Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rediscovering António Botto, a major voice in modern gay poetry and twentieth-century letters

BY JOSIAH BLACKMORE
Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Toronto


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"Even reading (António Botto's) poems a half century after they were written, one feels the flesh burn."
—Henri Cole


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One early summer afternoon in the early '90s, soon after arriving at the University of Toronto, I was perusing the astounding collection of Portuguese literature in the Robarts Library. I came across a copy of Cartas que me foram devolvidas ("Letters Returned to Me"), which was signed on the title page by António Botto, in his exuberant signature, in still-bright green ink. I recalled having come across Botto’s name in graduate school, but hadn’t read much by him. So I kept looking and reading, charging out copies of all the books Robarts had by Botto, which, thankfully, was many. I was struck time and again by the lyrical intensity and eloquence of the poetry. I couldn’t find much contemporary writing on Botto—a few newspaper articles, a reference here and there, but nothing that delved into the voice speaking from the pages of the book I had in my hands. I started a file on Botto, adding the odd item to it now and again, all the while continuing my bibliographic searches and determined to write something on him some day. I discovered that there was quite a relatively large amount of critical writing on him from the early 20th century, but not much afterward. As I read his plays, stories, and poems in the ensuing years—at one point discovering with a whoop of scholarly and readerly joy that Fernando Pessoa, the great Pessoa, had translated Botto—I became more and more convinced of the importance of this voice in Portuguese literature, of its personal intensity, and of its extraordinary status because of the candid way in which it dealt with same-sex eroticism. I also knew that I needed to take Botto outside of the circle of Portuguese and Iberian literature, as he was a discovery I longed to share with a wider audience. I began to offer a few of Botto’s poems to students in an introductory literature class from year to year, and the result was always the same: enthusiastic interest, excitement over poetry, and "Can I write a paper about him?" I personally began acquiring many of Botto’s books; I was amazed at how difficult it was to find copies in library catalogues. At some point along the way, it occurred to me that bringing out an edition of Pessoa’s translations that had been printed semi-clandestinely in 1948 might be the best way to bring Botto to a new and broader readership. What a triumph for Botto and Pessoa: The Songs of António Botto is in print, again, at last!

After reading some of the critical flurry that surrounded Botto’s second edition (1922) of Canções, I began to think of António Botto as modern Portugal’s most famous unknown poet. When Botto was writing and publishing poetry in early 20th-century Lisbon, critics hailed him as one of the best poets of the
Fernando Pessoa, 1914.
new century. At the same time many writers, including those who otherwise praised him, condemned the kind of love and erotism he unapologetically chose as the basis of so many of his writings. He kept good company: Botto was a good friend of Pessoa, and the two were literary collaborators. Pessoa clearly held a high esteem for Botto since he came to Botto’s defense publicly after the outcry of the 1922 Canções, a book he himself had published in his short-lived publishing enterprise. The intense hostility toward Botto eventually prompted the poet to emigrate to Brazil, where he continued to write and be active in literary circles and where he won the admiration of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, a luminary of modern Latin American literature.

Just after Botto’s death in 1959, his poetry fell into near oblivion despite the occasional reprinting of his Canções. This says something about the politics of literary fame, or the politics of the conservative literary canon that often suppresses writers who talk about forbidden or taboo topics. If we read the criticism on Botto immediately following the 1922 Canções, one of the things that stands out is that many writers either went to great lengths to avoid talking about Botto’s poetic eroticism, or praised him rather unabashedly while dismissing his kind of love as pathological or abnormal. In one way this is to be expected in the early 20th century, when homosexuality was classified more and more often as a clinical or psychosexual aberration. But it obviously vexed Botto’s critics in a way that other expressions of fin-de-siècle eroticism didn’t. Which is to say: when Botto writes of sensuality and eroticism, pay attention. This is one reason I find Botto’s voice to be like C. P. Cavafy’s: Botto is a noteworthy poet no matter what he writes about, but the homoerotic undercurrent of much of his poetry makes up a part of his entire poetic personality and can’t be extracted from it, can’t be ignored or dismissed. So it is that the publication of The Songs of António Botto is a signal moment in the history of Botto’s poetry, and in the history of all those writers who spoke honestly about what was important to them and who were silenced for years because they said what others deemed should remain unsaid. This new edition realizes the potential of Pessoa’s translations to prompt a true rediscovery of a voice that was critically acclaimed nearly a hundred years ago but that then languished, for decades, unheard and unread.

The Songs of António Botto celebrates many things: Botto’s poetry itself, the literary culture of Portugal, Pessoa’s regard for his friend’s work and his interest in translation, and probably most importantly, the courage of an artist to go against the mainstream grain. Botto will appeal to all kinds of readers simply as a remarkable voice in 20th-century letters. His poems speak across linguistic and national boundaries. Botto deserves a place in critical conversations on 20th-century literature and will reward the general reader who appreciates poetry as an ebb and flow of an intensely personal experience, a delving into the reaches of the self as the impulse that drives literary creation.

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Josiah Blackmore is professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Toronto. He is author of Moorings (2008) and editor of the newly published The Songs of António Botto (December 2010).

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