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From the vanguard to the cradle of poetry

Poet, critic and essayist, besides a brilliant translator, Haroldo de Campos did notfit within labels

It was by observing the “hard concrete poetry” of the corners of São Paulo that a group of young poets decided it was time to leave aside “personal and demagogic whining” that, according to them, infested the poetry of the modern generation of 1945 and make culture get in step with the new pace of the world. It really was enough to look aside and notice that the country had changed, but few took the trouble to do so: there was already talk of a new capital, and the president was proclaiming the virtues of developmentalism. It was up to the poetry of that time to talk about the moment. One of these young visionaries was Haroldo de Campos, who died on August 16, at the age of 73. You could like him or hate him (there was no being lukewarm, and he knew that), but no one could permit oneself the luxury of ignoring his importance as a poet, critic, essayist and, in the last few years, far from polemics and close to the academic world, a brilliant translator.

Haroldo was born in São Paulo in 1929 and graduated in law from the University of São Paulo (USP), in 1952. When he left the arches, very much in the tradition of the school, he wanted to write revolutionary poetry. Or, in his words and those of his colleagues (brother Augusto and Décio Pignatari), “poetry for export”, like the cars that Juscelino Kubitschek promised the Brazilians he would makes by the thousands for the foreigners to admire. The desire for “exporting” had been inherited from Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), the guru of the new poetic generation, along with Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and Ezra Pound (1885-1972). The first time that Haroldo’s group talked about “concrete” was during the Vanguard Music Festival at the Arena Theater, in 1955. In the following year, the poetry, graphic, gained an exhibition at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art.

The young poet was radical in his declarations: “All poetry worthy of this name is concrete: from Homer to Dante, from Goethe to Pessoa. More specifically, concrete poetry represent the case of the limits of poetry, in which there is a total systematization of all the levels: the semantic, the syntactic, the rhetorical, the sonorous levels of the word”. Many called all that which was being represented as the “reverse of the reverse” as “bad taste, bad taste”. Brazilian popular music (MPB), in fact, took much nourishment from the ideas of Haroldo, from Caetano Veloso to Gilberto Gil, making a cult of the poet and essayist in their lyrics and declarations.

Baroque poems
In this transcendence of epochs, Haroldo looked to the past for old forms to revisit and “transcreate”: in 1963, for example, he created his Galáxias [Galaxies] from baroque poems. In the same way, as an essayist, he redeemed the obscure poet Sousândrade (1833-1902) and raised him to the category of a genius. For this feat and others, he had some good polemics with people of the stature of Antonio Candido. Always with elegance and wisdom. Even when they did not accept his “transcreations”, a way he understood the process of translation, applied to Pound, Goethe, Dante, Joyce, amongst others, in which the modern poet would intervene on the text of the old one, to bring his text into the present moment.

In 2000, Haroldo launched A Máquina do Mundo Repensada [The Machine of the Rethought World] (published by Ateliê). “It is a cosmic poem, all done in Dantesque rhyme, which shows Haroldo de Campos not only as a great poet, but as someone who does not fit within labels”, says Leda Tenório da Motta, a literary critic, translator and professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. His poetry became more and more philosophical. In 2002, he brought to an end his translation of the Iliad, by Homer, the fruit of ten years work. At the end, vanguard and cradle of poetry meet and are reconciled. In a very concrete way.