Resenhas a livros de JS / Sena’s books reviews



Conduzido por alguém que se assina simplesmente Miguel, o blog  “St. Orberose” dedica-se a recensões, em inglês, de livros de todas as partes do mundo. Nele encontramos originais abordagens de três coletâneas de Jorge de Sena: América, AméricaAntologia poética e Correspondência Jorge de Sena/ Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. Entremeando os comentários críticos, muitas e representativas citações das páginas originais, traduzidas para a língua inglesa. Na postagem referente à Antologia poética, há uma extensa seleção de poemas de Sena, também traduzidos para o inglês pelo resenhista. Sem dúvida, um grande serviço a favor da divulgação da obra de Sena em vários quadrantes, que aqui aplaudimos. 


Carried out by someone who simply signs as Miguel, the blog “St. Orberose” is dedicated to book reviews in English, of books from all over the world. There we find unique approaches about three collections of Jorge de Sena: America, AmericaAntologia Poética and Correspondência Jorge de Sena / Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. Weaving critics, many reviews and representative quotes from the original pages, translated into English. On the post regarding Antologia Poética, there is an extensive selection of poems by Sena, also translated into English by the reviewer. Undoubtedly, a great service for the dissemination of the work of Sena in various quarters, that we applaud here.



I’d like to apologize for frequently writing about books that haven’t been translated yet, thus making it impossible for anyone interested to read them. I’ll try to change this in the future.


In 1959, Jorge de Sena, a Portuguese poet, novelist, literary critic, translator, left for Brazil for several many reasons: he wasn’t earning enough to support his family; he didn’t have, in a country famous for nepotism and a patron-client system, the right connections to get an academic teaching job; his professional obligations left him with  little time for writing and pursuing literary research; and he had been involved in an aborted revolutionary attempt to bring down Salazar’s regime, which meant he could be arrested, and likely tortured and killed, at any moment if his involvement were discovered. Thus, accepting an invitation from the University of Bahia, he left for the New World, where he resided until his death. In Brazil he earned his PhD with a thesis on the epic poet Luís de Camões. (Sena’s formal education was in engineering.) In 1964, when Brazil also became a dictatorship, Sena accepted an invitation from the University of Wisconsin to teach in the USA; in 1970 he moved to the University of California, in Santa Barbara, where he taught literature and foreign languages until 1978, the year of his death. He never got over the fact that, after Portugal’s return to democracy, in 1974, no academic institution invited him to teach there, his great dream.

Although Portugal has a long history of emigration, dating back to the 16th century, Sena didn’t see his situation as identical to the one of the average Portuguese emigrant, usually a person lacking in studies, poor, who’s looking to improve his social condition. “I didn’t come to America to be what I wasn’t, or have opportunities I never had,” he wrote. Being an intellectual, he wasn’t easily fooled by the American myth that is so attractive to the downtrodden. “And I’m in conditions of feeling acutely the fallacies of the American way of life, which the Americans, themselves, are feeling too.” He wrote numerous texts about the United States, between 1968 and 1978, and they were published posthumously in a volume called América, América; it  constitute a fascinating cultural document, the testimony of a foreigner living in the USA, in which the author tackles academic trends, the teaching of foreign languages, history and politics. Sena didn’t hate the United States, let’s make that clear right now. But being a thinker and a writer, he has that independence of mind – the reason why he couldn’t stand living in two dictatorships – that makes him prone to dig under the surface of ideas and find nuances others tend to ignore. That enables him to read with a critical eye a country famous for not reading itself very well and that badly reads (when at all) other countries. He’s no Alexis de Tocqueville, but he’s no less interesting. And he had a wonderfully dry humor.
(3 mar. 2012 — América, América | Leia o texto completo/ Read the full Text)



In his 1996 diary José Saramago remarked, in a tone of displeasure, that Jorge de Sena’s oeuvre had not yet been completely collected. He was writing eighteen years after Sena’s death, in 1978. The two authors did not have, according to Saramago himself, a close relationship. In an article written three weeks after his death, the Nobel Prize laureate, while evoking the memory of this great poet and essayist summed up their dealings as a series of letters they exchanged “for editorial reasons,” dating I presume from the years Saramago worked as editor at Estúdios Cor, publisher of Sena’s books. “Written, there were very many dozens (hundreds?) of pages that this and that side wrote.” These letters Saramago would have liked to have seen published one day. Unfortunately he too has passed away, before he had the opportunity to fulfil Mécia de Sena’s request to write the preface to that eventual book. Seventeen years have elapsed since Saramago’s lament but Sena’s vast oeuvre continues uncollected, coming out sporadically; Sena is becoming a serious rival to Fernando Pessoa for the title of Portuguese writer with more posthumous publications; at least he has left Eça de Queiroz behind. Thanks to Mécia, who has done a tremendous job organising her husband’s work, many collections of his letters have finally started coming out in recent years. Amongst the interesting people he corresponded with we have Sophia de Mello Breyner and the critic João Gaspar Simões. So far none of the letters he and Saramago exchanged, but I admit I wait for them with some apprehension: reading the correspondence between the author of Blindness and José Rodrigues Miguéis, another writer published at Estúdios Cor, left me thinking that Saramago may not be suited to the epistolary genre. But perhaps a poet and thinker of Sena’s stature succeeded in getting Saramago to write more than dull business reports about royalties.
Sena’s poetry, however, hasn’t received similar attention, which is strange since he’s chiefly famous for his poetry. In 2010 a poetic anthology came out, and a prefatory note renewed the pledge to publish his complete poetry. The wait continues and the reader has to get along with an edition that contains but one tenth of his poems, which a critic estimated to be in the order of 1600. Antologia Poética is a fine book, a hardbound with a cleverly designed dust jacket, sturdy paper and sewn binding. In lieu of an introduction it comes with a brief but excellent compilation of excerpts of ‘Jorge de Sena talking about Jorge de Sena.’ We can read for instance Sena explaining (1954) that his poetry represents “a desire of partisan independence from social poetry, a desire for erudite, classic expression, of surrealist liberation, a desire to destroy through the unheard of tumult of images every obsolete discipline” and “a desire to express what I understand human dignity to be: full loyalty to the responsibility of being in the world, even when everything wants to show us that we’re one too many… or too few.” Just as lucid is his short definition (1960) of the art of poetry. “The art of poetry is not, in the poetry to be considered genuine, more than the science, better or worse informed, rationally or intuitively obtained, of expressing ourselves responsibly.” He was also a keen observer and ferocious critic of traditions in Portuguese literature. In 1963 he wrote in his preface to As Metamorfoses:


The alleged absence of speculative and cultural traditions in the poetry of the Portuguese language; the confused identification of poetry with lyricism, and of the latter with only sentimental abstractions, still so prevailing in our critical writing; the impressionist and picturesque level in which, in our country, the different approximations between the diverse forms of artistic expression are processed; the indistinct notion that speculation is not only prosaic but something didactic and pedagogical, and that, consequently, meditation is not a genre of literary expression, and above all not poetical: all that, I know, won’t contribute to making these poems loved and understood.


(9 set 2013 –Antologia Poética | Leia o texto completo/ Read the full Text)



I think everyone already knows – by now everyone has an obligation to know – my love for the Portuguese poets Jorge de Sena andSophia de Mello Breyner. I’ve written about their poems before, and in Sena’s case even about his experiences living in America. So I couldn’t miss the opportunity to write about both at one fell swoop. Recently I finished reading the letters they exchanged for almost twenty years, starting in 1959 shortly before Sena’s self-imposed exile in Brazil and ending in 1978 with his death in Santa Barbara, California. These two giants of Portuguese letters kept a very curious correspondence, he an expat living in freedom, she politically committed alongside her husband in several anti-fascist causes but living in a dictatorship. In these letters they discussed many things: art, poetry, politics, friendship, history, each other’s work. Perhaps the most important thing is the friendship both expressed, a friendship expanded to their spouses, Sena’s Mécia and Sophia’s Francisco. It’s hard to articulate these letters into coherent texts, so I’ve edited bits and pieces according to theme. We’ll start with their thoughts about Portugal, and Sena’s experiences in Brazil.

Jorge de Sena keeps bringing up one topic: the pettiness, small-mindedness of the Portuguese intelligentsia, and the difficulty of making a career in letters and literary criticism in Portugal. Sena did not have a background in letters, he was an engineer, in spite of which he wrote better literary criticism than many PhD critics. But Portugal was and still is an elitist society, and he was an outsider. A case in point comes with the publication of the third volume of Líricas Portuguesas (Portuguese Lyrics, 1958), an anthology collecting Portuguese poetry from its inception to modern times. The poet José Régio had organised the first volume, which encompassed poetry from the medieval era to the first quarter of the 20th century; the second volume, edited by poet Cabral do Nascimento, showcased the work of poets born between 1859 and 1908; Sena’s third volume included the poets born between 1909 and 1929, that is, the poets of his generation. For reasons that he doesn’t explain, and that I can’t ascertain, this volume wasn’t well received, as he complains in a letter to Francisco, 1 February, 1959:


You took upon yourself the initiative of promoting in the National Cultural Centre a debate about the 3rd series of Portuguese Lyrics, from Portugália Editora, which I selected, prefaced and annotated. I could not but agree, in principle, with such initiative, for I understand anything to be liable to be publicly debated that, in the intellectual, social or political life, may interest the collectiveness in general or the villages which that collectiveness is composed of. But no one’s forced to take part in a public debate. I think I already participated enough by providing the object and the pretext for the deplorable exhibition of pettiness, incompetence, intellectual dishonesty, lack of politeness, malice, invectives, envy, rancour and mediocrity, of which, sadly with only a few noble exceptions, have been composed the direct or indirect references to that work of mine, publicly printed and more or less anonymous. One thing’s a debate, another’s a feast of opportunism. I cannot, therefore, sanction with my presence a session which, regardless of the intentions and the intelligence, honesty and culture of many participants, runs the risk of being the recognition that, to the moral defects that miserably afflict a great part of the alleged Portuguese intelligentsia, the same status of freedom and independence must be attributed which we demand in everything in the matter of ideas and action. I terminally refuse such recognition.


(2 dez. 2013 — Sena/Sophia –1 | Leia o texto completo/ Read the full Text)



This second post about the letters of Jorge de Sena and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen focuses on their work and also their personal lives. As one would expect, they read and commented each other’s work through their correspondence. Sophia informs Sena that she’s translating Dante’s Purgatorio, which she considers her masterpiece, how unexpected. Although separated by an ocean, she tries to find ways of working with him, inviting him to collaborate on magazines she edits. One such magazine is called Litoral.“My idea is to have ‘correspondents’ in Brazil, Rome, Paris, Spain, England giving each one news of what shows up in the country where they are. If you know any people for this let me know.” In Brazil she wanted him and the other great expat, Adolfo Casais Monteiro, to write book reviews. “Collaboration will be paid, although I’m not quite sure how,” she vaguely assures him. “My idea would be to try to gather in the magazine what’s left of the consciousness, lucidity and creative spirit in this terrible moment of unconsciousness, blindness and propaganda. Therefore your presence is for me extremely important, fundamentally necessary.” Efforts like this, often personal endeavours, short-lived and somewhat crude, were the only way of keeping some discussion about literature and culture going in a country that had no interest in promoting culture. But such magazines didn’t last long because of police persecution and also because of bureaucratic barriers. Even so Sena did not fail to send her some of his poems for publication, from his masterpiece The Metamorphoses:


It’s monumental, at least in size and ambitions – and, as you see, it couldn’t be more recent: it was written yesterday. It’s part of that collection about several works, of which I read you some, at home. I hope that book, with some 14 long poems, will be published this year by COR. I’ve called it tentatively Museum, but I think it’ll end up being called The Metamorphoses. They’ll all be accompanied by what they illustrate… This I send you now will be illustrated by a Sputnik…


My Sena anthology doesn’t have the pictures that go with the poems, in fact I only saw them when I checked out the original book at the national library. Meanwhile Jorge de Sena is also sending Sophia short-stories for a collection called Andanças do Demónio. Her critique of them contains a line I particularly loved. “I don’t understand very well the meaning of the second tale. In verse I don’t need to understand, but in prose I do.”
(2 dez. 2013 — Sena/Sophia  – 2 | Leia o texto completo/ Read the full Text)


*There’s not a lot to know about me. I’m from Portugal and I like to read. I’m fortunate enough to be able to read in English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. I read books from all over the world and I review them for my blog (St. Orberose)