May 2012

What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Vicente Aleixandre (Spain, 1977)
  • BOOK READ: A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems (various translators; Lewis Hyde, ed.)

It hit me the other day, reading the poetry ofVicente Aleixandre at a bus stop near a high school: poems are like teenagers. They’re dressed up funny but they all kind of look the same. They say obvious things in incomprehensible slang. They come on strong one minute and the next minute refuse to tell us anything. They traffic in vast sensitivity, even hysteria, all the while obsessed with keeping cool. They won’t settle down and talk to us like grown-ups. In short, they’re exasperating. It’s no wonder we all wrote poems in our adolescence. You did so, I saw you.

Still, they give me much pleasure—I’m just talking about poems now—and I don’t really want my poetry to grow up. When I come across poetry that has straightened itself out to conduct itself like an adult without any nonsense, it makes for very stale reading, as does the stuff that has disconnected from passion and impulse in favor of intellectual gamesmanship. I might admire it, but it doesn’t cling to me. I can’t love the poetry that sits around in a well-furnished room with its well-weathered friends talking about complicated political situations and other hobgoblins of grown-up life. I love the ones that are loving somebody, longing for somebody, dancing all night, driving home listening to the radio, and staring out their bedroom windows at the cruel, cruel world. To wit:

Bare earth. The defenseless
night alone. The wind
insinuates deaf throbbings
against its draperies.

The shadow of lead,
cold, wraps your breast
in its heavy silk, black,
closed. So the mass

is pressed down by the material
of night, famous, quiet,
over the limpid
late plain of night.

There are bankrupt stars.
Polished hinges. Ice
drifts along
in the heights. Slow streams of cold.

A shadow passing
over the mute grave contour
lashes, austere,
its secret whip.

This is from the first poem in A Longing for the Light, a collection of Aleixandre’s poetry, and as it turns out an archetypal one, at least in how it strikes me. There are parts I really like—that startling wordfamous, those “bankrupt stars”—and it sustains a recognizable mood in the swirling quiet of a lonely evening. But also there are parts that seem, well, a little much. “Wraps your breast / in its heavy silk” feel like the sort of lines that people recite when they’re making fun of poetry. Some of the word choices spoil the lines that could have otherwise worked very nicely, so after “The defenseless / night alone” you get that wind insinuating against its draperies, and I found my eyes rolling a little before they moved on to the next line. By the time we get to the “secret whip,” an image both striking and giggly, the poem has swiveled back and forth, several times, between a quiet depth and an overspoken angst, and if that’s not like freshman year in high school I don’t know what is.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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