Toward a poetry and poetics of the Americas (13)

Haroldo de Campos, three poems and an essay on poetry

[Best known among us as the cofounder (with his brother Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari) of Noigandres, the great Brazilian experimental and concrete poetry movement of the later twentieth century, Haroldo moved his work in multiple directions, to place him among the truly grand poets of the Americas, North and South, early and late, and in multiple languages. His monumental poem series, Galaxias, can well be compared to modernist epics like those of Pound, Zukofsky, Williams, Neruda, and Césaire, all of whom will be featured in the transnational anthology of North and South American poetry that Heriberto Yépez and I are now preparing for University of California Press. And in a future posting on Poems and Poetics I will be including an excerpt as well from Haroldo’s Galaxias, translated by Odile Cisneros with Suzanne Jill Levine. (J.R.)]



Translation from Portuguese by A.S. Bessa






Silver birds, the Poem

draws theory from its own flight.

Philomel of metamorphosed blue,

measured geometrician

the Poem thinks itself

as a circle thinks its center

as the radii think the circle

crystalline fulcrum of the movement.




A bird imitates itself at each flight

zenith of ivory where a ruffled

anxiety is arbiter

over the vectorial lines of the movement.

A bird becomes itself in its flight

mirror of the self, mature


timing over Time.




Equanimous, the Poem ignores itself.

Leopard pondering itself in a leap,

what becomes of the prey, plume of sound,


gazelle of the senses?

The Poem proposes itself: system

of rancorous premises

evolution of figures against the wind

star chess. Salamander of arsons

that provokes, unhurt endures,

Sun set in its center.





And how is it done? What theory

rules the spaces of its flight?

What last retains it? What load

curves the tension of its breath?

Sitar of the tongue, how does one hear?

Cut out of gold, as such we see it,

proportioned to it — the Thought.




See: broke in half

the airy fuse of the movement

the ballerina rests. Acrobat,

being of easy flight,

plenilunium princess of a kingdom

of eolian veils: Air.

Wherefrom the impulse that propels her,

proud, to the fleeting commitment?

Unlike the bird

according to nature

but as a god

contra naturam flies.




Such is the poem. In the fields of eolian

equilibrium that it aspires

sustained by its dexterity.

Winged agile athlete

aims at the trapeze of the venture.

Birds do not imagine themselves.

The Poem pre-meditates.

They run the cusp of infinite

astronomy of which they are plumed Orions.

It, arbiter and vindicator of itself,

Lusbel leaps over the abyss,


in front of a greater king

a king lesser great.






in this re / verse of the ego

I see you

more plus than myself

plusquamfuture minuspoet


and in the trobar clus

of this hour (ours)


incestuous sister

prima pura impura

in which

ourselves (Siamese-same)








a poem begins

where it ends:

the margin of doubt

a sudden incision of geraniums

commands its destiny


and yet it begins

(where it ends) and the head

ashen (white top or albino

cucurbit laboring signs) curves it-

self under lucifer’s gift —


dome of signs: and the poem begins

quiet cancerous madness

that demands these lines from the white

(where it ends)




Translation from Portuguese by Jon Tolman


In order to bring to focus a willfully “drastic selection” in the pragmatic-utilitarian terms of Poundian theory, one could name the works of Mallarmé (“Un Coup de Dés”), Joyce, Pound, and Cummings as the radial axes that generate the vectorial field of contemporary poetry. From the convergence of these axes and depending on the development of the productive process, certain results, some predictable, some not, will emerge.


It is not necessary here to enter deeply into the multiple problems which the mere mention of these names together provokes on the threshold of contemporary experiments in poetry. Instead it will be sufficient to merely give some hints of the morpho-cultural catalysis caused by their works.


The Mallarméan constellation-poem has as its base a concept of multi-divisions or capillary structure. This concept liquidates the notion of linear development divided into beginning-middle-end. It substitutes in its place a circular organization of poetic material that abolishes any rhythmic clockwork based on the “rule of thumb” of metrification. Silence emerges from that truly verbal rosette, “Un Coup de Dés,” as the primordial element of rhythmic organization. As Sartre has said: “Silence itself is defined by its relationship with words, just as the pause in music receives its meaning from the group of notes which surround it. This silence is a moment of language.” This permits us to apply to poetry what Pierre Boulez affirmed of music: “It is one of those truths so difficult to demonstrate that music is not only ‘the art of sounds,’ but that it is better defined as a counterpoint of sound and silence.”


The Joycean universe also evolved from a linear development of time toward space-time or the infusion of the whole in the part (“allspace in a notshall”), adopting as the organogram of Finnegans Wake the Vico-vicious circle. Joyce’s technique evolved pari passu with his own work and under the influence of Bergson’s concept of “durée.”


Mallarmé developed a visual notion of graphic space, served by the prismatic notation of poetic imagination in ebbs and flows which are dislocated like the elements of a mobile, utilizing silence in the way that Calder used air. Joyce, on the other hand, holds to the materialization of a “polydimensional limitless flow” —the “durée réelle,” the riverrun of “élan vital” — which obliges him to undertake a true atomization of language, where each “verbi‑voco‑visual” unit is at the same time the continent-content of the whole work and instantly “myriad-minded.”


Mallarmé practices the phenomenological reduction of the poetic object. The eidos — “Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” — is attained by means of the ellipsis of peripheral themes to the “thing in itself” of the poem. In the structure of the work, however, what Husserl notes with relation to his method also occurs: “Said with an image: that which is placed between parentheses is not erased from the phenomenological table, but simply placed between parentheses and affected by an index. But with this index it enters again into the major theme of investigation.”


Joyce is led to the microscopic world by the macroscopic, emphasizing detail — panorama/panaroma — to the point where a whole metaphoric cosmos is contained in a single word. This is why it can be said of Finnegans Wake that it retains the properties of a circle — the equal distance of all its points to its center. The work is porous to the reader, accessible from any of the places one chooses to approach it.


For Cummings the word is fissile. His poems have as their fundamental element the “letter.” The syllable is, for his needs, already a complex material. The “tactical modesty” of that poetic attitude is similar to that of Webern: interested in the word on the phonemic level, he orients himself toward an open poetic form, in spite of the danger of exhausting himself in the one-minute poem, as he faces the hindrances of a still experimental syntax. As Fano has said with respect to Webern’s early works, they are: “Short organizations materializing a ‘possible’ and concluding on the eventuality of new transformations. A catalytic procedure in which certain base elements determine the disintegration and clustering of a substance which is transformed, without themselves being affected.”


Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, in particular “The Pisan Cantos,” also offer the reader an open structure. They are organized by the ideogramic method, permitting a perpetual interaction of blocs of ideas which affect each other reciprocally, producing a poetic sum whose principle of composition is gestaltian, as James Blish has observed in “Rituals on Ezra Pound.”


The contemporary poet — having at his disposal a lexicon which encompasses acquisitions from the symbolists to the surrealists, and in a reciprocal way, Pound’s “precise definition” (the poetic word comprehended in the fight of an art of “gist and piths”), and also having before him a structural syntax, whose revolutionary perspectives have only been faintly glimpsed — cannot allow himself to be enveloped by the Byzantine nostalgia for a fallen Constantinople, nor can he, polyp-like, stagnate at the margins of the morpho-cultural process which beckons him toward creative adventure.


Pierre Boulez, in a conversation with Décio Pignatari, manifested his lack of interest in the “perfect” or “classic” work of art, in the sense of the diamond, and stated his concept of the open work of art as a kind of modern baroque.


Perhaps the idea of a neo‑baroque, which might correspond intrinsically to the morphological necessities of contemporary artistic language, terrifies by its mere evocation those slack spirits who love the stability of conventional formulas.


But this is not a cultural reason for failing to enlist in the crew of Argos. It is, on the contrary, a prompting to do so.


São Paulo, 1955, 1965


[NOTE. The basic book for Haroldo de Campos in English is Novas: Selected Writings, edited by Antonio Sergio Bessa, Odile Cisneros, and Roland Greene, published by Northwestern University Press in 2007. While Haroldo died in 2003, he and his brother Augusto are widely acknowledged today as two of the truly major poets of the last hundred years, bringing poetry and poetics together.]