“Who Needs Poets?”
Jorge Luis Borges
The poet’s trade, the writer’s trade, is a strange one. Chesterton said: “Only one thing is needful–everything.” To a writer this everything is more than an encompassing word; it is literal. It stands for the chief, for the essential, human experiences. For example, a writer needs loneliness, and he gets his share of it. He needs love, and he gets shared and also unshared love. He needs friendship. In fact, he needs the universe. To be a writer is, in a sense, to be day-dreamer–to be living a kind of double life.
I published my first book, Fervor de Buenos Aires way back in 1923. This book was not in praise of Buenos Aires; rather, I tried to express the way I felt about my city. I know that I then stood in need of many things, for though at home I lived in a literary atmosphere–my father was a man of letters–still, that was not enough. I needed something more, which I eventually found in friendships and in literary conversation.
What a great university should give a young writer is precisely that: conversation, discussion, the art of agreeing, and, what is perhaps most important, the art of disagreeing. Out of all this, the moment may come when the young writer feels he can make his emotions into poetry. He should begin, of course, by imitating the writers he likes. This is the way the writer becomes himself through losing himself–that strange way of double living, of living in reality as much as one can and at the same time of living in that other reality, the one he has to create, the reality of his dreams.
This is the essential aim of the writing program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. I am speaking in behalf of the many young men and women at Columbia who are striving to be writers, who have not yet discovered the sound of their own voices. I have recently spent two weeks here, lecturing before eager student writers. I can see what these workshops mean to them; I can see how important they are for the advancement of literature. In my own land, no such opportunities are given to young people.
Let us think of the still nameless poets, still nameless writers, who should be brought together and kept together. I am sure it is our duty to help these future benefactors to attain that final discovery of themselves which makes for great literature. Literature is not a mere juggling of words; what matters is what is left unsaid, or what may be read between the lines. Were it not for this deep inner feeling, literature would be no more than a game, and we all know that it can be much more than that.
We all have the pleasures of the reader, but the writer has also the pleasure and the task of writing. This is not only a strange but a rewarding experience. We owe all young writers the opportunity of getting together, of agreeing or disagreeing, and finally of achieving the craft of writing.
This essay, adapted from a lecture Borges delivered at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, was published in the 8 May 1971 issue of The New York Times