Joan Brossa

Glòria Bordons (Universitat de Barcelona)

A man totally given over to art and to artistic experimentation -that was Brossa's paradigm. He took it upon himself to seek the limits of artistic expression, and to discover whether such limits existed. His poetry and his plays (which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other) are completely anti-academic, seeking interaction whith the reader or spectator, whom Brossa wants to question and at times even to confront. His experiments in the field of poetry are notably innovative, especially in what are now considered his emblematic 'visual poems'. In the field of the theatre, his 'scenic poetry' stands out as an authentic precursor of present-day 'performances'.

Barcelona, 1919 - 1998. Poet, playwright and visual artist

Joan Brossa was the epitome of the avant-garde poet of the twentieth century. Largely unknown until the publication of Poesia rasa (Short Poetry) (1970) when he subsequently became an indisputable benchmark, all of his work was outstanding for its overwhelming interest in man and a continuous process of research. His words are the greatest exponent of this avant-garde spirit: "I regard research as a journey into the unknown, a plunge into the mirror of the imagination; I cannot therefore be sure where my present experiences are taking me or what I will think in a few years' time. For the time being, I will carry on pushing the usual means of perception to discover new spaces of sensitivity. I accept the past for the fact that it has brought me to the present, and the future depends on the present. I understand the poet Stephen Spender very well when he says that in life there is only 'my always'." (Interview conducted and translated by G. Picazo and J.M.G. Cortés, published in La creación artística como cuestionamiento, Generalitat de València, 1990).

Neo-Surrealism (1943-1950)

During the 1940s, in an era when closure and an art firmly rooted in the past were the dominant theme in Spain, he attached himself to a post-surrealism. When he began to write, during the Spanish Civil War (in which he took part aged seventeen), he did so out of a need to express his internal sentiments. This led to an interest in psychology and his beginning to seek advice on the process of writing. Through Enric Tormo, with whom he had become friends during his military service in Salamanca, he met J.V. Foix. And this relationship led him to Joan Miró and Joan Prats. Thanks to Joan Prats' magnificent library, Brossa gained an in-depth knowledge of surrealism and adopted its techniques for the free expression of the subconscious by means of what he termed hypnagogic images. Following Foix's advice, he transferred the content of these images to the structure of the sonnet. His first books, La bola i l'escarabat (The Ball and the Beetle) (1941-43) and Fogall de sonets (Hearth of Sonnets) (1943-48), are full of oneiric images, all intertwined through unconscious associations.

In 1947, thanks to his relationship with Arnau Puig, Joan Ponç and other friends, he began the adventure of Algol, which would later become the Dau al Set magazine. The desire to experiment also led him to write poems termed experimental, during the 1940s. Similarly, when the poet wanted to transcribe the free flow of dream, the sonnet was not sufficient. For this reason, short prose was forced on him. During the era of Dau al Set he published prose pieces in the magazine.

Similarly, he wrote the Proses de Carnaval (Carnival Tales) (1949) collection and the pseudo-novel Carnaval escampat o la invasió desfeta (Scattered Carnival or the Defeated Invasion) (1949) (collected in Alfabet desbaratat [Thoughtless Alphabet]), Empúries, 1998). These books contain non-narrative elements, which later appear in many of Brossa's works, such as the leaps into the void, the digressions or the biblical or oracle-like tone.

Some of these purely theatrical traits are the logical decanting of another of the literary registers practised by Brossa since he began writing: scenic poetry, as he called his theatrical works. Certainly due to the need to introduce real action and movement into his texts, Brossa wrote poems for dramatisation from 1945. The introduction of dialogue offered him the opportunity to investigate the absurd present in everyday conversations and the uselessness of language. The action and magic of the stage became the essential focus of the theatre. A simple raising and lowering of the curtain could become a work in itself, such as the piece entitled Sord-mut (Deaf and the Dumb) from 1947. Later, he introduced more argument to his works, but without forgetting the contrasts and poetic strength that the theatre must always have.

Also, during these initial years, Brossa brought surrealism to popular forms (Romancets del dragolí (Ballads of the Gecko), from 1948) and free odes. In 1950, the poet wrote two books of free odes, one of which is quite significant: Des d'un got d'aigua fins al petroli (From a Glass of the Water to Oil), a collection of poems of a patriotic and political nature, where he vindicates a Catalonia free from economic, political or religious submissions.

The commonplace and political commitment (1950-1960)

With this incursion into surrealism, Brossa began an experimentation in literature that he would never abandon. From 1950, his poetry took a notable turn, abandoning the search in the subconscious and becoming more closely linked to reality. Joao Cabral de Melo, a Brazilian poet who at that time was in Barcelona, decisively influenced this change in Brossa. Consequently, in 1950, he wrote Em va fer Brossa (Joan Brossa Made Me), with totally prosaic poems that occupied a minimum of space. They were small flashes of everyday reality, full of humour and intentionally denouncing politics. Their purpose was to give more through the minimum possible.

The path towards the commonplace led him away from the Catalan literature of the time. The literary circles did not understand what Brossa was proposing and did not consider it to be poetry, but a simple photograph of reality. Catalan poetry of the 1950s was following a different course: post-symbolism. And when, in the 1960s, social poetry imposed itself, its narrative, serious tone and little desire to construct a form had little in common with the process of poetic stripping away that Brossa had been undertaking since 1950.

The intensification of political commitment led him to practice another poetic form: the Sapphic ode, from 1951 onwards. The formal model was basically Costa i Llobera, but the tone and theme models were especially Verdaguer and Guimerà. Between 1951 and 1959, Brossa wrote a total of ten books of odes, some of which had rather significant titles, such as El pedestal són les sabates (Shoes are the Pedestal), Avanç i escampall (Advance and Scattering) and Els entrebancs de l'univers (The Obstacles of the Universe). The thematic axes would be the denouncing of violence and oppresion and the exhortation to solidarity.

The sonnet was also a form that accompanied the ode in social commitment and political denunciation. For example, the 1953 book Catalunya i selva (Catalonia and Forest) is a unitary collection of sonnets about Catalonia's situation during Franco's dictatorship.

From 1959, the Sapphic ode was pushed aside in favour of experimentation, but Brossa took it up again, together with the sonnet, when the political circumstances of the country so demanded, as happened following the death of Franco.

This commitment is also evident in the theatre, which abounds with the thematic line between 1951 and 1959 and which also incorporated popular forms, such as short comedy or the comedy of manners. Works such as Cortina de muralles (Curtain of Walls), La mina desapareguda (The Vanished Mine), Els beneficis de la nació (The Benefits of the Nation) and Or i sal (Gold and Salt) are good examples of this denunciation.

Alongside political commitment Brossa, however, also touches on the theme of love in scenic poetry and odes. With influences from popular poetry, Brossa created love poems overflowing with imagination and lyricism, such as the books Cant (Song) (1954) and Festa (Fiesta) (1955). He later took up this type of lyricism again with highly original metaphors in books such as Flor de fletxa (Arrow Flower) (1969-70) and Sonets a Gofredina (Sonnets to Gofredina) (1967).

Although this period of the 1950s was rather marked by the thematic, this does not mean that Brossa's work from these years was free from experimentation. This particularly affected one of Brossa's favourite metric forms: the sonnet, and very partially the ode. Between El tràngol (Peril), in 1952, and Malviatge (Damn), the 1954 book of sonnets, he created a process of disorder and progressive synthesism, which led him to monosyllabic poems, of a non-specific lyricism.

The essentiality and conceptualisation (1960-1975)

The synthesism of these poems contributed to the evolution of Brossa's poetry. Just like Mallarmé, the white of the page became as important as the words expressed and it was the shattering of the silence represented by the white that had to give greater strength to the message. This gave Brossa's poems another purpose: the search for the essence of things. The poet concerned himself with the representative power of words and began to reflect on this phenomenon. This concern for capturing the idea in a synthetic way led him to visual poetry. We find a number of examples in his 1963 book El saltamartí (The Grasshopper). Two years later, in Poema sobre Frègoli i el seu teatre (Poem about Fregoli and his Theatre) and in Petit Festival (Little Festival), two unitary books about Fregoli, the Italian transformist so admired by Brossa, we find more authentic visual poetry, as it is the letters of the words that break free to show us more clearly the reality of what the poet wants to communicate to us.

These small examples of visual poetry emerge from the logical evolution of the essential research carried out with the words, but it is also an experience which the poet developed in his study since 1959: the visual poetry suites, poems that unfurl through time and space, made of very simple, fragile materials.

From here on, the poet would thoroughly develop his visual poetry and he launched himself wholeheartedly into experimenting in all fields. If the 1940s signified his starting out on a now historic avant-garde poetry route, surrealism, and the 1950s was his awakening to political awareness and the search for his own voice, the 1960s were the discovery of a possible path, experimentation with new languages. In this sense, this moment on was dominated by his collaboration with plastic artists (Nocturn matinal [Morning Nocturne], from 1970, with Antoni Tàpies, Oda a Joan Miró [Ode to Joan Miró], from 1973, with Joan Miró, etc.) and his declarations considering visual poetry to be one of the possible directions of the poetry of our time (as we can see in the "La poesia en present" speech of the Floral Games of 1985).

Parallel to this, Brossa did not stop writing short poems of a ludic, brief and surprising nature. A good representative example is the collection of books Els entra-i-surts del poeta. Roda de llibres (The Ins and Outs of the Poet. Book Circle) (1969-75), where the poems are commonplace documents from the social, cultural, political or personal environment of the poet. The use of a prosaic language, synthesis, definition, visual games and, especially, irony and humour are the main techniques used in poems that are almost jokes, critical in nature.

This type of poetry highlights the crisis that language has suffered throughout the twentieth century and focuses its interest on communication. The rules imposed on the reader are those of a game played with the words, letters or simply the ideas. This ludic, participative nature is fundamental, just as in the numerous actions-performances staged by the poet between 1947 and 1968, pre-happening pieces which present a theatre that is truly different from the traditional one, which questions literature itself and the reality of the street.

However, Brossa's experiments did not remain in the visual or action fields. The constant essential search led him to the materialisation of things, in other words, the creation of objects. In his surrealist origins, he had already experimented with a couple of pieces. However, it was not until 1967 that Brossa would dedicate himself completely to the world of objects, as a parallel, complementary course to visual poetry. In this field, there would be no restrictions from language. The poet would be totally free to achieve his own aims and this new type of poetry would become the most ideal way to express the concerns that had built up during his poetic career: the search for everyday magic, social denouncement and the enquiry into the essence of things.

Successive experimentations to arrive at the essence of the word, the object or the action did not distance Brossa from traditional metric forms, especially the sonnet, on to which he transplanted his experiments in other fields: Sonets del vaitot (Sonnets to Stake) (1965-66) and Els ulls de l'òliba (The Eyes of the Owl) (1974) are highly unusual books of sonnets.

The sestina and the sum of all the paths expressed in plastic work (1975-1998)

With his leap into the plastic arts, Brossa ended up distancing himself from the literary world, a world that looks increasingly to the past and barely considers modern advances. In any event, this does not mean that the poet did not continue to write discursive poetry, and even try new metric forms, such as the sestina, a rather complicated Mediaeval form that the poet practised from 1976. However, classical verse such as this enabled him to carry out all kinds of experiments: conceptualisations, visual poems and, even, computer experiments. (The poet created a cybernetic sestina in 1982, included in the above text quoted from the Floral Games of 1985). Brossa always took forms far beyond their possibilities, in his constant search inside and outside literature.

This period was not only marked by the cultivation of the sestina. As a result of the anthological exhibition of his visual poetry and object poems at the Fundació Joan Miró in 1986, his plastic work multiplied, while being the object of exhibitions around the world. The fact of having the means to materialise objects which he had planned to do for years allowed Brossa's catalogue of objects and visual work to increase considerably. His art finally came out to the street and has become a familiar sight for the people of Barcelona.

Between one thing and another, the poet's activity took off after he turned seventy, the same time that he emerged from anonymity to become a public person. But this did not change his character and his dedication to plastic art did not prejudice his literature. For him, there were no genres or frontiers and he always felt a poet of his time: "There are no advanced people: there are people who are late; people who live in their time and people who do not. I don't know why the first group are called "avant-garde". In fact, being "classic" means being successful in the art of your time, which is, on the other hand, the only way to survive." (Reply in a survey about avant-garde art. Reproduced in Anafil, Edicions 62, Barcelona, 1987).

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