February 27, 2006
Art and Commerce

eVerse had an inspiring post Friday, which I quote in full:

Today we decided to have lunch in the cafeteria near Solis. While I was waiting for the waitress to bring the bill, with a new 1000 Uruguayan pesos banknote in my hand, my eye was caught by some fine script on the back of the note. Closer inspection revealed it to be a stanza from a poem by Juana de Ibarbourou, flanked on the left by the image of a shelf with her books (eight in total, among them "Perdida", "El Cántaro Fresco", and "Raíz Salvaje," which I vaguely remember). The front of the banknote is dominated by a beautiful picture of Juana, pensive and enigmatic.

I am proud that my country of origin has chosen to honor its cultural heroes, rather than its patriotic founders, in such a visible and perhaps uncommon way. I've been coming to Uruguay for years and this is the first time I noticed.

In 1998 I rediscovered a beautiful poem by Juana de Ibarbourou, an early 20th century poet once considered a candidate for the Nobel prize. I translated it as best I could and sent it to Jan Schreiber who re-rendered it into English poetic form. Here it is:

Take me Now (La Hora)

Take me now while the day's still new
and I'm holding dahlias bathed in dew.

Take me while shadows still refine
this thick, mysterious hair of mine.

Now with sweet flesh and delicate chin,
with limpid eyes, rose-petal skin.

Now while my feet dance round a ring
in living sandals made of spring.

Now while unbidden laughter swells,
bursts from my lips like shaken bells.

Afterwards, oh yes, I know
I'll have nothing left to show!

And then how useless your desire . . .
an offering on a funeral pyre.

Take me now while the day's still new,
while I hold the cactus-flower too!

Take me today. Don't leave me jilted
at night, my crown of blossoms wilted.

Today, not tomorrow O love, don't you see
the vine grows thick as the cypress tree?

This has led to some thinking and discussion at KJ homebase.... Who would you put on a US currency, which poet? We usually relegate our artists to the temporary medium of the postage stamp, but what if you had a poet to carry in your pocket each day ("Pomes Penyeach"!), transferring the thought and art as a part of your ongoing commerce?

AZ and I have been discussing the topic, and it's a toughie. I keep leaning toward William Carlos Williams or Lawrence Ferlinghetti as 20th Century poets who are innovative, definitively American and strong without being trapped in a too-common overview (e.g. Frost), too-controversial (Eliot?) or opening the floodgates to trickery (Cummings, despite his strengths) for ratification. Ferlinghetti, of course, would probably demur such acclamation (I've perceived him as dubious of the state at best); as a substitute, Gary Snyder speaks to a multinational and multi-natural America from the middle of the 20th century until today.

I keep coming back to Walt Whitman as the great 19th Century choice (or, perhaps, some of Dickinson) - though Whitman has his faults (and indeed, he celebrates them), he wrote movingly about what it is to be American, and also what it meant to be a divided America.

I think it would be a very interesting national conversation to have, to consider what makes a writer American (and by extension, what it means to be a citizen of any country), and what makes that American-ness important in a global world, be it in the visual arts or the word arts...

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Posted by esinclai at February 27, 2006 07:31 AM |
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