Words that grow like flowers. Last week we saw Basho’s bush-clovers linked with the moon; we saw a crying child, prostitutes abandoned on the road and the moon-poet weeping over dead princes. Basho is vital and immediate. His images plop onto the page like living facts. These images link backwards through time so that his poetry at once talks about the present and the tradition from which it springs. The first anthology he edited Kai Oi (1672) was a collection of hokku in pairs, his own reply to a master’s verse on the same page. He was 28.
Novoneyra was born in 1930 in Parada de Moreda in the remote Sierra de los Ancares in Galicia. He would have been six-years old when the Civil War broke out and lived out his childhood in the hardship and repression of the Franco regime. Os Eidos, his most famous collection, was written in 1952-1953. He was barely 23. His poetry, like that of Basho, is vital and immediate. And like Basho’s poetry it grows like flowers from its own rich culture.
In this post I am going to look for saudade, the wistful yearning that is so much a part of Galician literary culture, in Os Eidos. The philosopher of saudade is Ramón Piñeiro, who was a close friend of Novoneyra, the moving force behind Editorial Galaxia, which published Os Eidos in 1955. He declared the collection the clear beginning of a new kind of poetry that set aside the personal in favour of the communal and a faithfulness to the land itself. The lingua, the language, was the common property of all galegos. The dedication of the book, to Piñeiro and the artist Carlos Maside, reads:
The words of this book are true in the high, lonely hills of the Courel. In them, so as not to do things an injury, I only name them or I let them go in their customary and natural movement.
Here he seems to be saying that the things he wants to put into his poetry have a life that defies description. He will use them in the poetry, but he will not attempt to describe them or articulate them into bigger concepts:
Sources of Lubicieiras
Spurting from twenty mouths
Sounding a thousand ways!
He is like a young Basho coming to terms with previous poetry and laying out a new path that will adhere radically to the reality of the spoken language around him. There is something here of Edward Thomas walking through the English country lanes of pre-World War I England talking with Robert Frost about the need to go back to the spoken language: out with high concepts, poetic diction and story-telling. And, just as it is ironic that Basho could only come to the purity of his images by reflecting on the literary tradition before him, and Thomas could only come to his revindication of common speech through his deep reading of Shakespeare and English literature, Novoneyra could only pen Os Eidos through the singular coincidence of being who he was in the time he lived, with all that went before him channelled through his reading.
My use of the word “singular” is an acknowledgement of Piñeiro, who in 1951 published an essay called Significado Metafísico da Saudade in the collection Presencia de Galicia, the first edition of Colección Grial, the very first publication of Galaxia. Piñeiro maintains that the emotional appreciation of reality is at the very roots of saudade, which is a distinctively Galaico-Portuguese phenomenon, most perfectly to be seen in its lyric poetry. After discussing metaphysics in other countries, he has this to say about saudade:
In saudade Man remains sunk in himself, isolated from all outside contact, free from all mundane contamination; he remains in a state of ontological purity. What does Man discover in this interior space, when he arrives there on the path of saudade? He discovers himself, but in this dark feeling of himself as a singularity he perceives his ontological aloneness. To feel this ontological aloneness is to feel saudade.
Piñeiro contrasts the singularity of an individual being with the greater Being of which he becomes aware through his feelings. As a singular being, man feels his ontological aloneness, that is to say, he feels himself. This feeling of himself in his own original singularity (aloneness) is to feel saudade. In this feeling there is no subject-object correlation, but a direct feeling of the subject. Nothing intervenes beyond feeling, pure and spontaneous feeling. There is no tint of psychological sadness.
Viña eu dos Calvares
Soñando no aire
Pasein su a Fonte
Cos ollos ó lonxe
Deiteime na erba
Cas maos nas meixelas
(I was coming from Calvares/dreaming in the breeze//I went below A Fonte/with my gaze in the distance//I laid down on the grass/with my hands on my cheeks.)
Os Eidos reflects this perception of saudade in many places.
Os fíos da auga
Técense cos fíos do soño
Que eu soño
(the thread of water/woven with the threads of the dream/I am dreaming.)
Dreams appear and reappear with the same regularity as the paths taken and not taken in the places the poet brings to bear. He looks at the rain on the window. He looks at the line of the hills. He walks.
O aire ten unha cousa
Que se perde se un a conta
(The breeze has some thing/that is lost if one should tell it.)
Here, like Basho, Novoneyra resists the temptation to describe. The rain comes. The snow comes. The wind comes. He is a part of it.
There is a recurrent image of losing oneself:
Si o aire quer
Chegarein a non ser ninguén
(if the breezes wishes/ I will become no one)
On the face of it, this is the complete obliteration of the self in the natural world. Yet I cannot help but think of that other Nobody, Odysseus (see Cunqueiro, Rivas) and reflect that a nobody in literature demands that we look very carefully at his literary antecedents. When he wrote these verses he had just come from Madrid, where he had been studying, to do military service. In his leisure time he read with Manuel María, who lent him work by Noriega Varela, Rosalía, Pondal and Curros. They talked about their experiences of reading and what it meant to write in their language. They must have reflected on saudade as an essential feature of the culture they belonged to.
The literary antecedents are clear to see in the twinned poems about the spinstress:
Que fías detralo lume
Cos ollos postos nas chamas
Roxiñas brancas y azules.
Fiandeiriña que fías
Nas noites do longo inverno
As liñas máis delgadiñas
Co fío do pensamento.
Cai a neve quedo fora
Riba dos teitos calada
Mentras ti fías e soñas
Nunha cousiña lonxana…
(Spinstress in love/who spins beyond the light/with your eyes on the flames/ red, white and blue//Little spinstress who spins/on the long winter nights/the most slender threads/with the thread of her thought//The snow falls quietly outside/over the roofs in silence/whilst you spin and dream/on some small distant thing…)
I don’t want to suggest that the woman spinning is meant to represent Penelope: that would be a gross reading. However, there is an archetypal image of the woman waiting for her distant lover that is one of the building blocks of the yearning that makes up saudade. The troubadour lyrics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Galicia called cantigas de amiga, are written from the perspective of the woman thinking of her absent lover. There is a type of cantiga called cantiga de tear, or chanson de toile in French, which was brought to the court of D. Denis in the fourteenth century by Estevan Coelho: Sedia la fermosa seu sirgo tecendo (A Cantiga de Amigo, Mercedes Brea and Pilar Lorenzo Gardín, Xerais, 1998, p.231). Novoneyra mentions this poem specifically in his list of poets in Os Eidos II.
This yearning is one of the roots of Piñeiro’s philosophy of saudade.
The structure of Novoneyra’s two poems, with their three equally-weighted verses, and, in the second of the pair the repetition of the last line of each verse in the first line of the following, shows an awareness, not only of the themes but of the forms of medieval poetry. Novoneyra is doing something similar to Basho here: he is placing his own verse in the tradition that gives it birth. Yet there are clear differences between his work and the cantigas. He renounces the rhetorical formulation of older poets even in these examples that are closest to the grain of medieval lyrics. The woman is alone and her thoughts are hidden from us. We are presented with an undescribed image. There is no development of an argument. He leaves her with her dreaming and in this she mirrors him:
Sólo sein que eilí compre
O soño que estoun soñando…
(I only know that there is realized/the dream I am dreaming…)
He also has the experience of looking at flames:
Eu a ollar para o lume
I o lume a ollarme.
O lume sin queimarme
Fai de min fume…
(I start looking at the fire/and the fire looking at me/The fire without burning me/ turns me to smoke…)
Remember that when Novoneyra wrote Os Eidos he was 23. The perfection of the collection is not the result of the studied meditation that makes the later work of Basho so pregnant with meaning at each turn of the image. It is the intuitive reading of a young man steeped in his own culture. “These words are true here,” he declares. There is cocky self-assurance there. After all these are not poems like the ones I find in the Flor de Romances de Cervantes e Pedrafita (Anabel Amigo ed., Frouma, 2001). They are distinctively modern.
Novoneyra is a young man who has gone away to study and returned. After the publication of Os Eidos he will return to Madrid and only come back to Galicia to live in 1966 to take care of his parents in their last years. He has opened his eyes to the modern world and returned to the Courel with a fresh way of saying old things. It is extraordinary. When I was 23 I was an adolescent: I was pedantic, irritating and clodhopped my way through the world dropping cultural clangers. I am amazed by the assurance of this young man’s taste. Nothing reveals this sense of taste better than the fact that the more adolescent of his poems, which were written at the same time, were excluded from Os Eidos:
ESCURECEN os penedos.
Baixa a sombra do penedo
Aniárseme no peito.
Inorde un tras outro
Foron morrendo os meus soños
E quedein solo de todo.
Estoun solo como un lobo
Oulando cara a noite.
Angustia de morte!
Arelanzas de louco!
Ista door! Ista door! Ista door mina!
Berro caído nun couso.
A door alúmame todo
E ollo a morte no fondo…
(The Lament// The peaks go dark/the shadow comes down from the peak/to nestle in my breast//Slowly one after another/my dreams went to die/and I remained completely alone//I am as alone as a wolf/howling at the night/The anguish of death!/The desires of a madman!//This pain! This pain! This pain of mine!//I scream sunk in a ditch/The pain lights me all up/And I look into the depths of death…)
This poem from The Ditch of Pain reads like a typical adolescent lament. “The pain, the pain,” could be an adolescent’s response to an intellectual reading of Heidegger; it does not have the immediate truth of the simple positioning of snow on roofs and rain in the valleys in Os Eidos. Although it has a certain appeal, it was wise of Novoneyra to shuffle it off into a separate collection where it could find its own audience. Rosalía has poems that are equally dark but it took her a lifetime of suffering to arrive at the nihilism of her later verse; this reads like a young man’s struggles to be deep.
I was sitting on a train as a young man going to Bristol reading a commentary by Philip Larkin on Thomas Hardy. “You can read Hardy when you are young,” he said, “but he is a mature poet and you cannot understand him until you are older.” Yet there is something in this: you cannot write The Darkling Thrush as a twenty-something; it would be self-indulgent.
This makes the achievement of Os Eidos all the more impressive. I can read and reread those poems and not get to an end of them. Novoneyra did something remarkable in putting down those images in the language that he grew up with. As a young man of 23 he was able to pare back his adolescent effusions and leave us with a clearly thought-out year in the mountains of his childhood. It is pregnant with the culture of the Ancares. This culture came from his reading and from talking to the people he grew up with.
Antón Lopo has him say this:
A lingua non é una emoción baleira, nin vén dada pola ideoloxía. Na lingua pervive todo o referido a ti e aos teus. Por iso para min ten tanta significación o galego oral. Non é a pura mecánica do idioma: é a mecánica do idioma unida á toda a carga de existencia e de memoria e de ritmo vivido. Débolle moito a Rosalía, a Noriega, a Pondal, a Otero Pedrayo, Fole, Maside, Piñeiro e Celestino Fernández de la Vega, claro, pero a miña procedencia xorde do pobo e nunca falei máis pleno con ninguén ca cun labrego.
(The language is not an empty emotion, and is not given to us by an ideology. In the language everything told to you and your people survives. That is why for me oral galego has so much significance. It is not the pure mechanics of the language: it is the mechanics of the language joined with the whole weight of existence and of memory and of lived rhythm. I owe a lot to Rosalía, Noriega, Pondal, Otero Pedrayo, Fole, Maside, Piñeiro and Celestino Fernández de la Vega, of course, but my procedence arises amongst the people and I never spoke more fully with anyone than with a labourer.)
It is the willing identification with the people he grew up with that gives his youthful poetry such maturity.
Where does this meditation leave me? I make no separation between my reading and my life. I am picking away at Os Eidos trying to make sense of questions that trouble me. One of these questions is precisely the one that Novoneyra brings up in that last quotation: the question of language and identity. Where I live in Asturias there are few people who speak Asturianu and fewer still who read it. There is a flight from the hills and the valleys to the cities and, more broadly, a flight from Asturias to other parts of Spain and Europe where the living is easier.
What is happening? I ask myself.
At the same time, I am aware that Novoneyra’s description of the Courel is different from my own knowledge of it. “The sources are drying up because there is not enough snow,” they told me in Viduedo last time I walked through. Where is the snow that falls in Novoneyra’s poetry? The Camino de Santiago brings life to a ribbon threading through, but the small towns and villages are seizing up with fewer children and families and small family farms closing up. Is the vision of Os Eidos already past tense? What is the future of the rural world he so lovingly described?
Next week I shall discuss this issue by looking at the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas to see what light he can shed on the deeper problems of another country with its own language and rural blight.
Follow if you are interested!