Borges’ Prologue to “In Praise of Darkness”

I seldom bother to read, much less cite, a poet’s prologue, so I’m a little surprised at how much I enjoyed reading Borges’ prologue to “In Praise of Darkness.” I think it probably gives a better indication of what to expect from his poetry than anything I’m going to have to say, and perhaps gives a clearer view of his poetry than the few poems that I choose to highlight, which probably say more about me than about him.

Prologue

Without thinking about it at the beginning, I have dedicated my now long life to literature; to teaching; to idle hours; to the tranquil ventures of conversation; to philology, of which I know nothing; to my mysterious habit called Buenos Aires, and to those perplexities which not without some pomposity are called metaphysics. At the same time, I should say that my life has not been lacking in the friendship of a certain few, the only kind of friendship of value. I do not think I have a single enemy or, if I have had one, that person never made himself known to me. The truth is but for those we love, no one can hurt us. Now, at three score and ten, I publish my fifth book of poems.

My publisher Carlos Frías suggested that I make use of this “prologue” to describe my ars poetica. Both my inner poverty and my will oppose his idea. I do not possess an aesthetic. Time has taught me a few devices: avoid synonyms, which have the disadvantage of implying imaginary differences; avoid Hispanisms, Argentinisms, archaic usage, and neologisms; to choose ordinary rather than surprising words; to take care to weave the circumstantial details into a story that readers now insist on; to intrude slight uncertainties, since reality is precise and memory is not; to narrate events as if I did not entirely understand them (I got this from Kipling and the Icelandic sagas). Keep in mind that the aforementioned rules are not obligatory and that time will take care of them anyway. Such habitual tricks hardly constitute an aesthetic theory. Moreover, I don’t believe in any aesthetic theories. In general, they are little more than useless abstractions; they vary with each writer and each text, and can be no more than occasional stimulants or instruments.

As I said, this is my fifth book of poems. It is reasonable to presume that it will not be better or worse than the others. Adding to the mirrors, mazes, and swords that my resigned reader expects, two new themes have appeared: old age and ethics. The latter, as everyone knows, was a recurring preoccupation of a certain dear friend given to me by reading him-Robert Louis Stevenson. One of the virtues for which I prefer Protestant nations to those with a Catholic tradition is their regard for ethics. Milton wanted to educate the children in his academy in a knowledge of physics, mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences. Doctor Johnson would pronounce a century later that “Prudence and justice are virtues and excellencies of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance.”

In these pages I believe that the forms of prose and verse coexist without discord. I might invoke illustrious precedents-Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae, Chaucer’s tales, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, but I would prefer to declare that the differences between prose and verse are slight, and that I would like this book to be read as a book of poems. A book itself is not an aesthetic act, it is a physical object among others. The aesthetic act can only take place when a book is written or read.

It is often stated that free verse is no more than a typographical pretense; I think that an error lurks in such a certainty. Beyond its rhythm, the typographical layout of free verse is there to inform the reader that what awaits him is not facts or reasoning, but poetic emotion. On occasions long ago I aspired to the vast breathing of the psalms* or of Walt Whitman. After many years I realize (not without a bit of sadness) that in all my efforts in free verse I just went from one classical meter to another-the alexandrine, the eleven-syllable line, the seven-syllable line.

In my milongas, I have done my dutiful best to imitate the unfettered courage of Hilario Ascasubi and the street ballads of the barrios.

Poetry is no less mysterious than the other elements making up our earth. One or two good lines can hardly make us vain, because they are gifts of Chance or of the Spirit; errors come from us only. I hope the reader will discover something worthy of his memory in these pages; in this world beauty is of all of us.

-J.L.B.
Buenos Aires, June 24, 1969

I do think his emphasis on “metaphysics” sets him apart from poets that I generally admire, though some might argue that R.S. Thomas also deals with metaphysics in his own right. But I generally agree with Borges’ ars poetica, particularly using “ordinary rather than surprising words,” and avoiding synonyms when the original word is more precise.

On the other hand, I think I’d have to disagree that “the differences between prose and verse are slight,” even though I find pleasure in both. Of course, I did cite one of his prose poems that I was rather fond of, and it turns out that they are also included his book of “short stories” that I just purchased.

I would certainly find it difficult to disagree with his parting comment, “I hope the reader will discover something worthy of his memory in these pages; in this world beauty is of all of us.’

3 thoughts on “Borges’ Prologue to “In Praise of Darkness”

  1. thanks for putting this prologue out here for us to read. i liked what borges said about aesthetic theories. also loved this:

    “Milton wanted to educate the children in his academy in a knowledge of physics, mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences. Doctor Johnson would pronounce a century later that “Prudence and justice are virtues and excellencies of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance.””

    how true. thanks again, loren ~ kasturi

  2. Loved this. Avoiding synonyms, avoiding -isms, choosing ordinary rather than surprising words (exact words rather than flamboyant words) – yes, yes, yes! (Would also add – avoiding the exclamation mark. Am so guilty of this!) Liked the last paragraph very much.

  3. I understand Borges gradually went blind as his father had before him, some kind of genetic trait leading to retinal detachment, not a real strong recommendation for someone in charge of a National Library. I suppose that the reference to Milton alludes in some way to Milton’s sonnet, ‘when I consider how my light is spent’ which also reflects on blindness. It seems to me I recall Milton working on occasion as a tutor when he was young, but I don’t think of him as someone who ever ran an academy, though clearly one or two of his essays exerted for a time enormous influence on education.

    The reference to Stevenson is interesting in that here was a poet, author and critic who had no old age in which to bask. Stevenson did, however, toss off a few essays in his spare time, including one entitled ‘Walt Whitman’.

    “Whitman, it cannot be too soon explained, writes up to a system. He was a theorizer about society before he was a poet.”

    “He does not profess to have built the castle, but he pretends he has traced the lines of the foundation. He has not made the poetry, but he flatters himself he has done something towards making the poets.”

    “His notion of the poetic function is ambitious, and coincides roughly with what Schopenhauer has laid down as the province of the metaphysician. The poet is to gather together for men, and set in order, the materials of their existence.”

What do you think?