In 1962, Carlos Drummond de Andrade edited an anthology of his own poetry. Rather than follow a standard chronological sequence or order selections according to the book in which they originally appeared, the author chose poems from each of his collections and organized them into nine representative thematic divisions. This self-characterization reflects, in very general terms, the main preoccupations of Drummond’s poetry before and after the publication of the anthology. Each of what the poet calls his “points of departure” or“materials” corresponds to a titled subdivision: the individual (“Um eu todo retorcido,” a totally twisted self), the homeland (“Uma província: Esta,” a province: this one), the family (“A familia que medei,” the family I gave myself), friends (“Cantar de amigos,” singing of friends), social impact (“Amar-amaro,” better-bitter love), knowledge of love (“Uma, duas argolinhas,” one, two jousts), lyric itself (“Poesia contemplada,” contemplated poetry), playful exercises (“Na praça de conuites,” in the square of invitations), and a vision, or attempt, of existence (“Tentativa de exploração e de interpretação do estar-no-mundo,” efforts at exploration and interpretation of being-in-the-world).
These are, as the author himself noted, imprecise and overlapping sections. Indeed, any effort at classificatory or chronological categorization of Drummond’s poetry, like that of any complex and prolific verse maker, is subject to inconsistencies and inaccuracies. In addition to the wide thematic concerns enumerated above, several stylistic constants run through the whole of Drummond’s work. Certain traits of form and content fade and reappear; other aspects merit consideration from a cumulative point of view. There is much transitional overlap between the broadly defined phases of his production. With these caveats in mind, the general lines of Drummond’s poetic trajectory can be traced.
His earliest production, in the 1930’s, following the antinormative paths of Modernismo, is direct, colloquial, and circumstantial. Sarcastic tones abound within a somewhat individualistic focus. Broader perspective is evident in the next stage, in the 1940’s, as the poet explores the physical and human world around him. Existential questions are raised within the context of community; social and historical events move the poet, whose own anguish is a reflection of a generalized crisis of consciousness. A third phase, in the 1950’s, incorporates personal and social concerns into an all-encompassing consideration of humanity and the environment from a philosophical standpoint. A certain formal rigidity accompanies this more contemplative and speculative poetry.
The development of Drummond’s verse from the 1930’s to the 1950’s reveals, in broad strokes, a process of opening and expansion. This unfolding can be described with a tripartite metaphor of sight and attitude. The dominant voice of the early poetry is ironic yet timid; the poet observes but the lyric vision is uninvolved, hardly surpassing the limits of self. As the poet begins to confront the surrounding world, he looks more intently at the faces of reality. Existential meditations lead to a project of encounter; the struggles of others are seen and internalized. In his most mature stage, the poet not only observes and looks but also contemplates objects and subjects in an effort to see essences or the roots of contradictions. Having developed this broader vision, Drummond returns, in a cycle of books beginning in 1968, to examine his provincial origins. These latest works—in a reflection of the predominance of paradigms over temporal progression in Drummond’s work—are permeated with the vigorous irony that characterized his earliest verse.
A thoroughly modern poet, Drummond can be inspired by and effectively use almost any source for his poetry. Much of his raw material is quotidian; the molding of everyday reality into poetic frameworks may be anecdotal or manifest utopian aspirations. One of his notable strengths is the ability to strike a balance between the light, vulgar, direct, or colloquial and the heavy, elevated, evocative, or contemplative. He is at home with the concrete and the abstract, finding the structures of language most adequate for a particular situation. His is a poetry of discovery, whether of a provincial past in its psychic and mythical dimensions or of the relationships and values that form modern society. Drummond’s literary discoveries are not presented as truths or absolutes. His poetry is informed by a fundamental skepticism; however, bouts with relativism and anguish do not result in nihilism or cynicism. His lyric universe is fundamentally secular, and his speculative and metaphysical considerations of essences and human experience rarely involve concepts of gods or divinity.
Throughout, there operates a dialectic of inner examination and outward projection, of introspection and denunciation of social problems. Expressions of anguish and impotence unveil emblematic poetic selves threatened by technology and a hostile world. The poet seeks to apprehend the profound sense of unresolved differences and change for the individual, the family and affective relationships, society at large, his nation, and the community of humankind. When he bares himself and his personal psychic states, well-tuned devices filter or block the potential for self-indulgence or confession. The revelation of oppressive senses of reality is related to a view of the human condition, to the crises of modern humanity and civilization. T. S. Eliot said that great poets writing about themselves are writing about their times. A clear sign of Drummond’s greatness is his linkage of substances of private, public, and transcendent planes.
Words and meaning
A particularly important aspect of Drummond’s poetry is the explicit preoccupation with words and expressive means. At the outset, the poet expressed his disquiet through attacks on worn values and stale traditions. As his impulsive impressionism evolved, he undertook an ever-expanding search for nuances, keywords, the secrets of language and its virtualities. Words themselves and the making of poetry are the themes of some of Drummond’s most important poems. In such works, the necessity of expression may be played against incommunicability or the imperfections of language. There is no tendency or approach in his poetry without a corresponding questioning of linguistic instruments or the sense of poetry. The modernist period in Western culture has been characterized as the age of criticism. Drummond’s poetry is marked by self-consciousness; he is a constant critic of his own art. After Modernismo had effectively dissolved as a movement in Brazil, only its most complete poet would be able to write: “And how boring it’s become to be modern/ Now I will be eternal.”
Drummond’s prime linguistic concern is with meaning. In his poetry, conceptual dimensions are generally more important than visuality or sonorousness. Occurrence, idea, and conceit dominate over imagery or symbolism. He seeks to use words in unusual and provocative combinations. Drummond’s verse, moreover, is not very musical, in the sense of melodious and harmonious formation of words. There is notable formal variety in the poet’s repertory, which incorporates everything from minimalist epigrams to long prose poems, both lyrical and narrative. Much of the poetry seems direct or simple. In the fashion of an Ernest Hemingway character who can “know that it’s complicated and write it simple,” Drummond, in the realm of poetry, has an uncanny ability to sculpt seemingly spontaneous airs. The simplicity of the poet is deceptive or even duplicitous. While Drummond’s customary approach is free verse, he has written in consecrated forms such as the sonnet. He has cultivated the ode, the ballad, and the elegy as well.
Drummond’s earliest work is written under the sign of Modernismo and demonstrates a combative frame of mind with respect to conservative notions of belles lettres associated with Parnassian and Symbolist traditions, long surpassed in Europe but slow to die in South America. Following the Brazilian modernists who preceded him in the 1920’s, Drummond sought, once and for all, to pierce the “sacred air” of poetry by abandoning the idea of “noble” thematics and insisting on a more colloquial approach. In 1930, Modernismo had already conquered some ground. Thus, Drummond’s poetry could not constitute rebellion alone. He was presented with the challenges that liberation presents and had to forge an iconoclasm of the...
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