Borges off Pound
In December of 1921, a 22-year-old Jorge Luis Borges published “Ultraísmo” in the Argentine journal Nosotros. The editors wrote that his short article was the initial entry in a series of studies about the avant-gardes, recognizing perhaps that the moment of the ultraísta movement had already passed (a few months later, the key journal Ultra ceased publication). While the avant-garde principles of ultraísmo would continue to inform the work of many poets both Spanish and Latin American, by 1921 the movement qua movement was drawing still. But for the literary establishment, understanding ultraísmo was just beginning, and thus Borges’s essay was an attempt to assert the new literary ethic through accounting, a manifesto in reverse.
“Antes de comenzar la explicación de la novísima estética” ‘Before beginning the explication of the newest aesthetic,’ young Borges asserts that ultraísmo meant to upheave the post-Parnassian modernismo of Rubén Darío, a movement in itself that he labels as “rubenianismo”:
La belleza rubeniana es ya una cosa madurada y colmada, semejante a la belleza de un lienzo antiguo, cumplida y eficaz en la limitación de sus métodos y en nuestra aquiescencia al dejarnos herir por sus previstos recursos; pero por eso mismo, es una cosa acabada, concluida, anonadada. Ya sabemos que manejando palabras crepusculares, apuntaciones de colores y evocaciones versallescas o helénicas, se logran determinados efectos, y es porfía desatinada e inútil seguir hacienda eternamente la prueba.
[Rubenian beauty is something already matured and fulfilled, similar to the beauty of an antique painting, achieved and enabled through the limitation of its methods and by our acquiescence to allow ourselves to be affected by its predictable appeals; but likewise, it is something finished, accomplished, done. We already know that employing the words of twilight, notes of colors and luxurious or Hellenic evocations, achieve determined effects, and it is foolish, useless stubbornness, to endlessly continue on with the experiment.]
Other than a brief aside on Whitman, Borges’s essay is firmly grounded in the Hispanophone context, from key modernista figures like Ramón del Valle-Inclán and Juan Ramón Jiménez to emerging innovators like Pedro Garfias and Gerardo Diego. Yet despite the focus on ultraísta verse as a pivoting away from rubenianismo —an argument entirely supported by evidence from Spanish and Latin American poetries and poetics — when Borges gets to the matter of principles and standards, curiously enough, he really sounds quite Poundian.
Borges lists four chief concepts of ultraísmo:
1. Reducción de la lírica a su elemento primordial: la metáfora.
2. Tachadura de las frases medianeras, los nexos y los adjetivos inútiles.
3. Abolición de los trebejos ornamentales, el confesionalismo, la circunstanciación, las prédicas y la nebulosidad rebuscada.
4. Síntesis de dos o más imágenes en una, que ensancha de ese modo su facultad de sugerencia.
[1. Reduction of lyric to its primordial element: metaphor.
2. Elimination of transitional phrases, connectives, and useless adjectives.
3. Abolition of ornamentations, confessionalism, circumstantiation, preachings, and overreaching obscurity.
4. Synthesis of two or more images into one, thereby widening its power of suggestion.]
Of course, in 1918 Pound articulated the key principles of Imagism in these terms:
1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
Both Borges and Pound invoke further principles in other writings, and the long lists link up even more (e.g. on the elimination of rhyme). Features of the worldwide manifesto culture of early twentieth-century avant-gardes to be sure, but Borges and Pound in particular, in their poetics and as an Imagist and an Ultraist, respectively, are remarkably of a piece. Ultraísmo, as it were, shares much in common with the contiguous movement of creacionismo, and Borges certainly knew of Gerardo Diego’s kindred essay “Posibilidades creacionistas” (1919), which elaborates on the imagen and its varied manifestations, culminating in the ‘multiple image’ that Diego equates to musical complexity in the same spirit as Pound’s regard of the musical phrase. On matters such as rhythm, the visual, intensity, the image — and in proposing the default disposition the new poets ought to take towards antiquarianism, that of the iconoclast — young Borges and young Pound commit to shared values.
A noteworthy divergence is in regards to metaphor, which Borges praises in inverse proportion to Pound’s evasiveness — Pound opts for “image,” “complex,” “ornament,” pretty much anything but metaphor. This disconnect as to metaphor, while on so minute a level, in essence captures the nature of the vast difference between Anglo and Hispanic modernist poetry; the conceit stays at the heart of Spanish poetry, whereas in English the focus shifts to objectification, to “direct treatment of the ‘thing.’” A relatively small variance within the array of issues on which Borges the Ultraist and Pound the Imagist align, and yet one that is insurmountable.
Sergio Waisman’s lament that a “comparative study of Borges and Pound remains to be done” has yet to be rectified, but with good reason. Eliot Weinberger’s edition of Borges’s Selected Non-Fictions (1999) includes nothing on Pound, not even in passing; the collection of Borges’s 1966 lectures, Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (2013), hardly mentions Pound as well, and even then mainly as a translator. On the very rare occasion that Borges takes up Pound the poet, as Hernán Díaz notes, Borges is “at his cantankerous best.” It reminds me of the disdain George Santayana had for Pound — Santayana’s Spanishness, and especially “his allegiance to the Mediterranean-Catholic ethos” were key to his aesthetic predilections and consequent dismissal of Pound’s venture into the ideogrammic method. In his essay “Anatomía de mi ‘Ultra’” ‘Anatomy of My ‘Ultra’ (published a few months before “Ultraísmo”), Borges might seem to be of a similar allegiance, or perhaps reaching to a sense of duende, as he addresses the importance of metaphor: “La metáfora: esa curva verbal que traza casi siempre entre dos puntos — espirituales — el camino más breve” ‘Metaphor: the verbal arc that draws almost always between two points — spiritual points — the shortest path.’ Pound conversely takes the long path around metaphor. “Energy,” “emotion,” “natural objects,” “vortex,” and even in Pound criticism, Kenner’s “subject rhyme”: but Pound and metaphor, not so much. However, Borges praises it. An understated divergence made total, with time, in the distance between vanguard and vanguardia.
. Footnote in Expliquémonos a Borges como poeta, ed. Ángel Flores (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno, 1984), 19.
. Jorge Luis Borges, “Ultraísmo,” in Nosotros 15.39, no.151 (December 1921). Qtd. in Textos recobrados, 1919-1929, ed. Sara Luisa del Carril (Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1997), 126.
. Ibid., 127: “las enumeraciones de Whitman y su compañerismo vehemente nos parecen lejanos, legendarios” ‘the enumerations of Whitman and his passionate following seem distant, legendary.’
. Ibid., 128.
. Ezra Pound, Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1954), 3.
. Gerardo Diego, “Posibilidades creacionistas,” in Cervantes (October 1919): 23-28.
. Sergio Waisman, Borges and Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2005), 239n. 19.
. Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, trans. Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger, ed. Eliot Weinberger (New York: Viking, 1999).
. Jorge Luis Borges, Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, eds. Martín Arias and Martín Hadis, trans. Katherine Silver (New York: New Directions, 2013), 46, 51, 116.
. Hernán Díaz, Borges, Between History and Eternity (London: Continuum, 2012), 75.
. James Ballowe, “The Last Puritan and the Failure in American Culture,” in American Quarterly 18 (1966), 131.
. Jorge Luis Borges, “Anatomía de mi ‘Ultra,’” in Ultra 1.11 (May 1921). Qtd. in Textos recobrados, 1919-1929, ed. Sara Luisa del Carril (Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1997), 95.