In Reality I wanted to be a Poem. Jan Gil di Biedma, trs K Payne


“I was born in Barcelona in 1929 and I’ve almost always lived here. I spent the three years of the Civil War in Nava de la Asunción, a village in Segovia, where my family had a house, where I always end up. The shift between Catalunya and Castile, that is, between the city and the country –or, to be more precise, between the bourgeois and le via de château–, was an important factor in my personal mythology. I studied Law in Barcelona and Salamanca; graduating in 1951. Since 1955 I worked in a commercial business. My work has taken me to live for long spells in Manila, a city I adore and that I find so much less exotic than Seville since I understand it so much more. I lost my hair in 1962; the loss annoyed me but I didn’t obsess over it. They say I’ve a nice shaped head. I earn enough money. I don’t save. I’m from the left and more than likely I’ll stay there, but it’s been a while since I’ve practised.” 

Ok. Let’s assume that it’s been 12 years since I wrote that. And let’s go even further, let’s assume the worst: that our assumption –yours and mine, reader, remember– is the absolute truth. What will I say about what has happened to me during all that time? My instinct, firstly, is to say nothing. Then, if I think about it for a while, some things impose themselves. For example, that Manila bores me and now Seville fascinates me. I realised this for the first time in November 1976, after having been there hundreds of times. Also, that in 1974 I published a dairy of mine from 1956 –years ending in six have always been important in my life–, titled Diario del artista seriamente enfermo [Diary of a seriously sick artist] (Editorial Lumen, Barcelona); and that in 1980 I collected my literary-critical essays and some other bits in one volume: El pie de la Letra [The foot of the letter] (Editorial Crítica, Barcelona). And that here, now, is the 2nd edition of my collected poems, unnoticeably enlarged. And through all these years I’ve learned, for better or worse –for better and worse–, how to store things. A modest but absorbing apprenticeship, that at least lets you write poems.


I suppose I’d better say something more about this, about the no writing. Lots of people ask me, and I ask myself. And asking myself why I don’t write inevitably leads to that other more frightening inquisition: why did I ever write? When really, the norm is to read. I’ve two favourite answers. One, that my poetry was –without me knowing it– an attempt at inventing another identity; and once invented, and taken on, It no longer occured to me to risk myself entirely in every poem that I wrote, and that’s what used to drive me on to write. On the other hand, it was all a mistake: I thought I wanted to a poet, but in reality I wanted to be a poem. And in part, for the worst part, I managed it; just like any middling poem that lacks inner freedom, I’m all need and internal submissiveness to that tormented tyrant, to that insomniac, omniscient and ubiquitous Big Brother–Me. Half Caliban, half Narcissus, I fear him more than ever when I hear him interrogate me beside an open balcony: “What’s a man in 1950 like you doing in an indifferent year like this?” All the rest is silence.


Jaime Gil de Biedma

Short essay to accompany his collected poems, Las personas del verbo, The people of the verb, (Seix Barral, Barcelona, 1982)

Trans. k. payne. Vigo, 2016.