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  • 4/24/2004

Jose Valente Angel

bornApril 25 1929

diedJuly 18 2000

 The Spanish poet José Angel Valente, who has died aged 71, wrote at two removes from the harsh realities of his homeland; firstly, by living in exile during the Franco era, and secondly by contemplating being and the nature of poetry itself rather than more obvious political themes.

Born inOrense, an "obscure" town in Galicia, Valente claimed that his biography lay in his poetry, but aspects of his external life aid understanding of his work. The civil war and Franco's dictatorship marked him, especially when his Falangist father fell foul of the regime. There are no yearnings for a return to that childhood in his poems - although he wrote Cántigas de alén (Songs of long ago, 1989) in Galician.

He went on to study law in Santiago de Compostela, and graduated in romance philology at theUniversity of Madrid in 1953, with a prize. From 1955-58 he taught and earned an MA at Oxford; from 1958-75, he translated for the World Health Organisation in Geneva, before moving to Paris, where he worked from 1975-86 for Unesco.

After that, he lived betweenGeneva and Almería, with its desert landscapes and the nearby Cabo de Gata national park. His life's work as a poet in self-exile was finally recognised in Spain when he won the prestigious Príncipe de Asturias prize in 1988, and then the National Poetry prize in 1993. None of his books has yet been translated into English. Many of those who grew up under Franco became politicised poets, but Valente turned to writing meta-poetry about the inner processes of poetry itself because he was a "poet in times of misery" who had to re-think what poetry meant in the corruption of language under Franco.

The practice of writing and translating poetry became his self-defence, and path to the enigma of inner knowledge. Franco's shadow drove him into "poverty and exile", living in what he called the "extrapatria", outsideSpain.

He published the first of more than 20 books, A modo de esperanza (In hopeful mode, 1955), after winning the Adonais poetry prize; his second book, Poemas a Lázaro (Poems to Lazarus, 1960), won the Premio de la Critica, and in 1980 he won the prize for the second time with Tres lecciones de tinieblas (Three lessons of Tenebrae).

Last year his complete poems, Obra poética, appeared in two volumes. Apart from his poetry, Valente translated and collected his short, acute essays on Spanish mystics and others. He enjoyed collaborating on books with painters such as Eduardo Chillida (a fellow Galician), Antoni Tàpies and Antonio Saura.

Over the years, rather than any sudden shifts, there was a pruning of the non-essential, edging towards meditative fragments. His later work requires concentration, is religious in its seeking of a poetic sacred - or better, its continuous absence. Valente emphasises "not understanding", a relentless verbal deconditioning, a focusing on "attentiveness". This is summarised in a brief 1989 poem: To rub oneself out. / Only in the absence of any sign / does the god land .

Valente never courted popularity, wrote outside Hispanic fashions and in-groups, but was considered by writers like Juan Goytisolo to be Spain's most dedicated poet; a poet's poet elaborating an austere ethic of creativity. He exemplified poetic integrity, pushing poetry into terrains that compete with religious, mystical and Heideggerian notions of inner being. His poetry picks up the challenge of the great, acerbic 17th-century writer Francisco de Quevedo; it expands Juan Ramón Jiménez's "pure poetry" and Antonio Machado's philosophical colloquialism, and integrates the self-denying, laconic Peruvian, César Vallejo.

From these he learned self-belittlement, direct references and rhythms, and an aesthetics of verbal poverty in the form of a critique of superfluous words, similes and metaphors. His work is contemplative, emanating from the darkness of the solitary self, without ever pandering to the sensual baroque of the Spanish poetic tradition embodied by Lorca and Neruda.

In his introspective poetry there are no easy answers, for he denies the possibility of understanding anything. Key terms such as "to be unaware", "emptiness", "silence" and "loneliness" convey his constant self-examination; poets are "divers into emptiness". In the poem Obituary, we read: In the centre of his heart, the burial mound which he himself had raised with the years remained shut forever .

A poem of 1970 could be an epitaph: He performed three exercises / to dissolve his ego, / and on the fourth found himself alone / with his eyes fixed on an answer / that nobody could give him .

Many poems explore this inner vacuum, and the lack of references outside the poem itself makes all his work, not anecdotally autobiographical, but the biography of a mind.

Valente was twice married, with four children, two of whom predeceased him.

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