World Poetry Day with a Portuguese Twist!

March 21st is World Poetry Day. But what does poetry mean today? What place does it have in the lives of most people?

Luís de Camões, widely considered the greatest Portuguese poet. Yes, he lost an eye in battle.

For many, poetry is something ranging from boring and pompous to difficult and obscure. Clearly, the kind of thing you want to avoid at all costs.

And what about poems that don’t rhyme? Dreadful stuff.

Worse still, can you imagine all that in a foreign language? Run to the hills!

Well, not necessarily so. For today’s blog post, I propose an exploratory voyage along the coasts of Portuguese poetry. Let us set sail and discover authors, poems, and a few songs. Are you brave enough?

Fernando Pessoa knew how to rock a stache.

Portugal has been the birthplace of many poets. Luis Vaz de Camões (1524 or 1525 – 1580) is often considered to have been the greatest Portuguese poet, although by no means the first. 

Several of his plays and many of his poems made it to today. His best known work, The Lusiads (Os Lusíadas), is one long epic poem, divided into 10 cantos and written in Homeric fashion, with no detail left to chance. The Lusiads tells the story of Vasco da Gama and his sailors on their voyage to find the maritime route to India. 

Florbela Espanca, showing off her bling.

Project Gutenberg has a free online translation of The Lusiads but please remember the saying “traduttore, traditore” (literally, “translator, traitor”): no matter how good a translation is, it will never be the same thing as the original. 

If you love the classics and already have a good knowledge of Portuguese, I suggest you read this translation of several of Shakespeare’s sonnets (perhaps with the original side by side for comparison). 

Miguel Torga, having fun in the great outdoors.

For a good (but not perfect) selection of Portuguese poets, I suggest this website. You can click on a poet, read some info about them, check the list of works, and read some of their poems translated into English. 

If you’re considering buying books of poetry in Portuguese, there are several editions available, especially from the most famous authors. However, I recommend Assírio & Alvim as a very good option, particularly if you’re looking for something a little outside of the box. Relógio d’Água is another good option along the same lines, but a bit more indie. 

Eugénio de Andrade. I wonder if he enjoyed long walks by the sea.

It’s difficult for me to mention some names and leave out others. In any case, I strongly suggest you don’t miss out on Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), widely considered to be on the same level as Luis de Camões (although you can’t really compare the work of authors who lived centuries apart).

Other names that shouldn’t be missed are Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919 – 2004), Eugénio de Andrade (1923 – 2005), Miguel Torga (1907-1995), and Florbela Espanca (1894-1930). 

I’m only mentioning here poets who lived most of their lives in the 20th century simply because of the language, as it will be easier for anyone who’s learning Portuguese to understand the spelling and vocabulary. But there are many more names worthy of your time and attention (and, dare I say, effort). 

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen sporting a classic writer’s pose.

One of the great things about poetry is that, quite often, poems can be turned into songs. I’ve chosen a few such songs, including a couple of personal favourites, to (hopefully) whet your appetite:

– Camões adapted into song in the 20th century? Why, of course! José Mário Branco, for example, wrote a song based on one of the most famous sonnets by Luis de Camões, “Mudam-se os tempos, mudam-se as vontades”.

– Fado, of course, has used many poems as basis for songs. One of the most acclaimed is probably “Fado Português” based on a poem by José Régio and sung here by Amália Rodrigues.

– Amália was actually the first Fado singer to use poems for Fado songs. Here is another, and a personal favourite, called “Gaivota”, based on a poem by Alexandre O’Neill.

– Next, a poem by Fernando Pessoa, my eternal literary crush. It’s called “Cavaleiro Monge” and is sung by Mariza.

– Please forgive me, but here’s another poem by Fernando Pessoa. “Ó sino da minha aldeia”, sung by António Zambujo. Trivia tidbit: the poem mentions a church bell in a village, but Pessoa never lived in a village.

– Last, but certainly not least, a poem by Florbela Espanca and interpreted by the band Trovante. “Perdidamente” became such a hit in Portugal in the 80s that, still today, it’s very difficult for the average Portuguese to read the poem without singing it a bit (even if unwillingly).

Made it this far? Well, that wasn’t so scary, was it? 🙂

To wrap up this blog post I’m sharing with you a playlist I’ve put together for World Poetry Day. In it, you’ll find the songs I’ve shared here plus a selection of Portuguese poems being said by actors and musicians. 

Yes, some of them are repeated, but I thought that would be interesting for anyone learning Portuguese, as it will give you access to different accents and different ways of interpreting these poems. 

If you find it difficult to understand the words, I suggest you just focus on the sounds (rhymes, in particular) and enjoy them. Hope you like it! 


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