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Friday, August 24, 2012

Celebrating Borges' Birthday

 I have to thank Maria Popova today for her 113th birthday remembrance of Jorge Louis Borges "Borges on Love and Loss" in The Atlantic and also in her blog post at Brain Pickings.**  I had intended to discuss the poem she published today in his honor, but stumbled into the middle of controversy:  Is the poem "You Learn" by Jorge Louis Borges or is it "After a While" by Veronica A. Shoffstall?

My online research would have it both ways: Shoffstall published it in 1971; his dates are not clear.  One online version lists Shoffstall as translator.  One blog gives Borge's Spanish version with this reference "texts recovered, 1919-1929. by Jorge Luis Borges, Sara Luisa del Carril.  Published by Barcelona: Emece, 1997, 2001, 2002, 2003"--but I have not verified this.  I found no evidence of the existence of any publication on-line, and the question is not important enough to me to take on the footwork of going to the libraries and publishing houses that might have the answer.  I agree with two commentators that the poem doesn't have the rich allusions, images, and surrealism that are customary in Borges' style. Yet, I know he had a life beyond his writing that was more practical than surreal.

Hmm.  I am bemused by my lazy refusal of the detective role in this case.  I love research that finds sources of streams.  Along with other PhDs, I was trained as a "history detective" before the television show existed.  I am bemused, also, by being bemused!  It is a much more pleasant experience than my normal shame at doing less than possible, and more pleasant too than the perfectionism of actually doing it.  HA!  I have fallen right into Borges' "what if" world in which time is not reliable and change and changelessness co-exist.  He recognizes issues like perfectionism, and his characters could easily get caught in a loop of impassible passion.  

I see that I am celebrating Borges without the poem in question, an irony that I suspect Borges would like.  I will end by including a poem that is definitely one of the masters. 

by Jorge Luis Borges
To gaze at a river made of time and water
And remember Time is another river.
To know we stray like a river
and our faces vanish like water.

To feel that waking is another dream
that dreams of not dreaming and that the death
we fear in our bones is the death
that every night we call a dream.

To see in every day and year a symbol
of all the days of man and his years,
and convert the outrage of the years
into a music, a sound, and a symbol.

To see in death a dream, in the sunset
a golden sadness--such is poetry,
humble and immortal, poetry,
returning, like dawn and the sunset.

Sometimes at evening there's a face
that sees us from the deeps of a mirror.
Art must be that sort of mirror,
disclosing to each of us his face.

They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders,
wept with love on seeing Ithaca,
humble and green. Art is that Ithaca,
a green eternity, not wonders.

Art is endless like a river flowing,
passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and yet another, like the river flowing. 

Note: I borrowed this poem from "Famous Poets and Poems."  If you wish to quote it in any way, please refer to my source.  I have no copyright for this poem.  I just enjoy it.  And I thank Maria Popova for her reminder of this birthday and for her commitment to creativity.

** I removed the links to Maria's article because it has been removed.  You may find Brain Pickings here.


  1. You at least have addressed the problematic status of that poem attributed by The Atlantic to Borges. Thanks for that, as well as for posting a poem we can agree Borges actually wrote (although I'd like to know who translated this version). Both The Atlantic and Maria Popova are ignoring my requests that they state where they found the poem. That's not only unprofessional but rude. My request is a valid one, and it matters.

    I went to my Borges collection right away after reading the poem because it seemed more than a little uncharacteristic of his writing. What you call "surreal" I would prefer to characterize as fantastic, but the important thing is that in Borges the fantastic always serves mundane reality. You say he "had a life beyond his writing" as if to suggest his writing was somehow apart from this life. But for me the value of his writing is that it offers the chance to open the reader's mind to the real world around him or her. Borges wrote about mundane things, especially in his poetry. But I have never found in his poems (or any of his writings) the kinds of cliches and platitudes in the poem posted at The Atlantic.

  2. I erased the 2nd as your first comment came through just fine. Sorry that I do not have the translator--I will--tomorrow or soon--find a version with the translator attached. That is important. Maybe you have one? Perhaps you should also give Popova a little time to respond as it is possible she hasn't read your comment yet.

    I agree that the poem is very uncharacteristic. I just see no proof yet that it is not his. (This is reminding me of the Shakespeare play controversy) What if it is his poem? Will you change your opinion of this great writer? I believe that reading his short stories (many years ago now) saved me from living on the surface of reality with few questions and with few of the delights that the intellect can achieve. So, if it is his, I will just wonder who he cared about so much that he chose this way of saying so. For the poem is not ironic, is it? or do you think it is possible that he translated her poem into Spanish for someone?

  3. I also stumbled upon the poem and the controversy and your posting; I don't really have too much to add, but with Google Books' search as a tool, one can see that a search for Jorge Luis Borges Textos Recobrados 1991-1929 along with snippets from Borges' supposed Spanish version doesn't throw up anything. Not definitive certainly, but it would seem to undermine the citation you mention in paragraph two, of the poem being a Borges work in that volume.


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