Although Jorge Luis Borges is primarily famous for his prose (fiction, nonfiction and essays), he began his career writing poetry. He also translated numerous works of poetry and gave lectures on poetry throughout his literary career. Daniel Balderston, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, states that "Borges is one of the great Latin American poets of the 20th century."
Borges' Poetic Craft
Borges composed poetry throughout his life. His earliest poems available come from his first published collection of poetry, "Fervor de Buenos Aires," published in 1923. His eyesight deteriorated, and he was prohibited from reading and writing in 1956. He increasingly focused on writing poetry, since he could memorize an entire work in progress. His poems embrace the same wide range of interests and themes as his fiction, along with issues that stem from more personal musings.
Themes in Early Poems
In his early years, Borges was part of the Ultraist movement (due to time he previously spent in Madrid, where the movement began), and this is reflected in the overarching quasi-surrealness of his poetry produced during that time. He was living in Buenos Aires, and the loneliness and isolation that can be felt in huge cities is apparent in these poems. Also apparent is his fondness of and influence by the work of Walt Whitman.
In a manifesto published by Nosotros magazine, Borges summarized Ultraist goals thus: 1) Reduction of the lyric element to its primordial element, metaphor. 2) Deletion of useless middle sentences, linking particles and adjectives. 3) Avoidance of ornamental artifacts, confessionalism, circumstantiation, preaching and farfetched nebulosity. 4) Synthesis of two or more images into one, thus widening its suggestiveness. This proclivity for metaphor and clean writing is obvious in the direct and painstaking imagery of his earlier work.
The blurred line between fact and fantasy inhabits almost all of Borges' fictional work and spills over to his poetry. Non-linearity of time and space, magical realism, and an emphasis on idealism are present in many of his poems. Like Whitman, he tried to capture universal feeling and write "a verse that will be everything to everybody." For example, his interest in idealism runs through his work and appears as a theme in his poems "Things" and "El Golem." One poem, "El Truco," (named after an Argentinian card game) introduces two of these themes that appear over and over in his later writing: circular time and the idea that all people are but one person.
Themes in Later Poems
Borges' later poems reflect a different persona than his earlier work. His voice is that of a wise man who has slowed down. It is important to remember that, at this point, he wrote poetry by composing it in his head, in the dark, as blindness encroached. "His poems now are like the conversation of the poet with himself ... It is a private voice though not a confessional one," according to E. R. Monegal. This is seen clearly in "The Borges," "To Whoever is Reading Me" and "No One Is The Homeland." In the foreword to "Selected Poems," Borges says, "I believe I have found my own voice." In examining his body of work, it seems that he had his own voice all along, merely becoming more self-aware in his later years and through his poetry.