensure that a lyrical poetry would emerge with the resurrection of the nation, or, to put it the other way around, that a fatherland would be resurrected as a consequence of the emergence of lyrical poetry. Later, during the Francoist dictatorship, the aim was to survive, through the voice and life of poets themselves, a world destroyed and destroying itself. During and also after the dictatorship, this unease over the role of the intellectual and the poet surfaced among younger authors (Gabriel Ferrater) and the attempts to indulge it generally failed (historical realism).
Today’s Catalan poets have inherited both the legacy and the debts of the poetic tradition in different ways, everything save its importance. In our time, poetry has not only lost the throne of Catalan literature to the novel, but literature itself had already gradually lost society’s throne in the course of the twentieth century. This void in the testament is what changes the entire legacy’s meaning.
What started when a very young Verdaguer dressed as a noble savage entered the City Hall’s Saló de Cent in 1865 to receive his first award from the Jocs Florals de Barcelona and later when Bishop Morgades crowned Jacint Verdaguer as the Catalans’ poet in Ripoll, now survives in a bar in El Raval called (H)original, the place where poets meet, praise and slander one another, listen to and read each other’s work, and drink. This is leaving the centre for the margins, with everything implied in the move from the City Hall’s medieval and romantic Saló de Cent to the ‘Ravalesque’ (H)original, stopping on the way, if you will, at the Noucentista Hotel Colón in Plaça Catalunya. Everything aesthetic about this move, the aesthetics not just of marginalisation but also of ‘reversing the game’, and the attitude of wilful insignificance, has substance. The comparison should not be understood as disparagement because it is not meant that way. What matters about this image, one that is perhaps more literary than historical, is the identification of heirs and legacies – those reciting before an open mic today, recognised or in pursuit of recognition, are the inheritors of what took place in the City Hall’s Saló de Cent and in Ripoll in the nineteenth century. Both projects, the Jocs Florals and l’(H)original, rehabilitate, in their own way, the figure of the troubadour.
But I have been asked for a panorama which discusses the generations living together, the trends, the revolt of poetry today in my country and my time, and to talk about the need to keep one foot halfway back, barely edging forward. Carles Riba detected a superimposition of times and generations in the idiosyncrasy of contemporary Catalan literature in a society moving at full throttle along the co-ordinates of modernity. Very early on, in Creadors i diletants, an article written in 1918, he pointed out that in Catalonia,
we young people in declining villages fighting today for rebirth and death – not continuation – have experienced all three periods together in a tortuous paradox (birth (creation), classical period (dilettantism) and decline). Creators are placed next to dilettantes. On the one hand we are in such a hurry to create that there is no time to stop and understand. On the other hand, we have read so many books that we have grown sad.
And, five years later, in Entre dos dilatentismes, from 1923, he observed that ‘literary generations in Catalonia are very quickly succeeded and consumed’, not just because of the speeding-up of time or supposed creative vitality but also, above all, for want of demand:
There seems to be a secret embarrassment among each established generation, combined with a masterly smugness, about the diminishing value that the new generation represents in its regard: tired of declaring it mature, to the point of relieving itself of a responsibility.
We turn back along the path we came by and find ourselves again among the living, ourselves with ourselves. Because in a post-modern panorama, what value can we assign to different generations? We agree that many of them converge today in Catalonia, which means as much or as little as there are old poets and young poets and others who are neither old nor young, but it would be very difficult, on the other hand, to affirm that the notion of a generation has managed to create, since the 1970s, any other link that is not anecdotal, whereby the anecdotes may be more or less juicy, but are ultimately nothing more than anecdotes. It is hard to deny that the series of consensual experiences shared between generations – sometimes more consensual than actually experienced – is linked to history: political and economic systems, families, ideology, religion and school. However, if in another time generations of poets (or readers) were capable of producing value that was not just historical but also artistic, if by virtue of being born in one decade or another it was possible for communication and artistic groups or strategies to emerge, the word generation is now of almost no interest other than biographical. A biography incapable of recording and grouping together works and styles: that is, in our time, the great container of post-modernity, which means the empire of dispersion.
A dispersion added to the actual Catalan dispersion which Riba had already noted, at the bottom of which we might find a reason unchanged even now. In short, I’m talking about self-education. Gabriel Ferrater’s Course, criticising certain Marxist readings applied to contemporary Catalan literature, says that ‘no social class here fails to educate its children. A Spaniard is hardly shaped at all by social class, because no one has been given any kind of culture, they have had to develop it individually.’
A Catalan poet ends up constructing their library all on their own, and it is the only library they will ever have. It therefore seems certain that we will find an almost infinite heterogeneity there, stimulated by the spirit of post-modernism, between each two generations and within each one, which will enable the threads and relations (though not groups) of every kind with fairly closed definitions to be established: paradoxically, all we have to guide us are individual authors, with no possibility of group formation. The attempt to establish a generation over the last decades has in fact been a strategy stretched between anachronism, such as marketing and, in the best of cases, playfulness.
But we can still insist on the Ferrater’s notion of self-education, which over the last 50 years has not been supported or limited by critique, Aristophanian or otherwise, and has wrought havoc while coping with this vagueness which we now describe as profound. Because the easiest thing is for the textbook poet from Catalonia to start their literary career writing pruned prose and win awards for it, as is now often the case. Which begs the legitimate question: if the worst poets from each era knew how to count syllables, why don’t they do that today? Our increasingly open, accessible and freely-circulating home-grown writing has become open, accessible and freely-circulating without having managed to establish a canon – there are no customary practices or habits, no scale of prestige or common national references. We have made ourselves postmodern without modern foundations; we are the post-we-don’t-really-know-what. There is no general taste, not even a bad taste, Catalan or Spanish, just disinformation from the inexperienced poet and the casual reader, both of whom are a majority in their own sphere. And under these circumstances a label appears, a suspicious one uttered insistently in some circles, and invariably with mistrust: neoformalism. Far from having a truly literary meaning in Catalonia, it is a prejudice-turned-category, and it responds to the immense difficulty of characterising the panorama of our contemporary literature in an inoffensive way. If, out of courtesy, we have to consider those who do not write verse as poets, what then should we call the minority who count syllables? In other words, what should we call the poets, now that those who do not write poetry describe themselves as such, too? According to one of the central articles from Poesia catalana avui, 2000–2015, the answer is practical and intuitive: simply poets? No, neoformalists.
We should not be oblivious to the fact that there are era-related reasons for this formal destruction: avant-garde experimentation, counter-cultural zeal, the marginality of literature, and everything else even remotely postmodern collaborates to find poetry outside of poems, retaining at least the visual aspect of a poem through the layout of the text on the page. There are facets of this that are of genuine interest for study, such as the general disappearance of rhyme, which I see as connected to deep-rooted epistemic and other issues. But era-related reasons cannot be used as a universal explanation for all the failures of this world. Cynically keeping the almost theological ambiguity over the existence of verse is starting to become unsustainable. Because there can be no discussion here: verse is consubstantial with poems.
But is there dispersion in today’s poetry? Perhaps too much trust has been put in the capacity of postmodernism for chaos and disparity, and too little in the capacity of humans for order, their imitative skills or simply their limitations, artistic and otherwise. It is said that postmodern poets are called upon to be poetics in their own right, as each has formerly been called upon (without success) to become a unique and living dialect. In any event, perhaps because of the collapse of what post-modernism has meant, one need only read young poets, who are ingenuous and therefore useful examples, to see that they all write more or less the same thing, on a spectrum stretching from the poetics of the body to problems of words and things and feigned god nostalgia, tending in general to the same, empty clichés. There are lines there that point towards a tradition or even disconnections from tradition due to postmodernism or want of reading. Or because of ‘cosmopolitan’ temptations, which are the worst form of localism, one without roots, language or sound, merely thematic.
At the same time, present-day poetry, in its diversity, has been able to robustly construct all traditions that are maintained today with some force, whether nascent or maturing or in decline tending to mannerism. As there has to be some anthropomorphic value in a panorama, it would be worthwhile (and expected) to mention a few names, point out a few trends and paint a perfectly incomplete portrait of the time. I am interested, then, in detecting trends which are in some way representative of this period of Catalan literature and which make some kind of contribution, even if linked to tradition, that is unique. In other words, trends which do not come directly from previous ways of understanding poetry, such as the poetry of experience, the direct legacy of Ferrater, or their derivatives. Let’s highlight two important ones.
The first sets off, broadly and not exclusively, from the path of J. V. Foix who strikes a delicate balance between tradition and breaking away from tradition in Catalonia. It is a literary position that marries tradition and avant-garde, classicism and rupture, form and play. Two names stand out here: Enric Cassasses and Josep Pedrals, whose oeuvres are quite different, yet also concomitant in their taste for wordplay, which is something more than a whim. Both show all the unease of the time but without the disquiet that is present in other authors; they save it for irony, which is never banal, and with playful child-like innocence they restore the possibility of a post-modern lyrical poetry. Without using prose in poetry, but producing work in which prose has the upper hand over poetry, both have somehow reconciled time and poetry: Cassasses has turned essays into poems, and Pedrals novels into verse.
The other great tradition, which has had a profound influence on beginner poets and gave rise to the poetry of reason, is the so-called poetry of the body, perhaps the more impactful of the two trends from a quantitative point of view. Originating from the work of Maria-Mercè Marçal and Montserrat Abelló, the poetics of the body took on a new meaning in post-modernism when Dolors Miquel published El llibre dels homes (1998), which corresponds in title and substance to Jaume Roig’s medieval classic, L’Espill, also known as Llibre de les dones. Thus begins a self-reflective adventure which aims to re-read the literary (and masculine) tradition of the Catalans, grafted onto the corpus and gender theories. Following this tradition, even though it derives from the great diversity that postmodernism provides, we could mention two more names: Mireia Calafell and Maria Sevilla. Love and sex, intermingled with and inseparable from politics, in search of conquering them through poetry and violence, co-exist in tension and harmony, turn and turn about, with all the other post-modern elements – the problem of language, the hypertrophy of the ego, etc., and other, not-so postmodern ones such as nation and death. There are other names, parallel to this female and feminist tradition, likewise different to one another but equally linked to general premises, such as Carles Rebassa and Pol Guasch, who are interested in the possibilities that such poetics offers when it comes to reflecting on gender and sexuality. Although this poetics is more politics than poetics, or indeed politics-turned-poetics, there are other names that have subscribed to it while never, or hardly ever, touching on politics. Understanding the poetics of the body as a mannerism, they have used its aesthetic possibilities – filthiness, corporeality, brutality – without making political commitments. This, I believe, is the path of Jaume C. Pons Alorda. The poetics of the body in all its expressions, initially ground-breaking but now perfectly incorporated into the system, shows certain symptoms of collapse.
Here is Catalan poetry, the heir to a rich poetic tradition, at another critical juncture in its history. The role of the poet, who no longer conveys the hopes of a nation, is once again faced with the challenge of charging words, tradition and history with an eagerness for literary universality and excellence. Todó, referring to Carner, remarks:
Apart from metrical skill and language creation, there is what Ferrater saw well enough: Carner’s poems are like a fatherland. In other words, there is the idea of a community behind them, a beautiful land and a beautiful people, the possibility of exercising irony since those around you will be able to grasp the meaning of these words, wherever they turn.
Well, then, I suspect this notion of community no longer effectively exists.
These lines touch on something profound in the problem of the post-modern poet and writer, the cost of a legacy, the simultaneous confirmation of a past and a present. Just as interesting as Todó’s text is the response of the critic, the poet Gerard Cisneros, who rebukes him, saying: ‘Well, then, I truly believe this community is there.’ He always chooses his problems, and attempts to face them coherently, as an adventure: we will always judge each author for their capacity to reach home port loaded with riches, however diverse, however strange they are. During our interregnum, between the I-don’t-know-what and the we-don’t-know-what-either, we are only left with the certainty that we exist, that we still exist, through the word. And we end with the mystery, not entirely lacking in irony. Now that post-modernism is universally accepted in academia – the clearest proof of its obsolescence – I should wrap up this article by asking: what’s next? What is there after postmodernism? I’ll hazard a prediction, with a few authors in mind. Order. Or nostalgia.
 Carles Riba: Els Marges. Barcelona: La Revista, 1927.
 Gabriel Ferrater: Curs de literatura catalana contemporània. Barcelona: Edicions 62, 2019.
Born in 1998 in the Penedès region, adorned with vineyards in perpetual parallel, he earned a degree in Catalan Philology in 2021 from Universitat de Barcelona. Subsequently, he pursued a Master's in Advanced Studies of Catalan Language and Literature (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) with a focus on literature, along with a Master's in Studies of Contemporary Cinema and Audiovisual (Universitat Pompeu Fabra). Currently, he serves as a professor at the Faculty of Education at the Universitat de Barcelona, affiliated with the Josep Carner Chair. Additionally, he has conducted two concise and specialized courses on that poet and the prose writer Joaquim Ruyra at the Faculty of Theology of Catalonia. He is the poetry critic for the Núvol magazine and the author of a single, unpublished novel that still languishes in the style of Virgil. This, to his and the few people closest to him's exasperation, are the only few individuals who, otherwise, interest him. He has engaged in countless other activities, even more irrelevant than these and some others, naturally fewer in number, which he considers tremendously important (falling in love, having a very young sister, having visited Athens for the second time), although they may not be successes capable of enriching these empty and seemingly insignificant lines.