On 14 June 1986 – just over a quarter of a century ago – the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges died in Geneva. He is a figure who has haunted PN Review since it took its first steps as Poetry Nation I. He remains with us, his poems and fictions reviving their more than enigmatic ironies.
A sonnet from 1964 entitled ‘Un Poeta del Siglo XIII’ (‘A Poet of the Thirteenth Century’) sees the poet looking through the crumpled drafts of his poem. It is about to become the very first, as yet unrecognised, sonnet. In his drafts Borges’ poet has mixed quatrains and tercets, not yet quite regular. He labours on a further draft, then hesitates:
‘Acaso le ha llegado del porvenir y de su horror sagrado un rumor de remotos ruiseñores.’
Perhaps he has sensed, says the poem, radiating from the future, ‘a rumour of far-off nightingales’. Of things to come, a suggestion of a new form and maybe (a step beyond it) of impending clichés. The modern poet asks, in the sonnet’s sestet:
¿Habrá sentido que no estaba solo y que el arcáno, el increible Apolo le habia revelado un arquetipo,
un ávido cristal que apresaría cuanto la noche cierra y abre el dia: dédalo, laberinto, enigma, Edipo?
(‘Had he detected he was not alone, / that the cryptic, the unimaginable Apollo / had disclosed to him an archetypal pattern, // a greedy crystal that would capture, / the way night closes day opens it: / Dedalus, labyrinth, the riddle, Laius son.’)
In Borges’s poem the future weighs on the present, just as the past can do: in looking back, we see a past aware of our gaze, returning it. Inherencies, less a promise than an earnest. Once that first sonnet is recognised by its poet, not as a discovery but as a thing given by ‘the unimaginable Apollo’, once it is in language and the form defined, a course is set. This sonnet, we understand from Apollo and from the last line, works with anciencies. Classical myth, legend, literature – common memories – provide the content. The thirteenth-century poet, suspended between a pre-classical then and a post-modern now, mediates. Each later sonnet in whatever language participates in his work, and he in its.
A poet who develops received forms is always in collaboration with the poems that came before and those that will come after. A sonnet never belongs exclusively to its author. Or even to its language.
In the 1960s Borges started collecting the ‘milongas’ he had been composing, including several in 1965 in Para las Seis Cuerdas (For the Six Strings) – a reference to the six strings of the guitarrón argentino. In his preface he asks the reader to imagine, in the absence of music, a strumming singer in a shadowy passage or a shop. His hand lingers on the strings, words count for less than imagined harmonies. This is a new kind of poem, though familiar as song; it really ought to date from the 1890s, when the form was popular, ingenious and spirited. Borges’s modern versions are, he says, elegies, aftermaths of a form and a once vital popular