Friday, 14 May 2010

José Hierro 1922-2002

Spain's best-loved contemporary poet, José Hierro Real, knew his life was ending, and had made his final farewells. One close friend, the singer Joaquín Sabina, protested: "Pepe, if you die on us, I'll kill you."
A major influence in Spanish poetry in the latter half of the 20th century, Hierro was of a generation marked by the civil war that split his homeland when he was a teenager and by the bleak dictatorship that it put in place. Although born in Madrid, he is mainly associated with Santander on the north coast, where he was raised from the age of two. His schooling was interrupted by the Francoist uprising in 1936, by which time the teenager was already taking a keen interest in the leading poets of the day, as well as reading Dickens, Baudelaire and Dostoevsky. A member of the Union of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, he saw his first poems in print before he was 16.
At the end of the Spanish Civil War, Hierro – just 17 – was jailed for five years on charges of helping an underground group supporting political prisoners. He became familiar in jail with the poems of Spain's "Generation of 1927". On release in 1944, he combined a variety of jobs with a growing literary commitment. His first collection, Tierra sin nosotros (Land Without Us), appeared in 1947, reflecting on the aftermath of war. It was shortly followed by Alegría (Happiness, 1947), winning him the Adonais, the first of many literary prizes, culminating in the Cervantes in 1998. Next came Con las piedras, con el viento (With the Stones, With the Wind, 1950) and, by the century's mid-point, Hierro was recognised as one of the country's leading poetic voices.
He secured a day job in Madrid as an art critic with Radio Nacional de España, writing for various newspapers and remaining on the broadcaster's payroll until his retirement in 1987. His role as a critic encompassed sculpture and painting as well as the written word. The National Poetry Prize greeted his 1953 publications, Quinta del 42 (Class of ’42) and Antología poética. Subsequent collections won the country’s foremost literary garlands – the Juan March Prize (1959), the Critics’ Prize (1958, 1965 and 1999), the 1981 Prince of Asturias, the 1995 Reina Sofía and, in 1998, Spain’s domestic equivalent of the Literature Nobel, the Cervantes. In 1999, he was elected to the Spanish Royal Academy, but has died without pronouncing his inaugural discourse.
The bitter taste of defeat and imprisonment marked some of his early works but there is more melancholy than rage in them. He had a special affection for Basque writers of his generation, like Gabriel Celaya, Blas de Otero or Ángela Figuera, and was a respected commentator on their works. Hierro was his own most severe critic, happily leaving intervals of many years between his published collections. His yardstick was simple: he wrote only what he felt needed to be written and wrote it only for himself. He did not regard it as his job to produce poems; hence the long silence between his Libro de las alucinaciones (Book of Hallucinations, 1964) and Agenda (1991).
In July 1990, news reached the poet that he had just been awarded the National Literature Prize. He refused interviews on that day, first because he had a prior appointment for lunch with the poet Gabriel Celaya and secondly, because he felt Celaya had a better claim on the honour. The public, though, was behind Hierro: his 1998 collection, Cuaderno de Nueva York (New York Notebook), was a runaway best-seller. Similarly, on the day of his election to the Spanish Royal Academy in 1999, he was giving a reading to a group of teenagers in a secondary school.
He was a brilliantly musical performer in such recitals, and was one of the few poets instantly recognisable to his public in the street, with his bullet-shaped shaven head and flowing moustache. A gifted draughtsman, he would often dedicate books by drawing on the endpaper, or commemorate meals by decorating a napkin.
Always partial to a lightly-watered glass of the fierce aniseed spirit chinchón, Hierro scribbled some of his finest work at a table in the noisy bar of the downmarket café La Moderna in central Madrid.
In a 1974 preface, he wrote: "I have never been a slave to fashion. Nor have I been against it, which is just another way of following it... It is quite possible to be mediocre when writing from a position of power, but never from the opposition side."
Hierro succumbed to a respiratory infection, having suffered emphysema for years and resisted stern advice about his smoking habit. The province of Cantabria, where his ashes have been laid to rest, declared a day of mourning in his honour. With María de los Angeles Torres, whom he married in 1949, he had two sons and two daughters.
  • José Hierro Real, poet: born 3 April 1922; died 20 December 2002

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