New York University professor emeritus Alexander Coleman has provided the literary world a valuable and distinctive volume of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’s verse, collecting all previously published poetry from 1923 to 1986 in one superlative edition. Overseeing a bilingual project that includes Borges’s nearly two hundred poems in both Spanish and English, Coleman drew on the talents of outstanding translators, including the work of Robert S. Fitzgerald, W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, John Updike, and Charles Tomlinson, to give the collection a variety of approaches and styles. This collection is the second in Viking’s trilogy of Borges’s writing in definitive, matching volumes that began with Collected Fictions (translated by Andrew Hurley, 1998). For the first time, all of Borges’s significant work will finally be published in English, which will undoubtedly lead to rediscoveries, new interest, and new appreciations of a most singular talent in twentieth century letters.
Such new appraisals will likely center in North America, where Borges has long been primarily known for his short stories, which are largely allegories using fantasy and detective story conventions in an elegant, innovative style. Notable examples include “Pierre Menard, Author of theQuixote,” “The Circular Ruins,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” “The Secret Miracle,” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” His most inventive prose appeared in the innovative Inquisiciones (1925; inquisitions), Historia universal de la infamia (1935; A Universal History of Infamy, 1972), El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941; the garden of forking paths),Ficciones, 1935-1944 (1944; English translation, 1962), and Nueva refutación del tiempo (1947; a new refutation of time).
While the bulk of Borges’s fiction was written during the years of World War II, he was first recognized for his poetry. It was to poetry he returned in the postwar years claiming it was better to tell a story succinctly rather than draw out truths in overlong, emotional plots. Thankfully, this new collection chronologically traces Borges’s poetic development book by book, including the important prologues that serve as the benchmarks in each stage of the poet’s career.
In one sense, tracing Borges’s steps is also following the course of South American literature in the twentieth century. After Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo called for a resurgence in Spanish-language literature in the then-new century, Latin America responded with a series of luminaries including Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes, Alejo Carpentier, and Gabriel García Márquez, among many other notables. However, it is clearly Borges who enjoys the reputation of being the brightest light in Latin American letters. This deserved appreciation was earned not only for the depth and originality of his work but also for the diversity of his efforts as reflected in the need to publish three volumes of his work in three separate genres. In addition, as director of the National Library and professor of English at the University of Buenos Aires, Borges as critic and teacher was the dominant figure shaping successive generations of writers and thinkers in his home of Argentina as well as surrounding Spanish- speaking countries. A significant benefit to having his work accessible in English is that he demonstrates his universality on a variety of levels, and no lover of verse should be without this landmark collection.
At the outset of his career, Borges was largely a regional writer, capturing his Buenos Aires vernacular, flavor, and history in his earliest book, 1923’s Fervor de Buenos Aires. In these poems, Borges shapes his verse on street and building imagery to give his meditations a framework based as much on experience as his readings, a formula that would be reversed in much of his later material. During this period, he was a leading figure in the literary movement, Ultraismo, an offshoot of Modernismo, a turn-of-the-century movement built on the works of French symbolists and Parnassians led by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Ultraismo, known both for its use of surrealism and for its emphasis on pure imagery, championed the superiority of metaphoric free verse. Participation in this school provided Borges early mastery of the prose poem, which would serve him well in both fiction and verse efforts. In later years he would praise free verse while claiming his own voice fell naturally into traditional meters and line structure, a reflection of his lifelong interest in studies on technique.
While his verse begins with deeply localized concerns, during the period when Borges stated he was under the influence of Unamuno y Jugo, his vista quickly expanded both...
(The entire section is 1962 words.)