Misc 16/02/2021

Joan Margarit, a serene, courageous and consoling voice of Catalan poetry, dies

The 82-year-old author received the Cervantes Prize in 2019 and leaves the unpublished book 'Animal de bosc'

5 min
Joan Margarit, at his home, in Sant Just Desvern

"Poetry is a very powerful instrument of consolation," said the poet Joan Margarit in December, at his home in Sant Just Desvern. Severely ill, Margarit said in this conversation that he was preparing his last book, Animal de bosc [Woods animal], which he would like to present "when the world had left the pandemic behind". It will not be possible: the author died this Tuesday at midday of lymph cancer at the age of 82. "You write to go deep inside yourself," he said at the time, coinciding with the awarding of the Cervantes Prize, a year after the announcement. What you find inside you is also inside others. By writing about the truth of my inner self, I realised that I was consoling the reader. Despite his illness, Margarit continued to seek solace in poetry until the last moment. Now it is his numerous readers who will have to turn to the author's verses to rediscover his serene, courageous and consoling voice.

Margarit leaves behind an extensive and renowned oeuvre, comprising some twenty books, among which are Edat roja [Red age] (Columna, 1990), Joana (Proa, 2002) -which condenses the last months of his daughter's life-, Càlcul d'estructures [Calculation of structures] (Proa, 2005) and the still recent Un hivern fascinant [An Amazing Winter] (Proa, 2017), a title that echoes a verse by Miquel Martí i Pol, the poet who made him realise that he had to change from Spanish to Catalan as a language of expression. "The first verse, the first of all, I always write it in Catalan," he said at the end of last year. "That's when the image of the cathedral and the crypt came to my mind. The cathedral can be a marvel: it can have columns, spires, buttresses... But without the crypt it doesn't exist. The crypt is the mother tongue".

The discovery of poetry

Born in Sanaüja in 1938, Joan Margarit spent his early childhood in La Segarra at his paternal grandmother's house and, before settling in Barcelona, he spent time in Rubí, Figueres and Girona. "Childhood is the vital stage where the writer is made, the soft clay that Rilke was already looking for. Later there is a chance that twists or colours something that was already made," he explained in 2018, coinciding with the publication of his book of memoirs, Per tenir una casa cal guanyar la guerra [To have a house you have to win the war] (Proa). The son of an architect and a teacher, Margarit would not start writing poetry until he was a teenager, when he had moved with his family to the Canary Islands.

Margarit studied architecture and combined this profession with teaching. He was a professor of structural calculations at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, but also kept with a hobby that would end up making him one of the essential voices of Catalan poetry in the second half of the twentieth century. "I have written half of my books in bricklayers' bars," he admitted proudly. "When I arrived at a construction site to direct it, I used to look at the bars where the bricklayers went, they had a very good eye, and from there I dedicated myself to writing".

A self-demanding author

Before finding his voice in Catalan, Joan Margarit published several books in Spanish, among which are Doméstico nací [Born a servant] (Vicens Vives, 1968) and Crónica [Chronicle] (Barral, 1975), but it is difficult to find traces of them, because, the same as the first eleven later books in Catalan, they have never been republished. The author, who was very demanding with his own work, recast all this production, published throughout the 1980s, and made a small anthology in Restes d'aquell naufragi [Remains of that shipwreck], a prologue to his complete work, which has gone through several editions. "Although from The Shadow of the Other Sea [1981] I began to write in Catalan, I owe many things to Spanish," he explained. "All the initial readings of my life. Anyone who hates languages is a fool. I only have reasons to be grateful to Spanish."

The first book of poems of his production that Margarit accepted is Llum de pluja [Rain light] (Península, 1986), published shortly before his 50th birthday. "All that time I did a gymkhana so that I would be known and could publish without the need to win prizes," he recalled last December. "I spent twenty years doing books I didn't like: I had some inner conviction. I didn't throw away the learning from all this time. It wasn't like that at all"

The Margarit of the 1990s gained readers book by book, recital by recital. Seeing him in action, decisively reciting verses that were often unsettling, was an experience that left very few people indifferent. He wrote desolate and at the same time comforting poems, with verses that are difficult to forget

A growing popularity

Institutional recognition was still slow in coming. It was not until the triptych of Joana (Proa, 2002), Càlcul d'estructures (Proa, 2005) and Casa de miericòrdia [House of Mercy] (Proa, 2007) that Margarit had reached the peak of his popularity. The latter won the Premi Nacional de literatura de la Generalitat and, a few months later, the Premio Nacional de poesía. "During the last stage of Joana's illness I wanted to make a pact with poetry," he recalled last December. I said to her: 'Look, our relationship is very close, and I know that you don't have to write in the heat of the moment, but this time I need to do it. If you're not by my side I'll quit and you'll never hear from me again. Since then, poetry has always been by my side. I'm not saying it's in my favour, but I can turn to it"

Mysteriously happy (Proa, 2008) and the essay Noves cartes a un jove poeta [New Letters to a Young Poet] (Proa, 2009) -a nod to Rilke, a poet whom he also translated, together with Feliu Formosa (Cinquanta poemes de "Neue Gedichte", Quaderns Crema, 2011) - preceded Joan Margarit's entry into his last creative decade.

Joan Margarit, some days ago at his home

Truth and Beauty

The author continued to deliver new compilations, among them Es perd el senyal [The Signal is Lost] (Proa, 2012). In recent years, as well as international recognition - with awards such as the Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Prize (2017) and the Queen Sofia Prize for Ibero-American Poetry (2019) - Margarit was awarded the Cervantes prize. He was unable to collect until late last year, at a private ceremony in Barcelona with King Felipe VI. It raised a remarkable controversy, even more virulent than the one that followed the Cervantes announcement at the end of 2019. "Growing old has an advantage: the only thing that interests you is truth and beauty," Margarit replied two months ago. "When I started reading the press, state censorship forced you to guess between the lines what they wanted to say. Now there is total freedom to say what you want to say in personal terms. There are two extremes."

Joan Margarit leaves the unpublished book Animal de bosc which will soon be published by Proa - the date has not yet been set - and which will include some sixty unpublished works written during his illness. Digging in the crypt of language, Margarit has built a cathedral of verse that will remain standing, withstanding the inclemencies with firmness, for many years to come