The state of Minas Gerais has produced many of Brazil’s greatest literary figures, but one man stands head, shoulders and navel above them all. Carlos Drummond de Andrade is so beloved by Brazilians that his Cancao Amiga (Friendly Song) was actually printed on 50 cruzado banknotes. Drummond is much more than the father of Brazilian modernism; he is the father of a nation.
But, like most great men, he wasn’t always famous. He was born in Itabira, a not-so-small mining town, before moving to Belo Horizonte, the provincial capital, to study pharmacy. Although he graduated easily, he never worked as a pharmacist and instead moved to Rio to become a civil servant in the ministry of education…And a poet.
He spent much of his adult life in Rio, but as the Brazlian journalist Ángel Gurría-Quintana put it “Rio became his home and his muse, but Minas Gerais was never far from his thoughts.” Or in the words of the man himself: “Itabira is just a photograph on the wall. But how it hurts!”
But Drummond didn’t romanticise places; not Itabira, not Rio, not anywhere. To quote again from Gurría-Quintana, “it was the inner vistas that interested him most. He was a poet of human solitude.” He voiced the frustrations of rural immigrants lost in anonymous and crushing cities and of bored middle-class city-dwellers trapped in meaningless, Kafkaesque routines, all the while displaying a special concern for children and the urban poor.
But this too is an oversimplification, or at least it tells only one of the stories. Drummond, you see could at times be funny, ironic, metaphysical, existential, erotic and social and he could also be many of these things at once. It’s easy to do one thing well, but to do many things brilliantly is the mark of greatness. Drummond could be all things to everyone; he could, in his own words, simultaneously “awaken men and make children fall asleep.”
In the middle of the road
In the middle of the road there was a stone there was a stone in the middle of the road there was a stone in the middle of the road there was a stone. Never should I forget this event in the life of my fatigued retinas. Never should I forget that in the middle of the road there was a stone there was a stone in the middle of the road in the middle of the road there was a stone.
By the time he died, in 1987, Drummond had achieved cult status. Just a few months prior he had been chosen as the theme for the carnival parade by one of Rio’s leading samba schools – there is no greater honor in Brazil. And the cult would only grow after his death. His long face and trademark horn-rimmed spectacles appear on T-shirts, backpacks, and graffiti throughout the country, so much so that you could almost say he’s Brazil’s version of Che Guevara. Every year on October 31 his birthday is celebrated as ‘D-Day’, a day of readings, discussions and exhibitions…quite something for a long-dead poet in the 21st century!
There are memorials too, in Itabira and Rio and other places, the most iconic of which is the life-size statue of Drummond sitting on a bench on Rio’s coastline with his back towards the sea. Ridiculously, a recent campaign has urged authorities to turn the statue around so that he can gaze on the ocean’s beauty for posterity. Drummond, you see, would have abhorred the notion. Ocean views (even those in Rio) are beneath him. He’s happy looking inwards, forever.
I leave you with the first verse of his greatest poem, José, a tragicomic chronicle of the travails of an aging everyman. Check out the full poem here.
What now, José? The party’s over, the lights are off, the crowd’s gone, the night’s gone cold, what now, José? what now, you? you without a name, who mocks the others, you who write poetry who love, protest? what now, José?