"Poetry is not an uncommon activity, it is playing at restoring the language, looking at new ways of making connections, composing imperfect works. It is a human endeavour as dignified as making lemonade." Joseba Sarrionandia1
Claudio Magris has said that all writers are frontier writers, whether they know it or not; that in the end writing, the act of ravelling and unravelling the world to make sense of it, is a continuous reassessment of frontiers. Textual and generic frontiers all writers must navigate, and frontiers which, as in the case of a minority literature such as Basque, signal the difficulty of getting over geographical limitations, of making oneself heard.
Although Basque is the oldest language in Western Europe and is only spoken by approximately 700,000 people, this should not get in the way of our literature being better known around the world; but the fact is that the socio-historical situation of our language has had a great influence on the development of literature written in Basque. It was with this in mind that Harkaitz Cano, a contemporary Basque writer, speaking during the 2000 Frankfurt Book Fair, quoted from Auden's well-known Letters from Iceland and compared the isolation of islands to the isolation of Basque literature.
And because I am introducing an anthology of poetry, or a "memorable speech", as Auden would say, I should mention that Auden's centenary — which took place in 2007 — was celebrated in the Basque Country with the publication of a volume of new translations of his poems into Basque. This and many other seminal authors' works have been translated into Basque in the last thirty-odd years. This indicates that the isolation I have mentioned does not apply to the constant dialogue between the particular and the universal that every literary exercise demands. In this respect, the fact that Basque is an isolate language — in other words, unrelated to all other living languages — has not stopped it from incorporating words from diverse lexical origins, and the same has happened to literature in Basque. Bernardo Atxaga, one of the poets included in this anthology, put it as follows in his book Obabakoak (1988), the most successful Basque novel to date: "These days nothing can be said to be peculiar to one place or person. The world is everywhere and Euskal Herria is no longer just Euskal Herria but (...) the place where the world takes the name of Euskal Herria".2 The Basque language, Euskara, defines our place in the world, our territory, as George Steiner would say. For this reason and despite the many difficulties encountered along the way, Basque people continue to hold tight to that territory.
Euskara is one of the three languages we speak within the geographic confines3 of the Basque Country, and the one that gives it its name and its essence: Euskal Herria, the Basque country's name in Basque, means "the land of Euskara speakers". It is estimated that, at present, thanks to Basque radio and television (see www.eitb.com), approximately 87 million homes in Europe and three million in the United States have access to Euskara. In terms of literary translations, however, the numbers are much more limited. Only 200 titles or so have been translated from Basque into other languages. But the internet has brought new hope and websites have been created for the sole purpose of encouraging the circulation of the existing translations of contemporary Basque literary texts (www.basqueliterature.com and www.basquepoetry.net are two good examples of this).
The first book in history to be published in Euskara was a volume of poetry published in 1545. Its title was Linguae Vasconum Primitiae and the author's name was Bernard Etxepare. It consisted of fifteen poems dealing with themes such as love and religion and a prose prologue. In it, the author expressed his joy at the possibilities created by the invention of the printing press and his hope that it would help disseminate Basque literature. But it would appear his optimism was excessive, because as it happened, Basque literature took a very different turn from the sixteenth century onwards. The pre-eminence of religious texts was practically absolute. Not until the last decade of the nineteenth century did a new spirit emerge that would transform Basque literature. Poetry was not the only genre, however; novels written in Basque started to appear towards the end of the century. Although religion was not the main subject matter from then on, Basque literature would continue to be a product of extra-literary objectives, such as nationalism, until quite late in the twentieth century. For this reason, for many decades Basque literature existed outside the European Modernist movement — whose aim was to revolutionise language and highlight the fragmented nature of the modern age. In the 1930s, two poets, Xabier Lizardi and Esteban Urkiaga "Lauaxeta", explored the expressive possibilities of Basque through post-symbolist poetics, but it was only in the 1950s that the dialogue with modernity became more firmly established through the voices of two poets, Gabriel Aresti (1933-1975) and Jon Mirande (1925-1972).
The Spanish Civil War took place in the intervening years (1936-39); it was a time of severe repression and censorship and many intellectuals were killed or went into exile. After the war, the victorious side established a series of repressive laws. Basque names were forbidden, for example, as were Basque inscriptions on tombstones. During those years Franco exercised tremendous censorship on Basque politics and culture. His measures included forbidding the use of Basque in the street and in schools. It has been said that the post-war generation was the most important generation in the history of Basque literature, because it created something that was much needed at the time — continuity. The most popular genre at the time was poetry, partly because it was easier to publish a couple of poems here or there than to publish a whole book, but also because in the 1940s and '50s it was practically impossible for publishing houses to function normally. This new generation of writers, which emerged in the 1950s, was formed by the above-mentioned poets Gabriel Aresti and Jon Mirande, and the novelist J. L. Alvarez Enparantza who, in 1957, published the first modern Basque novel — the existentialist Leturiaren egunkari ezkutua (Leturia's Secret Diary). With this novel Basque literature took a step towards the incorporation of modern European literary ideas, but its main achievement was to free Basque literature from political, religious or folkloric servility — from this point onwards, the aesthetic function would prevail.
Jon Mirande was first to transgress the religious spirit latent in Basque poetry until the 1950s. An exceptional polyglot (he spoke all Celtic languages as well as French, German, English, Dutch, Russian, Hebrew and some others), he started learning Basque at the age of 20. Mitxelena, the renowned Basque philologist, praised the depth of Mirande's cultural knowledge. Echoes of his many and varied philosophical and literary readings (such as the stoics, Nietzsche, Spengler, Poe, Baudelaire, Kafka and Yeats) abound in his prose and poetry. Mirande was a heterodox and a nihilist, and among other things wrote Haur besotakoa (The Goddaughter, 1970), a kind of Basque Lolita. His poetry was admired for its rhythmic patterns and musicality, its use of alliteration, its daring eroticism and its many cultural references.
Gabriel Aresti was without a doubt one of the most important Basque poets of the second half of the twentieth century. His career as a writer, editor, translator and linguist demonstrated his devotion to Basque culture. He was essential to the next generation: his example and enthusiasm were a great source of inspiration. Authors such as Bernardo Atxaga or Ramon Saizarbitoria have written at length about Aresti's charisma and his importance to Basque letters. He wrote short stories, poetry and drama, and translated authors such as Boccacio, Eliot and Hikmet. The title of his first poetry collection was Maldan behera (Downhill, 1960). It was clearly influenced by symbolist poetry and T. S. Eliot. However, it was his move towards socio-political poetry that brought him a wide Basque-speaking readership. The publication of Harri eta herri (Stone and Country, 1964) is a landmark in the history of Basque literature, and some of its poems — such as 'Nire aitaren etxea defendituko dut' (I shall defend my father's house) — have been translated into many languages. The poems in Harri eta herri take place in an urban environment and are written in free verse; Basque critics at the time praised their modernity, innovative spirit and their left-wing humanism. Harking back to the oral tradition, the poet chose to use simple, direct language to communicate a clear message, and these qualities meant he was widely accepted. For Aresti, poetry was the hammer with which to awaken the sleeping conscience — or, as Gabriel Celaya, a poet friend of his said, a weapon loaded with future. Harri eta herri was followed by Euskal harria (Basque Stone, 1967) and Harrizko herri hau (This Country of Stone, 1971).
In the 1960s, events such as the economic and industrial developments, the establishment of Basque schools (ikastolas), the creation of a unified Basque language, political activism against Franco's regime and the campaigns for Basque language learning, created a favourable environment for the development of new literary ideas. It has been said before that the existing cultural orthodoxy of the time was challenged by an emerging cultural and political heterodoxy, heralded by authors such as Aresti, the philologist Koldo Mitxelena (1915-1987) and the sculptor Jorge Oteiza (1908-2003). During these years political and cultural activism went hand in hand. A consequence of this was that socio-political poetry found its best ally in modern Basque song, and especially in the group Ez dok amairu, which was formed by poets such as Xabier Lete (b. 1944), Joxean Arze (b. 1939) and Joxe Anjel Irigarai (b. 1942). Around the same time, and linked to this movement of social commitment, a number of female poets emerged, such as Amaia Lasa (b. 1949) and Arantxa Urretabizkaia (b. 1947), who wrote about a poetic reality that had been silenced until then: that of women.
The relevance of poetry to Basque literature became more and more firmly established as time passed, and reached a peak in the 1970s. It is interesting to note that in the years between 1936 and 1975, poetry was the major, canonical genre in Basque literature (it accounted for 27.9% of literary production, as opposed to fiction's 23.8%). But things changed radically after Franco's death in 1975, because from then on, and for the first time in history, the Basque literary system was supported by a legal framework that allowed it to develop unhindered. In the Spanish Basque Country, the adoption of the Estatuto de Autonomía (Autonomy Status) in 1979 and the Law for the Normalization of the Use of the Basque Language in 1982 allowed, among other things, the establishment of bilingual educational models and grants for the publication of books in Basque. Thanks to these grants, new publishing houses flourished, and book production increased significantly. In 2005,4 a total of 1648 books were published; of those, 12.2% were works of literature (247 titles in total). Their distribution according to genre was as follows: 62.3% fiction, 14.5% poetry, 2% drama and 3.2% essays. In recent years, the tendency has been to publish more titles in smaller editions (the average number of books per edition is 1019 in the market for adults).
The present literary system5 comprises around 300 writers, 17% of which are women. The novel is the star genre, the one that offers the greatest prestige and rewards. Authors such as Ramon Saizarbitoria (b. 1944) and Anjel Lertxundi (b. 1948) experimented with new ideas in this genre — influenced by the Nouveau Roman in the case of Saizarbitoria, and by a continuous search for the renewal of form in the case of Lertxundi.6 The evolution of the short story from the 1980s onwards also merits a mention. The process of renewal initiated by canonical authors such as Bernardo Atxaga and Joseba Sarrionandia has been continued by contemporary short story writers such as Pello Lizarralde (b. 1956), Iban Zaldua (b. 1966) and Harkaitz Cano (b. 1975).7
Mapping out Basque Poetry Today: The Present Anthology
Borges wrote8 that British literature was characteristically insular, in other words, defined by individuals rather than schools. The same could be said about the complex and diverse contemporary Basque poetry scene. Words such as "eclectic" spring to mind when one tries to describe the diversity of voices and poetic schools that populate it. The avant-garde ideas of the 1970s have been left behind, and instead, a variety of tendencies emerge on the horizon of contemporary Basque poetry which include: a wide diversity of poetics (poetics of experience, surrealist poetics, post-symbolist poetics, poetics of silence, etc.); use of various narrative styles; a preference for non-aesthetic poetics that dwell with the quotidian; and an emergence of female voices that reclaim other codes, other universes, based on the female body. In addition, more and more often, audiences enjoy poetic performances that combine poetry with music or other arts. Young contemporary poets especially seem to be influenced by the Beat generation and gritty realism. It is clear that what happened to the other literary genres has also happened to poetry — it has absorbed those characteristics literary critics describe as postmodern: a denial of transcendental meaning; an assertion that all literature is metaliterature in the end; a non-elitist attitude towards literary creation; use of pastiche; mistrust of language; hybridization of genres; and so on. In other words, Basque poetry displays a tendency towards aesthetic populism and a totally non-auratic attitude to the figure of the poet. There are other contemporary poets worth mentioning apart from those included in this anthology, for instance Koldo Izagirre, Aurelia Arkotxa, Juanjo Olasagarre, Karlos Linazasoro and Harkaitz Cano.
For this anthology I have tried to select poets who, in my opinion, have played a defining role in the development of Basque poetry in the last thirty years, that is, since the arrival (around 1975) of what we have come to refer to as the "democratic age". The poets included in this anthology are Bernardo Atxaga, Joseba Sarrionandia, Felipe Juaristi, Rikardo Arregi, Miren Agur Meabe and Kirmen Uribe. The first three started publishing in the 1970s and 1980s, the last three in the 1990s. All have been endorsed and applauded by Basque critics and readers. I have selected ten poems by each author, and although I have not attempted to seek a balance of themes or poetic styles, I have tried not to exceed a limit of fifteen pages for each, and this is the reason why in some cases I have chosen fewer than ten poems. A brief biographical note accompanies each selection of poems. In the following pages, I will attempt to introduce the poems in the selection and locate them within each author's poetic development.
1975 was the year Franco died — a defining event: as I said earlier, after his death the new democratic government made Basque an official language and provided grants for publishing books in Basque. 1975 was also the year Gabriel Aresti died. Some of his translations, along with his translation of Eliot's Four Quartets, were published posthumously in a volume entitled T. S. Eliot euskaraz (Hordago, 1983). This volume also contained translations by two other authors: Joseba Sarrionandia and Jon Juaristi, both of whom (together with Bernardo Atxaga, Ruper Ordorika and Joxemari Iturralde) were part of the group POTT (meaning "failure"), which was created in Bilbao in 1978. This group adapted the provocative and innovative attitude of the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, especially the Dadaists. POTT defended the autonomy of literature, an autonomy that, as Bürger wrote (with regard to the avant-garde and the autonomy of art), did not seek to isolate literature from the rest of society, but the very opposite. The writers who formed POTT defined themselves as heirs of the Modernist masters. References to Borges, Kafka, Pound or Eliot abounded in Pott, the magazine the group published in the years 1978-1980. In the wake of POTT, poetry, short stories and other "short" genres went through a process of renewal and reached their heyday in the 1980s, a heyday was largely brought about by the many literary magazines that sprang up around the time, which acted as launching platforms for these new authors.
[Dr. Olaziregi concludes her introduction with a discussion of the work and influence of each of the poets included in the anthology.]
1. Quoted in Metamorphoses, Spring / Fall 2004, vol. 12, p. 22.
2. Atxaga, Bernardo, Obabakoak (New York: Vintage, 1994), p. 324.
3. The political frontier that divides the Basque country between Spain and France creates different legal situations. After the 1978 Spanish Constitution was approved, Basque was granted the same official status as Spanish. However, this is not the case in the French Basque country, where Basque is not an official language. The consequences of this inequality are clear: the establishment of bilingual education models and the grants available for publishing books in Basque have meant that the Basque literary system is much stronger and more dynamic in the Spanish part of the Basque country.
4. Data provided by the sociologist J. M. Torrealdai in Jakin, no. 158, Jan / Feb 2007. Similar data is also available from the president of Euskal Editoreen Elkartea (Association of Basque Publishers), Jorge Giménez, at www.basqueliterature.com/basque/euskalib.
5. See Olaziregi, M. J., 'The Basque Literary System', in Waking the Hedgehog. The Literary Universe of Bernardo Atxaga (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2005). Translated from Basque by Amaia Gabantxo. This information is also available at: http://www.basqueliterature.com/basque/historia/hogeimende/sarrera.
6. For more information on Basque narrative see: Olaziregi, M. J., 'The evolution of the Basque Narrative', in M. E. Altisent (co-ord.), A Companion to the 20th-Century Spanish Novel (London: Boydell ' Brewer Ltd. 'Tamesis Series', 2007). See also: http://www.basqueliterature.com/katalogoak.
7. See Olaziregi, M. J. (ed.), An Anthology of Basque Short Stories (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2004).
8. Borges, J. L., IntroducciÓn a la literatura inglesa (Madrid: Alianza, 1999).
Introduction © Mari Jose Olaziregi 2007
Mari Jose Olaziregi