Jorge Luis Borges on Poetry

Borges On Writing Poetry

From Borges On Writing:

Mac Shane: I think the simplest way to begin is to ask Borges to make some general comments about the writing of his own poetry.

Borges: Yes, why not? Of course, one of the tricks is not to lecture. Whatever happens will have happened—things belong to the past quite quickly. Well, I think I’ll start the ball rolling by making some very platitudinous and obvious remarks on the subject. After all, we are all trying to be poets. In spite of my failures, I still keep trying to be a poet. (At any moment I will be seventy-two years old.)

I think young poets are apt to begin with what is really the most difficult—free verse. This is a very great mistake. I’ll fall back on what the Argentine poet Leopoldo Lugones said way back in 1909 in a book that is still revolutionary—Lunario sentimental. In the foreword, he wrote that he was attempting experiments in verse—that he was trying his hand at the invention of new meters and at new combinations of the “old-time” meters, such as eight syllable verse, eleven syllable verse, fourteen syllable verse, and so on. He knew that what he was attempting was rash and very probably a failure, but he wanted to remind his readers that he had already demonstrated that he could handle the classical forms of verse. He added that one can’t start by being a revolutionary, but that in his case he felt that he had already earned the right to experiment, since he had published several volumes of good poetry, or at least tolerable classic verse.

I think this is an honest statement, but it is merely an ethical argument. A better argument could be found, if necessary. If you attempt a sonnet, for example, you believe in the illusion that you really have something before you, and that is the framework of the sonnet, whether you choose the Italian form or the Shakespearean form. This form exists before you’ve written a single line of verse. Then you have to find rhyming words. These rhyming words limit what you are doing and make things easier for you.

Now this does not mean that I prefer a sonnet to a piece of free verse. I like both. If you take some of the best pages in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and ask me whether or not I find them better than a sonnet by Shakespeare or Wordsworth or Keats or Yeats, I would say that the question is meaningless. There is no need to like one and discard the other, since you can keep both.

But the difference is this: if you attempt a sonnet, you already have something given to you, and the reader can anticipate the form, while if you attempt free verse, everything must come from within you. You have to be far more skillful technically to attempt free verse than to attempt what you may think of as being old-fashioned. Of course, if you happen to be Walt Whitman, you’ll have the inner strength, or inner urge, that makes you capable and worthy of free verse, but this doesn’t happen to many of us.

I committed that mistake when I published my first volume, Fervor de Buenos Aires, way back in 1923. I wrote that book in free verse—I had read my Whitman, of course—because I thought it was easier. Now I know that it is far more difficult. If I have to write something on the spur of the moment, if I have to construct something in a hurry, I fall back on a set form, because it’s easier for me.

So, my advice to young poets is to begin with the classical forms of verse and only after that become revolutionary. I remember an observation by Oscar Wilde—a prophetic observation. He said, “Were it not for the sonnet, the set forms of verse, we should all be at the mercy of genius.” This is what’s happening today; at least this is what’s happening in my country. Almost every day I receive books of verse that put me at the mercy of genius—that is to say, books that seem to me quite meaningless. Even the metaphors in them are not discernible. Metaphor supposedly links two things, but in these books I see no links whatever. I get the impression that the whole thing has been done in a haphazard way, as though by a crazy computer of some kind. And I am expected to feel or enjoy something!

I committed that mistake of genius in my first book (I think in my second book also; perhaps even in my third), and then I discovered that there is something really magical and unexplainable about the sonnet. This form, which in itself seems to be half haphazard with its various patterns and rhyme schemes—Italian, Shakespearean, Spenserian—is capable of producing very different kinds of poems.

What I’m saying is that, in the long run, to break the rules, you must know about the rules. Now all this is very obvious, but in spite of its being obvious, it doesn’t seem to be understood by most young people, let alone elderly ones, as in my case. In a moment we can go into some of my verses, which, proving that I’m not very sure of what I have been saying, will be, I fear, in free verse. But I have returned to free verse after trying other verse forms.

This leads me to another interesting subject: why do I sometimes write in free verse and sometimes write sonnets? This is a kind of central mystery—how my poems get written. I may be walking down the street, or up and down the staircase of the National Library—I’m thinking now of Buenos Aires—and suddenly I know that something is about to happen. Then I sit back. I have to be attentive to what is about to happen. It may be a story, or it may be a poem, either in free verse or in some form. The important thing at this point is not to tamper. We must, lest we be ambitious, let the Holy Ghost, or the Muse, or the subconscious—if you prefer modern mythology—have its way with us. Then, in due time, if I have not been bamboozling myself, I am given a line, or maybe some hazy notion—a glimpse perhaps—of a poem, a long way off. Often, I can barely make it out; then that dim shape, that dim cloud, falls into shape, and I hear my inner voice saying something. From the rhythm of what I first hear, I know whether or not I am on the brink of committing a poem, be it in the sonnet form or in free verse. This is one way of doing it.

The other way, which I don’t think is as good, is to have a plot beforehand. That plot, however, is also “given” to me. For example, two or three days ago I suddenly found that I had an idea for the plot of a poem. But it’s still too early for me to do anything with it—it has to bide its time, and in due course it will follow. Once I’ve committed myself to two or three lines, I know the general shape of the whole thing, and I know whether it will be in free verse or in some conventional form.

All this boils down to a simple statement: poetry is given to the poet. I don’t think a poet can sit down at will and write. If he does, nothing worthwhile can come of it. I do my best to resist this temptation. I often wonder how I’ve come to write several volumes of verse! But I let the poems insist, and sometimes they are very tenacious and stubborn, and they have their way with me. It is then that I think, “If I don’t write this down, it will keep on pushing and worrying me; the best thing to do is to write it down.”

Once it’s down, I take the advice of Horace, and I lay it aside for a week or ten days. And then, of course, I find that I have made many glaring mistakes, so I go over them. After three or four tries, I find that I can’t do it any better and that any more variations may damage it. It is then that I publish it. Now, why do I publish it? Alfonso Reyes, the great Mexican prose writer, and sometimes the greatest Mexican poet, told me, “We have to publish what we write, because if we don’t, we keep on changing it, trying all the possible variations, and we don’t go beyond that.”

So the best thing is to publish it and go on to other things. I know very little of my own work by heart, because I don’t like what I write. In fact, I find myself personally expressed far better in the writings of other poets than in my own, because I know all my mistakes—I know all the chinks and all the padding, I know that a particular line is weak, and so on. I read other poets in a different way; I don’t look too closely at them.

And now, before we read a poem of mine, are there any questions? I am most thankful for questions, and I might add that I don’t like agreement. I like being set right.

Question: As for writing in set forms, don’t you think it depends on the kind of poetry you grew up on? For example, I can’t imagine writing sonnets or rhyming couplets.

Borges: I am very sorry. But I think it is rather strange that you should be so little curious about the past. If you are writing in English, you are following a tradition. The language itself is a tradition. Why not follow that long and illustrious tradition of sonnet writers, for example? I find it very strange to ignore form. After all, there are not many poets who write good free verse, but there are many writers who have mastered the other forms. Even Cummings wrote many fine sonnets—I know some of them by heart. I don’t think you can possibly discard all of the past. If you do, you run the risk of discovering things that have already been discovered. This comes from a lack of curiosity. Aren’t you curious about the past? Aren’t you curious about your fellow poets in this century? And in the last century? And in the eighteenth century? Doesn’t John Donne mean anything to you? Or Milton? I can’t really even begin to answer your question.

Question: One can read the poets of the past and interpret what is learned into free verse.

Borges: What I fail to understand is why you should begin by attempting something that is so difficult, such as free verse.

Question: But I don’t find it difficult.

Borges: Well, I don’t know your writing, so I can’t really say. It might be that it is easy to write and difficult to read. In most cases, I think it has something to do with laziness. There are, of course, exceptions—such as Whitman, Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters. I think one argument for free verse is that the reader knows he is not expected to get any information out of it or to be argued into believing something—unlike a page of prose, which might belong to what De Quincey called the literature of knowledge and not to the literature of power. The reader expects to get emotion out of free verse—to feel elevated and quickened into life, to feel torn by emotions. What I mean is, in free verse there is something that is going to affect him physically. Even if it’s not very musical, and it generally isn’t, the reader still knows the spirit the poet wants him to have when he’s reading the poem.

Question: I think it’s difficult to relate to forms that are old and often unfamiliar. Do you think it is possible to create new forms to write in?

Borges: Well, I suppose that theoretically it might be possible. But what I really wanted to say, and I haven’t said it yet, is that there is always a structure, and that it’s easier to begin with an obvious structure. There has to be structure. I think Mallarmé said, “There is no such thing as prose; the moment you care about rhythm, it becomes verse.”

This would go with what Stevenson said: “The difference between verse and prose lies in the fact that when you are reading”—he meant the classical forms of verse— “you expect something, and you get it.” But he also said of prose that a sentence has to end in an unexpected and yet pleasing way, and this is often quite difficult.

On the other hand, Monsieur Jourdain said that he spent his life speaking in prose without knowing it. He was mistaken. One doesn’t speak in prose, one tries to make oneself understood. If I wished to write down what I said, I would be attempting prose, and I would have different problems to solve.

All this, in a nutshell, means that the difference between, let’s say, a sonnet by Keats and a page of free verse by Whitman lies in the fact that in the case of the sonnet the structure is obvious—and so it is easier to do—while if you try to write something like “Children of Adam” or “Song of Myself,” you have to invent your own structure. Without structure, the poem would be shapeless, and I don’t think it can afford to be that.

So, let’s do a poem now. Perhaps we should begin with “June 1968.” It is autobiographical—or at least I thought it was. I was feeling happy when I wrote the poem, but maybe I wasn’t feeling as happy as I thought. My friend Norman Thomas Di Giovanni will read his translation of the poem, and we can stop to discuss it at different points.

June 1968

On a golden evening,
or in a quietness whose symbol
might be a golden evening,
a man sets up his books
on the waiting shelves,
feeling the parchment and leather and cloth
and the satisfaction given by
the anticipation of a habit
and the establishment of order.
Stevenson and that other Scotsman, Andrew Lang,
will here pick up again, in a magic way,
the leisurely conversation broken off
by oceans and by death,
and Alfonso Reyes surely will be pleased
to share space close to Virgil.
(To arrange a library is to practice,
in a quiet and modest way,
the art of criticism.)
The man, who is blind,
knows that he can no longer read
the handsome volumes he handles
and that they will not help him write
the book which in the end might justify him,
but on this evening that perhaps is golden
he smiles at his strange fate
and feels that special happiness
which comes from things we know and love.

Di Giovanni:

On a golden evening,
or in a quietness whose symbol
might be a golden evening . . .

Borges: The whole point of the poem is that strange happiness I felt, although I was blind, of going back to my own books and putting them on the shelves. I thought myself quite clever when I did so. The fact that the man (who is me) is blind is hinted at throughout the poem.

Di Giovanni: I might remind you that this event took place just after you had come back from a year at Harvard, and you were setting up a new apartment. Returning to your books after a long absence was that much more pleasurable.

Borges: Naturally, I was just back in my home town. I was touching those books again. I was feeling them, although I could no longer read them.

Di Giovanni:

On a golden evening,
or in a quietness whose symbol
might be a golden evening . . .

Borges: This is where blindness is hinted at. I do not know whether the evening was golden, because I couldn’t see it. I’m hinting at the blindness. Happiness and blindness are the central subjects of the poem. You see, it is “in a quietness whose symbol might be a golden evening.” For all I knew, it could have been dismal weather.

Di Giovanni:

. . . a man sets up his books
on the waiting shelves,
feeling the parchment and leather and cloth . . .

Borges: There again you get the suggestion that the man is blind. But you don’t get it in too obvious a way. Nothing is said about the texts of the books or the lettering. He is enjoying the books, not with his eyes but with his fingers.

Di Giovanni:

. . . and the satisfaction given by
the anticipation of a habit
and the establishment of order.

Borges: When I was putting those books on the shelves, I knew that I would remember where I had put them, and so that day stood for many happy days to come. Also involved here is the idea that this was just a beginning, that what I was doing today would go on and administer to a possible or even probable future.

Di Giovanni:

Stevenson and that other Scotsman, Andrew Lang . . .

Borges: They are favorites of mine, and friends.

Di Giovanni:

. . . will here pick up again, in a magic way,
the leisurely conversation broken off
by oceans and by death . . .

Borges: Because Stevenson died before Andrew Lang. Andrew Lang wrote a very fine article about him in a book called Adventures Among Books. They were fast friends, and I suppose they had many fine literary conversations together. These are two men whom I love personally, as if I had known them. If I had to draw up a list of friends, I would include not only my personal friends, my physical friends, but I would also include Stevenson and Andrew Lang. Although they might not approve of my stuff, I think they would like the idea of being liked for their work by a mere South American, divided from them by time and space.

Di Giovanni:

. . . and Alfonso Reyes surely will be pleased
to share space close to Virgil.

Borges: I have mentioned Alfonso Reyes because he was one of the finest friends I had. As a young man in Buenos Aires, when I was no one in particular except Leonorcita Acevedo’s son or Colonel Borges’ grandson, Reyes somehow divined that I would be a poet. Remember, he was quite famous. He had renewed Spanish prose and was a very fine writer. I remember I used to send him my manuscripts, and he would read not what lay in the manuscript itself but what I had intended to do. Then he would tell people what a fine poem this young man Borges had written. But on looking into the poem, and not having his magic power, they would see nothing in it but my mere clumsy attempts at versification. Reyes, I don’t know how, read what I had intended to do and what my literary clumsiness had prevented me from doing.

Virgil is brought in because, for me, he stands for poetry. Chesterton, who was a very witty and a very wise man, said of someone who had been accused of imitating Virgil that a debt to Virgil is like a debt to nature. It is not a case of plagiarism. Virgil is here for all times. If we take a line from Virgil we might as well say that we took a line from the moon or the sky or the trees. And, of course, I knew that Reyes, in his own secret heaven, would be pleased to find himself near Virgil. Anyway, I think of arranging books in a library—in a mild and modest way—as a kind of literary criticism.

Di Giovanni:

Those are the next three lines, Borges. . . .
(To arrange a library is to practice,
in a quiet and modest way,
the art of criticism.)

Borges: Yes, I am quite incapable of invention. I must fall back on that minor South American writer, Borges.

Di Giovanni:

The man, who is blind . . .

Borges: Now you see the fact that the man is blind. We might call that the key phrase, the central fact—the idea of happiness in blindness. I say it in an offhand way. I don’t say the man is blind, because that would be a kind of sweeping statement; it would be too affirmative. But “The man, who, by the way, is blind,” makes it more effective, I think. It’s a different voice; you have to throw the information in by the way.

Di Giovanni:

. . . knows that he can no longer read
the handsome volumes he handles
and that they will not help him write
the book which in the end might justify him . . .

Borges: At that time, I had many plans for writing books. I hoped I would be able to write a book on Old English poetry, and perhaps a novel or a book of stories. At the same time, I doubted whether I could actually do so. In any case, those books made for something friendly—a kind of friendly encouragement.

Di Giovanni: But you have written two books since this poem.

Borges: Well, I am sorry. I must apologize. I can’t avoid writing—it’s a bad habit! I have an anecdote which I can tell, since, after all, I’m not talking to all of you but to each of you—in confidence. I remember I was once talking to an old flame of mine. She had been the most beautiful woman in Buenos Aires. I had been in love with her, but she had always rejected me. The first time she ever saw me, she made a gesture which meant “No! Don’t propose marriage to me. No!” But after all that was over, we had a kind of stock joke between us. I once said to her, “Well, we’ve known each other for such a long time, and here we are. . . .” I was about to be sentimental. Then she said to me (she was Irish-Norwegian), “No, I’m just a bad habit.” And I have that bad habit of writing. I can’t stop myself.

Di Giovanni:

. . . but on this evening that perhaps is golden . . .

Borges: Another reminder of his blindness.

Di Giovanni:

. . . he smiles at his strange fate
and feels that special happiness . . .
Borges: Because being blind and also getting pleasure from the possession of books is a strange fate. Besides, I was also setting up a new home, and I was looking forward to different forms of happiness.

Borges: Because being blind and also getting pleasure from the possession of books is a strange fate. Besides, I was also setting up a new home, and I was looking forward to different forms of happiness.

Di Giovanni:

. . . which comes from things we know and love.

Borges: This poem is altogether autobiographical. The thought came to me that something else might be tried, based on that same experience. But when I tried it for the second time, I said, “I’ll be more inventive and forget all about myself; I’ll write some kind of fairy story or a parable—perhaps after Kafka.” I was very ambitious—perhaps I still am! Anyway, I finally ended up writing a sham Chinese poem. You can see it is Chinese because of the many details. But, in fact, the poem is a kind of transformation. It’s the same experience as “June 1968,” transmogrified. Maybe to the casual reader the two poems are not the same. But I know they are the same—on my word of honor.

The Keeper of the Books

Here they stand: gardens and temples and the reason for temples;
exact music and exact words;
the sixty-four hexagrams;
ceremonies, which are the only wisdom
that the Firmament accords to men;
the conduct of that emperor
whose perfect rule was reflected in the world, which mirrored him,
so that rivers held their banks
and fields gave up their fruit;
the wounded unicorn that’s glimpsed again, marking an era’s close;
the secret and eternal laws;
the harmony of the world.
These things or their memory are here in books
that I watch over in my tower.

On small shaggy horses,
the Mongols swept down from the North
destroying the armies
ordered by the Son of Heaven to punish their desecrations.
They cut throats and sent up pyramids of fire,
slaughtering the wicked and the just,
slaughtering the slave chained to his master’s door,
using the women and casting them off.
And on to the South they rode,
innocent as animals of prey,
cruel as knives.
In the faltering dawn
my father’s father saved the books.
Here they are in this tower where I lie
calling back days that belonged to others,
distant days, the days of the past.

In my eyes there are no days. The shelves
stand very high, beyond the reach of my years,
and leagues of dust and sleep surround the tower.
Why go on deluding myself?
The truth is that I never learned to read,
but it comforts me to think
that what’s imaginary and what’s past are the same
to a man whose life is nearly over,
who looks out from his tower on what once was city
and now turns back to wilderness.
Who can keep me from dreaming that there was a time
when I deciphered wisdom
and lettered characters with a careful hand?
My name is Hsiang. I am the keeper of the books—
these books which are perhaps the last,
for we know nothing of the Son of Heaven
or of the Empire’s fate.
Here on these high shelves they stand,
at the same time near and far,
secret and visible, like the stars.
Here they stand—gardens, temples.

Di Giovanni:

Here they stand: gardens and temples and the reason for temples . . .

Borges: You see, gardens and temples make you think of something heathen and ancient.

Di Giovanni:

. . . exact music and exact words;
the sixty-four hexagrams . . .

Borges: I was thinking of the Book of Changes, or the I Ching, and the sixty-four hexagrams, which are six lines each.

Di Giovanni:

. . . ceremonies, which are the only wisdom
that the Firmament accords to men . . .

Borges: There I was doing my best to be Chinese. You have hexagrams, ceremonies, and a firmament. I was trying to be as Chinese as a good student of Arthur Waley should be.

Di Giovanni:

. . . the conduct of that emperor
whose perfect rule was reflected in the world, which mirrored him . . .

Borges: That’s cribbed from Confucius—in translation, of course.

Di Giovanni:

. . . so that rivers held their banks
and fields gave up their fruit;
the wounded unicorn that’s glimpsed again . . .

Borges: That refers to some biography or legend of Confucius. It seems that when his mother was about to give birth to him, a unicorn appeared (I saw a picture of that unicorn), and a river started from the horn. Time passed, and the unicorn came back, and Confucius then knew that his life was over. We are also reminded of Mark Twain and Halley’s Comet. These are two wonderful things that appear and disappear at the same time—the unicorn and Confucius, the comet and Mark Twain.

Di Giovanni:

. . . marking an eras close . . .

Borges: “Marking an era’s close” may be too contemporary. At my time of life one is apt to think that the country’s going to the dogs. As a matter of fact, the country is always going to the dogs, and is always saved—somehow.

Di Giovanni :

. . . the secret and eternal laws;
the harmony of the world.

Borges: That is being Chinese and prophetic, I suppose.

Di Giovanni:

These things or their memory are here in books
that I watch over in my tower.

Borges: I am going back disguised as a Chinese to my first poem here.

Di Giovanni:

On small shaggy horses,
the Mongols swept down from the North . . .

Borges: The horses had to be small, because if I had said “On high shaggy horses” it would have been too grandiose. I keep them ponies, to be on the safe side.

Di Giovanni:

. . . destroying the armies
ordered by the Son of Heaven to punish their desecrations.

Borges: Here I was trying to make the reader feel sorry for the Son of Heaven, who sends armies to punish these Mongols but is defeated instead.

Di Giovanni:

They cut throats . . .

Borges: I have to apologize to all of you for the throat cutting. I was merely being an Argentine—it’s a habit we have. In fact, one of my forefathers had his throat cut. It was done very deftly and very quickly. I think it’s far better than the hot seat!

Di Giovanni:

They cut throats and sent up pyramids of fire,
slaughtering the wicked and the just,
slaughtering the slave chained to his master’s door . . .

Borges: It seems that that was a habit in Eastern nations. There is something in Chuang Tzu about a porter’s being chained to a door. And then in Flaubert’s Salammbô, when Hannibal walks in to see his treasures, there is also a chained slave.

Di Giovanni:

. . . using the women and casting them off.
And on to the South they rode,
innocent as animals of prey,
cruel as knives.

Borges: Yes, I think of them as wolves rather than men.

Di Giovanni:

In the faltering dawn
my father’s father saved the books.
Here they are in this tower where I lie
calling back days that belonged to others,
distant days, the days of the past.

Borges: It would have to be a tower, because it would probably remain standing after the rest of the village had been destroyed. From the tower he could see many things. And now I come to the fact that he can’t see.
Di Giovanni:

In my eyes there are no days. The shelves . . .

Borges: You see, he’s been lying all the time.

Di Giovanni:

. . . stand very high, beyond the reach of my years,
and leagues of dust and sleep surround the tower.

Borges: Originally, I wrote that line, “leguas de polvo y sueño,” at Alicia Jurado’s estancia. She later used it as a title for a book.

Di Giovanni:

Why go on deluding myself?
The truth is that I never learned to read,
but it comforts me to think
that what’s imaginary and what’s past are the same . . .

Borges: I am—to be very old-fashioned—piling on the agonies. I speak of the man as being blind, as having lost the power of reading the books, and then I go on to something worse—to the fact that he is illiterate and that he has never been able to read. His fate, in a sense, was, or is—I don’t know which word I should use, since all this is imaginary—worse than mine. I, at least, had read Stevenson, but he couldn’t read his books of wisdom.

Di Giovanni:

. . . that what’s imaginary and what’s past are the same
to a man whose life is nearly over,
who looks out from his tower on what once was city
and now turns back to wilderness.

Borges: He knew this, though he hadn’t actually seen it.

Di Giovanni:

Who can keep me from dreaming that there was a time
when I deciphered wisdom
and lettered characters with a careful hand?
My name is Hsiang. . . .

Borges: I got the name from Chuang Tzu, but I have no idea how it’s pronounced.

Di Giovanni:

. . . I am the keeper of the books—
these books which are perhaps the last,
for we know nothing of the Son of Heaven
or of the Empire’s fate.

Borges: Here again is the idea of civilization going to pot.

Di Giovanni:

Here on these high shelves they stand,
at the same time near and far,
secret and visible, like the stars.

Borges: Again, I am talking about the secret presence of the books that you get in the first poem. This second poem might be thought of as a kind of fable or parable, but I’m still writing from my personal experience.

Di Giovanni:

And the closing line:
Here they stand—gardens, temples.

Borges: To my great surprise, I think this is quite a good poem— even though I wrote it. I wonder what you think of it.

Question: Can he still see gardens and temples from inside the tower?

Borges: No, he can’t. The whole town has been destroyed. The idea is that within the books a lost order is still to be found— civilization. I think of civilization, in this poem, as having been destroyed by the Mongols. And yet, that order—that Asian civilization where the whole thing happened, let’s say, a century or more ago—is still there in the books, only nobody can decipher them, because this man is the only one alive, and he is blind.

Question: Do you think it is possible to write major poetry in more than one language?

Borges: I wonder whether it has been done. I think it’s very difficult to write major poetry in a single language, yet perhaps there were people who could do that kind of thing in the Middle Ages—with Latin, for example. We can look into the case of Eliot. I’m not sure if he’s a major poet, but I am quite sure that his French poems are quite bad. I can remember another case—Rubén Darío, who had a very fine and sensitive knowledge of French. When he attempted French versification the result was beneath contempt. George Moore thought he was a good French scholar; I don’t think he was, and his French verses are nowhere. They are a kind of joke. Milton was a great English poet, but I think of what he wrote in Italian as a kind of exercise.

Question: I wonder if you have anything to say about the influence of surrealism on the younger poets in America.

Borges: I know very little about surrealism, but I was a great reader of the German expressionists, who came before them. I attempted Spanish translations of poets such as Wilhelm Klemm, Johannes Becher, and August Stramm—those men who wrote in Der Aktion. But, of course, it couldn’t be done. The beauty of those poems depended on compound words, and you can’t do that kind of thing in Spanish. The result was a miserable failure. The same sort of thing happens in translating Joyce. But to get back to the question, I suppose that when you speak of surrealism you are thinking about a kind of poetry beyond reality. Are you aware that attempts at that were made before the surrealists, and some of them are far better? Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are examples. There are also lines in Yeats. In one of his poems he speaks of “That dolphin-torn, that gong- tormented sea.” He is not thinking of any sea of geography or of the imagination or even of dreamland. He often creates a new object, and that—if it works out—is legitimate. From a theoretical point of view, all experiments should be tried and anything is possible. My first remarks merely concern the fact that perhaps it is easier to use the usual forms than to try and invent new ones; and that, in any case, it is safer to know all about them instead of starting out by breaking the rules. Every young poet thinks of himself as Adam, naming things. The truth is that he is not Adam and that he has a long tradition behind him. That tradition is the language he is writing in and the literature he has read. I think it is wiser for a young writer to delay invention and boldness for a time and to try merely to write like some good writer he admires. Stevenson said that he began by playing the “sedulous ape” to Hazlitt. Of course, the phrase “sedulous ape” is proof of Stevenson’s originality. I don’t think Hazlitt would have used the expression “sedulous ape.”

Di Giovanni: Borges, do you want to say something about how you actually write the poems? The poems we just read are originally dictated in Spanish. How much do you think a poem out in your head before you begin dictating? What do you sound out?

Borges: Naturally, I try them on myself. I read in Kipling’s Something of Myself that he tried out every line and that when he had purified them of mistakes, he would write them down. I do the same. My first drafts are always done walking up and down the street, as I said before. When I find that I’m apt to forget, I dictate what I have. If I don’t do that, I’m hampered by the fact of having to keep it in my memory. Then I go on, shaping and reshaping.

Mac Shane: I should like to know about the next stage. How do you go over the lines you have dictated?

Di Giovanni: Borges doesn’t dictate his Spanish to me.

Borges: One of the reasons I don’t, and I can say it safely here, is that I have a very efficient secretary—efficient in the sense that she is altogether stupid. For example, instead of saying “I am,” let’s suppose I made the mistake of saying “I is.” She would write that down. And my friend Di Giovanni can testify to the fact that in reading manuscripts of mine he often and quite suddenly comes upon the words “period” or “semicolon.” But I feel quite safe with her and can’t make a fool of myself. She is a very nice woman and is very fond of me, which makes things easier. On the other hand, when I attempt dictation to my mother it is quite difficult. She says, “No, this won’t do!” or “How on earth could you write that!” That sharp old lady is only ninety-five.

Di Giovanni: And there is another reason: I can’t take dictation and also do the other work I have to do, so there has to be this division of labor.

Borges: Why can’t you take dictation?

Di Giovanni: Because while you are dictating in the morning, I’m at home preparing the work we will do that afternoon.

Borges: Of course—my mistake. He prepares in the morning and we translate together in the afternoon. Well, he’s doing all the work, really.

Di Giovanni: But occasionally, on trips, when this wonderful woman isn’t with us, I do take dictation. I stand midway between the woman and his mother: I write in semicolons as semicolons, and I don’t criticize directly.

Borges: My mother is very critical of me.

Di Giovanni: I do all my criticizing when we make the translation. Borges, I have an idea. Why don’t we try out that new poem called “The Watcher”?

Borges: Yes. In Spanish it is called “El centinela.”

The Watcher

The light comes in and I awake. There he is.
He starts by telling me his name, which is (of course) my own.
I return to the slavery that’s lasted more than seven times ten years.
He thrusts his memory on me.
He thrusts on me the petty drudgery of each day, the fact of dwelling in a body.
I am his old nurse; he makes me wash his feet.
He lies in wait for me in mirrors, in mahogany, in shop windows.
Some woman or other has rejected him and I must share his hurt.
He now dictates this poem to me, and I do not like it.
He forces me into the hazy apprenticeship of stubborn Anglo-Saxon.
He has converted me to the idolatrous worship of dead soldiers,
to whom perhaps I would have nothing to say.
At the last flight of the stairs, I feel him by my side.
He is in my steps, in my voice.
I hate everything about him.
I note with satisfaction that he can barely see.
I’m inside a circular cell and the endless wall is closing in.
Neither of us deceives the other, but both of us are lying.
We know each other too well, inseparable brother.
You drink the water from my cup and eat my bread.
The door of suicide is open, but theologians hold
that I’ll be there in the far shadow of the other kingdom,
waiting for myself.

Borges: Well, that’s that.

Di Giovanni: Do you want to speak about the other autobiographical piece?

Borges: I wrote another piece called “Borges and Myself,” and these two poems are apparently the same. However, there are some differences. In “Borges and Myself” I am concerned with the division between the private man and the public man. In “The Watcher” I am interested in the feeling I get every morning when I awake and find that I am Borges. The first thing I do is think of my many worries. Before awakening, I was nobody, or perhaps everybody and everything—one knows so little about sleep—but waking up, I feel cramped, and I have to go back to the drudgery of being Borges. So this is a contrast of a different kind. It is something deep down within myself—the fact that I feel constrained to be a particular individual, living in a particular city, in a particular time, and so on. This might be thought of as a variation on the Jekyll and Hyde motif. Stevenson thought of the division in ethical terms, but here the division is hardly ethical. It is between the high and fine idea of being all things or nothing in particular, and the fact of being changed into a single man. It is the difference between pantheism—for all we know, we are God when we are asleep—and being merely Mr. Borges in New York. Anyway, I should like to make a final observation. Throughout the poem a kind of shift is always taking place between the fact that I am two and the fact that I am one. For example, sometimes I speak of “him,” and then at other moments in the poem I am quite alone, surrounded and ringed in by an endless circular world. And then, in the end, I meet my- self. There is always this idea of the split personality. Sometimes I fall back on the metaphor of the other, of The Watcher. At other times, he is waiting for me at the top of the staircase, and then in the next line he is inside me, he is my voice, or he is in my face. This kind of game is kept up until the end. Then I say that the door of suicide is open—Stevenson wrote about the open door of suicide in one of his novels, and it was also used by Asturias—but that committing suicide is useless. If I’m immortal, suicide is no good.

Di Giovanni: Do you want to make any comment about the switch you made in the last line from the original version? In sub- stance, it went—do you remember?—“You’ll be there waiting for me.”

Borges: At first, I wrote, “You’ll be there awaiting me.” Then I thought that it would be far more effective to say, “I find myself there. . . .” It enforces the idea, as the Scots had it, of the fetch— of a man seeing himself. I think that in Jewish superstition the idea was that if a man met himself—his Doppelgänger, as the Germans call it—he would see God. In the similar Scottish superstition, the idea is that if you meet yourself you meet your real self, and this other self is coming to fetch you. That is why the Scottish for “Doppelgänger” is “fetch.” I think you find something like that in Egyptian religion, where the double is called the “ka,” but I am rather shaky about Egyptian mythology.

Di Giovanni: I would like to say one more thing about that last line. The poem was printed in its first version. The new idea occurred to Borges while we were at work on the translation, so we changed the line for the English version. Before the poem comes out . . .

Borges: Or gets out . . .

Di Giovanni: . . . in book form in Spanish, it will get another reading, and then Borges can decide which version he likes better.

Borges: I’ve decided already: “I’ll be waiting for myself.”

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