hotching in heteronyms

(This is evidently a review I did, possibly for Poetry Review, certainly back in January 2002. I like Pessoa a lot more than it would appear to suggest, so I was talking more about contemporary lazy smartnesses.)

Ah, heteronyms, those voices that hang around poets’ heads claiming to be shamanic familiars. I remember my first heteronyms the way I remember old school friends: Calvus, the friend of Catullus whose manuscripts survived in fragments; Ogami, the sixteenth-century haiku master. Funny how these alternative voices are always those of ‘masters’, the way air hostesses and golf instructors turn out to be Nefertiti or King Arthur in a previous life. The same seems true of Pessoa, the master of the heteronym, who invented a whole host to cope with the messy, exposing task of writing.

His first was the Zen-like pastoral poet Alberto De Caiero, an impossible creature even in pre-WW1 Portugal. De Caiero reads like a wish figure from a dead past, Wordsworth translated into Japanese: ‘To think is uncomfortable like walking in the rain/When the wind is rising and it looks like raining more.’ Yet Pessoa regarded this imposing, rather prissy voice as a creative liberation: ‘My master had appeared in me’. Never mind this was a one-note master who couldn’t write much, given the Lisbon-bound poet’s lack of country lore – he simply invented Ricardo Reis to be the master’s pupil and get on with writing those pesky poems. Pessoa’s ironic awareness of the infinite self-recession of this strategy is clear from his depiction of Reis: a ‘Greek Horace who wrote in Portuguese’. The more formal Reis promptly induced a backlash: the ‘Sensationist’ bard Alvaro De Campos, that Whitmanic world-traveller. All three burst into verse – and wrote most of their best work – within a few months in 1914.

Where in this was Pessoa’s own writing, what he termed his ‘orthonymic’ work? It was, apparently, even more controlled than Reis, though it is hard for us to gauge its quality through Jonathan Griffin’s translations, which sometimes snarl up with intricacies that presumably have cadences in Portuguese they lack in English:

What is merges with what

I sleep and am. And I’m

Not feeling; sad I’m not.

But a sad thing I am.

De Campos comes out best, perhaps because his larger lines don’t tie the translator down so much:

In the house opposite me and my dreams

What happiness there always is!

…The children who play on the high balconies

Live between vases of flowers,

Without a doubt, eternally.

The voices that rise from within that home

Are always singing, without any doubt.

Yes, they must be singing.


…What a great happiness not to be me!

In that last line we have a key to the heteronymic impulse. It is an attempt to be  someone who could write all the poems Pessoa wanted to, which, because of his self-control, he felt he could not. Because Pessoa, like Magritte or Morandi or Auden, is one of those artists who reduce their lives to a controlled ritual in which as little happens as possible. His working life consisted solely of writing business letters in English and French; he dined in the same restaurant on the Rua dos Douradores; he avoided physical intimacy, probably dying a virgin. His whole focus was directed inward and his self apparently found that unendurable.

Pessoa is partially responsible for a shrinkage of the poetic persona. His work can serve as a justification for poets who wish to define their limits, rather than their largesse. You cannot, he claims, contain all that cultural baggage within your own voice, you must invent others. He appears to support the lazy orthodoxy that the lyric ‘I’ is simply something other than the poet’s ‘ordinary’ voice, rather than a voice that critiques and augments any notions we may have of such units. There is a subtle metamorphosis that occurs when a poet uses ‘I’ in a poem, and all poets require something of fiction’s freedoms, but equally there is a concern with truth in poetry often passed over to hide behind shallow personae. Reading Pessoa should dispel such irresponsibilities because his heteronyms are not, finally, as convincing as poetic voices as they are as psychological necessities.

Griffin’s selection is a straightforward reprint of my old 1982 edition – perhaps we could have expected some change or, preferably, expansion, since the publication of Pessoa’s masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet. In the meantime we have discovered Pessoa’s voices did not rest at three, that he was hotching in heteronyms, creating swarms of semi-heteronyms, some of whom may have had hemisemi-heteronyms. The Book points to the unstoppable impetus of this impulse, his extension of the theory to an almost pathological inconclusiveness, because this collection of around five hundred prose fragments is as close to a non-book as it can get.

Begun the year before the arrival of De Caiero and crew, the Book continued to accumulate until Pessoa’s death, at which point it was a lot of scribbles in a trunk, not even sewn together a la Emily Dickinson. It was ‘written’ by two heteronyms, initially Vicente Guedes and latterly Bernard Soares. Guedes, an assistant bookkeeper, proved too rational for the Book’s symbolist flights: he was fired and the manuscript rested. Then Pessoa employed another assistant bookkeeper (the profession can hardly have been an accident) and carried on. Pessoa’s description of Soares is telling: ‘He’s a semi-heteronym because his personality, although not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it.’ Like anything we write, then – except, for the fastidious Pessoa, everything lay in the distinction.

And the book that Soares was handed fifteen years after it had been begun? Almost every page is charged with an aphoristic anxiety: ‘I asked for very little from life, and even this little was denied me.’ ‘Everything was sleeping as if the universe was a mistake.’ ‘I’m so isolated I can feel the distance between me and my suit.’ ‘To write is to forget. Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.’ ‘I hereby excuse you from appearing in my idea of you.’ Some passages sustain this brilliantly, others seem a little too fin de siecle or over-fascinated by their own alienation. But the main difficulty comes from trying to consider it as a whole.

The Book of Disquiet celebrates the Pyrrhic victory of narrative voice over novelistic convention. Nothing happens, big time, even in terms of the sensibility or sensibilities which narrate these deeply internalised non-events. The book aspires to be a single gigantic aphorism, and therefore lacks progression. It is caught in one brittle dichotomy: how the world is (too magnificent to live in) and how the voice is (too anxious to act) – one is opposed to the other, forever. This is at once its achievement and its failure: much like anxiety, whilst caught up in it, it is all-consuming; but when you put it down The Book of Disquiet rapidly becomes irrelevant to our own compulsive narratives.

Which is pretty much how Pessoa left it. The editor, Richard Zenith, confesses in his lucid introduction that he not only had to decipher the manuscript, but also order it. So a significant further link must be added to the chain that separates us from its author. I can’t help but think Pessoa may have regarded editors and readers as slightly too independent heteronyms. Perhaps he should just have got out more.

(Fernando Pessoa, Selected Poems, translated by Jonathan Griffin (Penguin), £7.99, The Book of  Disquiet, edited and translated by Richard Zenith (Penguin), £20.00.)

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
This entry was posted in reviews (some antique) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s