Juan Ramon Jiménez: Strange Joy

I have shared the poetry of Juan Ramon Jiménez here before (most recently on September 3), and recently I have been even more compelled by his work. Poet Robert Bly’s volume, Lorca & Jiménez, brings together the works of these two extraordinary Spanish poets and offers a window into the creative context of Jiménez’ view of poetry.

With his usual poetic license and metaphysical intensity, Bly compares Jiménez’ work with that of Nerudo and the Austrian poet Georg Trakl (who, though extremely gifted, suffered from depression and ended his life in 1914):

Neruda and Trakl take all their weight as men, and put that into their poems. Their love goes out as a form of occult energy into boulders, river barges, crumbling walls, dining rooms, women’s clothes. When they step back, they leave the energy there. Their poems lie there separate from them, massive, full of grief. To Jiménez writing a poem means something entirely different. For him a poem has ecstasy: that is the difference between poetry and prose. Living as a poet means feeling that ecstasy every day of your life, every hour if possible. A poem flies out of the poet like a spark. Whatever the poet writes down will be touched with ecstasy—the poem will therefore be light, not light in a sense of light verse that avoids seriousness, but light as a spark or as an angel is light. With one or two fewer words the poem would leap straight up into the sky.

The heavy poems of Trakl lie brooding in alleys or on mountain tops, and when the reader walks up to them they hardly notice him: they feel too great a sorrow. Jiménez’s poems on the other hand are nervous and alert, and when we come near, they see us, they are more interested in us than in themselves—they try to show us the road back to the original ecstasy. The poems are signposts pointing the reader back to the poet, that is, back to the life from which the ecstasy came.

And regarding Jiménez’ subject matter, Bly makes this observation:

We can understand the subject matter of Jiménez’ poems if we understand that it is in solitude a man’s emotions become very clear to him. Jiménez does not write of politics or religious doctrines, of the mistakes of others, not of his own troubles or even his own opinions, but only of solitude, and the strange experiences and the strange joy that come to a man in solitude.

I found this passage deeply moving. This is, after all, what I have wanted to achieve with my visual work. It is a strange joy, indeed.

I’ll also share one last passage from Bly’s short essay about Jiménez, partly because it is just about the most romantic thing I can imagine. I never used to be schmaltzy, but aging has its own way of juking our personality traits and leaving us to wonder, just what kind of person am I really? So I’ll own up if you do, too: Ladies, just ask yourselves honestly if this account doesn’t break your heart:

His love for his wife was one of the greatest devotions of his life and he wrote many of his poems for her. When he received the Nobel Prize in 1958, his wife was on her deathbed; he told reporters to go away, that he would not go to Stockholm, that his wife should have had the Nobel Prize, and that he was no longer interested. After his wife died, he did not write another poem and died a few months later, in the spring of 1958.

Sigh.

Here are two examples of his poetry:

I Took Off Petal After Petal

I took off petal after petal, as if you were a rose,
in order to see your soul,
and I didn’t see it.

However, everything around—
horizons of fields and oceans—
everything, even what was infinite,
was filled with a perfume,
immense and living.

I Am Not I

I am not I.
I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see.
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.

5 Comment

  1. Sally Reed says:

    First of all, don’t call that schmaltz. It’s romantic and it’s extreme. It has a wild beauty of its own. Let’s not be afraid to talk about beauty in human relations if we are willing to discuss it in relation to art. I think it becomes almost tragic when we can’t pure-heartedly say words like honor, trust, respect, and devotion, especially in the rare case of a long marriage that has not only retained its luminosity, but also steadily grown in vitality.

    as ever,
    your shrinking violet friend.

  2. Reassurances from the likes of you, a woman of Amazonian intelligence and wisdom, is worth a lot to me.

    Shrinking violet? Never seen a thread of evidence for that…!

  3. Elatia Harris says:

    No, it’s not a schmaltzy story. If anything I’ve seen is understood accurately by me, people in the famous Third Age group usually get some distance from their emotions, failing sadly to be moved by the opera and poetry that long ago overwhelmed them, better able to absorb various losses and move on from them. I’m not talking about myself, okay? I’m a perpetual adolescent. But finding something that is deeply affecting to be, instead, schmaltzy is much more age-appropriate than to be deeply affected by it. Please show me even one young person that knows from schmaltz. If you could cite one, you’d say he was headed for Philip Larkin territory by age 25.

  4. ybonesy says:

    It’s a wonderful story, especially for a writer and poet (and I guess say that because so many were not faithful and that in love with one person until the end). I love Neruda, I love Garcia Lorca, and so I am most grateful to be introduced to Jimenez.

  5. E, Yes to perpetual adolescence if that is how to remain in a state of awe. I still get teary in front of paintings. I still find myself overwhelmed by great theatre. And, what’s even more surprising, I’m more in love with my husband now than I have ever been after 29 years. Go figure.

    Ybonesy, thank you so much for connecting with Jimenez’ work too. He should be in that pantheon of poetic giants.

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