Why I admire Dylan Thomas: the influences on Argentinian poet Luis Benítez
Luis Benítez is an Argentinian poet who has been honoured in France, Italy, Uruguay, and Mexico, as well as in his own country. His books have been published in Chile, France, Mexico, Romania, Sweden, Uruguay, the US and Venezuela, and his translated poems have been published in UK magazines. In an interview with Neil Leadbeater, he speaks of his appreciation of TS Eliot, WH Auden and Philip Larkin, and of the influence that Dylan Thomas in particular has had on his work.
Can you tell us something about the early influences on you becoming a writer?
When I was nearly 14, I discovered Spanish classical poetry. I was immediately attracted to the works of Francisco de Quevedo - his concise, elliptical and ingenious style. My readings of the Spanish classics lasted several years but Francisco de Quevedo’s style and particular brand of sarcasm invariably topped my preferences until I came across Federico Garcia Lorca’s then not too well known text, Poeta en Nueva York. In this book Lorca paints a moving fresco of the trauma that his refined sensibility suffered before the brutality of urban life, and the alienation that we experience in large cities. After that, I discovered surrealism. The most important thing that I learned from the surrealist poets was freedom of speech and the belief that poetry has the capacity, albeit in a somewhat indirect way, to transform the world through its readers.
In 1975, when I was 19 years old, the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas was published in my country for the first time in a translation by Elizabeth Azcona Cranwell. I knew Thomas’s works through a few isolated poems included in some anthologies of English poetry, but his Collected Poems were a revelation to me and his influence on my poetry soon became apparent. I was irresistibly attracted to his dark timbres and the immediate magic of his verse which was so compact and precise. When I had my first book published in 1980, Poems of the Earth and the Memory, it was evident that Dylan Thomas had left a deep trace. I wanted to give Jorge Luis Borges a copy with an inscription. I remember he took my book very politely and, having listened to my inscription - Borges had been blind since 1955 -he told me he did not deserve those words of sincere admiration, nobody did. When I told him I also admired Dylan Thomas and that the Welsh poet had had a powerful influence on my first book, he said that if I liked Dylan Thomas so much, I would also like Walt Whitman, “an author of other epiphanies”, as he then defined it. I answered that I had read Whitman and was not too enthusiastic about him. Borges retorted that something similar had happened to Ezra Pound, who only came to appreciate Whitman’s great work at an older age and that, if Pound had had that perception, it was probable that the same would happen to me. I never saw Borges again but I kept on reading and re-reading his poems and narratives, which later became a significant influence on my work. I admired his conception of literature as an uninterrupted tradition in which each individual comes to find his or her own appointed place. I also appreciated the way he strived for precision of expression.
TS Eliot was my next discovery. Since my first readings of The Waste Land, I have been charmed by his very singular humour, an irony reaching towards sarcasm, as well as the distinctive modernity of his work in relation to the time in which it was written. These poets offered me the vision I needed and their influence has remained in my work to this day.
What inspires you when you write and are there any recurring or significant themes in your work?
For me, inspiration comes from something that someone says, or from something I read in the newspaper or see on television. Inspiration can also come from reading the work of other writers - a poem by Dylan Thomas or Walt Whitman, an essay by Oscar Wilde or the biography of Robert Browning. Inspiration is primarily a formless ghost. It's more a feeling that speaks haltingly, something that is looking to express itself, to give form to its vague content. This is where it begins to separate from that which gave it its origin. It begins to take on a form of its own - a few words. They can be the beginning, the end or the general sense of the poem. From that germ come other words, which in turn begin to relate to each other, forming a mesh which traps the first form of the poem. At this stage it is still a monster. Its hands have too many fingers, its legs may be missing. It has too many heads, whereas I just need one! Here the slow process of finding out what the poem means, begins. The vagueness and the lack of form must somehow be left behind, but not at the expense of losing whatever it was that set the mind ablaze in the first instance. The final form will be clothed in the themes I use in my poetry: life and death, the relationship between the individual and the universe. The role of mankind in our day and age and the concept of time itself. Love and the lack of love, which is another form of love. History that protects us all and will be our grave. The memory of what we were and the certainty about what we will never be.
Who are your favourite poets, and why?
Besides those I have already mentioned, I admire the work of Robert Bly, for his incredible ability to describe the modern world as a vast metaphor that encapsulates the past. I also admire the work of WH Auden. His writing has a clarity and intensity about it which I find very attractive. Mark Strand, who is able to resolve the apparent meaninglessness of our time with a mythology of absence, is another writer whose work I greatly appreciate. Philip Larkin’s work interests me because his fatalism always aspires to achieve a moment of epiphany. His poetry, which evolves out of this fatalism, is laced with a telling irony that is always succinctly expressed. I also like the work of Allen Tate, because he confronts the present with the past to show how everything, including man, is caught up in one long continuum. It is difficult to choose from among all the poets whose work we like, but I think we tend to select our favourite authors from among those to whom we are most grateful. They gave us so much and our gratitude can never be enough!
You mention the influence that Dylan Thomas has had on your work. What is it that you like the most about his poetry?
Reading Thomas was how I came to understand, as a beginner, not only what my search consisted of but also that what I was looking for was possible. Carnality in his poetry is closely tied to a powerful inner pulse which is expressed with an extraordinary richness, ready to reveal the cosmic significance of human existence as well as its inherent miseries, darkness and fragility. His poetry made a very strong impression on me and so did some of his statements. He is, without doubt, a master of puns; an expert in alliteration and in the most complicated metric combinations, as well as in the invention of new word forms (for example, nouns becoming verbs).
Debts to the surrealists, and even to symbolists, have been erroneously imputed to Thomas, when his work decidedly points to the English metaphysical poets of the 16th and 17th centuries and to William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In Thomas, I discovered, among many other findings, a synthesis between freedom of metaphor and the function it plays in relation to the core meaning of the poem. Poems by Thomas such as ‘Should Lanterns Shine’, ‘Hold Hard, These Ancient Minutes in the Cuckoo’s Month,’ ‘In the White Giant’s Thigh,’ ‘Fern Hill,’ ‘Poem in October,’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,’ ‘Elegy,’ ‘In Country Sleep’ or ‘Poem on His Birthday,’ ‘O Make Me a Mask’ or ‘If My Head Hurt a Hair’s Foot’ were some of the most important to me at that stage in my life as a writer. Even to this day, I consider these poems and all that they mean to me to be a constant in my work.
Dylan Thomas has certainly exerted the strongest influence and it has been the one which has been the most difficult for me to detach myself from, even in part, in order to go on seeking a more personal voice, my own voice, (a task which I am still involved in, by the way). The most valuable insight that the Collected Poems gave to me was an understanding of the place of the functional metaphor in poetry - the notion that one must try to express two things in one, or three in two. He has also imparted one of the best pieces of advice that a poet of his stature could leave to any aspiring young writer: “Fundamentally, love words.”
Many of your poems have been translated into other languages. What kind of working relationship do you have with your translators?
I always give to my translators full freedom to work according to their own criteria. The author should always have trust in his translator. Translation, especially the translation of poetry, is a delicate task. For me, the results have always been very satisfying. I have had very good translators: Veronica Miranda and Cooper Renner in the USA, Maria Nääs in Sweden, Emilio Coco in Italy, Jean Dif in France, Pere Besso in Catalonia and Beatriz Alocatti, who translated my poems into English, from Argentina. I name but a few, and they are all very professional and talented. Sometimes I even think they have improved some aspects of my poetry.
Do you think poetry loses something of its vitality in translation or are there unexpected gains?
I believe that poetry translated into other languages acquires other profiles, according to the skill and talent of its translators. I do not believe in the value of a strictly literal translation; I believe the supreme value lies in the creativity of the translator. I've been very lucky with my translators!
Can you describe the current poetry scene in Argentina?
I do not think new works in poetry are necessarily superior to, or supersede, earlier works, as was once supposed by the Modernists. Do we write better poetry than Homer or Caedmon? I guess there is always room for a co-existence of different styles and genres. This is also true in my country. Currently in Argentina very prominent poetic works are in the process of maturation by some of the best Argentinian poets writing today. These include Alejandro Schmidt, Paulina Vinderman, Maria Julia De Ruschi, Ruben Valle, and Cesar Cantoni. What the younger generation of poets are writing about is also very interesting. In 2010 the Argentinian press Libros de la Talita Dorada published an anthology of new highly promising Argentinian poets, entitled Si Hamlet duda, le daremos muerte. Antología de poesía salvaje (If Hamlet doubts, we will kill him. Anthology of wild poetry). The selection includes the work of 52 young authors. They have much to say and many of them know very well how to say it.
Do you feel positive about the future of poetry in our present age?
Poetry always has a happy future ahead of it and a glorious past behind it. Poetry will continue to focus on mankind, on our conflicts and our small miracles, on our anguish and the expansion of our powers of perception, as it has always done, adapting to each particular epoch. Poetry never had a golden age, rather, an infinite uncertainty, and I think therein lies its power; its amazing ability to adapt to change.
Luis Benítez’s books have been published in many countries including Argentina, Chile, France, Mexico, Romania, Sweden, Uruguay, the US, and Venezuela. He is a member of the Latin-American Academy of Poetry, the International Society of Writers, and the Argentinian Foundation for Poetry. His awards include the La Porte des Poétes International Award (Paris, 1991), the International Award of Fiction (Uruguay, 1996), the Primo Premio Tusculorum di Poesia (Italy, 1996) and the International Award for Published Work “Macedonio Palomino”, (Mexico, 2008).
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh. His poems, articles and short stories have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His first full-length collection of poems, Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey, was published by Littoral Press in 2010 and a selection of his Latin American poems, Librettos for the Black Madonna, was published by White Adder Press in 2011. His latest collection, The Worcester Fragments, was published by Original Plus Press in 2013.