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The Complete Perfectionist: A Poetics of Work ()

Nobel Prize Winners (1956)

This is not actually a collection of poems by the Spanish Nobel laureate, it is instead a collection of aphorisms about work and writing and the quest for perfection.  Juan Ramon Jimenez, with whom I was previously unfamiliar, was apparently obsessed by the thought that when he was gone all that would be left behind was his body of writings, his "Obra".  This realization lead him to adopt a fierce work ethic and to seek perfection in his writing.  His intent was not merely to leave a monument to himself but to reinvigorate Spanish writing and indeed to instill a revitalized devotion to work in the Spanish people.

Aphorisms are peculiar things.  The Western version of Zen koans, they are intended to be brief but profound thoughts.  However, their very brevity tends to work against them.  Except in unusual cases, they seem alternately over broad or over obvious.   In a book like this one, despite Maurer's effort to group them by themes, presenting all of Jimenez's aphorisms in clumps tends to detract from the impact that even the best of them might have had.  The natural tendency in reading is to continue on to the next line; this book requires that you fight that inclination, that you instead pause frequently, that you set it aside and come back to it, in order that the ones which do grab your attention can truly be savored.

Here are a few that I did like:

    When you feel hurried, walk more slowly.

    Let's not force things, but let everything arrive at its own moment, in its own peculiar manner,
    fusing its rhythms with ours.

    Treat the least significant things you do as though they were permanent, and they will endure.

    I don't want people to read everything that I have written.  It is enough for some to read some
    things, and others other things, reading here and there.  My passion is for my readers to be here and
    there in my work, but wherever their eyes rest, to find perfect beauty.

    One must speak in such a way that although someone else, or many others, or an infinite number of
    people, have said it before, it seems as though you said it first.

    A permanent state of transition is man's most noble condition.

    Many mistakenly think of memory as an activity, but not forgetting, as though the latter were not
    also a reality.

    If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.

I think each of those, even if I disagree, contains a thought that is worth considering at some length.  That said, by themselves they hardly justify a Nobel Prize.  Of course, he won for his poetry, not for his aphorisms, but here are some of his poems that I found online; they just don't do much for me:

Ten Short Poems by Juan Ramon Jimenez

Rose of the Sea

The white moon takes the sea away from the sea
and gives it back to the sea. Beautiful,
conquering by means of the pure and tranquil,
the moon compels the truth to delude itself
that it is truth become whole, eternal, solitary,
though it is not so.
                                        Divine plainness,
you pierce the familiar certainty, you place
a new soul into whatever is real.
Unpredictable rose! you took the rose away
from the rose, and you could give back
the rose to the rose.
                        From Diario de Poeta y Mar

to the bridge of love,
old stone between tall cliffs
  --eternal meeting place, red evening--,
I come with my heart.
  --My beloved is only water,
that always passes away, and does not deceive,
that always passes away, and does not change,
that always passes away, and does not end.
                From  Eternidades

The dawn brings with it
that sadness of arriving, by train,
at a station that is not one's own.
                How disagreeable, those rumblings
of a new day that one knows cannot last long--
                --Oh my life!--
Overhead, as the day breaks, a child is crying.
                From  Eternidades


It is the sea, in the earth.
Colors of the south, in the winter sun,
contain the noisy shiftings
of the sea and the coasts...
Tomorrow in the sea!--I say, rather, in the earth
that moves, now, into the sea!
                From Diario de Poesia y Mar

From Dreaming

--No, no!
                and the dirtyneck boy starts crying and running
without getting away, in a moment, on the streets.
                His hands,
he's got something in his hands!
he doesn't know what it is, but he runs to the dawn
With his hidden prize.
Endlessly beforehand, we know what his trophy is;
something ignored, that the soul keeps awake in us.
We almost start to glitter inside his gold
with extravagant nakedness...
        --No, no!
                        and the dirtyneck boy starts crying and running
without getting away, in a moment, on the street.
The arm is strong, it could easily grab him...
The heart, also a beggar, lets him go.
                From Diario de Poesia y Mar

How close to becoming spirit something is,
when it is still so immensely far away
from hands!
                        like starlight,
like a nameless voice
in a dream, like faraway horses,
that we hear, as we breathe heavily,
one ear placed to the ground;
like the sea on the telephone...
And life begins to grow
within us, the delightful daylight
that cannot be switched off,
that is thinning, now, somewhere else.
                Ah, how lovely, how lovely,
truth, even if it is not real, how lovely!
                From Diario de Poesia y Mar

 On the city Ramparts of Cadiz

The sea is enormous,
just as everything is,
yet it seems to me I am still with you...
soon only water will separate us,
water, restlessly shifting,
water, only water!

                From Diario de Poesia y Mar

give their morose faces to the sea.

                The water, worked up out of iron,
is a hard, flat landscape,
of exhausted mines,
in a state of collapse,

                Nothingness! That word, for me,
here, today, comes home,
the cadaver of a word,
laid out, naturally,
in its own grave.

                From Diario de Poesia y Mar


Moguer. Mother and brothers.
The house, clean and warm.
What sunlight there is, what rest
in the whitening cemetery!
In a moment, love grows remote.
The sea does not exist; the field
of vineyards, reddish and level,
is the world, like a bright shining on nothing,
and flimsy, like a bright light shining on nothing.

                Here I have been cheated enough!
Here, the only healthy thing to do is die.
This is the way out, that I wanted so badly,
that escapes into the sunset.

Moguer. If only I could rise up, sanctified!
Moguer. Brothers.

                From Diario de Poesia y Mar


What I used to regard as a glory shut in my face,
was a door, opening
toward this clarity:
                                Country without a name:

Nothing can destroy it, this road
of doors, opening, one after another,
always toward reality:
                                Life without calculation!

                From Eternidades

Perhaps you find them profound and beautiful.  I found them maddeningly obscure.

Interestingly enough, this book appears to have been marketed as a sort of business book and, in fact, Jimenez's work ethic is precisely the attitude that any employer would hope to inculcate in his workforce.  For me at least, the poet's passion for perfection in his obra is actually more compelling than the end product.  In that sense he calls to mind the old Mets' shortstop Bud Harrelson--a complete professional, a man who approached his craft with dedication, and who set a sterling example for others--in many ways he was a baseball player to be admired, but in the final analysis he just wasn't that good at the game.


Grade: (C+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Guide to The Nobel Prizes: Jiménez, Juan Ramón
    -Juan Ramón Jiménez (Nobel Site)
    -JUAN RAMÓN JIMÉNEZ: 1956 Nobel Laureate in Literature (Nobel Prize Internet Archive)
    -all-poetry encyclopedia at Poets : J : Juan Ramon Jimenez
    -Juan Ramon on the self (Mark Jensen)
    -ESSAY: The Forgotten Stone: On Rabindranath Tagore and Latin America (Alfonso Chacon R., Parabaas--Bengali Webzine)
    -ESSAY:  Joan Didion: Miami: Exiles (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of PLATERO Y YO (PLATERO AND I), by Juan Ramon Jimenez (Laura Higgs, English Department, Clemson University)

    -Christopher Maurer--Curriculum Vitae (University of Illinois at Chicago )

    -Spanish Language Nobel Laureates
    -ESSAY: IN SEARCH OF AN AMERICAN MUSE (Robert Bly, NY Times Book Review)