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On the Origin of Poetry: Arnaldo Antunes


Crisscrossing different art forms, the works of the Brazilian poet and musician are not easily categorized.

It would appear that, within Latin American culture, the perception of Brazil is limited to football and samba. And the same thing happens with the spontaneous metonymy of Chile: Neruda. And that of Argentina, El Che and Maradona, etc. The cultural references that we have of our neighbors do not surpass the superficial and sometimes even border on ignorance. But in the case of Brazil, the cultural distance is characterized by an obvious factor: the language barrier with the rest of the continent. But, contrary to our ignorance, Sao Paulo-born poet and musician Arnaldo Antunes (b. 1960) has shown that languages tend to unite us and erase borders.

A member of one of Brazil’s greatest rock bands, Titãs, with whom he has recorded seven albums, he is one of the most important contemporary Brazilian artists, and an obligatry reference for the generations that follow, for those who work in video, music, performance and text in any of its variations.

The title of this article is also that of a text by Antunes, a kind of poetics that begins thus: “The origin of poetry is confused with the origin of language. It would perhaps make more sense to ask when verbal language ceased to be poetry.”

It could be that throughout the Brazilian’s work the intention is a desire to restore the primary links between different cultural expressions: music, dance, painting, singing, etc., with the aim of conjugating them for more essential uses, for practical, communitary or ritual uses. But a question immediately emerges: is that not the ultimate aim of all art? Antunes appears to tell us yes. Later, in the same text, he says the following: “In their state as language, in the dictionary, words mediate our relationship with things, impeding our direct contact with them.” The Brazilian poet works with this distance – with their reduction. His work complicates the distinction between meaning/significance and the referential function of language. And that is what, he says, poems are for.

He is a kind of “smuggler of indications” between the sound and the meaning in search of what lies beneath. To sum up, Antunes generates a hybridization between different artistic languages, perhaps to make us understand that the differences between disciplines or genres operate more like a bias, like a mercantile difference, or like a label.

None of this appears strange to us if we know the affinity that Arnaldo Antunes’ poems have with concrete poetry, led in Brazil by Augusto and Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari. Here we must insert a parenthesis. Brazilian poetry, perhaps due to the highly musical element of the language, has been one of the most avant-garde literatures of the Americas, often playing with the meaning via the sound, or viceversa, or synthesizing and economizing the language to empower the meaning. An ancient and infinite rhythm. Unfortunately, however, Brazilian poetry is not as well known as the poetry from other South American countries.

Arnaldo Antunes’ poetic works comprise more than 10 books and are fed by the avant-garde of both Brazil and the rest of the world at a time when art, in whichever expression, is always experimental. As a result, reading or looking at one of his poems can be a little strange. Precisely because his intention was to distance himself from conservatism and poetic convention while maintaining an active, reflexive and critical position regarding language, speech, sound, the sound of words and words’ visuals. It is enough to mention his first book, Ou e, a box of holes through which different alphabets can be seen. It has 29 poems, jokes, ‘visualized coincidences,’ and a reappraisal of other texts, etc. A strange book if ever there was one.

Arnaldo Antunes thus moves at will along the old road between poem and song, between silence and singing.

With the emergence of sonic poetry and visual poetry in recent years in countries such as Mexico and Argentina, his work has begun to be translated. This translation and publishing effort confirms the increasing importance of his work.

His most recent book to appear in Spanish was Instanto, a book-CD published by Kriller 71 in Barcelona, translated by Reynaldo Jiménez and Ivana Vollaro. The praise that his work is receiving, its dissemination across the Americas and his collaborations with musicians such as David Byrne is all a sign that the Brazilian poet is an artist who renews the meaning of exercise and artistic practice.

Here is a link to an anthology of his poems and a 2009 recording with his band:


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