Urban Reality and Classical Antiquity: A Conversation with Luis Alberto de Cuenca
Luis Alberto de Cuenca (b. 1950, Madrid) is perhaps the one Spanish poet today who has influenced most of the younger generations of poets. He recently received the National Poetry Award for his latest book of poetry, Cuaderno de vacaciones (Visor, 2014). His poetry combines urban reality, pop culture, and classical antiquity while maintaining his own identity through irony, elegance, and a tone of lightheartedness. Cuenca is capable of having Tintin dialogue with Shakespeare in his poems, or Homer with a streetwalker in Madrid. Urban poetry, pierced with film noir by either the fantastic or the comic, has been able to reflect today’s sentimental iconography and create images, capturing a society whose culture (in times of consumerism) is geared toward the myths of daily life—poems that aspire fundamentally to express love, sentimental wandering in a changing world, nomadic man, nightlife, or the open field of culture—all by utilizing an extremely natural language that embraces the reader in an emotive, colloquial, and intelligible way.
Diego Doncel: Could you explain to the North American reader the meaning of the aesthetics of “Línea clara,” which begins with your book La caja de plata, published in 1985?
Luis Alberto de Cuenca: “Línea clara” is an expression from the world of comics, more specifically from Franco-Belgian comics, in which, as you can see in works by Hergé or Jacobs, the lines are well delineated, the colors are pure, and the message transmitted is free of ambiguities. That aesthetic focuses above all in the communicative level of poetry, its capacity to connect with the reader and establish itself as representative of everyone’s anxieties. In my poem “Inspired by Faulkner,” from Cuaderno de vacaciones (2014), it’s explained better. I include it here, because I believe a poet should explain his poetry through his verses and not through theoretical pipe dreams that are better explained by others:
Inspired by Faulkner
Without love, without honor, without pride,
without emotion, and without complicity,
poetry doesn’t make sense.
The obligation of the poet is to write
about compassion, strengths and weaknesses,
the spirit of sacrifice (which redeems
the world), piety, courage, and heroics.
And his voice is not just memory
but also the pedestal on which rests
the human condition, the foundation
for alleviating our fears of the unknown,
mitigating our anguish, and shedding
light on perpetual darkness.
Here’s another poem that is in Sin miedo ni esperanza (2002), entitled “Línea clara” no less, that may help explain what I mean by an aesthetics of “Línea clara”:
They say we speak clearly, and poetry
isn’t communication, but rather knowledge,
and one acquires it by giving up this world,
its ostentation and its works – friendship, tenderness,
deception, fraud, happiness, courage,
humor, faith, loyalty, jealousy,
hope, love, everything that isn’t intellectual,
abstruse, mystical, philosophical, and,
of course, minute, silent, and profound.
They say we speak clearly, and we repeat that
we speak clearly, and people understand
our verses, even the people who govern,
which will lead us to acquire power and
their awards and honors, exercising
a servile and unjust monopoly. Say often
the onslaught of wild beasts.
Defend us, Tintin, they’re attacking us.
DD: An aspect that defines your poetry is the dialogue that you establish between high and low culture in today’s society. What does this dialogue mean to you? In what way are you different from what the vanguardists did with it?
LAdC: I haven’t distanced myself one inch from historical vanguardism, because it’s a period and a literature that has always fascinated me. What seems unacceptable to me is to continue thinking like dadaists, as if the destruction of language were an obligatory assignment in the creation of literary modernity. The first vanguardists contributed salt and pepper to writing and the beaux arts of the first third of the twentieth century. But that didn’t mean the literary palate after that first third of the century had to be seasoned in the same way. Romanticism and classicism are sustained movements in European literature. A romantic period, which in this case would identify with historical vanguardism, is followed by a classical period, and so on; or, even better, following Hauser, there are always four literary stages: archaism, classicism, mannerism, and the baroque (romanticism would piggyback off of mannerism and the baroque). In terms of the dialogue between the higher and lower cultures, it seems like a nuclear sign of modernity in the first decades of the twenty-first century; but whoever doesn’t want to participate in this dialogue will be out of the game. Literary works today must realize that high and popular culture aren’t mutually exclusive, and that the only acceptable division is between good and bad literature, not high and low.
Literary works today must realize that high and popular culture aren’t mutually exclusive, and that the only acceptable division is between good and bad literature, not high and low.
DD: Is it possible to say your poetry attempts to narrate the experiences of the modern world?
LAdC: Antonio Machado used to say poetry is words in time. That means it’s obligatory to retell the experiences of the world in which they’re written and to reflect the society from which it stems. I believe, for example, that today is a more classical period than romantic, even with mannerist derivations, and that the hermetic and essentialist nature of poetry today are anachronistic elements, incapable of attesting to a world that needs them. I have no doubt that we’ll return to the romantic foxholes, but that moment hasn’t arrived yet.
DD: Vitalism is a term that defines you in more than one way. Aren’t your poems a way to experience the fact that you’re alive? And from there, the utility of poetry, its consoling aspect, the necessity to bond with the reader and stimulate emotion?
LAdC: All poetry has some kind of consoling effect coming from that philosophical genre which Seneca pulled out of his sleeve some twenty centuries ago. Mine, of course, aspires to identify with the sorrows and happiness of readers in order to give them momentary joy, or at least a little less unhappiness. The mission of every person who hopes to be a poet should be to celebrate life as well as reveal to his readers its heartaches and anxieties. On the other hand, without emotion, there’s no poetry. Emotion is a constituent element, a sine qua non of the poetic process. And not only of the “romantic” poetic process, but of all poetic phenomenan that puts down roots in classical metrics or in the suggestive disorder of (presumably) automatic writing. When I’m reading poetry I look for emotion right off the bat. It’s not easy to arouse emotion in a hardened reader, but to achieve it requires a certain expertise in linguistic construction, in style, in the way one mixes words so that the resulting cocktail works. Seemingly easy poetry causes a lot of sleeplessness for those who write it. The most difficult thing in the world is to get to the reader’s heart and mind with ease so that, upon absorbing that empathetic fluidity, the reader identifies with the poet’s own feelings, recognizes personal sensations, which are transmitted through the poem being read. Poetry is always autobiographical, no matter how much it’s less the autobiography of one single person and more of all human beings.
DD: Criticism has divided your work into two stages: one guided more by culture or Parnassianism and the other with more intimacy and clarity, but don’t you think that, in more than one aspect, it’s all about a natural evolution that doesn’t involve a rupture?
LAdC: I’m completely convinced there’s no rupture between that cultural aspect with the Parnassian roots of my first stage and the hyperreal symbolism characterizing my second stage. As I get older, I’m seeing that the poet is only one person, and to divide him up into creative phases is only useful from an academic point of view. It’s all about a natural evolution from a visible cultural aspect to a hidden one that doesn’t cover up the occult, the inexplicit homage, the enthusiastic continuous dialogue with tradition, which in my case is fundamental, which can be seen in every one of my poems from then till now.
DD: Your work in researching classical literature has been widely recognized. What’s the contribution of Greek or Latin poetry to the literary beginnings of the twenty-first century, and how does it differ from the poetry by other writers?
LAdC: There is more Hellenist poetry in our century than any other. To immerse oneself in the books that make up thePalatine Anthology is one of the most dynamic and modern acts a contemporary reader could perform. I learned to write from authors like Callimachus and Meleager, including the Roman elegists (Catullus andPropertius, but less so Tibullus), and the indispensable Martial and Ausonius. I studied classical philology in order to be able to read in the language of our forefathers, who weren’t Adam and Eve but rather the Greeks and Romans. Editing and translating Greek and Latin authors has been one of my most favorite activities during the last forty-five years. The strength of their aesthetic proposals and their incredible capacity to endure throughout the centuries make the reading of those great Greek and Roman poets a necessary activity for anyone who loves poetry or who wants to write it. I’m not referring to just lyric poets but also Homer, Virgil, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Claudian. The epic is Poetry, with a capital P. In our century, there are no objective conditions to write this kind of poetry, but we should keep going back to it as readers. I have said I learned to write through thePalatine Anthology. But I learned to be a man through the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Aeneid, Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied. What I adore in this world are the great epic poems.
DD: Cuaderno de vacaciones is your most recent work. Could you say it’s about the triumph of the idea of a person’s hope who is approaching old age and death?
LAdC: We all know we will die. But we also know that life is worth living, and we must live until the very end with joy, as if each day was the last one, as if the last day didn’t exist. My poetry walks with me toward the end, but it doesn’t give up humor, irony, nor does it distance itself from tragedy. This doesn’t mean there are no tragic poems in all my books, no grave tones, as in my latest one.
DD: You have one of the most significant libraries imaginable in your house in Madrid. It consists of some forty thousand volumes. Do you continue to believe the Internet is as an important technological revolution as the invention of the printing press?
LAdC: Those thousands of books aren’t just poetry; in fact, the books of poetry probably make up a sixth or seventh part of the collection. I’m fascinated with fiction, for example. I have read many detective novels. A lot of science fiction, a lot of fantasy. Despite my love for paper and to read on paper, the appearance of the Internet signifies a technological revolution as important as the invention of the printing press. My library isn’t a specialized library. It’s a library of a person who devours books, and less of a bibliophile. In it and with it I feel clothed. To wander among its shelves is to return to one’s infancy and recuperate it.
DD: What’s your relationship to North American literature, film, and culture?
LAdC: It’s a relationship of total dependence. I’m stimulated by North American culture in general, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century. I can’t conceive of a world without Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, Scott Fitzgerald, H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, George R. R. Martin, D. W. Griffith, John Ford, Howard Hawks, the Marx Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Winsor McCay, E. C. Segar, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Will Eisner, or Frank Miller, among others, who have been important to me in American literature, film, and comedy. I feel like one more Greek, comfortably subject to the cultural magic of that new Roman empire, the USA. America, I love you.
Translation from the Spanish
By Dick Gerdes
Editorial Note: For more read Luis Alberto de Cuenca’s poem “Night is Coming On,” translated by Dick Gerdes.