Poetry and moral imagination: Luis García Montero

June 20, 2013
Luis García Montero

Luis García Montero

Luis García Montero is one of Spain’s most prominent public intellectuals. A successful poet and frequent political columnist for the progressive online paper Público, he is also a leading figure in the United Left coalition (Izquierda Unida) and has been among the most vocal supporters of Judge Baltasar Garzón. Last year, he helped found the political party Izquierda Abierta (Open Left), as a faction of Izquierda Unida, hoping to lay the basis for a politically viable alternative to neoliberalism. For García Montero, poetry and politics go hand in hand. Reading, he wrote in a recent column, cultivates “the moral imagination that allows us to recognize the other … as a person.” And we need moral imagination as we look for social and political alternatives. García Montero was in New York in April to speak about Federico García Lorca, and sat down with The Volunteer to talk about his commitment to political activism and literature.

García Montero writes for the people. The most prominent poet in Spain of the last 30 years, he has always rejected the notion of the artist as solitary soul. His poems challenge social hierarchies as much as established norms of beauty and poetic value. His work as a professor of literature at the University of Granada gives him a strong sense of his own place in history. He feels most strongly connected to poets who were more deeply rooted in social engagement than in aesthetics, such as Rafael Alberti. In the end, he feels, the distinction between literary work and political work is arbitrary. In this, he follows a line of poets associated with the opposition to Franco dictatorship and repression.

Together with Felipe Benítez Reyes, Álvaro Salvador and the late Javier Egea, García Montero is one of the foremost leaders of la poesía de la experiencia, which finds its inspiration in the experience of the common man in daily, urban life. Emotional truth and profundity can be found in normality, even banality: “Normal people—not the heroes or those chosen from among the gods but the normal people we see in the street or the metro or the library—have their own singularity. Their particular sexuality, their particular obsessions, their particular fears, their own world. Being different is not a legacy of heroes but a legacy of everyone. I try to create a poetic character that is not some kind of illuminist who finds essential truth at the margins of society but rather someone who investigates his own differences and abnormalities like everyone else in the world.”

I wanted to start by talking about what you’ve said about poetry being a “useful” genre. What does useful mean in this context? Do you think of poetry as an instrument to achieve something, or is it more of an end in itself?

Luis García Montero (center) with Concha Carretero and Azucena Rodríguez at the presentation of the campaign "Solidarity with Judge Garzón" in 2011. Photo Reyes Sedano.

Luis García Montero (center) with Concha Carretero and Azucena Rodríguez at the presentation of the campaign “Solidarity with Judge Garzón” in 2011. Photo Reyes Sedano.

“Normally in our society, we only apply the value of utility to that which serves a practical or immediate end or serves to make money. What I meant by saying poetry is useful is that, within literature and the humanities, the concept of utility is much broader. I understand poetry as form of awareness for the individual and of the individual’s relationship to the world. To me, this is as useful as what we normally call ‘useful’ because it has a practical goal. I think poetry has to do with freedom, it has to do with awareness, and I wanted to widen the concept of utility to include this more humanist terrain.”


Speaking of freedom, what is your relationship to social poetry? I’m thinking of Gil de Biedma and the poets of the Generation of ’50 — do you think your poetry is a revival of this kind of poetry?

“Well, social poetry in Spain is related above all to the political struggle against the dictatorship. For me, the best social poetry was not that which dealt explicitly with political topics but rather that which served to meditate, and in that kind of awareness understand the poets’ relationships to the world, the emotional education the world had given them, the place they occupied in the world. It was less of a publication of information than a political commitment and a stance they took against reality.

“Antonio Machado said that the poet’s relationship to history is realized not only through strikes and wars and repressions and constitutions but also through emotions. Because emotions are historical. So as part of a political commitment, equally as important as participating in a public struggle is participating in the formation of daily life: of what is private and intimate, of ideas about love and sex, of relationships between men and women. An important job of poetry has been participating in the transformation of emotions, in the transformation of an emotional education, because this is a way of participating in the transformation of society.

“Although I have sometimes used poems to participate in a mobilization or to denounce something, my political commitment has always been oriented toward the search for a freer way of feeling. Because the transition in Spain was not just a step from dictatorship to democracy in the sense of going from a country where no one could vote to a country where politicians were fairly elected. It was also a radical change in the transformation of emotional freedom: the transformation of feelings, of sexuality, of life, of the roles of women and men, which had all been very heavily marked during the dictatorship by Francoist repression.”

And how did the political and social atmosphere during the end of the ’70s influence the formation of your poetry?

“In ’76 I began studying in the University of Granada, which was heavily politicized because there was a strong student movement against the dictatorship. That year, in Granada, with the dictatorship still in place but the dictator now dead, the first tribute to Federico García Lorca took place. It was in García Lorca’s place of birth, Fuente Vaqueros, and I went. This was a literary act, because we were reclaiming a great poet, and it was an academic act, because it was organized by many professors and students from the University of Granada, but it was also a political act: it was the first large meeting of democratic, anti-dictatorship forces in Granada. And since then, the act of studying, teaching or writing has been inseparable for me from an ethics of civic and social commitment.

“In that sense, my poetry and my work as a professor of literature in the University of Granada aim to be not only an effort of technique that uses language skillfully but also an effort of civic commitment and the transformation of society. For example, I’ve spoken to you about García Lorca, the poet of my city, but I also did my doctoral thesis on Rafael Alberti, who spent 40 years in exile from the dictatorship; I’ve spoken to you about Antonio Machado, who died in exile shortly after the Civil War; and some of my favorite poets, like Blas de Otero or Ángel González, were anti-Franco fighters. So this has been my tradition—I’ve never seen a separation between civic conscience and literary work.”

Do you see a connection between the act of students in the ’70s fighting against Francoism and the protests of today like the strikes organized by university students?

“Yes, I think there’s a huge connection. In Spain, the younger generations have always had an intellectual responsibility. In the nineteenth century, Spanish society was aware of the problems of its nation: Spain had a very unstable state, had fallen behind politically and socially, and maintained very anti-modern institutions and customs. When the First Republic failed, the pedagogue Francisco Giner de Ríos said there would not be a new Spain until there was a new youth that was educated and liberated and capable of changing Spanish reality. And since then we have always demanded of the young that they be not only young but also able to change reality. Look, this happened with the Generation of 1898, it happened with the generation of Unamuno, it happened with the Generation of 1914, it happened later with the Generation of 1927 and the Republic and Federico García Lorca, and after Franco there were more student generations like those that fought against Francoism.

“There’s a common caricature of the young as careless people who don’t commit to anything—that is false. It was imposed by a culture at the time of the transition that wanted to claim that Spain no longer had problems and had passed from the dictatorship to a wonderful country, and therefore all there was for the youth to do was have fun and drink in the streets and do nothing political. The 15-M movement and other youth movements have, fortunately, demonstrated that this was a false caricature. There remain many problems in Spain, and the younger generations reclaimed the history of struggle and are mobilizing for a more just country.”

Your work is marked by a distinctly narrative tone. Why is common, quotidian language essential for your poetry?

“There’s a whole poetic tradition in modernity that believes that to write poetry is not to invent a special language but rather to employ, in the most rigorous and meditative way possible, the common language—the language of society. This is also a way of understanding the poet: not as someone special and illuminated and godlike but as a citizen like any other, who takes the necessary time to think deeply about the human condition. The poet writes not for other poets but for other readers, and he is interested not in using language that looks like poetic jargon but in using the language of the community and elaborating it. I’m interested in this natural language because I identify more and more with the understanding of poetry as a genre of awareness and meditation of emotions. This has to do with almost a conversation with one’s own conscience, or the music of a conversation between two people who look each other in the eyes and speak to each other with sincerity. And the language of society is better suited than an invented poetic language to capture this music.”

Do you think this heightened language puts distance between the poet and his own words?

“Well, among other things, it puts distance between the poet and his words, and it also puts distance between the poet and society. Working with a poem often involves constructing a literary character—but there are many ways of developing this character. The character born out of a heightened language is one who decides that society has failed and the social contract has failed. And since he dislikes society, he breaks from it and utilizes language that it does not understand. That strange language has at its core a political and ethical significance: it is a way of saying, ‘My language doesn’t pertain to this society because I believe society to be unfair.’ This self-enclosure is a rebellion that opts for the own personal world of the individual.

“The opposite stance has to do the awareness that if society has failed it is still possible to intervene, to establish a dialogue and to attempt to transform society. This viewpoint gives less importance to the rarity of the individual than to the dialogue that people can create in order to build a collective, alternative vision. So, when up against the senselessness of the denouncement of the social contract, I’m interested in making sense of things — of being aware of the precariousness of society but trying to have a dialogue about its possible transformation. In this sense, a poet’s choice of words, of tone, or adjectives, always has at its foundation an ethics and a relation to reality.”

Alice McAdams graduated from Oberlin College in 2013 and is a current graduate student at Middlebury College in Madrid. Her translations of García Montero’s poetry are forthcoming in Rainy Day and Typo.