¿Qué es vivir poéticamente? / Armando Rojas Guardia

What Does It Mean To Live Poetically?

The premise from which these words I’m going to pronounce for you today begin, can be formulated in the following manner: writing poetry in many senses represents a provisional and, up to a certain point, accidental event; what is truly transcendent and crucial is to live poetically.

Of course, writing poetry isn’t meant for all human beings: that depends on determined psychic predispositions, on a specific individual history and, definitely, on a circumscribed vocation. However, all men and women are called, by the mere act of being, to live poetically. Let us recall the lovely verse by Hölderlin, from which Heidegger extracted an eternal philosophical lesson: “man dwells poetically on this earth.”

No one will deny that the word poet constitutes, in this hour of civilization and in our national context, a devalued word. We live within a society that sees itself as productively and economically competitive, governed by the enthronement of merchandise, in whose midst the poetic word is not profitable, doesn’t translate into lucrative dividends, speaks from a qualitative sphere that doesn’t let itself be reduced to what is empirically quantifiable, escapes from the reach of mere instrumental and technical rationality. But, also, how could the poet not be marginal in a country that, despite having one of the most important lyrical traditions in the Spanish language, paradoxically doesn’t propitiate, as an existential and daily landscape, the deep states of consciousness where the poetic experience becomes possible?

However, if the man and woman of today born in this societal context don’t wish to renounce the seriousness and responsibility implied by human existence (a seriousness and responsibility that are incomprehensible for the culture of banality and distraction in which we find ourselves immersed today); if they don’t opt for trivializing life, though the dose of humor that fits in it is large, it becomes indispensable that they —this man and this woman— discover, or eventually recuperate, the experiential notion of what I call living poetically, which is an anthropological categorization that exceeds the vocational activity of writing poetry. An experiential notion that I’m going to allow myself to break down, in a brief and synthetic manner, for you today.

To live poetically is to live within attention: to be a solid sensorial, psychic and spiritual block of attention before all the existential dynamics of life itself, before the expressivity of the world, before the symphony of quotidian details in which that expressivity is concretized (this implies an orchestral refinement of the life of our senses and a conscious effort to assess our perception of the objects that populate our surroundings).

Attention is organically intertwined with the physical, psychic and spiritual event of beingconscious—. In a single word, with awakening. A millenarian religious tradition identifies awakening, the act of being awake, with the very beginning of the life of the spirit. Both Buddhism and Christianity are emphatic in pointing to the state of wakefulness as the most adequate symbol of that existential moment that marks the beginning, for man, of the adventure of consciousness. It all consists in awakening for good from the machine-like and gregarious somnolency in which the majority of humans spend their time. It is known that the word buddha means, in Sanskrit, precisely awakened one. But also in chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark, we read: “Attention, awaken...!” (Mk 13:33). In peninsular Castilian the restricted evangelical indication (Mk 14:38) exhibits an unusual force: “Keep vigil!” To awaken and keep vigil constitute, then, both in the Buddhist and Christian traditions, the obvious fruit of the spiritual labor of paying attention to the world. Because, effectively, attention, as the first step of conscious existence, consists above all of perceiving the reality that surrounds us and of which we form a part in all its pristine and very concrete truth, removed from the prejudices, stereotypes and clichés installed in the most fleeting interstices of our own psyche, which deny us the possibility of connecting with the very flesh of reality, just as it shines nakedly from within itself before man’s pure attention.

After the denominated first noble truth is laid down, that of the universal omnipresence of suffering, Buddhism postulates the second one, according to which that totalizing suffering has as its causes ignorance, desire and attachment. This ignorance is not one of transcendental affairs and things, but above all that of the world’s reality, as it is and which is only revealed to the attentive perception.

We know that modernity, when it installed the predominance of the exchange value over the use value, has turned the concrete flesh of the world into a true eidosphere where objects lose their entity, specific weight and consistency to be transformed into mere interchangeable merchandise. Thus, the relationship with the cosmos is minimized and made artificial, it becomes abstract: nothing is more abstract than money. Besides, the modern mental universe revolves around the autonomy of the individual consciousness and, consequently, around the absolute enthronement of self-consciousness. In this manner within the modern mentality of the world, what I have called the concrete flesh of the world is transformed in the each time more evanescent, more evaporated setting of that overwhelming self-consciousness. Neither Oedipus, nor Antigone, nor Orestes are self-conscious characters in the sense and the stentorian manner of Hamlet, for example. It’s not a coincidence that Hamlet, along with Don Quixote, Don Juan and Faustus, is one of the four basic myths of the modern world. This hypertrophy of self-consciousness, this excess of hypercritical lucidity, to which the rotund materiality of the universe, and our organic contact with it, is sacrificed, can and should be overcome by that attention that awakens us to the immediacy of cosmic reality: the attention more and more trained by conscious exercise, that we pay to the dazzling evidence of what surrounds us and envelops us, beyond our mental screens made ghostly by our pathological will to abstraction.

I have wanted to speak to you in more depth about this first characterization of what I understand it means to live poetically because all the others emerge from it and without it they cannot be understood. We will never insist enough on the fundamental fact that living poetically is living attentively. As I mentioned I will now speak, and a bit more briefly, about the other notes that for me distinguish this alternative way of living.

To live poetically is also to live in expectation of the inspiring moment, of the dense instant, of the plethoric minute of life in which we graze the veils of understanding and accede to a qualitatively superior state of consciousness. The inspiring rapture that the Greeks attribute to the divine intervention of the muses, the great Hellenist Walter Otto tells us, was conducive above all to spiritual clarity. They —the muses— made sure that understanding remain clear. That clarity of understanding, produced by creative enthusiasm, was the first door opened by song, that is, poetry. One need not be a vocational poet to know and savor a sudden inner clarification through which we look at the world with virgin eyes, as though seeing it for the first time. Octavio Paz expresses it splendidly in The Bow and the Lyre:

Sometimes, without an apparent cause —or as we say in Spanish: porque sí [just because]— we truly see that which surrounds us. (...) Every day we cross the same street or the same garden; every evening our eyes encounter the same reddish wall, made of bricks and urban time. Suddenly, any day, the street leads to another world, the garden has just been born, the weary wall is covered with signs. We never saw them before, and now it astonishes us that they are like this: such and so oppressively real.

These moments of epiphany are, of course, free —it is the compassion of reality that grants them to us— but the act of living poetically consciously seeks to be deserving of them by preparing them, training oneself to receive them.

To live poetically is to live dailiness not as mere time, interchangeable and mechanical, but as mystagogy, that is, as a gradual and self-teaching introduction to mystery. A Zen monk was once asked: “What is Zen?” To which he replied: “Carrying wood and cutting grass.” The modern West has erected administrative and bureaucratic rationality as the only means of organizing society. This hegemony of the bureaucratic-administrative, that Frankz Kafka like no one else turned into a symbolic image of the human condition, has brought about as a corollary that the daily life of our cities is transformed into an opaque time without relief, whether we live it in a utilitarian mode —as a financial investment in the form of workable man hours—, or as a Pascalian diversion often submerged in the noise, the hustle and the tumult, in the social roar that is the enemy of inner development, of the slow maturation of the soul. The dailiness living poetically aims for, being a mystagogy in the manner in which Thérèse of Lisieux lived it, evokes that of the Zen monk, who carries wood and cuts grass in the permanent threshold of illumination.

To live poetically is to cultivate the symbolic dimension of consciousness, to learn how to become more and more skilled in an authentic symbolic hermeneutics of reality, in which objects, situations and facts are sacraments that incessantly remit to a transcendent order (it is a matter of the sacramental nature of created reality: objects, situations and facts, beginning with the most quotidian, these sacramentalize the order and beauty of the universe: one lives poetically when one notices them in that manner and faces them thus).

To live poetically is to learn how to live establishing continuous analogical relationships between the most apparently dissimilar objects and between the most diverse orders and planes of reality: that the axis of all our psychic activity be that permanent metaphorization (behind which exists as an ontological postulate the confirmation, already postulated, established and studied by quantum physics, that the entire universe is an organic totality, that everything is connected to everything, that everything interacts with everything). In order to find out how an active metaphorizing psyche functions in practice one might read and reread The Waves by Virginia Woolf, and the poetry of Eliseo Diego.

In conclusion, to live poetically is to live life itself as a work of art, to live from what is classically denominated as the art of knowing how to live. It means to live with art, to live oneself as the existential and daily poem that God allows us to make of ourselves. In the New Testament, specifically in “The Epistle to the Colossians,” it is affirmed that each human being is “a poem of God.” To live poetically is to know oneself as such. And to work correspondingly.


Conference given at the Universidad Metropolitana (UNIMET) on 10/16/2013.

Translator’s note: The Paz excerpt is taken from Octavio Paz, tr. Ruth L.C. Simms, The Bow and The Lyre (University of Texas Press, 2009).

{ Armando Rojas Guardia, Prodavinci, 20 October 2013 }

1 comment:

richard lopez said...

i've been thinking along this same plane lately too. i quoted from a danish poet that one becomes a poet by finding a new way to live. how to find that new way is up to each individual to discover.

this wonderful essay hits along a similar mark and is a better illustration of the danish poet's dictum i can find.

thank you, guillermo, for translating and posting it.