THE CONTINUING PRESENCE OF PESSOA
In The Presence of Pessoa: English, American, and Southern African Literary Responses (1998), I considered, along with other matters, the famous Beat writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s anarchist banker, my colleague Edwin Honig’s confidence-man Pessoa, Thomas Merton’s anti-poet of the dark night of the soul, Charles Eglington’s Pessoa as Southern African poet, and Roy Campbell’s Homeric Pessoa, a Melvillean poet of the sea. Here I take note of five other instances of writers who, in one way or another, have paid homage to the Portuguese poet. Of course this constitutes no more than a drop in the bucket, given his ever widening appeal to readers and writers alike. But they do represent the different ways in which his audience has chosen to regard Pessoa’s work.
Taking his hint from Pessoa’s fictive world surrounding Ricardo Reis, the Horatian heteronym, José Saramago took possession-if only for a spell-of that world. He devoted to him what turned out to be his most widely admired novel, O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis, published in 1984, and, in 1992, in an English translation by Giovanni Pontiero, as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. But as things go in such matters, Saramago’s own presumptive rule over the life of Ricardo Reis engendered, twenty some years later, a notable sequel. In 2005, Robert Boyers, the editor of the American journal Salmagundi, published a long short story employing characters from Saramago’s novel. Published in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Boyer’s story is written from the viewpoint of a Henry James-like observer who, after the death of Ricardo Reis, becomes intimately involved with Saramago’s hotel maid-who is called Lidia, Ricardo Reis’s companion, perhaps lover, but certainly patient listener to his, at times, dismal complaints. Another poet has found her inspiration in Alberto Caeiro. The Keeper of Sheep (O Guardador de Rebanhos) has come in for a radical re-doing, a re-personalizing, if you will, by a Canadian poet, Eirin Moure. She calls her book-length parody, Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person (2001), describing it as a “transelation” of Caeiro’s famous sequence of poems.
More modestly and on a lesser scale, the art historian and literary critic David Shapiro, inspired by the presence of Pessoa’s three major heteronyms-Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos-on the three visible sides of the square that constitutes the maker for Fernando Pessoa’s bones, disinterred from the cemetery called Prazeres in 1988 and reinterred below the stones of a passageway bordering the courtyard at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos-wrote a short poem in which he gives voice, briefly, to the three heteronyms.
“At the Grave of Ferdinand Pessoa or the Triple Tomb”
Do not shelter me like any day’s all day
Or push me toward the fields of a river.
Don’t say it is enough the theme of shelter
As if work and happiness were carnivores and a flower.
Is it enough for the interior to seem vast. Nothing
Exaggerated but multiplicity itself?
Does everything fall into one thing? Like the weak poet
Quantities or fatally subdivided like a minute?
Is it enough to fall like everything late
Shining, and shining with the light at the bottom of a
3. De Campos
No, and again you wanted nothing green or marvelous
Like writing a great agreement in the middle of the street.
Nothing, but the most youthful night of no conclusions, but for him,
Then, the unique conclusion of dying (as if one existed, ever) to the everyday.1
Then there’s Bob Holman, a poet and teacher of writing at Columbia University, who brings in Pessoa when he advocates teaching poetry through performance. “Teach [Charles] Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ and [Frank] O’Hara’s ‘Personism: A Manifesto’ back to back,” he suggests. “Toss in some Surrealist and Futurist Manifestos. Then have the class invent schools of poetry, characters who write in that style, and write ‘their’poems.” Then comes, rather strikingly, a plug for the Portuguese poet. “Pessoa is great here,” he interjects. “Physicalizing Pessoa’s heteronyms is a great performance. I had a student, Amanda Graham, who wrote a ‘Dating Game’ play where she was the contestant and Pessoa’s heteronyms were her suitors. Pessoa personifies the performance of writing.”2 Now that’s a script I’d like to see.
But not everybody is a fan of Pessoa’s poetry. Let me tell you, briefly, about the American James Dickey (1923-1997) and what he thought was Pessoa’s “terrific idea.” Although Dickey is perhaps best-known now as the author of Deliverance (1972), a novel made into a popular movie starring Burt Reynolds (with Dickey himself playing a sheriff), in his day Dickey was considered to be a poet of stature and a critic of major influence. In the 1960s, it has been observed, “Dickey’s best work as a poet and critic” was done, “and while it may be difficult for us to remember now, he looked hard to beat in the American poetry sweepstakes.”3 It was in his guise as poet that in 1963 he tried out his new idea on the editor of Poetry Magazine. He offered to send Henry Rago poems (not yet written) to be published under pseudonyms:
I want to write some poems under another name-a couple of other
in case I get tired of the one I have. I’d like to send some of these to
you and see what you think of them, but, in case of publication,
I wouldn’t want my real identity known. Is this a legitimate kind of
pursuit, in letters? Portuguese poet named Pessoa did this some time
ago-he had four alter egos!-and I wanted to try it, just to see what
I do not know what sort of answer Dickey received from Rago regarding his offer to imitate Pessoa’s creation of multiple “alter egos.” What is known is that Pessoa’s great project in heteronomy continued to interest Dickey-but with a caveat. In an interview he granted to the New York Times in 1970, he stated: “I think it’s important, as you get older, to discover and energize different parts of yourself. I like to think about a Portuguese poet named Fernando Pessoa, who spread himself out into four personalities, and tried to create a completely separate body of work for each of the four. Unfortunately, I believe none of the four turned out to be very good, but what a terrific idea!”6 At the last, though, Dickey’s notion of adapting Pessoa’s “terrific idea” to his own work came to nothing, for he published no poems under the names of “Jesse Shields” and “Boyd Thornton,” two of his stillborn pseudonyms.
 Bob Holman, “Notes toward Exploding ‘Exploding Test: Poetry Performance,'” in Poetry & Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary, ed. Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 294-95.