Cognition, Process and Poetry

An Essay on Baldur Ragnarsson's Poetics, by Probal Dasgupta

The poetics of Baldur Ragnarsson is something we have to study through the very concrete thought-threads that appear in his texts; in him, Esperanto thinking becomes an entirely concrete enterprise, in which poetry stops counting as an optional feature and becomes central. I hope to demonstrate at least part of this assertion with some examples, and of course I acknowledge that this approach to his poetics will have to be cross-fertilized with the readings of others. It helps to begin with the following poem from Esploroj:






jen kvanto



kaj ja ne ia




aŭ sandviĉo


An axiom




Here’s a quantity



And not an




Or sandwich


 A short format poem especially directly puts you in touch not only with the poet of that concision but also with the poetics of that conciseness. How does the thinking in Aksiomo proceed? To call the sufficiency ‘a middle bit’ not only creates a verbal surprise but launches the thought-thread within the language exploration – ‘upto-however-much’ will later echo the wordish labour of ‘a middle bit’ [with which it rhymes in Esperanto]. The middle-bit choice on the one hand means giving up on the wish to climb up to however much, a wish that can be grasped in the form of an elephant, who rhymes in Esperanto with quantity (one notes that in Ragnarsson rhymes and other poetic devices directly feature in threading the thoughts, something that in his poetics dissolves the bipolarity of the prosish-ratiocinatory and figurative rationalities). On the other hand, to aspire for a middle-bit solution is a trying that won’t be satisfied if the role of the solution is usurped by an unmediated recombination of the elements of the problem – a recombination effectively formulated as a ‘sandwich’, rhyming with the ‘sufiĉo’ ‘sufficiency’ at the start of the thread and closing the thought. Such effectiveness of expressions makes possible a dialogue with the reader, and enables resonances. Creating such options hits just that distinguishably intermediate key which marks the work of Baldur Ragnarsson, a poet of the process.


 To gain more clearly formulable access to that labour, let us consider a sequence from Esploroj, beginning at Speguloj, in which “The mirrors of the waters/ incessantly flow through my mind”. After the break-up into fragments, the recombination of the fragments gives rise to new images. These contain “their own worlds, each on its own, / of realities, memories and dreams” and are so delicate that “the smallest thought / ruffles their surfaces .../ smashes their worlds/ into ruins”. This periodic catastrophe is healed during sleep, so that “the mirrors get/ their quiet back / the pictures shine again / the world gets back in shape”. And yet this healing is undone at the next phase; the world that was back in shape “awaits a new perishing / at the break of dawn”.


 What follows that poem is the sequence Difinoj, Ĉe la rando and Glacio. At the end of this little series of ours, at Glacio, we will face the serious, frozen sleep of water itself, and we will recognize that the catastrophe is precisely those quite specific, quite definite contours that freezing itself has etched: “But what summer could not give / can be provided by winter / one morning the image disappeared / for the cave had frozen. / And that is when those / who held out during summer and longing / understand that what has its very own face / is only / the ice”. If we begin at Speguloj and end at Glacio, we see especially clearly the role of processes in the poetic logic of Ragnarsson.


 The poem Difinoj, with ten numbered parts, is about a probing that resists the idea of having to search under the surfaces. In Difinoj 1, „so many years/ without breakthrough“ at first sight look frustrating, but there is at once the clearing-up „touches/ surface explorations/ sign-focused searches/ until“ – and the word „until“ jumps to reappear to the right, indicating a category shift:


laŭsignaj serĉoj




trans kaj tra

signifas superfluon




kresko validas


sign-focused searches




across and through

mean an overflow




growth holds good


One possible reading construes the first occurrence of „until“ as a conjunction and the second one as a preposition, giving the sentence the form „searches, until Until, Across and Through mean an overflow“. On that reading the poem reports a process of repeated touchings that become consciously sign-focused searches, move beyond the initial frustration of non-breakthrough and reach that phase of explorativity in which the notions of attainment-until, of leaping-across, and of breaking-through begin to bear the meaning of overflow, of something exceeding the sufficiency that is in fact worth aiming for, the sufficiency that the earlier poem was about. Reaching that phase inaugurates a realization of growth and now gives the subject a picture of a process, which presents itself, at process-end, as growth.


 If you, the subject, have grown, and thus grown up, attained self-possession, and thus have a self, then you have also become a preserver and caretaker of a memory that you will have to archivally organize on an annual basis. This is the key that Difinoj 2 hits, and we leave as an exercise for the reader the task of listening and checking that key; we note only that the pasts preserved have the form of „memories/ visitable in sleep“, and yet are not passive objects, but are themselves subjectual, experiential, and thus ocular: „eyes/ that can be looked into/ involving multiple centres of consciousness“. Again, in that word „diskonscie“ (‚involving multiple centres of consciousness‘), the language-making specificity of this poet works with his concrete poetics to keep careful faith with the processes that the poem explores via being.


 What begins to appear in Difinoj 3 are the results of the tendency to sift your reexaminations of the pasts: some bits of memory shine noticeably and „express themselves in a fairy tongue“, which creates a new relation between the now and memory arround the active monitorable visualization: „light centres below / for the constant actuality“. But the idea that light provides unique access and that touch makes more concrete this sense of having is in fact a factor limiting you: in Difinoj 4 you see that the whitewashed wall whose surface you touch does not as a whole enter your holding – your understanding stops, resisted by the special concreteness of the wall‘s interior, reached neither by light nor by your touch: „whitewash whitelasts/ while I touch coordinately/ an indifferent wall-nakesness/ covers are coordinable/ the beneaths resist/ internal unwhites/ touchproof“ – a poem that reaches a masterly summary at that final verse „touchproof“. How do you respond to those limits of light?


 In Difinoj 5 you „notice/ the hands/ no flight inwards“, and thus you imagine courage as the capacity to accept the world of surfaces as something understandable and sufficient. In other words you survey what is available to you: „something of silk/ concrete softness/ white leisure on the parapet of a bridge/ underneath/ iron-blue water/ is a touchable substance/ a world observed“ – that you are able, are you, to stop at this satisfaction with an observable world and to regard the inside as an avoidable goal only of wishful escapes from reality? Unfortunately you aren‘t: „surface explorations/ gradually create tedium“ (Difinoj 6), and this tedium stimulates your attention‘s probing faculty known to you as your love – and the insistence of your love shows up in your touches: „timid strokes/ in this case equal/ amorous impatiences/ obedient ovals/ zigzag non-surrenders“. In love, your feelings meet your reason and find themselves unsatisfied with these results: „on the surfaces/ i feel/ null-valid“ – in this recognition of the inability of your search so far to find a valid conclusion you commit yourself to further searching.


 You now get back to the start of your „sign-focused searches“ (Difinoj 1), but you greatly decelerate the rhythm, you hesitate a lot, even in the middle of a word: „sign-/ focused searches/ or/ or/ dubious tracks/ almost/ guide me“ (Difinoj 7), and the end of your poem „o Mona Lisa/ as if“ versify into the beginning of Difinoj 8 – „up to/ the police point“. You have only a pile of „surface experiences“, which don‘t substantiate, don‘t substantivate: „moments/ particle-pasts adverbialize/ before mirages/ miracles“ – you wish to retrieve the magic of the fairy tongue, but your resources rigorously declare that leap to be impossible: „across and through/ mean an overflow/ excess/ transition“ (Difinoj 9), says your echo from Difinoj 1, and the idea of transition carries you to a fertile metaphor, that of rain – you begin to believe in the syllogismless reasoning of raining: „rain fills/ a world unattachedly/ fears not/ demands not/ is not interested/ moves from one world to another/ unnoticed/ ambiguously/ ambivalidly“. There! You think you‘ve found a key outside touch-dependent, result-expressing reasoning, in a process that presents itself as watery-earthy, and thus managing to leave the earth without any specific gesture of transition.


 Your rain begins, though, by not providing a solution – it will dissolve all into chaos: it (Difinoj 10) „will drown cities/ oceans/ will in death prove by touching/ essence/ crossing/ osmotically in life depths/ will be reached by/ growing“. Only such an odyssey without a driver will give you back a sense of the magical tongue: „then/ pearls will release secrets/ will offer facings/ pupils/ a fairy tongue will incarnate/ growth / growth holds good“ – and there you are again in the initial movement of the definitions.


 My intention is not to “create tedium” in you to the point of letting your impatience overwhelm your love, dear fellow reader. It is important to engage you in this interpretative labour, this growing, so that it hits some validity. Please do your own journey through Ĉe la rando up to Glacio to corroborate or disconfirm my suggested reading. If “a fairy tongue/ will incarnate” (Difinoj 10) has taken up, very tentatively and allusively, a Christian thread, and if Ĉe la rando 1, referring to a crusade and thus more obviously touching the same thread, moves into the hypothesis that “to the best of my knowledge/ no one yet has taken up/ arms”, and into the undramaticness of the truth – “never does/ an oratorical exterior/ dress/ the truth” (Ĉe la rando 2), and into a rejection of [what the Esperanto world’s international anthem calls] the bloodthirsty sword: “but what matters most/ if someone announces discovery of/ the truth/ is whether he likewise/ announces himself ready/ to crusade” (Ĉe la rando 3) – how then does the verse-borne, stroke-dependent, exploring process reach the proposal that the ice of Nordic nature counterpoints the rain water with which Baldur Ragnarsson’s poetry builds a rhythmic relation and in a mesocosm bridge-builds between the world’s macrocosm and the person’s wavy microcosm? Forgive my long sentence and probe away on your own, with your own cadences, but don’t forget that our poet has steeped himself in the waters – and ices of his predecessors, and that that the cross metaphor in Mihalski (Life is Golgotha. Two crosses: you and me) was followed by Auld’s rigorous equating of Christianity with missionary Leninism and violence. Be careful to locate our poet in the literary sequence which he self-consciously, as a thoughtful critic, inherits.


 And when there has been some growth in your own comprehension of the relation between Ragnarsson, processes and precisions/ imprecisions, you will manage to return to the processual steps of development armed with the proposal that it is important to highlight the anonymity, the namelessness, of those steps. I am alluding of course to those  Ŝtupoj sen nomo, Steps without Name, which his first book of poems characterized with an explicit care that drew on a different format for its explicitness. His effort in that book focused on flawless brush-strokes painting cosmic, Pascalishly wonder-creating vastnesses and depths which echo in the experiences of the human who experiences and remakes. After that take-off, the question in the second book, Esploroj, has to do with the personal, understanding, relation with that echoing through which we catch again and retrieve the cosmos in ourselves, as a process every time of cosmos-emergence from repeated descents into chaos. This is one reading of Ragnarsson’s poetics.


 Is this thread “enough”, though – if I may, with some self-parody, echo my excessively cheap highlighting of one or two poems – to help understand his abundant work in prose, his cherishing of translation, his decision to base his work in Iceland in particular and in the sovereignty of small ethnicities in general, in the space of Esperanto comprehension?


If Kabe [Kazimierz Bein] and [Kálmán] Kalocsay overemphasized translations and if Auld, by way of counterpoint, greatly stressed Esperanto original writing, what Ragnarsson gives us is an understanding of the literary and selfly process which drives into obsolescence that old and never settled debate. His contribution to our understanding of process – which we may situate on a world map next to the élan-focused Bergson or the processological Whitehead who have already, in their full-blown philosophical visions, accorded a central place to the generality of processes – emerges most clearly perhaps in the notional polarity of processes and precision. It may make sense to end our argument by offering a few remarks on this matter.


In Ragnarsson, process simultaneously urges us to look for precision and also, in advance, declares dead those patterns that will be the most visible result of our enterprise. If in Auld “the goal does not elude us/ however it consumes us”, in Ragnarsson precision as a goal of the probing attracts us, mirage-like, and moves us ahead, and our growth takes the form of learning how to smile as we get to know better the miraglike nature of our hunt. His probings do not give eternity or permanence to that specific mirage – Ragnarsson’s high regard for the heterogeneity of processes prevents him from forcing on them any Hegelian philosophical hat wearable at all times and places. By no means does he suggest that aiming for precision might be a general feature of absolute all human comprehension processes. And yet he seems drawn to those process that are indeed driven by the impulse to discover the truth and to then do something, and he is specifically concerned with truth in the form of precision – and of the understanding that those observable truths do not satisfy us. Our refusal to go to war for our tentative truths and our understanding of the tentativeness of our realizations are adjacent, in the middle, sufficient earth of Ragnarsson, to our inclination to love; and here he becomes a theorist of the fairy tongue of Tolkien, who became available in Esperanto when Auld, of all people, translated him. Auld the neighbour is an important key when we are reading Ragnarsson – and in exactly his neighbourhood, what new trump cards Ragnarsson turns up! Auld was at the same time so precision-loving and so passionate; what new concrete means of poetry Ragnarsson brings to bear on his versely thoughts on precision, on love, and on the passionate quietness of the probing that makes you you!


Copyright by Probal Dasgupta, 2008

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