Our Poet of the Day today is Jorge Luis Borges! Above, we’ve included an audio recording of Borges’ lecture at Harvard entitled, “A Poet’s Creed,” that occurred alongside the Norton Lecture Series from 1967-1968.
Born in 1899 in Argentina, Borges remains a key figure in Spanish literature. His work surrounds the idea of dreams, mirrors, philosophy, and religion, among others. To learn more about Borges, check out his biography and selected works on the Poetry Foundation website:
“Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges exerted a strong influence on the direction of literary fiction through his genre-bending metafictions, essays, and poetry. Borges was a founder, and principal practitioner, of postmodernist literature, a movement in which literature distances itself from life situations in favor of reflection on the creative process and critical self-examination. Widely read and profoundly erudite, Borges was a polymath who could discourse on the great literature of Europe and America and who assisted his translators as they brought his work into different languages. He was influenced by the work of such fantasists as Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka, but his own fiction “combines literary and extraliterary genres in order to create a dynamic, electric genre,” to quote Alberto Julián Pérez in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Pérez also noted that Borges’s work “constitutes, through his extreme linguistic conscience and a formal synthesis capable of representing the most varied ideas, an instance of supreme development in and renovation of narrative techniques. With his exemplary literary advances and the reflective sharpness of his metaliterature, he has effectively influenced the destiny of literature.”
Borges was nearly unknown in most of the world until 1961 when, in his early sixties, he was awarded the Prix Formentor, the International Publishers Prize, an honor he shared with Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Prior to winning the award, according to Gene H. Bell-Villada in Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art, “Borges had been writing in relative obscurity in Buenos Aires, his fiction and poetry read by his compatriots, who were slow in perceiving his worth or even knowing him.” The award made Borges internationally famous: a collection of his short stories, Ficciones,was simultaneously published in six different countries, and he was invited by the University of Texas to come to the United States to lecture, the first of many international lecture tours.
Borges’s international appeal was partly a result of his enormous erudition, which becomes immediately apparent in the multitude of literary allusions from cultures around the globe that are contained in his writing. “The work of Jorge Luis Borges,” Anthony Kerrigan wrote in his introduction to the English translation of Ficciones, “is a species of international literary metaphor. He knowledgeably makes a transfer of inherited meanings from Spanish and English, French and German, and sums up a series of analogies, of confrontations, of appositions in other nations’ literatures. His Argentinians act out Parisian dramas, his Central European Jews are wise in the ways of the Amazon, his Babylonians are fluent in the paradigms of Babel.” In the National Review, Peter Witonski commented: “Borges’s grasp of world literature is one of the fundamental elements of his art.”
The familiarity with world literature evident in Borges’s work was initiated at an early age, nurtured by a love of reading. His paternal grandmother was English and, since she lived with the Borgeses, English and Spanish were both spoken in the family home. Jorge Guillermo Borges, Borges’s father, had a large library of English and Spanish books, and his son, whose frail constitution made it impossible to participate in more strenuous activities, spent many hours reading. “If I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library,” Borges stated, in “An Autobiographical Essay,” which originally appeared in the New Yorker and was later included in The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933-1969.
After the war the Borges family settled in Spain for a few years. During this extended stay, Borges published reviews, articles, and poetry and became associated with a group of avant-garde poets called Ultraists (named after the magazine, Ultra, to which they contributed). Upon Borges’s return to Argentina in 1921, he introduced the tenets of the movement—a belief, for example, in the supremacy of the metaphor—to the Argentine literary scene. His first collection of poems, Fervor de Buenos Aires, was written under the spell of this new poetic movement. Although in his autobiographical essay he expressed regret for his “early Ultraist excesses,” and in later editions ofFervor de Buenos Aires eliminated more than a dozen poems from the text and considerably altered many of the remaining poems, Borges still saw some value in the work. In his autobiographical essay he noted, “I think I have never strayed beyond that book. I feel that all my subsequent writing has only developed themes first taken up there; I feel that all during my lifetime I have been rewriting that one book.”
Although better known for his prose, Borges began his writing career as a poet and was known primarily for his poetry in Latin America particularly. In addition to writing his own original poetry, he translated important foreign poets for an Argentinian audience. He also authored numerous essays and gave whole series of lectures on poetry and various poets from Dante to Whitman. Observing that Borges “is one of the major Latin American poets of the twentieth century,” Daniel Balderston in the Dictionary of Literary Biography added that in Latin America, Borges’s poetry “has had a wide impact: many verses have been used as titles for novels and other works, many poems have been set to music, and his variety of poetic voices have been important to many younger poets.”
Illusion is an important part of Borges’s fictional world. In Borges: The Labyrinth Maker, Ana Maria Barrenechea called it “his resplendent world of shadows.” But illusion is present in his manner of writing as well as in the fictional world he describes. In World Literature Today, William Riggan quoted Icelandic author Sigurdur Magnusson’s thoughts on this aspect of Borges’s work. “With the possible exception of Kafka,” Magnusson stated, “no other writer that I know manages, with such relentless logic, to turn language upon itself to reverse himself time after time with a sentence or a paragraph, and effortlessly, so it seems, come upon surprising yet inevitable conclusions.”
[The] intrusions of reality on the fictional world are characteristic of Borges’s work. He also uses a device, which he calls “the contamination of reality by dream,” that produces the same effect of uneasiness in the reader as “the work within the work,” but through directly opposite means. Two examples of stories using this technique are “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “The Circular Ruins.” The first, which Stabb included in his “difficult-to-classify ‘intermediate’ fiction,” is one of Borges’s most discussed works. It tells the story, according to Barrenechea, “of an attempt of a group of men to create a world of their own until, by the sheer weight of concentration, the fantastic creation acquires consistency and some of its objects—a compass, a metallic cone—which are composed of strange matter begin to appear on earth.” By the end of the story, the world as we know it is slowly turning into the invented world of Tlon. Stabb called the work “difficult-to-classify” because, he commented, “the excruciating amount of documentary detail (half real, half fictitious) . . . make[s] the piece seem more like an essay.” There are, in addition, footnotes and a postscript to the story as well as an appearance by Borges himself and references to several other well-known Latin-American literary figures, including Borges’s friend Bioy Casares.
Some critics saw Borges’s use of the double as an attempt to deal with the duality in his own personality: the struggle between his native Argentine roots and the strong European influence on his writing. They also pointed out what seemed to be an attempt by the author to reconcile through his fiction the reality of his sedentary life as an almost-blind scholar with the longed-for adventurous life of his dreams, like those of his famous ancestors who actively participated in Argentina’s wars for independence. Bell-Villada pointed out that this tendency is especially evident in “The South,” a largely autobiographical story about a library worker who, like Borges, “is painfully aware of the discordant strains in his ancestry.”