To talk or write about Borges has almost as disturbing an effect as reading him, for we are at once drawn into his disquieting dimension, the creating and fixing of which is his greatest accomplishment as a writer. The mind is made to quiver over tangible paradox. The effect of reading him hangs on beyond the written word, as a kind of vertigo (the Spanish word is asombro). I like best Leonard Michaels’s summing up of him as “a master of controlled estrangement”, for it underlines this effect, which Borges wears like an aura. We are not allowed to escape his ironies, for they are ours as well. For him, language—most of all in its ultimate refinement, literature, whether it be prose, poetry, or essay—is the supreme irony, in that it attempts to contain and perpetuate ideas and perceptions, an attempt which, by its nature, must inevitably mock both reader and maker.
I think that it does a great disservice to Borges to isolate any one branch of his writing from any other, for they are all parts of a vertiginous whole. It is now possible to read, in Spanish, all his disparate writings in one fat volume of Obras Completas, an experience unfortunately denied to us in English, where he appears piecemeal, in variant translations, from a slew of publishers who jealously guard their separate rights. A pity. For it is reading Borges as a whole that best demonstrates the interrelation of stories, essays, speculations and poems, and the overriding preoccupations which keep being rephrased and restated in different forms (although, indefatigably, he has published, since the appearance of his Obras Completas, two books of poems and a book of stories). So, in spite of what Borges himself says (and he has granted so many generously acquiescent interviews that he has created, one could say characteristically, a web of self-contradiction around his own work), it makes no sense to claim that he is principally a man of ideas, or a writer of fictions, or a poet. He wears all these literary personae without contradiction, and his total effect as a writer is the greater for his variety.
The claim made by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, in his introduction to Borges’ Selected Poems, that the poems contain the “essence of Borges—the Borges who is one of South America’s, and the world’s, best poets” is both distorting and misleading, for Borges’ poetry is the least original of his literary dimensions. As poet, if one so separates him, he does not approach the three towering figures of the Latin America of his time—Vallejo above all, forging a complex and miraculous language for the condition of despair, Neruda, committed to finding a voice asvates, or seer, for the whole continent, Octavio Paz, the master of a dense, visionary language—each one of whom has forever altered and enriched the poetry that has come after them. In his poetry, Borges is not in pursuit, as these three always were, of a new way of saying, a discovered language. Conversely, Borges’ influence as a writer has shown up most profoundly in the new Latin American novel, an influence which stemmed initially from a single volume of stories, ficciones, which he published in 1944, and which has remained his most important single volume. It touched all the inventive Latin American novelists who came in his wake, for he freed them from both naturalism and regionalism, and gave them the notion of literature as a divine game, which they all proceeded to play exuberantly, each in his own way. Yet, in the Latin American context, Borges’ poetry has remained something of a fine curiosity, an adjunct to the wry and extraordinary curiosity which shows up most clearly in his stories. (In much the same way, I think, we read D.H, Lawrence’s poems as the crystallization of a larger spirit which shows in his novels, and so accommodate them.)
Borges began as a poet, one of the leading figures in the Ultraist movement, which he transplanted from Spain to Argentina. At that time, in Latin America, literary movements sprang into being to provide small, reassuring societies for those involved in them, and, looked at from the distance of now, Ultraist poems are more or less experiments in metaphorical extravagance, the last extended gasp of Modernismo. The profound change, the watershed, in Borges’ work took place in 1938, following a serious accident which he suffered in that year. It was after that that he found the singular wavelength on which his eerie fame rests; and his poems reflect the change, for, from then on, they abandon experiment for its own sake, and echo, in a meditative vein, the preoccupations of his prose.
From this point on, his poems also change formally. Sonnets and rhymed quatrains proliferate, a rather un-Spanish obeisance to the tradition of English poetry, (For this reason, translating Borges’ poems into English is nowhere as exacting as translating the work of the three poets previously mentioned, hut does require that the translator be equally versed in the tradition, and the mannerisms, of formal poetry,) I think we have to remember that, from his earliest years, Borges lived in books, predominantly English books, in his father’s library which, he often claims, he has never left. Hearing him pull whole poems, lines and stanzas from the library he keeps in his head, one realizes that he looks on poetry as a magical happening, a transforming spell; and his own mature poems have been above all reverent attempts to perpetuate the respect he feels for lines beyond reason. He is more servant of the tradition than original poet; and yet, the substance out of which he has made his poems is so singularly his own as to make him a poet curiously apart from other poets. In spirit, the poet he is closest to is, I think, Coleridge.
Borges’ poems have a furniture of themes and images familiar to readers of his stories, a kind of private vocabulary of symbols. He explores what he calls “the secret life of objects”—coins, knives, chessboards, maps, compasses and mirrors—in poems of meditative wonder. For him, to read a book is to become, momentarily, the man who wrote it, and he has a range of sonnets on literary and historical figures which are recreations of moments in which he identifies himself intensely with the figures of the past who haunt him. There is, too, in many of his poems, the ironic fascination with knife fighters and his soldier ancestors, the men of action who seem to make mock of the man of letters. Another recurring image, that of the tiger, is for Borges the raw physicality which must always evade language, and also, the labyrinth, the pervasive image in all his work for the self-confounding constructs of the rational mind. In what 1 think is his most moving poem, “Poem of the Gifts,” the image of the library—his father’s library, the provincial library where he first worked, the National Library of Argentina of which, until recently, he was Director—is used to create an almost unbearable irony, that of his becoming its blind custodian. His great gift as a poet, I think, is that of transmuting his own experience and preoccupations into metaphor and omen, in particular his slowly descending blindness, which sharpens his nostalgia for his native city, itself a metaphor, and for the lost past.
Of the specific literary influences which show in his poems, that of Whitman is the most conspicuous, in the long list-poems like “Matthew XXV” and “Poem of Quantity,” (A reverence for Whitman is probably the only thing that Borges and Neruda have in common; and indeed, in terms of influence. Whitman is much more the reigning poet in the Latin American continent than in the North American one.) As Borges himself embarked on the study of Anglo Saxon and Old Norse, in his latter years, he wrote a series of poems evoking in manner and substance that lost world, an odd linguistic transposition, it would seem, but for the fact that it is Anglo Saxon poetry which most generates in him a stark, gnomic awe, the spell of true poetry. The other outside influence to be noted is that of the tango and the milonga, forms native to Buenos Aires, In 1965, he wrote a small book called Para las Seis Cuerdas (For the Six Strings), as a kind of homage to the milonga—the “Milonga of Manuel Flores” is a good example of how he has turned this form to account. It is important also to mention the group of short prose pieces which he published in 1960 in El Hacedor (The Maker)—pieces like his famous “Borges and I,” “The Maker,” “Everything and Nothing”—for they form a kind of bridge between his prose and his poetry. Borges has always been a master of prose rhythms, and these pieces, less studiously formal than his metrical poems, are wondrous distillations of poetic imagery in spare, controlled prose.
The poems printed here are from a selection I have translated from two recent books. El Oro de los Tigres and La Rosa Profunda. Although Borges continues to experiment with new forms, as in “Tankas” and “Fifteen Coins,” there is a wistful, overriding nostalgia in the more personal poems, even a resignation, almost a welcoming of death as rest from the ironies of existence. In three sonnets, he writes directly about his blindness, and some of the other poems come close to self elegy. Hovering over them all, however, is that same sense of awe—Borges’ sagrado horror, Coleridge’s “holy dread’—implicit in his confrontation with existence, the awe he brings home inescapably to his readers in all his writings. His poems, in tone and substance, are a kind of homage to the miraculous nature of poetry itself, of which he has been both a humble and a faithful servant.