Mario Quintana’s greatest legacy is contained, of course, in the writing he left behind him. Quintana, one of the most distinctive of Brazilian poets, was born in Alegrete in 1906. He began his literary career under the influence of French Symbolism, but he had a wide acquaintance with Iberian literary tradition which also influenced his thinking and writing. French was his second language and he translated French and English classic novels into Portuguese language. He worked many years as a translator for Livraria do Globo in Porto Alegre, one of Brazil’s largest publishing houses. He also worked as a journalist for the newspaper Correio do Povo, where he wrote a column titled “Caderno H”. Author of many volumes of verse, he wrote with remarkable economy and almost no rhetoric.
At Alegrete, Quintana worked with his father and older brother at Quintana Pharmacy. He trained specifically in helping drug dispensation. Such care as must be exercised may account for Quintana’s careful and parallel structuring in many of his poems, which often move carefully from low-key openings to sensational endings. In 1926, Quintana entered a competition sponsored by the newspaper Diário de Notícias, for the best tale, and won the prize. The tale contains poetic and comic elements and is extremely well written. Quintana is a master of poetic forms, wit, and irony. The style is very clear and reflected, sometimes without ever having been given a hint of what the climax of the piece is going to be, but always making exactly its points.
For more than forty years, Quintana wrote and fought against the milieu of pessimism and cynicism, since to be an artist in the province was regarded as a “kind of sin”. It seems the elite was in principle hostile to literature. Anyway, Quintana continued to write, and to revise his poems and epigrams, with extreme care. He used to say, “It is necessary to write a poem several times so as to give the impression that it was written for the first time.” Quintana devoted almost all his time to his work. During these years, the poet became well acquainted with literary circles and figures, including Augusto Meyer, a poet and critic, and Erico Verissimo, a writer and editorial advisor to Livraria do Globo. Throughout his career Quintana would be encouraged and praised by other great writers like Cecilia Meireles and Monteiro Lobato.
He came to wide public attention with his first book A Rua dos Cataventos (The Street of Weathervanes) in 1940; it was followed in 1946 by Canções (Songs). But it was O Aprendiz de Feiticeiro (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) published in 1950 that built his reputation as a first-rate poet. The exquisite mix between Symbolism and Surrealism, bringing a new music and a new language to Brazilian poetry, is responsible for the significance of the book. As a great poet, he was able to identify himself with more general experience and stand forth as a voice for the human spirit. The book was welcomed by Augusto Meyer, his fellow in the glory days of the twenties, as the expression of a new poetry and as an example of natural virtuosity. Let’s read a literal translation of one of the poems bellow:
The poem is a stone in the abyss,
The echo of the poem displaces profiles:
For the sake of waters and souls
Let us murder the poet.
Thus, with remarkable economy and growing tension, Quintana succeeds in conveying poetic language as the last word in spiritual illumination. The poet’s talent is presented as threatening the new religion of logic.
I believe that the attributes of the poet’s work that keep it front and center on the Brazilian literature stage include the use of the lyric, a very personal form of poetry, the way the poems manage to combine the intellectual with the emotional, the way the poems subvert expectations, the way the poems move from every day to metaphysical issues, the way the poems combine the colloquial and the erudite levels of language, the use of simple or anaphoric repetitions, the breach of sonnet regularity, the poem’s complex wordplay and gaming with alliteration and assonance, and so on.
Pure poetry is tense in expression, as we see in the poem above, and it is always unexpected and elegant. Quintana was able, as critics noted, to preserve his joy of living and human spontaneity in times of cold technologies.