Roberto Bolaño and the Role of the Poet

A piece of mine about the writer Roberto Bolaño and poetry was published the other day on the Oxford University Press blog, OUPblog.

Bolaño is of course best-known as the author of sprawling, ambitious novels like The Savage Detectives and 2666, but he was also a poet, and an obsessive interest in poetry appears across his body of work. This piece argues that Bolaño was not only fascinated by poetry in general, but had some strong and rather surprising connections to poets and artists of the New York School.

As I discuss in the essay:

Bolaño read voraciously, immersing himself fully in a wide range of 20th century avant-garde writing and art, but as the final pieces of his work appear in translation, it has become clearer than ever that he seems to have had a special connection to a poetry movement that sprouted from a place far from Santiago, Mexico City, Barcelona, and other key points in his own geography — the world of Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, Ted Berrigan, and other New York poets.

In the piece, I mention a strange and funny moment in Bolaño’s recently published, posthumous book, Woes of the True Policeman (which I am grateful to David Shapiro for pointing out to me).  At one point, Bolaño includes a page of “Notes from a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet,” supposedly compiled by his college professor protagonist.

This takes the form of a kind of proto-Buzzfeed list that features a dizzying array of authors, selected for various amusing and strange categories, like “Biggest cock” (Frank O’Hara), “Worst houseguest” (candidates include Allen Ginsberg and Seamus Heaney), “Best movie companion” (Elizabeth Bishop and Ted Berrigan), “Least desirable as a literature professor” (Charles Olson) and “Best drinking buddy” (includes Mark Strand, “who was said to be an expert in the martial arts”).

Not only does the list contain a number of writers associated with the New York School (O’Hara, Berrigan, Diane Di Prima), it also provides a wonderful, idiosyncratic map to the profoundly eclectic and cosmopolitan nature of Bolaño’s literary universe, which ranges from Latin American literature (Borges, Paz, Neruda, Parra, and many others) to American poetry (Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell) to the European avant-garde (Francis Ponge, Artaud, Mayakovsky, Celan).

Here’s the list in full:

Notes from a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet

Happiest: Garcia Lorca.
Most tormented: Celan.  Or Trakl, according to others, though there are some who claim          that the honors go to the Latin American poets killed in the insurrections of the ’60 and        ’70s.  And there are those who say: Hart Crane.
Most handsome: Crevel and Félix Azúa.
Fattest: Neruda and Lezama Lima (though I remember – and with grateful resolve chose        not to mention – the whale-like bulk of a Panamanian poet by the name of Roberto              Fernandez, keen reader and best of friends).
Banker of the soul: T.S. Eliot.
Whitest, the alabaster banker: Wallace Stevens.
Rich kid in hell: Cernuda and Gilberto Owen.
Strangest wrinkles: Auden.
Worst temper: Salvador Díaz Mirón.  Or Gabriela Mistral, according to others.
Biggest cock: Frank O’Hara.
Secretary to the alabaster banker: Francis Ponge.
Best houseguest: Amada Nervo.
Worst houseguest: various and conflicting opinions: Allen Ginsberg, Octavio Paz,                          e.e. cummings, Adrian Henri, Seamus Heaney, Gregory Corso, Michel Bulteau, the                Hermanitos Campos, Alejandra Piznarik, Leopoldo María Panero and his older                      brother, Jaime Sabines, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Mario Benedetti.
Best deathbed companion: Ernesto Cardenal.
Best movie companion: Elizabeth Bishop, Berrigan, Ted Hughes, José Emilio Pacheco.
Best in the kitchen: Coronel Urtecho (but Amalfitano reminded them of Pablo de Rokha              and read him and there was no argument).
Most fun: Borges and Nicanor Parra.  Others: Richard Brautigan, Gary Snyder.
Most clearsighted: Martín Adán.
Least desirable as a literature professor: Charles Olson.
Most desirable as a literature professor, though only in short bursts: Ezra Pound.
Most desirable as a literature professor for all eternity: Borges.
Greatest sufferer: Vallejo, Pavese.
Best deathbed companion after Ernesto Cardenal: William Carlos Williams.
Most full of life: Violeta Parra, Alfonsina Storni (though Amalfitano pointed out that both             had killed themselves), Dario Bellezza.
Most rational way of life: Emily Dickinson and Cavafy (though Amalfitano pointed out                 that – according to the conventional wisdom – both were failures).
Most elegant: Tablada.
Best Hollywood gangster: Antonin Artaud.
Best New York gangster: Kenneth Patchen.
Best Medellín gangster: Álvaro Mutis.
Best Hong Kong gangster: Robert Lowell (applause), Pere Gimferrer.
Best Miami gangster: Vicente Huidobro.
Laziest: Daniel Biga. Or, according to some, Oquendo de Amat.
Best masked man: Salvador Novo.
Biggest nervous wreck: Roque Dalton.  Also: Diane Di Prima, Pasolinim Enrique Lihn.
Best drinking buddy: several names were mentioned, among them Cintio Vitier,                          Oliverio Girondo, Nicolas Born, Jacques Prévert, and Mark Strand, who was said to be         an expert in the martial arts.
Worst drinking buddy: Mayakovsky and Orlando Guillén.
Most fearless dancer with American death: Macedonio Fernández.
Most homegrown, most Mexican: Ramón López Velarde and Efrain Huerta.  Other                    opinions: Maples Arce, Enrique González Martínez, Alfonso Reyes, Carlos Pellicer, and          the female author of Rincones románticos (1992), whose name no one could                          remember.

— from Woes of the True Policeman, Roberto Bolaño

 

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