On poetry

Although I started this blog years ago with some poetry: Frost’s The Road Not Taken and Cavafy’s Ithaka, I have not written as much about poetry as I should have, given how much I enjoy it, and compared to other arts. Sure, I recently wrote about Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, but that is still not enough for my liking. So here is an attempt to fix that.

My first conscious appreciation of poetry came in college with Pablo Neruda. To this day I am still moved by his words, and Tu Risa is still one of my favorite poems. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses is also right up there as well as the two poets mentioned at the beginning. But the list of favorite poets is a long one: Lorca, Bequer, Espronceda, Benedetti, Mistral, Pessoa, Milton, Manrique, Dante, EE Cummings, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Blake, Elizabeth Bishop, and on and on. But one does not have to go to the big guns to find poetry that will amaze you. Naïf, amateur or student writers can take you places you would not think. Sometimes poetry hits you when you least expect it: I was surprised and blown away by 22-year-old Amanda Gorman at Biden’s Inauguration. Quadriplegic Ramón Sampedro, euthanasia’s cause célèbre in 90s Spain also wrote some sweet lines. Check out this poem in the namesake movie:

For me, the beauty of poetry is the capacity it has to transport you in a few words, in a verse. Never mind words, Haikus only have seventeen syllables – three lines!! I love Haikus: although I knew and had read them before, I actually became a follower of Haiku poetry by reading, wait for it… Jack Kerouac’s book of Haikus! (although he does not always follow the 17-syllable rule), since then I have read and enjoyed Bashō, the master. I am in awe of poets since I cannot write my way out of a paper bag (thank you for reading this, it means a lot).

Years ago, at Walnut Hill School I got a glimpse, a backstage tour of the poetry world from the brilliant poet and teacher Daniel Bosch. I once invited him to my advanced Spanish class to talk about Neruda’s Veinte poemas de amor…, which we were studying at the time, and he blew our minds!! Daniel also wrote a hilarious poem when I got my citizenship: Song for a New American. To this day it is framed and on my wall!!

I write all this because I have just read …del amor hermoso by Chilean author and teacher Luis Correa-Díaz, and it is wonderful. His capacity to write about love, apparently in a playful manner, but not really. His poems are soaked in ecclesiastical vocabulary and structure which gives his writing an extra edge and throws you off the traditional expectation as a poetry reader. This is apparently three books in one, which again is a bit unsettling: where there originally three separate books? Is it all another manipulation of my expectations? Another old-fashioned trick, which still works is that he “found” the poems in a manila envelope, and the ones he did not find are “anonymous”. Never mind the trickery, the poems are lovely and they keep you reading and paying attention.

Books, books, books

Some of the books I had lying around

Some of the books I had lying around

Locked up at home during the Coronavirus quarantine, I get to read a lot, which got me thinking of books This blog exists because of books. You see, I started this blog to report my Harley-Davidson trip visiting universities across the South for my PhD in Spanish Literature, that is: books. Yes, I am addicted to books. Having said that, I am a slow reader. So, while I enjoy books, I do not devour books like some folks do. Anyway let’s start at the beginning:

My first blurry memories of reading are of Enid Blyton, I guess like millions of children. Fortunately in high school, I had the privilege of being taught by Mrs. Soledad Sprackling. And my mind exploded with what she had me read: Borges, Neruda, Lorca, et al. That was it, I was hooked. In college my super cultured friend Silvia Velez introduced me to Gabriel García Márquez and my mind exploded again! It has been a series of explosions since.

Luckily I can read in Spanish, English and French and find it very frustrating when I cannot read every book in the original language it was written in. In fact, when I was twirling about with the idea of getting my PhD, I wanted to study comparative lit Spanish / Russian, but there was no way I was going to learn that level of Russian in a hurry, so that was the end of that thought. Miguel de Unamuno, one of my literary heroes actually learnt Danish so he could read Kierkegaard, bastard.

Here is a list of some of my favorite books with only number 1 in a clear position – all the rest vary according to the day you ask me:

  1. Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote. I have only read it three times, once with the amazing Prof. Louise Cohen. She shared with me her passion for this book, which I have written about in previous posts.
  2. Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Montecristo. Love, adventure, revenge, massive wealth, what’s not to like?
  3. Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina / War and Peace / Death of Ivan Ilyich. Tough call on this one…
  4. Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Old Man and the Sea. It takes a foreigner to describe Spain with such precision. High School is also where I got hooked on Hemingway.
  5. Gabriel García Marquez – Cien Años de Soledad (But really any by him). Of course, nowadays, I keep thinking of Love in the Times of Cholera
  6. Voltaire – Candide. Possibly the best satire ever written?
  7. Miguel de Unamuno – San Manuel Bueno, mártir. Proto-existentialism at its best!
  8. Mikhail Bulgakov – Master and Margarita. Or as the Rollings Stones interpreted it: Sympathy for the Devil
  9. Francisco de Isla – His early works. After all, I am the leading authority on the subject…

Of course, there are many, many more, but I don’t want to bore you, dear reader, any more.

Interestingly, my last read was. The Grace in Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh which was recommended to me (like so many more) by my dear friend Patxi. It is about the spiritual journey of death, and how the best approach to death is meditation. I started reading it before the massive Covid outbreak and it has helped me digest the numbers in the news. I loved it. My next read, to celebrate the centenary of Benito Perez Galdos’ death will be Trafalgar, about the battle of the same name, not the square in London.

There you have it, some thoughts on reading and my some of my favorite books. Which are yours? What do you recommend? Tell me in the comments!!

That is not one of the editions of Quijote that I have read

That is not one of the editions of Quijote that I have read

Return to culture (at last)

One of the massive pluses of living in a major world capital is the amazing cultural offering one has access to. I really needed this cultural stimulation. The problem with the word culture is that it has been made to sound elitist, refined, distant from the people, the stuff Frazier and Niles Crane did, but in truth it is just beauty, beauty created by man – and woman of course! The least important bit is if we call it culture, art, or whatever.

I have been lucky to live in major cities where I became a cultural junkie: London (where it all started for me), Paris, Boston, New York, even Chapel Hill – a college town, but obviously with a thriving cultural scene. Unfortunately Naples only had a couple of cultural outlets (which I squeezed every last drop from), and in NJ I didn’t get a chance to explore although of course the heavy stuff was in NYC…

In the less than three months back in Madrid I have been lucky to experience:

  • A brilliant piano recital by local piano star Luis Fernández Pérez playing Händel, Scarlatti, Rameau, and Bach. For free at the Fundación Juan March.
  • A play/recital of Federico García Lorca’s poetry by stage icon Nuria Espert.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre’s eerily prescient play Nekrassov (1955) about the “fake news”.
  • A gorgeous version of The Nutcracker by the prestigious Compañía Nacional de Danza and the Teatro Real house orchestra!
  • Visits to the Sorolla museum, the Museo del Romanticismo, and a score of art exhibits including “Rediscovering the Mediterranean” at the Fundación Mapfre with paintings and sculptures from the XIX and early XX Centuries.
  • After fourteen years I again became a member of the Amigos del Prado, which allows me free entry to the Prado, avoiding the queues. I have, of course, already gone twice!
  • Seeing a couple of concerts in bars around town by chance.
  • Never mind being surrounded by amazing architecture.

Et cetera, et cetera, down to awesome street musicians and performers! And this is with limited time and money. The cultural menu is, in fact, overwhelming, but I am happy to nibble and enjoy!

Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.

Jawaharlal Nehru