I Ask For Peace and Permission to Speak

I write
in defence of the kingdom
of man and man’s justice. I ask
for Peace
and permission to speak. I have said
I say
“of man and man’s justice”
“pacific Ocean”
whatever they let me say.
I ask for Peace and permission to speak.

Blas de Otero

I have been reading American poetry recently, particularly Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. This arises from my interest in Black Mountain College, North Carolina, where Olson was the presiding tutorial presence in the fifties. He invited Creeley to come and join him from Mallorca, where the younger poet was struggling along in Bohemian poverty as a writer and editor.

The Olson/Creeley correspondence documents the arrival of a new kind of poetry. Olson is magnificent, leonine, prophetic. Creeley is sharp, incisive and actual. They both embody a vision of what it means to be an artist: a man who refracts the whole culture through his artistic persona.

Yes: a man. Robert Graves was in Mallorca at the same time, crooning about his White Goddess. Picasso was over in the south of France painting out his erotic fantasies. There was something decidedly male about fifties aesthetics, even when it was Purist, Concrete or Abstract. The heroic aspiration of it was to be the great commentator, with a beautiful muse (or two) and the arrogance to talk of universals.

Yet there is a mis-match here. In what sense was Creeley in Spain? In the same sense that his hero, D.H. Lawrence was in Mexico? Was there any possibility of communication? Does this say something about the Modernist project?

I was talking to Carmen about this.
“Is there a Spanish equivalent?” I asked
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I know Picasso is Spanish, but he is a visual artist. Is there a Spanish poet who you might think of as the equivalent of Olson? You know, big fat book of poetry, takes in the whole of western civilization, macho chauvinist, eye for the women.”
“Hmm, I don’t know. Neruda?”
“But Neruda isn’t Spanish.”

We batted the ball backwards and forwards a few times but couldn’t come up with anything. Could this be the effect of Franco?

Blas de Otero was born in Bilbao. He went to live in Paris in the early fifties but returned to Spain to tour around the country. This was a poet going down to the grassroots, if you like. Pido Paz y la Palabra
(1955) is the result of the poet’s reflections on this experience. You can see it doesn’t translate well into English. P-P-P: how do you render that? Palabra means word, but pedir la palabra is what speakers do in parliament when they ask permission to speak. For a poet to be asking for the word is powerfully evocative.

The poem does not dress itself up in difficult words, but its meaning is elusive. He asks for permission to speak and then says whatever they let him say. It is paradoxical. Peace is like the pacific Ocean, huge and encompassing, purposefully not capitalised to show that pacific is an adjective not a proper noun. Yet, still he has to ask for Peace.

And what has he said? Silence, shadow, emptiness. What a peculiar little poem this is! It is frequently printed out for High School students in Spanish schools. In fact, when I was checking the original online I came across a number of pdf versions in study packs. “I ask for peace and permission to speak” is a memorable line and sounds positive, doesn’t it? It depends how long you spend with the poem whether you find it uplifting or depressing: you can’t go away with the P,P,P alone.

I can’t get past thinking that there is something desperate about the poet writing in “defence of man and man’s justice”. Is he being ironic? The poem seems to vacillate between the public and the private, the private showing through as something desolate and bleak.

Here is another poem from the same collection:

In the beginning

If I have lost life, time, everything
I threw away, like a ring in the water,
If I have lost my voice in the undergrowth,
I still have permission to speak.

If I have suffered thirst, hunger, everything
that was mine and it ended up being nothing
if I have reaped shadows in silence,
I still have permission to speak.

If I opened my lips to see the face,
pure and terrible, of my fatherland,
if I opened my lips so far as to rip them off,
I still have permission to speak.

This poem has the crude force of a propaganda woodcut. The formal structure is dull and repetitive. The first two lines of each stanza set up the loss and suffering, the third line gives a metaphor and the last line the incantation.

It works because the poem destroys itself with its own violence. He rips his own lips off!

This has given me something to think about when I go back to Olson and his “limits”. We all live within our limits, but there are moments of communication when you can reach across the existential gap between people and attempt to understand. I find it particularly evocative that the Modernists did not do this in fifties Spain.

About Jason Preater

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