Poetry Lounge: “After a while, you learn.” {Jorge Luis Borges}


“A writer – and, I believe, generally all persons – must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.” ~ Jorge Luis Borges

The Poet.

Say hello to Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most celebrated Argentinian writers of the XXth century. Lover of symbols, innate philosopher, sad soul, library dweller and Renaissance man, he managed to build—through his large body of work—a walkable bridge between magic and realism.

He basically covered the remains of nineteenth century realism, with his magic word-spell, aided by symbols and molded by surrealism.

Yet another example of how to recycle your pain, the fact that he suffered from progressive blindness, intensified his unmatched imagination.

Borges is the kind of artist you either love or unlove. Whatever the case, he’s hard to ignore, upon his acquaintance. In words of writer and essayist J. M. Coetzee:

“He, more than anyone, renovated the language of fiction and thus opened the way to a remarkable generation of Spanish American novelists.”

Although he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature and he deserved it as much as any of the greatest literary geniuses in history, the award never came within his reach, for political reasons.

 

 

The Poem.

I used to read more Borges in college. He was fond of libraries and cafés, so I am pretty sure I’ve met him at some point in a forgotten corner of Buenos Aires, buried in the smell of old, thick volumes of typewritten life… Considering, of course, that he died around the same time I was born.

This is the type of poetry that the least cryptic and most enjoyable side of Borges whispers to me—not from the depths of a century-old library but from inside an even older, universal heart of sad joy.

You Learn

 

After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,

 

And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security.

 

And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises,

 

And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,

 

And you learn to build all your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

 

After a while you learn…
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.

 

So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

 

And you learn that you really can endure…

 

That you really are strong

 

And you really do have worth…

 

And you learn and learn…

 

With every good-bye you learn.

 

 

 {…}

 

 

The Art of Poetry 

To gaze at a river made of time and water 
and remember that Time is another river. 
To know we stray like a river 
and our faces vanish like water. 

To feel that waking is another dream 
that dreams of not dreaming and that the death 
we fear in our bones is the death 
that every night we call a dream. 

To see in every day and year a symbol 
of all the days of man and his years, 
and convert the outrage of the years 
into a music, a sound, and a symbol. 

To see in death a dream, in the sunset 
a golden sadness, such is poetry, 
humble and immortal, poetry, 
returning, like dawn and the sunset. 

Sometimes at evening there’s a face 
that sees us from the deeps of a mirror. 
Art must be that sort of mirror, 
disclosing to each of us his face. 

They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders, 
wept with love on seeing Ithaca, 
humble and green. Art is that Ithaca, 
a green eternity, not wonders. 

Art is endless like a river flowing, 
passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same 
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same 
and yet another, like the river flowing.

 

Although he was fluent in both, French and English, Borges’ native and official language for most of his life and work was Spanish. Here’s what his Art of Poetry sounds like in his own house:

Arte Poética

Mirar el río hecho de tiempo y agua
Y recordar que el tiempo es otro río,
Saber que nos perdemos como el río
Y que los rostros pasan como el agua.

 

Sentir que la vigilia es otro sueño
Que sueña no soñar y que la muerte
Que teme nuestra carne es esa muerte
De cada noche, que se llama sueño.

 

Ver en el día o en el año un símbolo
De los días del hombre y de sus años,
Convertir el ultraje de los años
En una música, un rumor y un símbolo.

 

Ver en la muerte el sueño, en el ocaso
Un triste oro, tal es la poesía
Que es inmortal y pobre. La poesía
Vuelve como la aurora y el ocaso.

 

A veces en las tardes una cara
Nos mira desde el fondo de un espejo;
El arte debe ser como ese espejo
Que nos revela nuestra propia cara.

 

Cuentan que Ulises, harto de prodigios,
Lloró de amor al divisar su Itaca
Verde y humilde. El arte es esa Itaca
De verde eternidad, no de prodigios.

 

También es como el río interminable
Que pasa y queda y es cristal de un mismo
Heráclito inconstante, que es el mismo
Y es otro, como el río interminable.

I enjoy Borges not because he was broken, or blind or good with words, or intellectually remarkable.

The world is full of sad, ingenious genius.

No. I like him because he used his art as an inescapable way into the tunnels of the heart, where—with closed eyes but open mouth—he bravely captured his own darkness, and then brought it out into the ephemeral, mundane light for the world to touch: Here, here, don’t be afraid, it’s only flesh.

I like him so much, I might even use this next instant of surrender as my wedding (or something-like-a-wedding) vow—if I don’t have time to make my own.

“I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart. I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.” ~ Jorge Luis Borges

What poet unsettles you with delight?

 

*****

Read More: 

>> Poetry Lounge Unabridged.

>> Writing Lab: Kurt Vonnegut’s eight essentials for a good short story.

>> Jack Kerouac’s 30 keys to life & writing.

 

 

{Poetry, have mercy on me.}

 

 

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Andrea Balt
Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Rebelle Society, Wellness Alchemist at Rebelle Wellness & Professional Dream Chaser at Creative Rehab. Unfinished book with a love for greens, bikes and poetry; raised by wolves & adopted by people; not trying to make art but to Be Art. Holds a BA in Journalism & Mass Communication, an MFA in Creative Writing & a Holistic Health Coach degree from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition®. In her work she tries to reflect the wholeness of the human experience by combining Art & Health + Mind & Body + Darkness & Brilliance into a more alive, unabridged and unlimited edition of ourselves. She is also on a quest to reinstate Creativity as one of our essential Human Rights to (hopefully and soon) be included in the UN Declaration. Connect with her in the Social Media Jungle via Facebook, Twitter & Instagram and sign up for her FREE MuseLetter.

39 Comments

  • Richard La Rosa
    Richard La Rosa commented on September 15, 2012 Reply
    But, there are so many poems. So many poets. It’s a cacophony of a myriad of poetic voices echoing in the mind’s cafe. Try to listen to one voice, one thought, one deliberate expression of language, and another fragment joins the party. To answer your question, the unsettling of delight began for me with the e. e. cummings poem that begins with “somewhere i have never traveled” and ends with “not even the rain has such small hands” which I first heard, rather than read, spoken by Michael Caine in Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters. But, that wasn’t the first poem that my radar captured. I had forgotten (and remembered only a few years ago) that I once copied a poem in blue crayon to a piece of yellow construction paper when I was eight years old. It was a simple little poem of only twenty words and it stuck in my mind forever. The uncredited poet was Emily D. She wrote, “A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” My love affair with words began to live that day. I was doomed. Years later, Dylan Thomas taught me words like evanescent and T.S. Eliot spoke of the hollow men. I learned that “between the idea and the reality [and] between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.” Life is very long. This is the way the world begins and lines of poetry line the walls of my cage.  The poetic language of Romeo, a lovesick boy whose heart is not content to rest idly on his sleeve but rather to leap off it and go on a rampage through the temple of love — this is the language that has created my romantic spirit. It’s a spirit that cannot be broken, not even by the laughter of a thoughtless girl when I said to her, “If I profane with my unworthy hand this holy shrine, the gentle fine is this; my lips two ready pilgrims stand, to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.” The expression on her face that followed that laughter, a look that is burned into my memory (a splinter in my mind’s eye, if you will) made me realize the rarity of kindred-love-spirits in a world I thought was teeming with Juliet’s. Poetry and poetic language is a treasure map to self-discovery. It is full of trigger words that unleash restrained emotions to those of us suffering from post traumatic stress disorders of the soul from too many tours of duty on the battlefields of feeling too much and too deeply. Poetry asks us to strip off our armor, sink to our knees, surrender, and guide the tip of that sword to our breast. It asks of us a raw vulnerability that makes a man feel as if he’s been crushed and turned inside out and a woman feel as if she’s been transformed into a flash flood of tears that threatens to catch up and carry off anything in its path.  The best kind of poetry, though, is that which reveals our connection to others and to the rest of the world. Poetry that makes us realize that we are not alone in the way we think and feel. Like Robert Bly’s translation of Pablo Neruda’s Enigmas, which still sends chills through my body when I read it.  “You’ve asked me what the lobster is weaving there with  his golden feet? I reply, the ocean knows this. You say, what is the ascidia waiting for in its transparent  bell? What is it waiting for? I tell you it is waiting for time, like you. You ask me whom the Macrocystis alga hugs in its arms? Study, study it, at a certain hour, in a certain sea I know. You question me about the wicked tusk of the narwhal,  and I reply by describing how the sea unicorn with the harpoon in it dies. You enquire about the kingfisher’s feathers, which tremble in the pure springs of the southern tides? Or you’ve found in the cards a new question touching on  the crystal architecture of the sea anemone, and you’ll deal that to me now? You want to understand the electric nature of the ocean  spines? The armored stalactite that breaks as it walks? The hook of the angler fish, the music stretched out in the deep places like a thread in the water? I want to tell you the ocean knows this, that life in its  jewel boxes is endless as the sand, impossible to count, pure, and among the blood-colored grapes time has made the  petal hard and shiny, made the jellyfish full of light and untied its knot, letting its musical threads fall from a horn of plenty made of infinite mother-of-pearl. I am nothing but the empty net which has gone on ahead of human eyes, dead in those darknesses, of fingers accustomed to the triangle, longitudes on the timid globe of an orange. I walked around as you do, investigating the endless star, and in my net, during the night, I woke up naked, the only thing caught, a fish trapped inside the wind.”
    • Rebelle Society
      Rebelle Society commented on September 16, 2012 Reply
      WOW. You are so turning this comment into a post and covering the next Poetry Lounge.
    • sohho commented on October 24, 2013 Reply
      Curiously enough I was captured by the same line in the same movie: “not even the rain has such small hands” … I later learned (you surely know by now that English is not my native tongue), “small” also means “soft” as in a bland way… even though that learning added some complexity to the sentence, to my eyes and in a way it vanished the almost magical effect of that first understanding…
  • Susan Berghorn-Smith commented on September 15, 2012 Reply
    Theodore Roethke.
    • Andrea Balt
      Andrea Balt commented on September 19, 2012 Reply
      Oops, never read Roethke. Need to do my homework. Thanks!
  • Braja Sorensen
    Braja Sorensen commented on September 16, 2012 Reply
    I love that you chose a few select words and called them your wedding or something vow….that’s beautiful, both the words themselves and the thought….
    • Andrea Balt
      Andrea Balt commented on September 19, 2012 Reply
      I hope my future husband (or-something-like-a-husband) feels the same way. :) Unless I end up marrying myself, also a possibility.
  • Rosemary Bolivar commented on September 16, 2012 Reply
    Pablo Neruda… he was my first Poet Love. “… I drink to the word, raising a word or crystalline cup, in it I drink the wine of language or unfathomable water, maternal source of all words, and cup and water and wine give rise to my song because the name is origin and green life: it is blood, the blood that expresses its substance, and thus its unrolling is prepared: words give crystal to the crystal, blood to the blood, and give life to life.” ~ Pablo Neruda, The Word.
    • Andrea Balt
      Andrea Balt commented on September 19, 2012 Reply
      Thanks for sharing that Rosemary! Beautiful. He was my “first love” in college poetry, before Borges. Not to be missed by any serious poetry lover.
  • Vickie O. commented on September 16, 2012 Reply
    I am so glad I found Rebelle somewhere in the stratosphere. You write about the dope stuff that moves me. Keep pushing.
    • Andrea Balt
      Andrea Balt commented on September 19, 2012 Reply
      Thank you Vickie, it’s been a lot of hard work to put it together but we’re enjoying each step of the process. Feedback is soothing. Love.
  • Scott Lepthien commented on September 19, 2012 Reply
    I am not able yet nor will I probably ever be able to write with the grace and imagination like the post and the post after. And I read it because it grounds me back down to the touch of a hand or a scent of a old book store or the meeting of an old writers eyes and moves me to the inner me that hides behind my thoughts. Thank You.
    • Andrea Balt
      Andrea Balt commented on September 19, 2012 Reply
      We remind ourselves how to be alive, day after day. Thanks back.
  • SR Atchley
    SR Atchley commented on October 16, 2012 Reply
    Wonderful piece. Emily Dickinson was also my first poetic love. Simple, sweet, words of nature, loss, longing, death, unrequited love. Her lines still echo in my mind repeatedly. Thanks for the exposure to Borges, his are the words worlds are made of. Thank you.
  • Paula DLTM commented on October 29, 2012 Reply
    Hey there! I don’t know much about poetry but I’m a big fan of Borges. However, I did not know the poem “You Learn” and cannot find it. Could you tell me the original spanish title and in what book it is published? Will be very much appreciated!
    • Andrea Balt
      Andrea Balt commented on January 7, 2013 Reply
      Hi Paula! Google “Y Uno Aprende” by Jorge Luis Borges. There are different discussions online saying that this poem is incorrectly attributed to Borges, and many more arguing that it is his and got detached from his name and is now being misattributed to different authors. Yet, none of these authors have claimed their copyright. The widespread literary notion so far is that it belongs to Borges, until it is officially claimed and proven otherwise. Borges was fond of poetry recitals and this poem is not found in his published collections, but it is said that he recited it at many of his readings. Whether he was plagiarizing someone else, it’s nearly impossible to tell — unless the actual original is found.
      • sohho commented on October 24, 2013 Reply
        Sorry Andrea, but as I stated in my recent post, it is widely known that it belongs to Veronica A. Shoffstall. Check (among many others) http://www.litera.co.uk/veronica_shoffstall_poetry_collection/. Aside from that, no one that has thoroughly read Borges can actually believe it belongs to him. The poem has not the grace, the depth, the subtleness, and, more important, the complexity that outstands in each and every one of his lines. On the other hand, the poem is imprecise, and even feminine in a romantic and melancholic way, not Borges style at all. Trust me on this. I know Borges and his work very very well.
  • Alessandra commented on November 22, 2012 Reply
    Brilliant. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing and gifting my evening with such delight.
  • Tet Gallardo commented on January 7, 2013 Reply
    Andrea, you nourish on so many levels. Stand your ground in this inane world. :)
  • john McAndrew commented on January 7, 2013 Reply
    Thank you Andrea for your beautiful words and those of Borges! …As Donne gazes into his lover’s eyes, the absolute intimacy of, “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears”, totally hooked, and still hooks, me (The Good-Morrow, John Donne). “For love all love of other sights controls, And makes one little room an everywhere.”
  • tonysearl commented on March 10, 2013 Reply
    Scorching! My darkness just boiled over. 100 Degrees faren HEIGHT! So Grateful to dis-cover “Ye Olde RS” Mob
  • Shubhendu Trivedi commented on March 11, 2013 Reply
    Andrea, The ‘You Learn’ poem is not actually by Borges. by the style and flow I thought it was by somebody else. And indeed it is by a lady named Veronica Shoffstall.
    • Andrea Balt
      Andrea Balt commented on April 7, 2013 Reply
      Hi Shubhendu. Thank you for noting that. Actually, upon further research online, it’s been confirmed that she isn’t – in her own words. It is true that there is a certain ambiguity around this poem and the debate whether it is truly Borges who wrote it still continues, but to this date there are no credited sources to confirm otherwise. Check my comment above in reply to Paula DLTM’s similar remark.
  • sohho commented on October 24, 2013 Reply
    Sorry… “After a While” belongs to Veronica A. Shoffstall not to J.L.Borges
    • RitamKiše commented on March 15, 2014 Reply
      Do you know where I can find information about Veronica A. Shoffstall, her bio, poems?
      • Virginia Rodriguez commented on July 23, 2015 Reply
        Sorry, but the poem is titled Comes the Dawn. My name is Virginia Rodriguez, I live in Tooele, Utah and I am the author of the poem Veronica calls After Awhile. I have not had success in contacting her as I believe she is using a pseudo. My original copy is still in my notebook with edit marks, as it was a work in progress. Any Leads?
  • Andrew Zolnai commented on June 19, 2015 Reply
    You Learn attr. to Borges is attributed to Veronica A. Shoffstall aas After a While, 1971 on various poetry pages: What’s going on?
    • Andrew Zolnai commented on June 20, 2015 Reply
      Pls see my next post, didn’t see this when I posted it
  • Andrew Zolnai commented on June 20, 2015 Reply

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