Joao Cabral de Melo Neto - World Literature

World Literature

Joao Cabral de Melo Neto


BORN: 1920, Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil

DIED: 1999, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


GENRE: Poetry


Death and Life of a Severino: A Pernambucan Christmas Play (1955)

Museum of Everything (1975)

A Knife All Blade: Poetry (1980)



Joao Cabral de Melo Neto has earned international acclaim as one of Brazil’s most original and influential poets of the post-World War II era. In his work, Cabral examines the ways in which language describes not only the world around the poet, but also its own way of describing that world: the metalinguistics of verse. Unlike many Brazilian poets, he considered poetry a written rather than an oral art form, and his consequent emphasis on syntax and structure, rather than on phonetics and sound, differentiates his work from much other Brazilian poetry. Cabral also aimed to remove his own personality from his work as much as possible, to allow the pure, objective meaning of the work to shine through.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Man of the People. Cabral is almost invariably referred to as a poeta pernambucano—that is, a poet from the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, the landscape and atmosphere of which he frequently drew on in his poetry. The second son of Luis Antonio Cabral de Melo and Carmen Leao Cabral de Melo, he grew up on the family’s various sugarcane plantations in Pernambuco, surrounded by—but separate in status from—the farmworkers. Whenever they went to the nearby town, the illiterate workers would bring back booklets called literatura de cordel (string literature), which the young Cabral would then read to them. He later portrayed these farm laborers in such poems as ‘‘The Discovery of Literature,” which appeared in The School of Knives (1980).

Poetry Anticipates Career to Come. When he was only seventeen, Cabral wrote two poems on the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. Though not major works, they are interesting for what they anticipate in a career that was to last half a century. The familiar idea that life is theater (as found in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922) is neatly laid out in these pieces in unrhymed free verse that is hard to approximate in English. Before long, though, Cabral began to write formal poetry in quatrains and other familiar verse forms. Almost from the beginning, he was attracted to the surrealism of such French poets as Guillaume Apollinaire. In 1937, when Cabral wrote his poems on Pirandello, surrealism had been part of the European artistic scene for almost a generation, and Apollinaire himself had been dead since 1918. It was still avant-garde, however, in a remote place such as Recife, far up the Atlantic coast from Rio de Janeiro, the then Brazilian capital. The sense of coming from behind—though not necessarily needing to catch up with—Europe played an important role in much of Cabral’s poetic output. It was perhaps most significant in his long 1956 poem, A Knife All Blade, where Cabral saw himself as taking up a poetic challenge cast by (Spanish) Andalusia.

Diplomatic Service Provides Poetic Inspiration. In 1945, Cabral published The Engineer, consisting of poems written between 1942 and 1945. In these, Cabral was already moving toward a new, ‘‘objective’’ concept of poetry that involved rational control of the emotions. That same year, he passed the examination that admitted him to the Instituto Rio Branco, the college for diplomats. His admission marked the beginning of a career in the diplomatic service. Cabral was to become a government representative in a way that has been, to some extent, specific to Latin America; like Cabral, literary figures such as fellow Brazilian Vinicius de Moraes, Chilean Pablo Neruda, and Mexicans Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes all served as representatives of their respective governments at different points in their careers.

Cabral’s first diplomatic post, in 1947, was with the Brazilian consulate in Barcelona, Spain, a city that profoundly influenced his poetry. He created a small publishing house, Livro Inconsui til, which brought out Spanish and Brazilian poetry, including two of his own books, Psychology of Composition, with the Story of Anfion and Antiode (1947) and Dog without Feathers (1950). In the course of four decades of service as a diplomat, Cabral found himself in Great Britan, Switzerland, and Paraguay. He was appointed first ambassador to Senegal and, later, ambassador to Honduras. Throughout, he continued to write poetry.

Retirement and Recognition. After retiring from diplomatic service in 1987, Cabral resided in Rio de Janeiro until his death from a degenerative ailment in 1999. The author of more than twenty-five books of poetry, Cabral was elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1968 and awarded the Sao Paulo Literary Prize in 1992. After blindness struck him in 1994, Cabral became reclusive. He died on October 9, 1999, a few months before he would have turned eighty.



Cabral's famous contemporaries include:

Truman Capote (1924-1984): American author credited with establishing the nonfiction novel as a literary genre with his book In Cold Blood (1966).

Indira Gandhi (1917-1984): First and, to date, the only female prime minister of India, Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguards midway through her fourth term in office.

Günter Grass (1927- ): Nobel Prize-winning German author, best known for his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959).

George H. W. Bush (1924- ): Bush was the forty-first president of the United States, and is the patriarch of a political clan that includes forty-third U.S. president George W. Bush and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986): Famed Argentinean author, internationally recognized as one of the most important Latin American writers and thinkers of the twentieth century.

Alain Badiou (1937- ): Perhaps the most prominent French thinker of the late twentieth century, Badiou is known for his work on attempting to define the concept of truth.


Works in Literary Context

Clear and Evocative Language. Believing that poetry should act as a vehicle for communicating the interrelationships between the organic and inorganic— between what is alive and what is not—Cabral often uses multiple comparisons to capture the true essence of a subject or object. In ‘‘Estudos para uma Bailadora Andaluza,’’ for example, Cabral compares an Andalusian dancer to fire, a mare, a telegraph operator, a tree, a statue, and a maize plant. Critics maintain that Cabral’s comparisons also emphasize his belief that humanity in general is more important than the individual. Cabral’s concern with the poetic process is also apparent in such works as Psychology of Composition, a collection in which Cabral advocates objectivity and understatement in poetry and attacks what he considers the principal weaknesses of modern poetry— excessive lyricism and romanticism.

Portrayals of Pernambuco. Cabral is also known for his repetition of images and his tightly structured syntax. Portrayals of life specific to northeastern Brazil recur throughout much of his poetry. In such poems as ‘‘Morte e vida Severina’’ Cabral describes the misery of an impoverished peasant fleeing drought, while ‘‘A cana dos outros’’ depicts the relationship between the owner of a sugar plantation and a peasant who performs the labor. Cabral also uses images of objects like knives, razors, and scalpels to describe anything with a piercing or aggressive nature. In ‘‘As facas Pernambucanas,’’ for example, Cabral employs descriptions of different types of knives to suggest the tension between the people of Pernambuco’s interior and those of its coastal areas.

A Poetic Engineer. Throughout his career, Cabral often compared poets to engineers and poems to machines. Upon being awarded the Neustadt Prize, he explained his concept of poetry as an engineering project: ‘‘[Poetry] is the exploration of the materiality of words and of the possibilities of organization of verbal structures, things that have nothing to do with what is romantically called inspiration, or even intuition.’’ For Cabral, poetry was a tool and a methodology for exploring and understanding the world and the human, emotional place in it— not the heady, flighty fantasy-stuff of the Romantic poets.



Cabral saw his poetic work explicitly as a tool to be used in comprehending the world around him. In this, he is part of a long tradition of poets concerned with what has come to be known as hermeneutics, a field of philosophy dedicated to interpretation and meaning. Here are several other poets and thinkers who focused on the interpretation of others, the world, and texts in their work:

Truth and Method (1960), a philosophical work by Hans- Georg Gadamer. This book is one of the most thorough modern attempts to figure out and explain what it means for people to understand one another.

Nature (1836), an essay collection by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, an American Transcendentalist poet, suggests in several essays in this volume that there is a difference between reason and understanding, and that he prefers the intuitive truth-seeking he sees in the former.

''Ode: Intimations of Immortality'' (1807), a poem by William Wordsworth. This songlike poem sees the poet seeking to understand how an adult consciousness can fail to see properly the world around it.

Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays (2001), a poetry collection by James Richardson. The author explores the idea and experience of understanding from five hundred different directions, concluding that ''writing is like washing windows in the sun. With every attempt to perfect clarity you make a new smear.''


Works in Critical Context

In an essay in Latin American Literary Review, Richard Zenith remarked: ‘‘Following the slow ‘education by stone’ which couples patience with passion, [Cabral de] Melo Neto has achieved a poetry that on the one hand is veritable and verifiable art, and on the other hand participates meaningfully (precisely for its artistic rigor) at the sociological level.’’ Commenting on the modernist aspects of Cabral’s poetry in World Literature Today, Aguinaldo Jose Goncalves suggested that the ‘‘nature of Cabral’s influences is one of the more important aspects to determine the structure of his poetry. These influences embrace several systems of art that conflate in the space of verbal language... .The poem leads the reader to face a difficult and fascinating universe of words.’’

Trying Not to Perfume the Flower. ‘‘I try not to perfume the flower,’’ Cabral once claimed of himself. And indeed, as Djelal Kadir has noted, ‘‘Scarcity is one of the fundamental principles of Joao Cabral’s poetics.’’ He is a sparing writer, concerned with presenting the world as nearly as it is as possible. There is little question that his sparse, image-driven poetry represents an important— perhaps even crucial—way of seeing the world.

Poetry as Play. In 1955, Cabral published his best- known work, Death and Life of a Severino: A Pernambucan Christmas Play, a painful story about a poor man from northeast Brazil who, having lost his piece of land to a drought and a rich farmer, has nowhere to go. The story of Severino is an allegory. The name comes from the Latin severo, which means severe or rigorous, like the land he tried to farm, the sertdo—a dry land where only low bushes grow. He represents the people of this harsh region, where droughts are constant and hardly anything grows. Severino wanders from the sertdo in the hinterland to the coast in the vicinity of Recife, trying to find conditions in which to survive; it is a scene of despair. But a child is born—a sign of survival and hope—and so he abandons the idea of suicide. Due to the structure of the play, it was not preformed as Cabral originally intended until four years after its initial publication. In 1960, however, the work was staged with music by Chico Buarque de Hollanda, first in Brazil and then in Europe. The musical setting that this gifted young composer provided for the play had much to do with its success in Europe and Brazil, which was widespread. It is produced from time to time, and much of the score was recorded in 1966 on a long-playing record in Brazil.


Responses to Literature

1. Based on a reading of at least three of the poems in A Knife All Blade: Poetry, consider what it might mean for a knife to be ‘‘all blade.’’ How does the image or the idea of the knife in these poems help Cabral to develop a new image of the world around him?

2. Contrast Cabral’s northern Brazilian slant with the local focus of the works of William Butler Yeats, N. Scott Momaday, Yoko Kawashima Watkins, or Rudolfo Anaya. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a deeply local poetry, when it comes to trying to talk about ‘‘the human condition’’ in general?

3. Discuss a poem by Cabral that demonstrates his skill with cadence and caesura, which is an audible pause that breaks up a line of verse when read aloud. Why do you think the caesura has served as such an important poetic device in so many different languages? In your response, compare and contrast Cabral’s verse with that of at least one other poet.

4. Write a poem in imitation of Cabral, describing the world around you as evocatively as you can, doing your best to keep your own thoughts and emotions as much in the background as possible. What about this exercise is difficult? What about it feels natural? How does writing your own poem in this manner influence the way you read Cabral’s poetry?




Rodman, Selden. Tongues of Fallen Angels. New York: New Directions, 1974.


Brown, Ashley. ‘‘Cabral de Melo Neto’s English Poets.’’ World Literature Today 65 (Winter 1991): 62-64.

Dixon, Paul. ‘‘Labor Elaborated: Committed Formalism in Joao Cabral de Melo Neto’s ‘Other People’s Cane.’’’ World Literature Today 66 (Autumn 1992): 665-69.

Gledson, John A. ‘‘Sleep, Poetry and Joao Cabral’s ‘False Book’: A Revaluation of Pedra do Sono.’’ Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 55 (1978): 43-58.

Igel, Regina. ‘‘The Sugarcane Plantation in the Poetry of Joao Cabral de Melo Neto.’’ World Literature Today 66 (Autumn 1992): 661-67.

Kadir, Djelal. ‘‘The Rigors of Necessity: Encomium for Joao Cabral de Melo Neto.’’ World Literature Today 66 (Autumn 1992): 598-602.

Parker, John M. ‘‘Joao Cabral de Melo Neto: ‘Literalist of the Imagination.’’’ World Literature Today 66 (Autumn 1992): 608-15.

Read, Justin. “Alternative Functions: Joao Cabral de Melo Neto and the Architectonics of Modernity.’’ Luso-Brazilian Review 43 (Winter 2006): 65-93.

Zenith, Richard. ‘‘The State of Things in the Poetry of Joao Cabral de Melo Neto.’’ World Literature Today 66 (Autumn 1992): 634-38.