Ramon Jimenez: Substance in the Moment
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
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.
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
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:
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.
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:
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
literature must be content to reach a mirrored beauty..
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
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:
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.
from Poetry and Literature:
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.
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,
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
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
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