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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Number 243: Jorge Luis Borges "Ars Poetica"

Ars Poetica

To gaze at the river made of time and water

And recall that time itself is another river,

To know we cease to be, just like the river,

And that our faces pass away, just like the water.

To feel that waking is another sleep

That dreams it does not sleep and that death,

Which our flesh dreads, is that very death

Of every night, which we call sleep.

To see in the day or in the year a symbol

Of mankind’s days and of his years,

To transform the outrage of the years

Into a music, a rumor and a symbol,

To see in death a sleep, and in the sunset

A sad gold, of such is Poetry

Immortal and a pauper. For Poetry

Returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the afternoon a face

Looks at us from the depths of a mirror;

Art must be like that mirror
That reveals to us this face of ours.

They tell how Ulysses, glutted with wonders,

Wept with love to descry his Ithaca

Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca

Of green eternity, not of wonders.

It is also like an endless river

That passes and remains, a mirror for one same

Inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same

And another, like an endless river.

--Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Harold Morland

Hap Notes: "Ars Poetica" is a Latin phrase which means "the art of poetry" and can refer to technical as well as the "essence" of what poetry is. Aristotle and Horace wrote about it and so have many poets including Archibald MacLeish (we talked of his poem here: Often poets write about the art of poetry because it moved them enough to want to become a poet or because they want to explain just what poetry is or can do. Is it art for art's sake or does it have to have a function? Just something to ponder.

Borges is giving us a lot to ponder but notice how he keeps returning to water, dreams and sleep in the poem. Dreams are often explained in the language of poetry; i.e. if you write down a dream in verse form you will be amazed at what a good poem it is and most poems need to be interpreted as one would interpret dreams.

The poet says Ulysses (or who the Greeks call Oedipus) was besotted with wonders in his journey where he sees the Lotus Eaters, a Cyclops, his men turned into swine, cannibals, gods, monsters, sirens and whirlpools. What makes Ulysses weep? Thoughts of his home, the island of Ithaca, a green island in the Ionian Sea.

As to Heraclitus, we've already talked about him too: "Remember the idea that the same person cannot step into the same river twice? What further twist does Borges give this?

Just a few more observations and I'll let you ruminate on the words alone. Borges describes a very interesting concept here of being awake as a kind of sleep that dreams it does not sleep and that sleep is a kind of death that we awaken from each day. Remember that he is describing the writing of poetry here.

Poetry, he says, is a mirror of sorts. But what does the mirror tell you each day? Surely one sees something different in it each day? And what about one's reflection in the water? What kind of images do we see in it?

Today is Borges birthday- he would be 112 today. He is even the subject of the Google doodle today:

Here's a great resource on Borges:

Here is where we have talked about Borges before:

The masthead today is Chagall's "Les River". Chagall always seems to me to be the artist of deams.

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