Alberto de Lacerda - His poetry mirrored his eccentric independence and defies categorisation. There is a personal and romantic strain but he is as much a master of the classical sonnet as of surrealist leaps of the imagination or minimalist oriental perfection. The poems celebrate his love of paintings, his passion for music – classical, folk, jazz or pop, "excellence the sole criterion" – for dance, theatre, cinema and the everyday
Alberto de Lacerda, 77 Poems. Trans. by Alberto de Lacerda and Arthur Waley. George Allen & Unwin, 1955.
Looking back, the life and work of my late friend, the Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda (1928–2007), has become a painful reminder of the power of the dominant culture and those who influence it. Read this, read that, the dominant culture says, which is to say, buy this and buy that.
From that thick soup some ingredients are invariably left out, despite the fact that their inclusion would add another dimension, something transformative, even revelatory. The poetry of Alberto de Lacerda has become one of those missing ingredients. But I realize it's a strange question to ask of humanity, the same one that Max Brod considered when he decided not to burn Kafka's manuscripts: should we care?
I walked into Alberto's class, called "Poetry from Symbolism to Surrealism," in 1991, the fall of my senior year at Boston University, and here was a man with a wisp of white hair sort of floating above his balding head, his head turned in slight profile, thus displaying his most prominent feature: his nose. Two pillars disrupted the classroom, and after I sat in one of the only empty chairs, which happened to be behind one of these pillars, he exclaimed, aghast, "No, not there! I must see everyone!" He instructed me to move my chair, which I did, blushing as I screeched the chair across the floor while other students cringed.
Each student who came in after me suffered the same fate, so that by the time class began, we all found ourselves zigzagged across the room, at odd angles to one another, but perfectly placed for Alberto to see all of our faces.
Because Alberto hadn't followed the typical path into academia, because he was a poet and not a PhD, his teaching was quite different from much that I'd experienced before. He kept a sort of devout distance from the poems we read: instead of invading the center of the poem with analysis, he kept the mysterious center intact, and by keeping it intact, we students were able to perceive it. It was a trick that Alberto somehow pulled off, perhaps one that only he could achieve. The result was that I began to see poems as objects that exist in space, rather than mere words on a page. Through Alberto, I understood implicitly what Keats meant when he called his urn that "unravished bride of quietness."
Later in the semester, Alberto told us that he would be happy to have "a coffee" with any of us. It was the first time I'd had such an invitation from any of my professors, and when I later saw him limping down Commonwealth Avenue (the limp was the result of an injury sustained on a wet street in Lisbon in the '60s) a few weeks later, I ran up behind him and said, "Professor Lacerda!" He lunged forward, trembling, "Ah! You gave me such a fright!" (He spoke with a British accent and had many British-isms.)
Despite the fear I struck in him that day, we ended up meeting regularly throughout the semester, and when he returned to London in the spring (he only taught at BU in the fall semester), we began to exchange letters. This was the initiation of what would become a prolific correspondence: we exchanged over the course of our friendship over 300 letters.
His letters at that time were mostly full of suggestions: go to this café (it's quiet, no music), pick up that book, definitely see this exhibition. I remember in particular a very small show of drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts that he recommended and that was wonderful. No one was there. It was my introduction to searching beyond the blockbuster, artcelebrity show. I reported back dutifully on my visits and my purchases, and he responded in kind. But as I had now become a second-semester senior and was turning my attention to life beyond school, the letters dwindled in frequency and eventually stopped altogether.
After graduation, I moved to France, and after a stint farming in the south, I ended up with a room in Paris. From there, I visited a friend in London, and I picked up the phone and called Alberto. "Do you remember me?" I asked. "What nonsense! Of course I remember you!" We met in the café at the National Gallery and then went to see all of the treasures in the museum, which were, to him, like friends. He spoke of them as if he'd known them for a long time but was constantly surprised at how they could still offer something new. In front of Piero della Francesco's "The Baptism of Christ," he went as silent and still as a statue, until finally whispering, "It's one of the wonders of the world."
This visit cemented our friendship. The letters resumed in earnest: from Paris to London; from my native California to Boston; from New York, where I moved in 1993, to Boston, and always to London. Slowly, too, I began to hear about his world, and about his poetry. In one letter, he told me, as a matter of fact, without boasting, that he had "written one of the largest bodies of work in all of Portuguese literature."
This body of work is out of print in the United States, suffering a fate similar to that of Fernando Pessoa's work. And they are linked in other ways: it was Pessoa's Portuguese publisher who accepted Alberto's first book of poems when he was just eighteen. I often ask myself, is he out of print here because Americans don't care much about Portugal, or about poetry, or quite sadly, both?
Alberto's poetry is direct, without artifice. Here's one poem, in its entirety, written when he was about eighteen:
My first element
Light is now
My slow element
Language was Alberto's garden, plucked and tended with utmost care, no weed sneaking through the soil. About the language he wrote in all his life, here is a poem entitled "The Portuguese Language":
This language that I love
With its barbarous cut
Its hellenic salt
Which so often
Has a deaf halo
By nearly all who speak it
This manly sword
Capable of brandishing all the ways
Of all the air
Of all the dances
Capable of all the colours
All the risks
(And always wins the game)
Capable of everything
Like a woman really
Is my constant India
My endless wedding
My love forever
Although Alberto's poetry is mainly free verse and often with very short lines, he did write a book of sonnets, which he later published in Venice under the title Sonetos. This book contains 147 sonnets, many of which he wrote during an eight-day trip to Venice. He told me that they just fell out of him, perfectly intact, and that he often didn't alter even one word. The subject matter of his work recalls his beloved Frank O'Hara: there are poems to and about Mozart, Picasso, Martha Graham, Stravinsky, The Beatles, Godard, bullfighting, wine, ecstasy, love, paradise, and his many friends. (He once said, "This is what I live for: friendship and the things of the spirit.") There are places, too: Austin, New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Lisbon, Mozambique, and, of course, London. London, his "most silent most difficult/Beloved friend. . .
My favorite form of inhabiting the world/My throne. . . To this enchanted forest I came to be born/When I was twenty-three." Alberto was eighteen when he left his native Mozambique (the year was 1946). He arrived in Portugal in the thick of AntĂłnio Salazar's Fascist regime. The situation was bad enough to provoke a move to London to work for the BBC in 1951. London quickly became his spiritual home.
There, he befriended the Sitwells, who introduced him to, as he said, "the world." He became a regular part of London's literary scene in the late '50s and '60s. Arthur Waley translated his first book, 77 Poems, which appeared in 1955. Through Edith Sitwell, the book quickly circulated among the top echelon of London's poets, and Alberto's reputation as a poet "who knows" became established. On a return trip to Portugal in 1962, during a period of student upheavals, he was briefly jailed by the dictatorship; the charge was associating with subversives.
Alberto then emerges in the United States, touching the inner circles of American poetry. In the late 1960s, a chance encounter led him to a professorship at the University of Texas at Austin. Within a few years, he had organized, along with his good friend Octavio Paz, a reading that featured Borges, Zukovsky, Creeley, Milosz, and Robert Duncan. Alberto was then recruited from Austin to Boston University, where he befriended Anne Sexton and Rosanna Warren, among others, and became one of the most beloved professors of those lucky enough, like me, to encounter his classes.
Lacerda's obscurity today wouldn't be so strange if it weren't for how he had been championed in the past: T.S. Eliot sought him out at a party at the home of Edith Sitwell; Marianne Moore quoted him in one of her prose writings; John Ashbery said to Alberto, of his poetry, "You don't need any crutches." I have not even touched upon his friendships in the Portuguese-speaking world: Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, Cesariny, and Manuel Bandeira, not to mention two of his best friends, both of whom also expatriated themselves, the painters Vieira da Silva and Paula Rego.
Of course, there are other factors contributing to Alberto's obscurity. First, Portugal itself, the country of Vasco da Gama and the discoveries, so rich in history and global influence, but a country that lost its colonies to the ideas born in the Enlightenment, to revolution, and that squandered its wealth and shrank to a sliver on the edge of Europe, its culture marginalized by the rest of Europe as not as "great" as French, British, German, or Spanish culture. Add to this situation Salazar and the stamping out of culture that the twentieth century saw. After all, it wasn't until after the '70s that Pessoa, that most beloved of Portuguese poets, began to find his rightful place in the literature of Portugal. Although born in 1922, José Saramago, the Nobel Laureate, didn't even begin writing in earnest and receiving fame until after the Salazar regime fell in 1974.
Finally, those who stayed and endured the dictatorship, of course, held the keys to Portugal's cultural establishment, and naturally they wanted to promote those whom they knew—those, like them, who had stayed and endured. To many, Alberto had turned his back, so why promote him? It is a myopic view, to be sure, but one that is very much in play. Then add the fact that Alberto was gay, and there appears quite a lot for him to overcome. After all, the first openly gay character in Portuguese fiction didn't appear until as late as 1997.
Not to say that there aren't those who have championed him, namely his good friend, the poet and memoirist Luís Amorim de Sousa, who inherited Alberto's estate. Despite constantly dwelling on the edge of poverty, Alberto amassed a huge collection that consists of books, recordings, letters, over a thousand works of art, posters, photographs, letters and signatures. (During a recent visit to Lisbon, I held in my hand in the space of an hour signatures and letters from Proust, Lorca, Mallarmé, Pessoa, and Whitman, among others.) Luís has been working tirelessly to find a home for this estate, and he's also brought out books of Alberto's poetry, as well as books about Alberto and his friendships. We're still waiting to see whether or not his efforts will launch Alberto as fully as he should be into the Portuguese consciousness.
He is also remembered by some in the United States. Jhumpa Lahiri, who was also his student at Boston University, wrote about him in two separate remembrances, one in Poetry, where she called him "one of Portugal's greatest poets in the second half of the twentieth century." Rosanna Warren also recently published a poem entitled, very directly, "Alberto de Lacerda." Poet's House in New York had a show last year that put on display some of Alberto's collection as well as documented his literary friendships. Christopher Middleton, Jhumpa Lahiri, David Wevill, and Luís Amorim de Sousa all came to speak at the opening. There's also a book going to press through the University of Buffalo, which will explore Alberto's relationship with Robert Duncan and Jess. Finally, there's the literary program that I co-founded in Lisbon, called Disquiet, which is dedicated to Alberto's memory.
Alberto de Lacerda died in 2007 in London from complications from a stroke. He is gone, but his verse is there, is here, still waiting to be born. - Scott Laughlin
Robert Duncan, Jess, and Alberto de Lacerda, Such Conjunctions, BlazeVOX, 2015.
After meeting in November 1969 at the International Festival of Poetry in Austin, Texas, the Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda (1928-2007) developed a trans-Atlantic friendship with the San Francisco poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988) and his partner, the artist Jess (1923-2004). This book celebrates that friendship by bringing together from the Duncan and de Lacerda archives reproductions and transcriptions of all their extant correspondence in addition to the many inscribed publications, books, magazines, photographs, poems, drawings, and artwork that they shared with each other. Together, these items document not only the story of the relationship between these three men, including their subsequent visits together in San Francisco, Boston, and London, but also many of the significant events in each figure’s life during the years 1969 to 1989. Edited by Mary Porter de Sousa and Luís Amorim de Sousa, de Lacerda’s longtime friend and literary executor, and James Maynard, Associate Curator of the University at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection, which houses Duncan’s papers, this collection features essays by de Sousa, Maynard, and Scott Laughlin, a former student of de Lacerda’s.
Habitués of SW3 and SW10, of such tranquil cafés as the Picasso on the King's Road or Dino's by South Kensington tube station, of London's galleries, museums, theatres, concert halls and selected cinemas, cannot have failed to have seen Alberto de Lacerda: latterly a small, hobbling, tramp-like old man, with two horns of white hair and noble brow and nose, ceaselessly flitting from one venue to the next, wearing a battered black parka, whatever the heat, and clutching a crumpled white supermarket bag bursting with newspapers, books and sundries.
Lacerda was made more conspicuous by hurpling recklessly through speeding traffic at the expense of any zebra crossing or traffic-light; and fearlessly airing his right to object to what he considered such social blights as mobile phones, background music, galleries too dark to see for so-called conservation's sake, ignorant panjandrums, functionaries unable to speak English, inattentive waiters, unruly children and women in trousers.
This could lead to wrangles and misunderstandings. He was man-handled and permanently banned from a Cork Street gallery for demanding to know the price of a Picasso; struck off the list at his local health centre for asking the receptionist her nationality. Evelyn Waugh was equally at fault when describing him in younger days as "a little swarthy man who looked like a Jew but claimed to be Portuguese".
How impressions can deceive. Lacerda was a member of one of the three oldest families of the peninsula, kings and cardinals among his ancestors. He was above all one of the finest poets of his generation; but also a collage artist who had a solo show at Lisbon's Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes; a compulsive collector and connoisseur of all the arts, an inspired teacher who retired as a professor emeritus of Boston University; a brilliant critic (the first to champion Paula Rego), a gifted broadcaster and linguist, in short a man described by Edith Sitwell as one of the most cultivated persons she had known.
Carlos Alberto Portugal Correia de Lacerda was born in 1928 in Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony. His father was a member of the colonial service and subsequently a business administrator. The Lacerdas' house was in open country and Alberto would fall asleep "to the sound of lions roaring". He remembered his astonishment when his parents gave a ball and scores of white ladies and gentlemen appeared out of the darkness in impeccable and glittering court dress. It contrasted with the nightmare of a hurricane which tore the entire roof off the house. As an adult and in his poetry, Lacerda always believed the dream was the true reality; "we are such stuff as dreams are made on" one of his favourite Shakespearean lines.
As a notably precocious child he read voraciously but his formal education was patchy. A first visit to South Africa as a youth opened his eyes to the wider world, but instead of going to university he studied French and English in Lisbon. His reputation as a poet in Portugal was already established before publication of his acclaimed first collection, 77 Poemas (1951), when he was still only 23. He was in the forefront of a notably talented post-war generation of Portuguese poets, which included Sophia de Mello Breyner, Jorge de Sena and António Ramos Rosa.
On this wave of success he came to work for the BBC Portuguese service in London. He went straight from the boat to a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of The Winter's Tale. Thus began the love-affair with London which made it his base for life, although he never became a British subject. Through interviewing the poet Roy Campbell he met Arthur Waley, poet and famed oriental scholar, who translated his first collection, published in England as 77 Poems. His reputation was endorsed and lionisation by the Sitwells was an almost inevitable reward.
Brief imprisonment under Salazar's regime and a fall in Lisbon, which left Lacerda with a permanent limp, confirmed his preference for exile. The reputation of poets is often at odds with the pittances they earn, and while Lacerda's arrival in Brazil caused headlines in the national newspapers, in England he lost his BBC job and had to make ends meet through literary and other freelance work. His situation improved when he embarked in the early 1960s on an academic career in the United States, which lasted nearly 40 years, first at the University of Texas, Austin, and then at Boston. At both universities he was professor of comparative literature, specialising in those of France, Portugal and Brazil.
Lacerda's poetic reputation rests on 12 books published between 1951 and 2001, and has long been secured. It is testimony to his international standing that such poetic luminaries as the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican Octavio Paz, the American John Ashbery, the Frenchman René Char, the Brazilian Manuel Bandeira and English Edith Sitwell were among his many admirers.
His poetry mirrored his eccentric independence and defies categorisation. There is a personal and romantic strain but he is as much a master of the classical sonnet as of surrealist leaps of the imagination or minimalist oriental perfection. The poems celebrate his love of paintings, his passion for music – classical, folk, jazz or pop, "excellence the sole criterion" – for dance, theatre, cinema and the everyday. One of his most famous poems, "The Portuguese Language", extolling "Esta maravilha / Assassinadissima / Por quase todos que a falam (translated by Lacerda as "This wonder / So massacred / By nearly all that speak it") may be made compulsory reading in Portuguese schools.
Lacerda wrote many of the poems, one of them characteristically praising coffee, in the cafés he regarded as "essential to civilisation"; corroborating his belief in the things of the spirit and friendship: " vivo para isto: as coisas do espirito e a amizade". He abhorred the egalitarianism of deconstructive criticism, the tyranny of political correctness, the pervasiveness of supermarket values. "We live in the age of vulgarity," he sighed; "vive la difference" his guiding principle. As for television, he never owned a set: "Am I interrupting your viewing?," he would tease a friend on the telephone. "You're sure? They tell me it's very educational."
Yet Lacerda was always aware of his own lonely fate, which became painfully pronounced in age.
Aos outros levarei a felicidade
Que a mim obscuramente foi negada
Hei-de ficar sem nada
(To others I shall bring the happiness
That to me was mysteriously refused
I shall be left with nothing)
And so it proved.
His one-bedroom flat in Battersea became an extraordinary archive of his life and times but by depressing turns unvisitable, irreparable and eventually, by common standards, uninhabitable. He cut himself off from friends, refused to have his telephone reconnected, left letters unanswered, said he no longer wrote poems. A formal Portuguese initiative, instigated by the poet Luís Amorim de Sousa, to place his archive in a museum and rehouse him was spurned.
A few months ago, radio and television programmes in Portugal were interrupted falsely to announce his death, yet only chance led to his discovery when an ultimately fatal heart attack came. The full horror of the flat was finally revealed, but tucked everywhere were poems, some written this summer, short and exquisite distillations of his profound solitude.
Now Portugal's former president Mário Soares has issued a formal statement in honour of Alberto de Lacerda. Friends have returned from as far away as California for his burial. Plans for the museum have resumed. Like Pessoa, Lacerda's posthumous reputation seems destined to dwarf even the fame that in his heyday led to murmurs of a Nobel Prize. - John McEwen
Alberto de Lacerda, one of Portugal's greatest poets in the second half of the twentieth century, died this past August at the age of seventy-eight. I met Alberto in September 1993, when I was a graduate student in literature at Boston University. He was teaching a seminar about Fernando Pessoa, and I was the only registered student (there was also one auditor). I had no prior interest in Pessoa, had never heard of him, in fact. But Alberto came recommended.
When we crossed paths he was a small man in his sixties with a gentle sing-song voice and white wispy hair, but he made a formidable first impression, enough to make me consider dropping the course. My staying made the class possible, but Alberto seemed, in those early weeks of the semester, suspicious of my reasons for being there. He lectured without notes, an intense, virtuosic delivery peppered with occasionally condescending asides. In the course of making a reference to a painting by Picasso or a passage from King Lear, he would turn to me and ask, "Do you know whom I mean by Picasso? You are familiar with Lear?"
The first of the many things I learned at Alberto's table was not to let these remarks bother me. We dove, our modest party of three, headlong into Pessoa, but in spite of the seminar's singular focus, Alberto's lectures knew no bounds, his mind skipping from Mozart to Duchamp to Dylan Thomas. I brought a pen and a notebook to class, but mainly I just listened. By the middle of the term the class was no longer a class but rather an escape from the ordinary, and I approached our weekly three-hour sessions with the pleasure of visiting a dear and exceptionally learned friend.
Though Alberto's creative life was no secret, he was quiet about the fact that he was an acclaimed, working poet. Like his hero, Picasso, he believed that artists were born and sustained in the process of studying other artists. His attitude toward Pessoa and the other geniuses he loved was pure, visceral, inexhaustible, devotional. Alberto's mission was not to explain a poem or a painting, but to absorb it. He approached art matter-of-factly, ritually, as one approaches a meal, as if his very existence depended on it. Ever the aesthete, he was also a great gossip. Tea with Edith Sitwell, sitting next to T.S. Eliot at a dinner party—these were among the anecdotes he mentioned now and again. (On Sitwell: "She was a snob, but wonderfully generous to me. And had fabulous hands.")
He gave me a bilingual edition of 77 Poems, his first published volume (translated by Alberto with Arthur Waley and published in 1955), without fuss one day, inscribing it with a ballpoint pen as I sat across from him in a pizza place that doubled as his public office, on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue. By then we had been friends for four years. Before handing over the book, he turned to a page that was in Portuguese and corrected an error in the text, even though he knew that I did not understand Portuguese and that my eye would never fall there. Alberto seemed shy on his side of the table, as I did on mine. It is always strange to experience, for the first time, the creative work of a friend. And it is rare to know a friend for so long and not encounter the work. In a way, I knew that it was irrelevant to Alberto whether or not I liked the poems. I did. They were transparent in the best sense: they hid nothing. They were fearless and vulnerable, the two things, I was beginning to learn, that an artist must be. I was haunted by the frank expression of melancholy and loneliness, by the combined detachment from, and desperate connection to, the world. Rereading 77 Poems after Alberto's death, I was undone, because so many, written when he just in his twenties, seemed uncannily to predict the course of his life, and to articulate beliefs he held into old age. "The only usefulness of the poet/Is to exist" he wrote in "Poem 75," a credo that distills so much of Alberto's essence to me. Here are the first two stanzas from poem 24, titled "The Shore":
My song dies away beyond this life
Because it does not belong to it entirely;
Facing death, and lonely,
I am going to close the tragic circle.
Friends I had not, and that loving
Vision which Love forbade me here—
I slowly suffered their absence
In my agony of interrupted Wing.
Though Alberto in fact had many friends and delighted in their company, there was an impenetrable aspect to him, a privacy he ferociously guarded. He could be remarkably hospitable but invited next to no one into his home. In 1996, he retuned to London, the place he considered his center. For the next eleven years he continued to write poems, and during that time he wrote me a number of letters. He quoted Blake, told me to go see the Ingres exhibit at the Metropolitan, warned me of the tyranny of editors. In 1998 he wrote: "I've written quite a bit since I returned [to London]. Not lately. It doesn't matter. I've done enough; anyway, I never had that kind of anxiety."
In 1999, three years after Alberto gave me 77 Poems, I, too, shyly presented him with my first published effort. Before then, I never mentioned to Alberto that I was an aspiring fiction writer. If he intuited anything, which most likely he did, he never pried. It was better that way. And yet he influenced me deeply. "I've just, this very moment, finished writing a poem," he began one letter. "If you knew Portuguese, I would send it to you. It may survive; maybe reading it tomorrow, I'll tear it up." He never opened the door of his apartment to me, but from that declaration of camaraderie and trust, that cold, clear-eyed appraisal of a writer's process, I glimpsed something more precious.
Anyone who knew Alberto, even briefly, understood that he was an idiosyncratic, outspoken, in some senses anachronistic man. He was not afraid to say what he thought, not afraid, now and again, to make an enemy. But I believe that in the most profound aspect of his life—his work—he found peace. He understood the importance of art and the mystery of it, accepted the inability, ultimately, to control what is produced and what becomes of it in the eyes of the world. The point, he knew, was to stay inspired. It is an awareness that, I think, grounded and accompanied him throughout his life. - Jhumpa Lahiri