Pre-faces to Picasso: the Burial of the Count of Orgaz,
& Other Poems

by Jerome Rothenberg & Pierre Joris

I abandon sculpture engraving and painting to dedicate myself entirely to song.

—Picasso to Jaime Sabartés April 1936


When we were compiling Poems for the Millennium we sensed that Picasso, if he wasn’t fully a poet, was incredibly close to the neighboring poets of his time, and when he brought language into his cubist works, the words collaged from newspapers were there as something really to be read. What only appeared to us later was the body of work that emerged from 1935 on and that showed him to have been a poet in the fullest sense and possibly, as Michel Leiris points out, “an insatiable player with words ... [who, like] James Joyce ... in his Finnegans Wake, ... displayed an equal capacity to promote language as a real thing (one might say) . . . and to use it with as much dazzling liberty.”

It was in early 1935, then, that Picasso (then fifty-four years old) began to write what we will present here as his poetry—a writing that continued, sometimes as a daily offering, until the summer of 1959. In the now standard Picasso myth, the onset of the poetry is said to have coincided with a devastating marital crisis (a financially risky divorce, to be more exact), because of which his output as a painter halted for the first time in his life. Writing—as a form of poetry using, largely, the medium of prose—became his alternative outlet. The flow of words begins abruptly (“privately” his biographer Patrick O’Brian tells us) on 18 april XXXV while in retreat at Boisgeloup. (He would lose the country place the next year in a legal settlement.) The pace is rapid, violent, pushing and twisting from one image to another, not bothering with punctuation, often defying syntax, expressive of a way of writing/languaging that he had never tried before:

    if I should go outside the wolves would come to eat out of my hand
    just as my room would seem to be outside of me my other earnings
    would go off around the world
    smashed into smithereens

as one of us has tried to phrase it in translation.

Yet if the poems begin with a sense of personal discomfort and malaise, there is a world beyond the personal that enters soon thereafter. For Picasso, like any poet of consequence, is a man fully into his time and into the terrors that his time presents. Read in that way, “the world smashed into smithereens” is a reflection also of the state of things between the two world wars—the first one still fresh in mind and the rumblings of the second starting up. That’s the way the world goes at this time or any other, Picasso writes a little further on, not as the stricken husband or the discombobulated lover merely, but as a man, like the aforementioned Joyce, caught in the “nightmare of history” from which he tries repeatedly to waken1. It is the time and place where poetry becomes—for him as for us—the only language that makes sense.

That anyway is where we position Picasso and how we read him. 

As with his work as a painter, such a reading can take off in multiple directions. The poetry is centered, first and foremost, on this person writing day by day—no titles for most poems but dates only and occasional markers of the times and places where the poems are being written (Paris, Juan-les-Pins, Cannes, Boisgeloup, Mougins, or, still more specifically: the Café de la Régence or the Antibes train). But the field of the present is further expanded by a sense of history and of events unraveling around him. It is our contention in fact that the writings throughout are set against a ground of present terror—implicit always but sometimes wholly foregrounded as in his Dream and Lie of Franco. Written in the same year as his memorialization of the bombing of Guernica and accompanied by an extraordinary suite of images in comic strip mode (the personal/political theme of the “weeping woman” is also first introduced here), this poem ends with a catalogue of people, animals, and things in dissolution:

    cries of children cries of women cries of birds cries of flowers cries of wood and stone cries of bricks cries of furniture of beds of chairs of curtains of casseroles of cats and papers cries of smells that claw themselves of smoke that gnaws the neck of cries that boil in cauldron and the rain of birds that floods the sea that eats into the bone and breaks the teeth biting the cotton that the sun wipes on its plate that bourse and bank hide in the footprint left imbedded in the rock.

If this is the shadow voice of great events, there are also the smaller ones gleaned from reports he reads or hears: in the papers everyday misleading pictures of the families who beat their kids so that they can be copied by the likes of me who paint and sing.  And finally, in recollection of the pasted papers of his early cubist days, collages from the newspapers themselves:

    Paris 14-12-35 (“Le Journal” 8-12-35 page 2)
    Maxima : on the ground – under shelter – minima – under shelter – maxima under shelter 755 millimeters (1.007) maximum  + 5

            . . . . . . .

    — Salon d’Automne, Grand Palais — French association for the Defense of Animals — Pasteur’s precursors — martyrized or kidnapped children … and the Christmas message — A.C of 35 and 285 R.A.L. artistic matinée at 2 p.m. — after the call of the war dead and the minute of silence

Since we are dealing here with what Robert Duncan liked to call a “multiphasic” poetry, the private and public worlds within the poems play off against deep images imbedded in the mind or, still more likely, in the seedbed of a culture. The tauromachian [bull fighting] symbols—as in the paintings also—are obvious and persistent, but along with them comes a range of other images drawn from folk memories and recollections2 (Spanish, Catalan) or echoing a still more distant or occulted past. The tone throughout is raw, transgressive—a concept and mode later explored in the fiction and poetics of his acquaintance Georges Bataille. If it is sometimes (but rarely) sentimental and often (comically or tragically) self-disparaging, it strikes us with a Rabelaisian—or, maybe better yet, Artaudian—ferocity; with secrets of the body: food and sex and all the lower human drives. And, like others in the French tradition he adopts, the work hums with new inversions (invocations, blasphemies) of catholic images and dogmas:

    the festival of wheat there on the altar cloth the sepulchre the joyjoy portrait pissing the whole globe away with smells of fat cigars or playing ball beneath black curtains dribbling out its clear white egg wax daubing the glass windows of the wondrous reliquary’s chest of drawers the lacy porker liquefied between the almond sheets   [6.7.40]

These intensities and densities come into the poetry before—at the time of Guernica and into “the war years” —they inform the paintings. They are in fact the markers of a transition in his work in general.  And they enter there with a fullness and kaleidoscopic richness that language now allows him. As with other poets, there is a sense in which language is itself a part of the work he makes—the ways in which it can be made to reveal and equally to mask the life from which it issues. And as with other poets also, the thoughts on language and poesis aren’t his alone but are shared visions. For Picasso, since his first entry to Paris and the larger art world, was in close contact with poets who were exploring language’s limits in a way that paralleled his own workings with pictorial form and image. (He was also—it is now quite evident—a heavily engaged reader.3) His relations with Stein, Apollinaire, Jacob, and Reverdy remain a part of the Cubist myth a hundred or so years after the events themselves. The chalked sign over his studio door read au rendez-vous des poètes, and the exchanges with poet friends would have been not only about the new painting but the new poetry as well. (The “new spirit” or “new mind,” Apollinaire would call it in a famous essay.) Writes his principal biographer John Richardson about the ambience of what he calls Picasso’s “think tank”: “It enabled the artist to become vicariously a poet—a poet in paint, not yet a poet in words.” And even so the verbally dense newspaper collages and isolated stenciled words that marked his Cubist canvases give us a measure of how far he had already gone in opening his art to language.

Through all his work in fact there was a “need for poetry”4 (the phrase here is John Cage’s, in relation to his own writings), and that need brought Picasso to an alignment—in the 1920s and 30s—with the younger poets who made up the core of Paris-based Surrealism. Prior to the 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism and the founding that December of La Révolution Surréaliste, members of the about-to-be Surrealist group countersigned Breton’s essay “Hommage à Picasso,” which appeared in the June 20th issue of Paris-Journal. From 1924 to 1929 works by Picasso were reproduced in eight of the eleven issues of La Révolution Surréaliste, and he was often cited by Breton and other poets as an exemplary Surrealist figure—“their prophet,” Patrick O’Brian writes, with sufficient quotations to back it up. Or Breton, who had “claim[ed] him” as “one of us”: “If Surrealism is to adopt a line of conduct, it has only to pass where Picasso has already passed and where he will pass again.”

In all of this—from Apollinaire and Stein to Breton and Paul Eluard—Picasso must have been fully into, fully aware of the poetry around him, and when he let it rip in April 1935, it wasn’t as an isolated or naive voice but as a participant in what was then a verbal art in transformation. The poetry through much of 1936 was probably his dominant activity (the painting by most accounts had then been put aside), and he would often pursue it on an almost daily basis. It is hard to guess how much stock he put in it; Roland Penrose, who was close to him, speaks about “[his] reticence in showing his poems” and his “[lack of] pretensions about the quality of his poetry.”5 And yet when Stein dismissed the poems he read to her (and those of all other painters and Breton’s as well), it probably marked the low point of a friendship which by then was almost over. “The egotism of a painter,” she wrote and lectured him in explanation, “is an entirely different egotism than the egotism of a writer.” And again: “This was his life for two years, of course he who could write, write so well with drawings and with colours, knew very well that to write with words was, for him, not to write at all.”

By contrast the response of the younger French poets was immediate and strongly in Picasso’s favor. Like Stein they recognized in Picasso’s art a mode akin to writing, but where she would draw a line between the genres, they were open—enthusiastic even—to his crossing over into poetry as such. Because of that the first publication of the poems came shortly after he started writing—a curiosity since, for all his reputation, he published only rarely after that. By the end of 1935, then, Breton had arranged a special issue of Cahiers d’art, with a number of Picasso’s poems translated into French or shown in Spanish typescript, accompanied by Breton’s own introduction (“Picasso poète”) and shorter pieces by Eluard and Georges Hugnet. Of the poems’ impact (bright, mysterious), Breton writes:

    The play of light and shadow has never been observed more tenderly or interpreted more subtly and lucidly; it keeps the poem within the bounds of the present moment, of the breath of eternity which that moment at its most fugitive contains within itself. Nothing is more characteristic of this than the care Picasso has taken to indicate in the text of several of these verse or prose poems the place, day and hour in which they were composed. We have the impression of being in the presence of an intimate journal, both of the feelings and of the senses, such as has never been kept before.

In writing this, Breton was aware as well—or seems to have been—that the actual process of the poems wasn’t linear—all moving in the same direction—but that the written—the handwritten—works were circular or else, like palimpsests, were reaching out in all directions. If we’re unable to show that hand-play, that concrete writing in these pages, we would direct the reader of Picasso to those handwritten poems that consist—at least in part—“of words that appear to have been thrown onto the page without any preconceived links and that Picasso has joined together by red, yellow and blue lines in such a way that they can be read in various directions [so] that the handwritten page looks like a dew-laden spider’s web under the first rays of the morning sun.”6

Poetry in this sense remains a fiercely formal undertaking, or else an interplay, forever shifting, of form and content. In admitting Picasso to his company of poets, Breton, whose 1924 Manifesto had announced a new surrealist poetry that would be “psychic” at its core (“psychic automatism in its pure state”), still could not evade its other, “formal” features. For Picasso, as for Breton in his actual practice as a poet, the work of poetry wasn’t restricted to unmediated psychic acts or automatic writing, but subject, in its workings—however rapid—to a flux of changes, scratch marks, and erasures. “I am intent on resemblance,” he said, “and resemblance more real than the real. ... For me surreality is nothing else, never has been anything else, than that deep likeness far beyond the shapes and colors of immediate appearance.” (Picasso to the photographer Brassai) For this, from Picasso’s perspective, the issue was not “pure” automatism, but something more impure, more unapologetically deliberate and artful:

    “Poems?” he said to me, “... when I began to write them I wanted to prepare myself a palette of words, as if I were dealing with colors. All these words were weighed, filtered and appraised. I don’t put much stock in spontaneous expressions of the unconscious and it would be stupid to think that one can provoke them at will.”7 (Picasso to Louis Parrot, 1948)

If this represents a kind of faux-surrealism—and it does—it puts him closer to later practitioners, not unrelated to their Surrealist or Dada forerunners but clearly divergent as well. He is willing also, like poets of all persuasions, to sometimes move the oral or the auditory into the central position—“not to tell stories or describe sensations, but to suggest them by the sounds of words.” (Picasso to Sabartés 1946)  It is clear too—here as elsewhere—that Picasso poète, like other poets worth a backward glance, makes his own moves, the total configuration of which marks the achievement of his writing and, thereby, his vision. And if we trust him here—or trust those others who report his words—we must look to the music of his poems, both in their melos and in what Pound otherwise spoke of as “the dance of the intellect among words.”  With Picasso, suggests his French editor Marie-Laure Bernadac, that dance is “in the incantatory and monotone manner of flamenco or in the staccato rhythm of taconeo ... the deep and disturbing chant of cante hondo.”

His way is persistent—both sound and meaning—from its onset in 1935 to the culminating work (The Burial of the Count of Orgaz) in 1959. As with some other—but surely not all—early avant-gardists, punctuation is set aside, allowing thereby a play between the apparent rush of writing and the ways that meaning comes into the works when read. Such unpunctuated prose blocks—coming at the time they do—are almost uniquely his and bring with them a number of other moves, exploring the varied possibilities of what Bernadac calls “this new ‘plastic material’ [of language] ... chipping, pulverizing, modeling this ‘verbal clay,’ varying combinations of phrases, combining words, either by phonic opposition, repetition, or by an audacious metaphorical system, the seeming absurdity of which corresponds in fact to an internal and personal logic.... Lawless writing, disregardful of syntax or rationality, but which follows the incessant string of images and sensations that passed through his head.” (The lack of titles and their replacement by the dates of composition is another marker of his work, as are various rearrangements of words and phrases from one text to another, “as if he were moving paper cutouts in a painting or drawing.” [C. Piot])

In all of this there are two languages through which he writes—the Spanish of his childhood and the French to which he came by incremental stages—and possibly a third, unwritten one as well, the Catalan he spoke with friends and that may be a hidden stream beneath the others. It is however the Spanish that dominates the early poems, that never leaves him, and that emerges again in the final poem.  But most of the work in between—including the two full-length plays, Desire Caught By the Tail and The Four Little Girls, not included in these pages—is written in his characteristic and idiosyncratic French. (Sometimes also he translates himself from one language into the other.) Picasso’s writing is—in that sense, and in others as well—what one of us has called a rhizomatic or nomadic art, that is a writing not at home (i.e. settled and at rest in some convention or other) but always “unterwegs,”—on the way—as Paul Celan put it.8

It is curious now—moving out of Picasso’s own century—to find how close the written work is to what would later become a postmodernism working through and struggling with the more “experimental” and “lawless” sides of modernism. For this Picasso’s poetry stands without further comment on his part. It is at points prolific—when he seems to work it as a day-by-day endeavor—and it plays out as a denser and often more intimate complement to his even more prolific art. (It has a resemblance in this sense to the Minotaur engravings [Minotauromachy]—in which the painter/sculptor also plays a role—first issued like the poems in 1935 and carried forward like them in the later work.) There are also the two plays among his writings, one of which, Desire Caught by the Tail (1941), became his best known written work, translated often (including a venture into German by Paul Celan) and performed by experimental groups throughout the world9. Still there’s very little publication over all and virtually no poetics or written statements about poetry (or art—his own or others’—for that matter). This leaves us dependent for such statements on his biographers or on the numerous witneses reporting “conversations with Picasso.” Some of those we’ve presented here as footnotes/sidenotes—radical insights sometimes and always with that sense of poetry’s centrality and presence10 that was a given for the artists and the poets (even the “antipoets”) of his time.

Our own work here is derived from Picasso: Ecrits, a massive and heavily illustrated volume (some three hundred and forty dated texts in all) published by Gallimard in 1989. (The identical volume was published by Aurum Press in London, with only the introductory essay by Leiris and essays on Picasso’s poetry and written work by Bernadac and her co-editor Christine Piot translated into English.) We have accordingly been dependent on the Ecrits for transcriptions of the work, which retain many—but certainly not all—of the manuscripts’ particularities. While we have made do with what we were given, we might have preferred to work with the poems in their more rough and ready forms or, of still more interest, to attempt translations that would show the way Picasso positioned his words in the act of composition. At the same time, however, we recognize that too visual a representation—at least at this juncture—would likely detract from our contention that Picasso as a poet of words—even a “language poet,” if we can use that term—is a force and a presence not to be ignored.

For the time being, then, it’s worth noting Picasso’s own comments about the irregularities of grammar and spelling in his written work: “If I begin correcting the mistakes you speak of according to rules with no relation to me, I will lose my individuality to grammar I have not incorporated. I prefer to create myself as I see fit than to bend my words to rules that don’t belong to me.” (Picasso quoted by Sabartés, 1946) There is an assertiveness here, a playfulness reminiscent of Fluxus artists and Beat poets of a later generation—even more so in the account (again by Sabartés) of Picasso’s truly innovative projection of a work—like William Blake’s perhaps, or Mallarmé’s—that broke new and outrageous ground for the presentation of language:

    The book Picasso would like to create would be a perfect reflection of his personality and the most faithful portrait of the artist.  In its spontaneity, we would see his own disorder. Each page would be a true “potpourri,” without the slightest hint of organization or composition. There would be letters and numbers, aligned and non-aligned, sometimes parallel, sometimes perfectly horizontal, now ascending, now descending, as if written by one unaccustomed to script, or driven by enthusiasm or impatience.  There would be notes, scribbles and splotches, additions between the lines, arrows pointing to sentences in the margins, figures and objects, sometimes entirely comprehensible, sometimes less easy and readable11. Simplicity and complexity would be united as in his paintings, his drawings or his texts, as in a room in his apartment or his studio, as in himself. ... Picasso confided this layout to me, or better, this image of his dream book, one morning in the month of July (1939).

Unrealized as most such schemes have been, this brings us to the boundaries none the less of what Maurice Blanchot would later call “the book to come.”

In the actual books, then—the writings left behind—something similar prevails. Some of the writing was in a little notebook that he carried with him12; also, we’re told, “[on] drawing paper, letter paper, backs of envelopes, backs of invitations, pieces of newspaper and even sheets of toilet paper.” (M.-L. Bernadac and C. Piot) His instruments were “black or colored pencils [...], blue-black ink (in 1939-1940), ballpoint pens or markers (in 1951 and 1959).” From 1935 to 1939 poems (in highly calligraphic, highly visual form) “were directly written or recopied in India ink on sheets of Arches paper” and were then gathered together in portfolios. Others were written in larger notebooks, a couple of which give titles to the poem cycles in our book. In addition some of the manuscripts—most of those on Arches paper, for example—were typed by Sabartés, the visual elements stripped away, as if in preparation for reading and/or publication of the texts as such.

As editors of the present work we have been constrained—as stated above—to work with such typed versions and with the texts transposed further into the uniform typography of printers’ fonts. In the resultant Gallimard edition the poems appear in their original Spanish or French (the French outnumbering the Spanish by some two hundred to one hundred forty texts) and with the Spanish ones further translated, usually by the editors, into French. For our own division of labor, Joris has concentrated on the French writings and Rothenberg on the Spanish, and we have invited contributions by a range of contemporary poets/translators as a mark of Picasso’s entry into our own time. Of these the most radical translator is Paul Blackburn, who shifts Picasso’s medium from prose to verse. (He was also of course the first important American poet to bring Picasso into English.) With the others who have joined us here, the invitation was to translate a small selection each and otherwise to make their own decisions as to form and voice. In both our own work and in theirs, the choice has been to stay with the text while creating, in various ways, a work that speaks in a demotic, largely American English and that stresses exuberance over a probably futile “literalism.” We have remembered too that in this kind of writing—as in much of our own—meaning is slippery and has like our desires to be caught (again and again) by the tail.

The result is a reflection of the past that is also, we would urge, a beacon for our workings in the present13.

—Jerome Rothenberg, with Pierre Joris

Picasso: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz & Other Poems
is forthcoming from Exact Change in 2004.