Carlos Drummond de Andrade – A Nation’s Poet

Carlos Drummond de Andrde (October 31, 1902 -August 17, 1987) was perhaps the most influential Brazilian poet of the 20th century. He has become something of a national poet; his poem “Canção Amiga” (“Friendly Song”) was printed on the 50 cruzados note.

Drummond was born in Itabira, a mining village in Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. His parents were farmers of Portuguese ancestry (and remote Scottish ancestry). He went to a school of pharmacy in Belo Horizonte, but never worked as a pharmacist after graduation. He worked in government service for most of his life, eventually becoming Director of History for the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Service of Brazil.

Though his earliest poems are formal and satirical, Drummond quickly adopted the new forms of Brazilian modernism that were evolving in the 1920s, incited by the work of Mário de Andrade (to whom he was not related). He adopted a Whitmanian free verse, mingling speech fluent in elegance and truth about the surrounding, many times quotidian, world, with a fluidity of thought.

One of Drummond’s best-known poems is his hymn to an ordinary man, “José.” It is a poem of desolation:

Key in hand,
you want to open the door –
there is no door. . .

 Although my personal favorite is called “O mundo é grande” and I will paste and translate it below

“O mundo é grande e cabe
 nesta janela sobre o mar.
 O mar é grande e cabe
 na cama e no colchão de amar.
 O amor é grande e cabe
 no breve espaço de beijar.”

“The world is large and fits
 in this window over the sea
 The sea is large and fits
 in the bed and in the mattress of love
 Love is large and fits
 in the brief space of a kiss.”

Styles & Influences

The work of Carlos Drummond is generally divided into several segments, which appear very markedly in each of his books. But this is somewhat misleading, since even in the midst of his everyday poems or his socialist, politicized poems, there appear creations which can be easily incorporated into his latermetaphysical canon, and none of these styles is completely free of the others. There is surely much metaphysical content in even his most political poems.

The most prominent of these later metaphysical poems is A Máquina do Mundo (The Machine of the World). The poem deals with an anti-Faust referred to in the first person, who receives the visit of the aforementioned Machine, which stands for all possible knowledge, and the sum of the answers for all the questions which afflict men; in highly dramatic and baroque versification the poem develops only for the anonymous subject to decline the offer of endless knowledge and proceed his gloomy path in the solitary road. It takes the renaissance allegory of the Machine of the World from Portugal’s most esteemed poet, Luís de Camões, more precisely, from a canto at the end of his epic masterpiece Os Lusíadas. There are also hints from Dante and the form is adapted from T. S. Eliot’s dantesque passage in “Little Gidding.”

Drummond is a favorite of American poets, a number of whom, including Mark Strand and Lloyd Schwartz, have translated him. Later writers and critics have sometimes credited his relationship with Elizabeth Bishop, his first English language translator, as influential for his American reception, but though she admired him Bishop claimed she barely knew him. In an interview with George Starbuck in 1977, she said:

I didn’t know him at all. He’s supposed to be very shy. I’m supposed to be very shy. We’ve met once — on the sidewalk at night. We had just come out of the same restaurant, and he kissed my hand politely when we were introduced. 

The Carlos Drummond de Andrade Memorial in Minas Gerias

Below is a short video interview of Andrade in his later years which begins with a few lines of poetry and goes into how at an early age, he was fascinated by the printed word even though he didn’t understand every word he read. The shape and the feel of the sounds and the visual of those sounds on paper was something that left its mark on him. He then speaks about his family who lived on a farm then moved to a city in the interior of Minas, where they had social importance. His immediate family was made up of his wife and his only daughter who lived in Buenos Aires. Later he goes into how moving from Minas was something that made its mark on him too, as anyone from Minas is eternally connected to it. Once in the National Library, he began to read about a lot of different subjects and it “made a salad in his spirit” (salada in Portuguese can mean a mixture). Being old and well-known, he says that lots of young people asked him for advice and counsel, even simple opinions yet he never felt quite right about giving these things, not even to himself. When he decided to move to Rio, he was happy to have his childhood friends around him because they were what connected his past with his present. The last part is a poem about Minas, where they show old pictures of him writing poetry. 

For some of his work in English, see this post!

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