Reclamation: Juan Ramón Jiménez and The Poetics of Work

We don’t buy books to read them, to paraphrase Schopenhauer, but because we think we’re buying the time to read them.

Another tribal tendency among readers brings to mind those tourists who cling to the Piazza San Marco and fail to lose themselves in the labyrinth of its environs. Consider, for instance, the way we feel that our literary sensibilities have been confirmed when a writer already on our radar—Alice Munro, say—wins the Nobel Prize.

Many, on the other hand, greet the announcement of an unfamiliar name—this year’s Nobel laureate, Svetlana Alexievich—with confusion or indifference. Still, we eventually recognize the announcement as a gift. Here we are, given a new writer, and even if we fail to appreciate it in the instant, we know we can tuck the name away for future sustenance.

While some writers fall out of favor, great books never come with expiry dates.

The work of Juan Ramón Jiménez, recipient of the 1956 Nobel Prize, has been set aside like a coin no longer in circulation. In the list of laureates, he comes after Halldór Laxness (still exotic for being the only winner from Iceland) and before Albert Camus (still exotic for being Albert Camus). We may recognize the name as one of five Spanish Nobel laureates. Few, however, know the work.

The Complete Perfectionist: A Poetics of Work, a gem of a book that contains Ramón Jiménez’s aphorisms on memory, silence, time, literature, nature and death, provides entrée into the working methods of a writer whom Christopher Maurer—the book’s translator and editor—deems “master of several generations of Spanish poets.”

Born in 1881, Ramón Jiménez became the cultural attaché of the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Enemy of fascism, he refused to return to Spain. He spent his final decades abroad, dying a year and a half after the Swedish Academy cited his work as “an inspiring example of spirituality and artistic purity.”

Ramón Jiménez compared himself to a manual laborer. He pushed himself to work, always.

“As early as 1900,” Maurer writes, “he had begun to write aphorisms, and by the time of his death, had accumulated more than four thousand of them.”

So as not to argue with myself about the conviction, the duty, the need not to write anymore, I write all the time, at every moment. As a friendly concession to the writer in me, I write the aphorism, the short song, the epigram.

The hundreds of aphorisms that Maurer has included in The Complete Perfectionist allow us to see Ramón Jiménez as writer in continual search of excellence. He also understands that true perfection lies in the “almost”: “Almost perfect: its greatest charm was in the ‘almost.’”

While the aphorisms in The Complete Perfectionist address many subjects through a poet’s lens, the book’s subtitle—“A Poetics of Work”—reminds us that this book is for all laborers, anyone who works with her hands or mind and therein finds sanctuary.

“Why shouldn’t I love, adore, feel reverence for my work if it is the most enduring and loveliest body that I can possibly make for my soul?” he asks. He returns to this topic later, writing, “How can we expect others to love our work if we do not feel immense love for it ourselves?”

Here, Ramón Jiménez examines the role of reading:

When I don’t understand a poem, or part of it, I don’t insist: I try to be satisfied with what I understand, and I’m sure that another time, under other conditions, I’ll understand more and understand something else… The understanding of a poem comes in successive surprises.

And in his search for le mot juste:

In poetry, the word should be so exact that the reader forgets it and only the idea remains: a little like a river that makes us forget the water and remember only the current.

In a world where we order our lives to save time, we will do well to follow Ramón Jiménez’s advice: “When you feel hurried, walk more slowly,” he writes. “To work isn’t to do a lot in a hurry or, above all, many times; it is to make unique, very well made things.”

He also reminds us that our lives become what we make of them, offering advice to navigate the chaos of daily life: “You find in solitude only what you take to it.” And later: “When it is noisy, don’t sing: draw or sculpt your thought.” And later still: “No deep truth has ever been shouted.”

Here, he writes about the importance of setting objectives in our work and enjoying the process of creation:

Let us propose a distant goal, far away in an infinite future, and walk toward it each day, slowly, without stopping, enjoying in all their fullness what lies beside the road and what we leave behind.

On our attempts to achieve goals in our work, the ultimate subject that runs throughout The Complete Perfectionist, Ramón Jiménez writes, “At each instant, do the best one can. That is enough.”

In these aphorisms, Ramón Jiménez never assumes that interesting means complicating. He begins at the beginning and speaks directly, simply, without ever becoming simplistic. Open The Complete Perfectionist at random and experience its riches and encouragement. Find in it the wisdom that Ramón Jiménez offers throughout, as when he considers the potential of art:

The best art always gives a surprising, somewhat alien first impression, as absolute beauty would give. And then comes mutual conquest, and we are saved; the extraordinary makes us extraordinary.


Image detail from The Complete Perfectionist, Doubleday, 1997. 

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