Contemporary Portuguese Poetry

For over forty years, Portugal had been under authoritarian rule. With a coup in 1926 and then an evolution of government in 1933, Portugal was kept in a strict dictatorship. Starting in the 1960s, Portugal also became embroiled in a war to keep its colonies under Portuguese control. However, the 1970s saw a great change come to Portugal. On April 25, 1974, there was a military coup called the Carnation Revolution, which overturned the dictatorship and effectively ended the Colonial War. This revolution brought about the end of Portugal’s colonial rule and the beginnings of democracy in Portugal. This upheaval affected the entire nation, and writers were there to document it all. The 1970s saw a new generation of poetry, influenced by the abrupt change in Portugal’s government and the lifting of literary censorship. While many poets flourished in this new era, there also remain veins and hints of an underlying sadness in much of the poetry from this period.

The Carnation Revolution brought about many changes to Portugal, and not all of them political. It also affected the literary world and the generation of poets that lived through these times. According to Fernando J. B. Martinho, the change in the political climate of Portugal brought about “The abolition of censorship and the disappearance of the repressive mechanisms of the New State”, which in turn “freed up literary discourse, poetry, and other literary genres, and led to publication of things that had previously constituted either a linguistic or ideological taboo: eroticism, scatology, or, more broadly, anything baring the mark marginality” (Martinho, 75). Poets were now free to write in ways that they were not allowed to write for decades, and many took full advantage. They no longer had to be afraid of those in power and could openly critique things (or people) as they saw fit. They also drifted from the poets who wrote in the sixties, branching out into surrealism and other avenues of writing.

Some poets were happy about the change brought about by the revolution, while others were a bit more skeptical. The poets in Portugal were among the first to voice their opinions about how the nation had changed, and this can be found in Ana Hatherly’s poem “Tisana Nr 268”. Hatherly writes: “A revolution had happened. On the road the letters of the alphabet had come out of the books / and wildly throwing themselves over the city the water vanished. No longer able to distinguish / between the river and the road the alphabet letters invaded the city once more…” (Lines 1-3). Hatherly’s poem could be interpreted as a celebration of the end of censorship. With letters coming off of pages and invading a city, Hatherly paints a picture of writers being able to write what they truly wanted and all of these new works coming out at once and perhaps overwhelming the world. Near the end, she writes: “but there were so many / letters in the highways that nobody could any longer tell where they were heading or where / the direction changed and trampling each other drowned themselves in ink desperately trying / to remember” (5-8). This could mean that while everyone was finally free to write what they wanted, it was a bit hard to remember which voice was authentically an author’s own, since they had been forbidden from using their own words for so long. “Tisana Nr 268” is also unique in the fact that it is written more like prose than traditional poetry. Some other poets of the time also wrote in this manner, with “the use of inordinately long verse, emphasizing lack of distinction between poetry and prose…” (Martinho, 81) was an aspect of poetry that changed from the 1960s to the 1970s.

A poet who could be seen as a bit more skeptical of the shifting political and social climate was Joaquim Manuel Magalhães. He writes in his poem “Rooms by the sea”: “…democracy started / to bring them by handfuls to the beaches. / …Democracy brought them, fascism / had made them like that. They were given  / freedom for this, to ruin the sea” (lines 1-2, 6-8). In this poem, Magalhães laments over the way that Portugal’s political changes have caused a physical change to the land and society. While the poet seems to acknowledge that it was fascism that made the people relish in their freedom now that they were free, he seems to be a bit annoyed that democracy has brought so many people out into the land. His language is a bit strong, as he claims that the people who have been freed from fascism are there to “ruin the sea”. These people are enjoying their newfound freedom and he claims that they are using it to ruin the natural environment. Perhaps he thought the country was better off under authoritarian rule, or that people needed to be taught to respect their land now that they finally had the freedom to enjoy it.

Another poet who wrote in the aftermath of the revolution was Manuel António Pina. In Pina’s poem “Returning”, he describes someone coming from distant countries and coming home for the first time: “Like somebody coming from distant countries outside / himself, arriving at last where he’s always been… He enters his home for the first time / and for the first time lies down on his bed… And finally he eats the primal bread / that does not taste of foreign words.” (Lines 1-2, 7-8, 11-12). It seems as though Pina is describing the return to Portugal of someone who might have been born and lived in one of Portugal’s colonies. After the revolution, the colonies were released from Portugal’s rule and the people who had moved there immigrated back to Portugal. In this way, the person in the poem is coming home from distant lands and “arriving where he’s always been”, since the person in the poem has always been Portuguese, even if they did not grow up in Portugal. He speaks of the person in the poem doing many things for the first time and it feels as though he is speaking about people who are in Portugal for the first time in their lives and can now relax because they are home. At the end of the poem, Pina makes mention of the person who can eat bread “that does not taste of foreign words”. The person in the poem is back in the country that they belong, and they can enjoy their own country and culture without being enmeshed with another.

There is also a marked note of sadness in Portuguese poetry from this time period. Perhaps this is the result of living so long under a dictatorship, and perhaps it is not a staple of Portuguese poetry as a whole, but there seems to be a profound sense of sadness, confusion, disquiet, and even sometimes undertones of anger and frustration in many Portuguese poems. In “User Complaints”, José Miguel Silva writes about a speaker who does everything right in their day-to-day life but is still not happy. The speaker explains that: “I pray for at least two hours / with a book on my knees, / never miss a family visit, / always use public / transport, rarely forget / to leave water in the cat’s / dish, try to be civil / to my neighbours…” (Lines 4-11). The speaker of this poem is trying to live a good life, but, “I can’t remember if the doctor / told me this was the right prescription / to save the world or just / to be happy. Either way / I can’t see any results.” (13-17). The speaker of the poem is trying everything they can to live a happy life and to have a positive impact on the world, but they cannot see any change because of their efforts. This person sounds so sad and stuck. Perhaps this person thought things would get much better after the establishment of democracy in Portugal, but they just didn’t. Perhaps they are dismayed that change – both in their own life and in Portugal’s political structure – takes time and results are not often seen right away.

The Carnation Revolution gave birth to a new government for Portugal and a new era of writing for its authors. With censorship abolished, authors were free to write what they wished without fear, and some used this to voice either their happiness or concern over the political and social climate in Portugal in the wake of the revolution. There are also poets who express interest in the end of Portugal’s colonial rule and observe with interest those who were raised in foreign lands coming to Portugal for the very first time. And beneath it all, there is an underlying current of sadness and frustration. There are times when things can change quickly, but the majority of the time, change is a slow, frustrating process that might leave one saddened by the minuscule progress it is possible to make in one lifetime.

“Contemporary Portuguese Poetry Selection”, file:///Users/Maggie/Downloads/CONTEMPORARY%20PORTUGUESE%20POETRY%20SELECTION-2.pdf

Martinho, Fernando J.B. After the Revolution: Twenty Years of Portuguese Literature, 1974-1994, edited by Helena Kaufman and Anna Klobucka, Associated University Press, Inc. 1997. p. 75-107. file:///Users/Maggie/Downloads/Fernando%20Martinho_Two%20decades%20of%20Portuguese%20Poetry-2.pdf