Timothy Young  

Juan Ramon Jimenez: Substance in the Moment

Juan Ramon Jimenez. His name rolls off the tongue with natural fluidity. His poetry bursts like water off creek rocks, evaporating into mist and ions jettisoned by an earthy spirituality. Jimenez did not write of politics, religion or evil, per se. He focused on the beauty he found in the moment. That beauty had physicality, spirituality and history, which he did not ignore in his poems. In Juan Ramon's poems, history is an adverb that modifies the moment. He stopped his judgmental rationality in order to absorb the secrets of the moment, of the natural universe and the creations around him. In his 1956 essay, To Burn Completely, written near the end of his life and after his wife had died, after he had stopped writing poetry, he explained:

When we contemplate things and beings, when we love them and enjoy them, when we have their confidence, having given them ours; when we concern ourselves with them through our complete consciousness and as complete consciousness, they manifest their content to us, we shall possess their most profound secrets and thus they will be able to offer themselves to us as an ideal, for perhaps the ideal may be a secret of which the most loving are worthy.

These are words of a man who dove into the ocean of the moment, who thrived in his awareness of the whorls and waves of that ocean, and described the gusts of the emotional wind passing through him. The secrets of the universe enthralled him and held his attention. He was their possession, and they his, just as lovers share timelessness when they contemplate each other silently. He opened all his senses to the world in order to experience its secrets and he used poetry as his method to share the world and the immanence (his word) of the spirit with other human beings.

For the most part, Jimenez's lined poetry is lighter and quicker to flight than his prose poetry, just as a waterfall transforms to energy faster than a deep pool. But like a deep pool, the prose poetry is more reflective, buoyant and collective, a storehouse of imagery and feeling. Platero and I is a collection of prose poems and conversations with his donkey, Platero, in his Andalusian home of Moguer, Spain. The book has streaks of darkness and lightness, saltiness and grief. In the selection, Fears, on a dark evening when Platero and Juan Ramon were crossing a quiet pool of water near the witches' glen, they gazed upon the reflected moon. When Platero stepped onto the moon it transformed into a "swarm of clear, crystal roses." This sense of light, flowers, fear and unsettledness penetrates the reader with mixed awe. What a loving appreciation of the moon, the water, the moment and the eerie activity! The entire setting is still alive for us because the setting participates in this poem. Without all the participants the poem would feel falsely naïve. The poem would be imagery without substance, shallow and manipulative like an adolescent politician or a runway model.

Jimenez's full participation in his immediate present enlivened his prose poetry. He did not create improbabilities or fantastic, hallucinogenic visions. I suppose one could argue that a reflected moon stepped on by a donkey could not transform into flower petals. But it does so, visually, outside of Jimenez. The reflections pull from him and Platero (who is ever-chewing petals and leafs) the memory of flowers. Thus, they live through the beauty of the reflected moon, the quiet splash of the hoofstep and the spiritual reality of sharpened flower petals rippling in darkness. Jimenez shared this moment with the reader.

Jimenez reported on what he saw and knew and remembered of the world. He did not write fiction. A sampling of the poems' titles show that he was meditative and appreciative of the world's ugliness also: The Castrated Colt, The Mangy Dog, The Consumptive Girl, The Canary Dies, Fright, Death, or The Pit, where dying horses are taken and "lie swollen and rigid on the rotten shells of the pit to frighten thrill-seeking children on the Sunday evening walk through the pine grove when they gaze in fear and curiosity over the edge." He wrote of sorrow and grief and joy and giddiness, and he wrote more simply than most poets. His genius was in how he used his consciousness to turn and fill itself, then turn and empty itself. Again from To Burn Completely:

What a man imagines cannot be more than inner imagery, or more or less beautiful modification of what is outside him, of what he feels with his bodily and spiritual five senses, there is nothing more filled with spirit than the senses.

If, as Robert Bly has written, Jimenez's poetry is as light as a spark, it is because he was an adept craftsman using simple words of poetry to relate the secret essence of experience. His poetry is alive like a spark and has been sprung loose by a fiery and generous mind.

It is difficult for me not to get carried away with so much beauty and the deep contemplative excitement in his work. His poems were not limited to the landscapes and streets of his Moguer. In an especially sad and beautiful prose poem, The Negress and the Rose, written while living in New York, Jimenez offered the reader: "The Negress is falling asleep with a white rose in her hand." We share the description of this woman, her softly colored clothes and the delicacy of her dreams. Only in the final paragraph does the reader realize that the scene occurs on a subway, "noisy, clashing blackness, both warm and dirty….All have abandoned their newspapers, their gum, their cries, as in a nightmare of weariness and sadness, they are absorbed in this white rose." The rose masters everything: "….all is for a moment perfumed by the white rose, by a better springtime, by eternity."

This poem, as with most of Jimenez's poems, seeks and finds eternity, and eternally lived moment. Russell Edson said in The Prose Poem in America:

Poetry is inherently joyous, no matter how gloomy its seeming content sometimes: this is because time does not destroy its energy as it does with prose, prose is always running out through time. Poetry by its psychology, celebrates everything it touches, its psychology is based in the idea of eternal life.

Juan Ramon Jimenez was celebratory and used the most mundane and obvious symbols to write of eternity and the infinite. In a Cemetery on Broadway, surrounded by the four rapid transit systems, he founds that, "The purity, little as it is, and embattled as it is….and the single red flower which the slanting sun glorifies upon a tombstone fill with poetry this terrible hour of five o'clock."

Flowers were a much-used motif by Jimenez. But sunlight pervades his work. It is as essential to his work as it is to a garden. Very few poems, prose or lined, do not mention the sunlight or its gradient colors. Color and light are the woof and warp of his poems. He preferred the muted, mallow-pink lights of sunset, "tombstones tinged here and there with the color of the heart," "the sun setting against the cathedral….the tips of pink flame in the dark green." In his Platero poems he is out of doors soaking the sunlight or the moonlight or in "peaceful, subdued retreat of the village twilight." Nightfall. Scarlet Landscape begins, "Hilltop. Over there is the sunset, all wounded and bleeding from its own blades of light."

To live out of doors in the sun and fields was, for Jimenez, the ultimate existence. "There is no more exquisite form of aristocracy than living out of doors." Jimenez said. He was a pantheist and mystic who happened to write poems. His attention to light, color, and the effects of light on his body attested to his sensitivity. Light has its blades and its fire. It wounded him, nourished him and assuaged his nervous system. I can think of no poet since Tu Fu who was as sensitive to the multiplicity of light's gradients and hues in his poetry. Only the great poets can use, again and again, the same language without boring the reader. Jimenez was one. As a naturalist and a pantheist the light and sun were the physical essence of life, and companions to spiritual essences.

Despite this fascination and appreciation for light Jimenez did not neglect human beings. His Platero poems are filled with characters and human interaction. As are his New York prose poems. His Negress fell asleep with a rose, and he found dynamism in her dreams. Platero and I has children who are almost as predominant as Platero, and they are as decorative to his universe as the sunlight and flowers. Children dance with the poet, race the donkey, squeal raucously and ask many questions. But Jimenez did not naively surround himself with children and innocence. He pointed out the cruelty of children in The Crazy Man where they taunt him and Platero. However, with his delicacy of craft he put that taunting into a beautiful perspective. By merely detailing the most accurate descriptions, "the vast pure sky of burning indigo" and the "children's tense brown bellies through their red, green and yellow rags," he focused attention to a larger, whole existence, not small reactionary taunts. Jimenez was political without being overtly so. As a man of his senses he lived fully. He acquired nuanced knowledge and he passed information to the reader, with a scope larger than human cruelty. Yet he hated cruelty, and went into exile when Franco and the Fascists gained power in Spain in the 1930s.

Another character is Darbon. "Darbon, Platero's doctor, is as large as a piebald ox, as red as a watermelon." He is a man as gentle as a child and filled with his own sadness. Though he laughs at the sight of a flower or a little bird, he weeps at the thought of his own dead child. In the New York poems Juan Ramon found characters on the streets or even on signs. From a mere public announcement he found Pastor A. Ray Petty, who preached of God in baseball sermons entitled, "the pinch hitter," "the sacrifice fly," "Game called on account of darkness." Also in New York he found the king of the city, a black cripple singing and limping alone in the early dawn, and then there was the Polish giant, a Whitmanesque figure who unwittingly lived in Whitman's house.

These were exemplary individuals, characters who fit Jimenez's ideal of the true aristocrat. In 1941 he wrote an essay, Aristocracy and Democracy. In this essay he tried to describe the difference between the false aristocrats, especially European, and true aristocrats. For him aristocracy was a state of being that was not dependent on material wealth, familial lineage, or governmental grant.

Aristocracy, in my opinion, is a state of man in which are united in supreme union, a profound cultivation of the interior being and a conviction of the natural simplicity of living-idealism and economy.

The Spanish peasant is a pantheist, and a mystic and therefore delicate, fine, generous, because he loves, for mysticism and pantheism are love and love is a good sign of aristocracy.

As an educated aristocrat who eccentrically rode the streets on his donkey, wore a black hat and simple clothes, his beard "cut like the Nazarene's" did he try to justify his own lollygagging about the fields, playing with children and enjoying the simplicity of his life? The two-sided essay is filled with idealism and intellectual astuteness, but no naivete. As I have mentioned ideals were secrets for which a person must be worthy. He, unlike many "tenth-rate men" found some answers in his simplicity.

His contempt for contrived behavior vented in The Author's Club where American literary men aspired to largeness by copying the appearances of truly great writers and poets. In this prose poem Jimenez seethes as he expresses his desire to burn the false place down and he throws a cigar butt into a corner as a small act of contempt toward these pretentious writers. In another essay, Poetry and Literature, he wrote:

Literature, however perfect it may be, is always artificial, the more artificial, the more perfect. Through literature it is possible to arrive at a relative beauty but poetry is beyond relative beauty and its expression aspires to absolute beauty…Pretentious literature must be content to reach a mirrored beauty..

How exactly he pointed out the difference between true poets and the men who posture and try to appear "literary," who use false, secretive rituals for membership into their "club," as if those literary men belonged to a juvenile organization.

In Aristocracy and Democracy he wrote of the Spanish writer (he did not call him a poet) Salvador Rueda who "put on the worst kind of espadrilles to seem of the people." Of course, Rueda was unable to share the consciousness of the people. I am reminded of a group of blond, flashy North American tourists I saw in Mexico City. They witnessed the traditional bell-ringing "grito" by the Mexican president, Portillo Lopez. The celebration in the Zocalo included fireworks, bells, and especially the "grito" to commemorate independence from Spain. The Americans, with gaudy, faked Aztec baubles, wore new, inelegant and cute Mexican clothes. Caught in the hysteria with 100,000 others, they screamed with excessive exuberance, "Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!" Yet they were offended when a young Mexican in tattered clothes threw, a handful of lime, instead of the abundant confetti, into their faces. They could not comprehend the falseness of their behavior on foreign soil. The Americans provided an image without substance.

In Platero and I Don Jose, the village priest, is "riding along sanctimoniously and speaking honey words. But the one who in fact is always angelic is his she-donkey, a real lady." The cleric here is the false character, the image of substance but without substance. The true aristocrat is a donkey, not the ass who hurls rocks at children. This priest also contrasts with Jimenez, who played in the fields with children, who let them ride his donkey and shared grapes and flowers with them, whose heart opened to generosity of spirit, whether in a person or a cistern.

Juan Ramon Jimenez sought the ideal, the secrets of the spirit and the universe. Again from To Burn Completely:

The true man, the authentic man, the inherent cultivated aristocrat, who unites the greatest sensitivity in daily life to the greatest richness of a greater life, is he who most desires the happiness of the world, he who seeks his own happiness in the universal happiness, he who succeeds by means of a clear concept of the whole life of the world, in best occupying, using, and enjoying his space and time.

Or from Poetry and Literature:

In reality the poet, when mute or when writing, is an abstract dancer, and if he writes, it is out of everyday weakness, for to be truly consistent he ought not write.

I do not know if Jimenez pursued an ideal from his earliest days or if he finally, in old age, found explanations and justifications for his manner of living. There is no doubt that he lived with a deep appreciation for the basic essences of life-light, nature, animals, children, love and keen emotional contact with the world.

Because Juan Ramon Jimenez believed in the existence of ideals, as obscure or secretive as they are, he shared what he found. Joy emanates from his poetry, even his most painful, because it is accessible to everyone. Platero and I is a children's classic throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Its clarity and authenticity of emotion, its description, without too harsh a judgment or cruelty, appeals to the uninhibited consciousness.

His acute perceptions and his excitement as a visitor in a new place energized his New York poems. When read together with Platero and I, we find savvy poems from a man who knew the pastoral settings, always familiar for the Romantic poet, and a man who also understood urban chaos and its secretive beauty as well as any Modern poet or worthy seeker.

Another joy for me as a reader is that I can pick up Jimenez' prose poems, turn a page forward or backward and not be subjected to the constraints of narrative and plot direction. Again, Russell Edson:

Prose is inherently a tragic form. "Time the bringer, finally ruins everything." Prose brings things into existence only to have them disappear down into the end of the plot. No matter what the so-called happy ending fictions end at the last word as poetry does not….When we re-read a work of fiction we go back for the poetry, the permanent parts.

It is no wonder that Jimenez sought the ideal throughout his life. He sought eternity and the universality of poetry. His simple language and accessibility can touch the innermost seat of communion. As he wrote Listening to the Water in the Platero poems, after listening and listening, he communicated with the "interior of the world." He became one with the water and the world. Then he saw a man across the water who says he had been listening for thirty years. That man exclaims in the poem, "Just imagine the things she has told me." Then he adds, "The things I have heard." Jimenez could have added, "The things I have seen, felt and loved." Yet we because we know him by now, these do not need to be said.

Platero and I, translated by Eloise Roach, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1957

The Negress and the Rose
The Cemetery on Broadway
The Author's Club
An Imitator of Billy Sunday

From Lorca and Jimenez, Selected Poems, translated by Robert Bly, Beacon Press, Boston, 1973

Aristocracy and Democracy
Poetry and Literature
To Burn Completely
From Selected Writings of Juan Ramon Jimenez, translated by H.R. Hays, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, Inc. New York, 1957

  Copyright © 2013 Pemmican Press and the author/artist represented.