September 1999
Brazilian Literature

the Pantanal

An original artist, Manoel de Barros, is a poet specializing in the little things.

José Geraldo Couto

At 82, with a new book out, Retrato do artista quando coisa (A portrait of the artist as a thing), 81 pages, Manoel de Barros can no longer be referred to as simply the "poet of the Pantanal". With 14 books published since 1937, today he is renowned by his critics as one of the great names of contemporary Brazilian poetry. Each year his popularity increases since being discovered by the Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo hub of intelligence in the 80s. His work has been referred to as ecological, earthy and primitive. Of these labels the only one he appreciated was the last.

"One day they called me primitive:/ I was in ecstasy" he describes in one of the poems in his latest book. The truth is, the image most incorrect that one could have of Manoel de Barros, is one of a poet dedicated to singing the praises of the scenery and wildlife of the Pantanal. As he has reiterated uncountable times, his interest has returned to the small, humble, underrated things by the utilitarian reason in our society. The beings that his poetry is filled with are periwinkles, rocks, frogs, slugs, salamanders and at times, a heron.

"I was born with the vision from below" he summarized in Retrato do artista quando coisa. But it is not with the spirit of a photographer or entomologist with which he encompasses these beings, but rather with the objective of reaching the "epiphany of transformation", in other words, an illumination of the sacred mystery of life. The search is less intellectual than it is spiritual. Without mocking the solemnity of the poetry ("A poem, before anything else, is unuseful," he wrote in Arranjos para assobio (Arrangements to whistle) in 1982), Manoel de Barros agrees that it was an essential work in the search for knowledge.

As all great artists, Manoel does not conform to the incompleteness of man (which nevertheless he considers "the greatest asset") and their incapacity to integrate with the anonymous flow of nature. An artist's utopia is greater than all others': to abolish the distance between the subject who sees the universe and their actual universe. Verses suggesting "nature becomes sick of us" (O livro das ignorãças (The book of ignorance)) and commenting "It's necessary to be in the state of a tree" (Retrato do artista quando coisa) are most characteristic of the poet which suggest a wish to erase the limits between man and other beings of the world. The root of the impulse towards cosmic integrationvery similar to searching for "satori" in Zen-Buddhism or enlightenmentresults in an absolute overthrow of syntax, which is seen as a form of imprisonment of analogous words through the domestication of beings by everyday logic.

An example of this tendency to overcome the barriers of language are the verses: "Where the river starts a fish, / river me thing / river me frog / river me tree" (O livro das ignorãnças). Nouns that become verbs, verbs that become adjectivesin the literature of Manoel de Barros the language is considered a live organism, fluid, unobstructed. His power of synthesis and condensing is each time greaterbecause of this his poems and books continue to diminish in size.


To arrive at the linguistic liberty and at the same time the formal purification, was a long road. The angle Manoel de Barros has on life is as individual as his poetry. Born in Cuiabá in 1916, he was raised as a farm boy, amongst the country animals on the rivers of the Pantanal region. He studied in a private school, but at a young age was already familiar with the great cities, beginning in Rio de Janeiro. In the 1930s, at the age of 20, he undertook an adventurous trip that included Bolivia and New York. He published his first book at 21 in 1937: Poemas concebidos sem pecado (Poems conceived without sin). No one noticed.

In the following decade, while living in Rio de Janeiro, he married Stella, the daughter of Minas Gerais farmers and his partner still today. In Rio, timid and withdrawn, he was unable to get close to the literary resources of the era. One interesting episode illustrates his situation. One day he got up the courage and found the home of his greatest idol, the poet Manuel Bandeira. "I knocked on the door of his apartment in Esplanada do Castelo, a neighborhood in Rioand I waited, trembling with emotion. And, when the poet waited to open the door, I broke out running for the stairs, six or seven floors, with a pulse of 120, surely", he reported in an interview.

On another occasion, in the Pantanal, he was introduced to Guimarães Rosa, who visited the region. Timidly, Manoel exchanged information with the author of Sagarana regarding the animals and regional dialect of the Pantanal. The conversation was not very long, but the affinity between the two writers was evident. Manoel de Barroswho often is referred to as the "Guimarães Rosa of poetry"confesses that it has taken a lot of strength to not succumb to the influence of the fictionist from Minas Gerais. Along with the books that he still plans to publish, there is a reconstitution, half true, half invented of his dialog with Rosa.

In 1949, with the death of his father, Manoel de Barros saw himself at a crossroads. He had to choose between continuing in Rio, anonymous and isolated, discretely publishing his books from time to time or return to the Pantanal region, to take care of the land he inherited from his father, in the Corumbá area. By his wife's suggestion, they became farmers.

Ever since, Manoel de Barros has divided his time between taking care of the land and creating poetry. He continued publishing his books (releasing four between 1956 and 1970), and slowly burrowed through the barrier of animosity, becoming recognized in growing circles of readers. His discovery was not ignored by the great centers of the Southeast, in 1980, when he sent his book, Arranjos para assobio, to the writer, drawer and humorist Millôr Fernandes, from Rio. Millôr liked his work so much that he personally made every effort to publicize the book amongst intellectuals and journalists in Rio. Soon after, Manoel became, in the middle of academics and great-thinkers, a type of cult author.

Newspapers and magazines began requesting interviews, in most cases with unsuccessful results. Contrary to the truth, the publicity and the social columns created a myth which referred to him as an "animal of the land" leading the life of a hermit that distanced himself from the world and only talked to animals. Beyond the initial timidness, the author manifests as amiable and talkative, capable of discussing everything from the animals of the region, to literature, cinema or plastic artalways offering his doubts wanting to avoid sounding like a professor.

Syntax of
the Illiterate

Possibly the person who has become most captivated by the ambivalence of Manoel de Barrosa man in the confluence between beastly nature and a more refined culturehas to be the cinematographer, Joel Pizzini (Mato Grosso) who dedicated his short film, Caramujo Flor (Reticent Flower), in 1990, to the poet. The two sides of Manoel de Barrosmodern and archaic, rural and urban, rustic and sophisticatedappears in the film divided into two "alter egos", one interpreted by Ney Matogrosso and the other by Rubens Correa.

The year 1990 was also the first time Manoel de Barros combined all of his work into a single volume, Gramática expositiva do chão (Expository grammar from the ground), which was almost entirely poetry, edited by Civilização Brasileira. Thanks to that collection, which has taken the title of one of his first books published in 1966, his work has become more accessible to a larger audience that was unaware of the author's first production. Thanks to this it was discovered that Manoel de Barros since his first two books—Poemas concebidos sem pecado (1937) and Face imóvel (Immovable face) (1942)had cultivated some of the core characteristics of his work: paying attention to linguistic creations in popular speech, childhood memories, humor and irony of the literary culture, etc.

Manoel de Barros, today, spends more time in the city (Campo Grande) than on the farm. Dividing his time between talking to the general public and writing, he seeks the awkward syntax of the illiterate, the crazed and children. "The normal definition of words is not good for a poem", he wrote in O guardador de águas (The keeper of the waters) (1989). He writes every day by hand, in small notebooks. His greatest work will come later when he shapes what he has written, throwing out everything commonplace, redundant and predictable. Before he is satisfied with his poetry, his wife Stella gives her opinion of whether it is complete or needs more work.

That is how the "workshop" of one of most original poets of our time functions. The result of observation and lived experience because of an acute intelligence and an absolute generosity of words and life can be found in bookstores for all to read.

This article was originally published in Problemas Brasileiros, which can be seen on line at

Translated copy by Jamie Sundquist (


A maior riqueza do homem
é a sua incompletude.
Nesse ponto sou abastado.
Palavras que me aceitam como
sou—eu não aceito.
Não agüento ser apenas um
sujeito que abre
portas, que puxa válvulas,
que olha o relógio, que
compra pão às 6 horas da tarde,
que vai lá fora,
que aponta lápis,
que vê a uva etc. etc.
Mas eu preciso ser Outros.
Eu penso renovar o homem
usando borboletas."

(from "Biografia do Orvalho")

Man's biggest wealth
is his incompleteness.
With this I am wealthy.
Words that accept me the way
I am—I don't accept.
I can't stand being just
a guy who opens
doors, who pulls valves,
who watches the watch, who
buys bread at 6 in the afternoon,
who goes out there,
who sharpens the pencil,
who sees the grape, etc., etc.
Forgive me.
But I need to be Others
I intend to revitalize man
by using butterflies.

(from "Mist biography")

Send your
comments to

Back to our cover