What an exceptional treat to “listen in” on these conversations held with the phenomenal Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in 1976 and in 1980, when he was 80. Among his interviewers are Dick Cavett, Alistair Reid, and Borges’s dear friend, Willis Barnstone, who is also a vibrant presence here. The topics are wide ranging (at one point Barnstone asks him to talk about hell), but the most deeply examined is that of writing — the act and the result. To be in the company of this brilliant and humane person is a thrilling delight.
Here’s an excerpt from a conversation held at Indiana University in 1976 –
Willis Barnstone: During World War I, when you were in Geneva, studying French and Latin, talking English and Spanish at home, you came upon another American poet whose lines you read in German: Als ich in Alabama meinen Morgengang machte.
Jorge Luis Borges: Walt Whitman.
Barnstone: What effect did finding that other American have upon the possibility of a modern language for your poetry?
Borges: When I read Walt Whitman, I did not think of myself as a poet. I read it as a reader, and I was swept off my feet. I thought that Walt Whitman was perhaps the only poet, that all other poets, from Homer and so on down to Whitman, were merely his forerunners. That was the sensation I got. The same sensation that I had when I first discovered Hugo, John Donne, or why not Seneca? who was also a poet, or Shakespeare, or Quevedo.
I suppose the first time a young man discovers a poet he thinks of him not as a poet but as poetry, as poetry as an art at last discovered by someone after the gropings of the centuries. That was the impression I got from Whitman. I said what bunglers all the others have been. Now I see of course that I was wrong, since all poets are right in their way, and I don’t think that one should think of one as being an outstanding poet. In fact, I suspect that poetry is not an uncommon thing. I suppose that even the worst poets, I myself for example, may have achieved a fine verse now and then. In every book of some third-rate Argentine writer there may be a fine verse. And perhaps God, if he exists—of course he may not exist—would certainly think that every moment is wonderful, otherwise why on earth should this poetry writing be going on.