The Untruth of Poetry

Although I am writing these words, and although you are reading them, I do not actually exist. Of course, with every word I type, and with each subsequent word you [Jack Brae Curtingstall] read, my existence is fastened to the world. However, I do not possess a birth certificate. I was never born. My only claim on existence is poetry, for I am a poet.

If you are reading this the chances are quite high that you are a poet too, for no one bothers to read poets except other poets. But only in a small percentage, for the sad truth is that most poets don’t even bother to read most other poets. Bearing this in mind, my existence is therefore more dangerously tenuous than is probably desirable.

So, if I don’t exist then what in fact am I? Well, I suppose you could say that I’m a character in the mind of an author. In this case the author is a poet. So I’m the poet of a poet, which would make me something akin to a poem. Bearing in mind that poems are generally unread and unregarded, then my already dangerously tenuous existence is possibly close to annihilation.

Being close to annihilation, certainly spiritually and mentally, is a subjective state that poets tend to feel more than most. Mental mortality is as real as physical mortality. Poetry, however, is a bridge back from that brink. Translation of a past poetry can also be such a bridge. The poet Torquato Tasso lived and wrote in psychological turmoil. He died on the outskirts of Rome on a day in 1595, on the eve of being crowned with the poet’s laurel by the then pope. His poetry remains, and so, in a sense, his turmoil. But in that he is also immortal. By touching his poetry we might become immortal too, and also a little mad; and in my case, by touching him, I have a chance to become real.

So, this poetry life, what’s it all about then? Being so close to the essence of nonexistence I know its nature very well, so please pay attention. I’ll only be saying this once. After that I may be gone. And before that I’m not even here. So, let me tell you about the Kingdom of Poetry.

The Kingdom of Poetry is a circular mountain. The uppermost part is a perfect circular plateau surrounded by circular terraces. Its construction is as follows: 

(1) An uppermost circle of gold;

(2) A terrace of silver;

(3) A terrace of bronze;

(4) A terrace of ice;

(5) A terrace of fire;

(6) A terrace of broken glass;

(7) Foothills of slippery sheep-shit;

(8) Wilderness;

(9) The ordinary world of mostpeople;

(10) The God Knows What of Where We Came From.

I've spent over thirty years travelling through the Wilderness and am currently in the foothills of slippery sheep-shit. Many poets are some distance ahead of me and most poets alive are currently traipsing through a continent of broken glass.

There are some who claim, however, that the circle of gold and the terraces of silver and bronze are nothing but a myth; a myth perpetrated by the poets who reside at the true centre, which is composed solely of ice. If that's indeed the case, then the poet's journey is merely a trek from one wilderness to another. Who's to know? The only way to find out for certain is to make the journey.

The only consolation I can offer is that my current view from the foothills of slippery sheep-shit is a wonderful vista of wilderness, which looks quite magnificent now that I am no longer in it. Sadly, however, there is on occasion a blaze of flame, where a poet has given up and evaporated.

To a Mountebank of the Second Duke Alfonso
after Torquato Tasso (1544-1595)

Sir, cutlass of Pallas and shuddering
cannon of Mars, engine of vortices;
the fear of Typhon whose jitters not cease
in Hell, his rucksack of mountains shaking.
May that hobbled smith hammer you clothing
of mail, un-bettered on Earth, hard ferrous;
and his wife, aflame in her clitoris,
set on his head a pair of horns throbbing:

lobby your master to unbolt my cell,
or you yourself with a slash of your hook
reduce my locked door and my chains to nil.
Thus we may sojourn with the Martian folk;
me in epaulettes of steel, you bristling
with arms; between us a shackle, a wing.

-version, Jack Brae Curtingstall

Ad un Buffone del Duca Alfonso II

Signor, storta di Palla e tremebondo
cannon di Marte e turbine e tempesta,
di cui temendo di tremar non resta
Tifeo lá sotto, onde ne squassa il pondo,
così armatura senza pari al mondo
il zoppo fabro di sua man ti vesta,
e la sua moglie un par di corna in testa
gli ponga, accesa del tuo amor giocondo:

opra col tuo signor, che si disserri
la mia prigione, o tu con un fendente
manda in pezzi le porte e i catenacci:
così n’andremo in fra la Marzia gente,
tu tutto armato, io sol con gli spallacci,
fra noi le penne accomunando e i ferri.

Torquato Tasso

Jack Brae Curtingstall is a blog-poet and situationist. His poetry can be found in the archives of The Guardian’s Poster Poems blog and on Politely Homicidal. He has translated the poetry of Pir Sultan Abdal, Giovanni Pascoli, Giuseppe Giusti , Mei Yaochen and Eugenio Montale for the blog Perp Walk.

« Return to listings