Joan Brossa

Form and Theme in the Work of Joan Brossa

Brossa - gedichte
Brossa - poema ouera
Poema ouera Joan Brossa
Brossa - l'illusioniste1
Brossa - poema regadora
Brossa - poesia rasa
by Melcion Mateu (Avui, 2001). Translation by Graham Thomson.

Joan Brossa, A partir del silenci. Antologia polimòrfica
Edited by Glòria Bordons.
Galàxia Gutenberg / Cercle de Lectors. Barcelona, 2001

While we continue to await the publication of the complete works of Joan Brossa (Barcelona, 1919 -1998), there are many possible routes to take us into his universe. Brossa's is a large and diverse body of work: it embraces the visual arts, of course - it is the visual work that has won him greater international recognition and popularity in the last few years; theatre - proportionally underrepresented, despite recent efforts; prose - in the form of prose poems or essays, and, above all, poetry, as the true core of all his activities: Brossa regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, on the surface and in essence, in language or beyond it.

Brossa's poetry has been the subject of many anthologies - among which special mention should be made of La memòria encesa (1998), a selection made by the poet himself that contains a considerable number of unpublished pieces, but none of these was compiled at a time when the entire corpus was available to the editors, nor can they offer, from this perspective, an overall vision of what the poetry of Joan Brossa has been and is, be it in verse or in prose, in dramatic or visual form.

A partir del silenci, the 'polymorphic anthology' presented by Glòria Bordons, brings together a total of 236 texts and visual works representing Brossa's poetry in all its aspects, over a period of more than fifty years. The anthology features texts in which Brossa himself presents each of his facets, each (to say it his words) of his 'poetic adventures'.

Double Itinerary

Glòria Bordons, a leading authority on Brossa's work (this is the third Brossa anthology she has edited), has opted for an order that is strict and systematic without being simplistic. In effect, this might be thought of as two anthologies in one - or as its editor says in her introduction, as a 'double itinerary' through Brossa's work: on the one hand, a formal anthology, grouped by genre (the classical forms with the sonnets, odes and sestinas; the popular forms with the ballads and songs; the stage poetry; the creative prose, the visual poems, etcetera), and on the other, a thematic anthology of the transverse axes that run through all of Brossa's work: the social commitment, the humour, the love of cinema, magic and quick-change acts, among others. Inevitably, in a body of work as unclassifiable as Brossa's, every label is questionable, and there is no shortage of poems that seem to defy all attempts to classify them: thus, among the classical forms there is a Sextina visual that could just as easily have been included in the section devoted to the visual poems, and in the section on games and magic we find the famous Sonet mig tapat amb un llençol next to the visual poem Sense atzar (a pack of playing cards shackled with a chain), pieces that would have been equally at home in the sections dealing with the classical forms and the object poems, respectively.

The anthologist, then, has not sought to impose an order that would disguise the complexity of Brossa's work or the problems it raises; on the contrary, approached in this way, the sections in which the poems are classified act as authentic communicating vessels, and as an effect of this the whole corpus of Brossa's work - that labyrinth of forms and themes that has baffled more than one reader - manifests a profound unity in which everything comes to converge: the traditional forms and the transgressive forms, the everyday, down-to-earth, prosaic poetry and the metaphysical poetry that dominates the last section of the anthology. The antipoetry, which Brossa himself described as - those poems apparently prosaic and void of content -, thus lies down with the rest of the poetry, because in the last analysis, in Brossa, the one cannot exist without the other. Without an appreciation of Brossa's paradoxical thought, it is impossible to understand his approach to life and poetry: 'I know the usefulness of uselessness. / And I have the riches of not wanting to be rich'.

As we have said, each section of the anthology is prefaced by texts in which Brossa himself talks about his work 'extracts from interviews with the poet or from the prose sections in the three volumes of Anafil, some still awaiting publication in Catalan, among other sources' and it is in these that much of the novelty of A partir del silenci (a title taken precisely from one of those prose texts) lies: Brossa acts as our guide on this dual itinerary through his work and responds to such crucial questions as, for example, 'What is a lyric poem?': 'A concentration of language and a testing of correspondences. The worth of a poem is defined by the number of windows it opens for the reader'.

A good deal of Brossa's work is the fruit of a poetics of the gesture; the result of the gesture may be imitable, but the attitude that underpins it is not: the effect is often one of provocation, and all genuine provocation is unique, unrepeatable. The same poetics that he used to reify language ('A sheet of white paper with just / the word thanks written on it in hand'), to treat it as both an object and a symbol, led him to explore the possibilities of the visual poetry and the object poems. Brossa himself explained that his fidelity to his vocation as a poet led him to cross the frontier: 'Because, in effect, if words are things, with the language of things it is also possible to make metaphors'.

The Currency of Joan Brossa

Perceived as a whole - albeit in the particular light of this anthology - Brossa's work is essentially transgressive, from both the aesthetic and the political points of view, but transgressive on the basis of a mastery of the tradition and an appreciation of its foundations. Even where he is closest to noucentisme - the direct legacy of Foix or the example of Carner - Brossa uses the classical form to question the idea of order or to ironize about the supremacy of reason (or what the philosopher Jacques Derrida would call logocentrism). Brossa undermines the limits of reason and does so by means of reason itself, of free association and automatic writing, of humour, magic and the quick-change artist's transformation. Brossa is a postmodern writer, perhaps the first in Catalan literature; he demystified highbrow culture and revived the popular tradition, he used irony to devastating effect, his hero is the man in the street ('the shoes are the pedestal', as a frequently quoted title of his says). But there is also, in Brossa, an almost religious poet, one who believes in a profound order: that of the vital cycle of which the human species is an integral part. A Brossa who is at once hedonist and mystic, capable of turning a little scrap of reality into a great metaphor. The anthology A partir del silenci gives us a taste of all of these ingredients of Brossa's work - a body of work of a remarkable intensity that covers the entire second half of the 20th century and is of indisputable currency and relevance in the 21st.

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