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The flight of Patativa do Assaré

The great popular poet from the Northeast, whose centennial is being celebrated this year, becomes a PhD thesis

JARBAS OLIVEIRA/FOLHA IMAGEMLife promised to be unfair to small farmer Antônio Gonçalves da Silva, who lived in the small town of Assaré in the State of Ceará. Just as it was for thousands or millions of inhabitants from the arid hinterlands of Brazil’s northeast. While still a boy, he was blinded in one eye by disease. At 8, he found himself obliged to wield the hoe to help to support his mother and siblings, after his father’s untimely death. It was only at the age of 12 that he attended the local school for just a few months. That was enough, however, to teach him how to read and write. Antônio had a rare gift, however, one of those that reason cannot explain: he started to compose improvised verse and to perform at parties and important events. By the age of 20, he acquired the pseudonym Patativa [a small gray bird] because his poetry was comparable to the bird’s singing.

Thus was born Patativa do Assaré (1909-2002), Brazilian popular poet, composer, singer and improviser. He would become the nation’s most important poet in the twentieth century, and certainly in that quasi-country that is the Brazilian Northeast. Blessed with a prodigious memory, he could recite unhesitatingly his countless long poems . They were rhymed verses that reflected the wisdom of one who learnt to live with adversity and overcome deprivation. To watch him speak was almost always to take lessons in popular wisdom and philosophy. Not by chance, he received awards, titles and honors, including five doctorates honoris causa. Brazil heard about Patativa thanks to the poem A triste partida [The sorry departure], which he himself set to music and  was recorded in 1964 by Luiz Gonzaga, a Brazilian songwriter, accordionist and singer of nationwide fame who was also from the Northeast. The words talked about the saga of a family that after losing all its beliefs, exchanges the drought for São Paulo, “to live or to die”, but with one certainty: going back home one day.

The song became a milestone in Brazilian popular music thanks to its many bold elements, such as its 19 stanzas, sung over eight minutes, at a time when songs never exceeded three minutes and were recorded on a single channel, which meant recording all the instruments and voices at the same time, as in a live performance. It is said that Gonzaga first heard the song when it was being performed by a modern-day minstrel at a fair in the town of Crato (state of Ceará). The words impressed him – it had been composed in 1958 and was performed in several northeastern states. He sent for the author and proposed to buy his song in order to sign it as the sole author. Patativa did not agree to this, but did agree to a partnership.

This recording inspired Claudio Henrique Sales de Andrade to develop at USP his doctoral thesis, Aspectos e impasses da poesia de Patativa do Assaré [Aspects and impasses of the poetry of Patativa do Assaré], advised by Valentim Aparecido Facioli. “I always listened to this song with a lot of emotion”, recalls Andrade. In 1978, an aunt made him a gift of the book Cante lá que eu canto cá, by Patativa, which had just been released by the Editora Vozes publishing house. Five years later, having passed a civil service exam to work at the Bank of Brazil, a huge coincidence happened: he was posted to the town of Assaré. “I met Patativa and we became great friends”. For two years, the researcher went to the poet’s home almost daily, in addition to establishing a cultural center in the town named after Patativa.

After moving to São Paulo in the 1980’s and enrolling in USP’s Literature course, Andrade decided to study Patativa’s work as the theme for his master’s degree. Subsequently, in his doctorate, he tried to determine the sources of Patativa do Assaré’s poetry and to track what these sources had led to in the poet’s work. “Patativa is a unique poet in the Brazilian poetic scene of the twentieth century; he kept a type of popular poetry derived from the oral tradition alive and up-to-date, but he amplified the thematic and formal boundaries of these traditions, by adding a strong authorial component and a refined lyricism, besides a reflexive attitude seldom found in this context”, explains the author. His work attempts to circumscribe this production. To this end, Andrade formally mapped the poet’s work. Then he determined the clues that illustrate the difference between his poetry and the tradition that formed him. “I was always driven by a perception of this difference and wanted to produce a description that would reveal and clarify the difference.”

Andrade prepared a list of all the poems published, in alphabetical order, and also recorded the type of stanzas of each and the book in which it was originally published. In this process, he identified countless errors in all the editions of the poet’s work – some that have been made repeatedly, as well as new ones that surfaced only in the more recent editions. “I believe that this part of the work may be useful to other students, who will be able to turn to this survey, interested, perhaps, in investigating certain issues that I have raised and that remain unanswered. Or, perhaps, this may be of some use for a critical edition of Patativa’s work in the future”. In the following stage, he investigated the poet’s popular and cultural aspects through several text analyses. Finally, he tried to grasp something that he called the “dialectics between modernization and traditionalism” in Patativa, focusing on a core group of poems that discuss and stage the consequences of progress in the life of backwoodsmen.

The researcher believes that in this way, the full wealth of the poet’s points of view is revealed. A critic of paternalistic forms of domination, Patativa do Assaré, according to Andrade, is at one and the same time capable of rescuing and disseminating the poetry and humanism inherent to archaic and traditional lifestyles and, in doing so, identifying pointedly all the negativity of a progress that is itself an imposition and a different form of domination. “And in this passage everything is contradictory and complex, and the poet traverses beautifully and superbly the paths of these contradictions. Thus, alongside a desire for civilizing, liberating progress, we also have a demystifying view of progress, which sometimes merely replaces and renovates the forms of domination”. All of this, continues the researcher, enhances the argument that Patativa’s work reveals a different viewpoint that, on one hand, extends beyond the basic narrative of cordel literature and, on the other, results from a viscerally popular perspective.

In his study, Andrade tries to describe the characteristics that set Patativa apart in the universe of Brazilian literature . The poet, he says, has been hastily classified by some as a cordel writer. “But he does not create cordel literature in the strict sense of the word. Except for two or three poems in which he ventured into this type of poetry as a variation, exercise or tribute”. The author explains that Patativa’s work is divided into three types: lyrical, narrative, and reflexive. “His poetry is, in a way, bi-cultural, because it works with two linguistic registers: he writes in the local backwoodsmen’s language, in a popular Portuguese that is a stylized version of the speech of the poor man from the hinterlands, but with a better understanding of it and in a more systematic way than that found in the work of Catulo da Paixão Cearense (1863-1946), for instance. But he also writes in a cultured style. In this segment of his work, I admire the wealth of his vocabulary and the complexity of some of the syntax he uses.”

Patativa was therefore a person who updated the dualistic scheme of the poetic battles of the present-day minstrel challenges, as Andrade explains. According to him, the poet internalized this dualism and the corresponding spirit of the challenge, by creating several poems in which he voices two different and opposing points of views and in which he sets them to debate with each other, drawing very interesting effects from these single-author challenges. “Alongside these productions that drew nourishment from the humus of popular traditions, he was an excellent writer of sonnets. He also set to music some of his poems, of which Vaca Estrela, Boi Fubá and A triste partida are the best known ones. Andrade studied three sonnets because his aim was to capture the singularity of Patativa’s production, to understand the nature of his poetry and to outline its boundaries. To this end, he had to take into account all the facets of the poet’s works – both the cultured and the popular ones. To study the first, he selected Minha serra, O pau-d’arco and Minha cinza. “These are very well produced sonnets. They offer themes, images and stylistic resources that evidence Patativa’s control of and familiarity with educated poetry beyond the canons of hinterland verse.”

Patativa, explains the researcher, besides an education based on the poetic aspects of the oral tradition – the cordel literature and the improvised songs of the northeastern minstrels – was also a lover of the work of cultured poets, about whom he was extremely curious: Camões, Castro Alves, Casimiro de Abreu, and Olavo Bilac were among those he read. “In one of our last chats, he asked me about the poet Gregório de Matos (1636-1696), from Bahia. He had read something of his and had become highly interested. This empathy is very natural in this case, because, besides their shared spirit of satire, Gregório de Mattos employed the same 10-line stanza, with the same metrics and rhythm used to this day in the challenges of the present-day minstrels in the Northeast which are also found in Patativa’s work. When Gregório de Mattos developed his themes he always did so using this type of stanza, the same that Patativa employs for his themes and developments. It comes from tradition, dating back to the time of Colonial Brazil and it lives in the Northeast to this day. It brings together a cultivated poet and popular poet that are three centuries apart, and puts them into contact with each other.”

Andrade indicates that there are also erudite elements in Patativa’s work, such as his taste for sonnets and his decasyllabic verses. “There is also a refinement of his lyrical inclination, in that there is an attenuation of the epic element – which is very strong in the more traditional poetry of the backlands – and an opening to universal and more abstract themes (human rights, the mysteries of the human condition, time and death)”. One can say that there is also a more reflexive non-narrative poetry, in which the poet takes a measure of things, assessing and voicing critical judgments about social issues. “This coexists with the narrative poems that discuss the same issues, but from a more traditional critical perspective.”

Commenting on his choice of a theme for his research, Claudio Henrique Sales de Andrade agrees that Patativa’s work is yet to be acknowledged in the major centers of Brazil’s Southeast. But interest in the poet has been increasing substantially. As a university professor, Andrade has witnessed the growth of interest in Patativa’s work among literature students, as well as in other literary manifestations within the sphere of popular culture. He has also witnessed the acknowledgement of the value of Patativa’s work among many high-ranking experts at the university. “So I’d say that there is resistance and prejudice regarding his work, but also substantial recognition.”