Joan Margarit (1938-2021)

Joan Margarit (1938-2021)

We are immensely saddened by the news of the death today of the Catalan poet Joan Margarit, aged 82. He had been suffering from cancer.

Joan Margarit was one of Spain’s major modern writers. Born in 1938 in Sanaüja, La Segarra region, in Catalonia, he was an architect as well as a poet. From 1968 until his retirement he was Professor of Structural Calculations at Barcelona’s Technical School of Architecture, working for part of that time on Gaudí’s Sagrada Família cathedral.

He first published poetry in Spanish, but after four books decided to write in Catalan. From 1980 he began to establish his reputation as a major Catalan poet. As well as publishing many collections in Catalan, he published Spanish versions of all his work, and over the past 20 years gained recognition as a leading poet in Spanish. The melancholy and candour of his poetry show his affinity with Thomas Hardy, whose work he translated.

In 2008 he received the Premio Nacional de Poesía del Estado Español for his collection Casa de Misericòrdia, as well as the Premi Nacional de Literatura de la Generalitat de Catalunya. In 2013 he was awarded Mexico’s Premio de Poetas del Mundo Latino Víctor Sandoval for all his poetry. He received the Reina Sofía Prize for Ibero-American Poetry 2019, the most important poetry award for Spain, Portugal and Latin America.

He was awarded the 2019 Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's highest literary honour, which generally alternates between Spanish and Latin American writers. He received this from the King of Spain at a special ceremony in Barcelona in December 2020, the presentation being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic: the award is usually presented every April at an event in Madrid on the anniversary of the death in 1616 of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. Unusually, this unscheduled event – held at the Palauet Albéniz – was not on the royal calendar. King Felipe VI and Queen Letícia travelled to Barcelona especially to honour Joan Margarit, who was known to be seriously ill. They returned to Madrid immediately afterwards. Spain’s Minister of Culture and Sport, the philosopher José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes, was also present at what was described as an ‘intimate and personal’ event, as were Margarit’s wife Mariona and their children and grandchildren. After accepting the award, Margarit read one of his poems in Catalan and another in Spanish.

'If a poem cannot console a person in a difficult situation then it is not worth anything,' Margarit told Spanish news agency Europa Press after hearing he had won the Cervantes Prize.

The jury said Margarit had 'enriched both the Spanish and the Catalan language and represents the plurality of our culture'.

Art expert José Guirao – then Spain’s Minister of Culture and Sport – said that the award was 'for his poetic work of deep transcendence and lucid language, always innovative’.

Tugs in the Fog: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2006), translated by Anna Crowe, was the first English translation of his Catalan poetry, and a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation. In these poems he evokes the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, the harshness of life in Barcelona under Franco, and grief at the death of a beloved handicapped daughter, reminding us that it is not death we have to understand but life.

Strangely Happy, a selection of later poems from Casa de Misericòrdia (2007) and Misteriosament feliç (2008), also translated by Anna Crowe, followed from Bloodaxe in 2011. Love Is a Place (Bloodaxe Books, 2016), translated by Anna Crowe with a foreword by Sharon Olds, included all the poems from three recent Catalan collections: No era lluny ni difícil (It Wasn’t Far Away or Difficult, 2010), Es perd el senyal (The Signal Is Fading, 2012) and Estimar és un lloc (From Where to Begin to Love Again, 2014).

His final collection in English, Wild Creature, also translated by Anna Crowe, is due from Bloodaxe in November 2021, bringing together poems from his two last two Catalan collections, Un hivern fascinant (An amazing winter, 2017) and Animal de bosc (Wild creature, 2020). These poems show us a poet writing at the end of his life, and facing up to his approaching death with courage, humility and even humour.

Trafika Europe online magazine featured Joan Margarit's essay 'On Life and Poetry' from Love Is a Place, along with four poems from the book.

Joan Margarit was a popular visitor to the UK, giving heartfelt readings of his poetry accompanied by Anna Crowe, giving his first and last readings at StAnza, Scotland’s Poetry Festival in St Andrews, in 2005 and 2017, launching his first English translation at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 2006, and reading at other venues including Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts in 2017.

The American poet Sharon Olds became friends with Joan Margarit after meeting him in St Andrews in 2005, later contributing a foreword to Love Is a Place in which she wrote: 'I love these poems for many reasons. When I first read Joan Margarit, I heard a powerfully distinctive voice, a spirit of great freedom and energy, humaneness, mischief, and depth. In these naked, subtle, clear poems, surprise and wisdom are often right next to each other… Each of Margarit’s poems is its own being, like a living creature with its own body-shape and voice, its own breath and heart-beat. His poems live and breathe in their natural habitat. They are elegant and shapely. And sometimes they seem almost overheard, as if they are singing in the voice the mind uses when talking with itself or with its close close other. It is common enough speech, and it is brilliant, too, sensually beautiful (but not too beautiful) and with a genuine, just-conceived feeling.'

Joan Margarit i Consarnau: born, Sanaüja, Spain, 11 May 1938; died, Barcelona, 16 February 2021

Portrait photograph above by Xaviera Cevbera.

More pictures from the presentation of the Cervantes Prize to Joan Margarit by King Felipe VI of Spain.

Joan Margarit pictured in 2010 in Gaudí’s Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona, where he worked as an architect for many years with the team working on its completion. Photo by Neil Astley.

Here Joan Margarit talks about his poem 'The eyes in the rear-view mirror' with his translator Anna Crowe, before she reads her English translation and he reads the original poem in Catalan. The poem is from Tugs in the Fog: Selected Poems. This film – made at Aldeburgh in 2006 – is from the DVD-book In Person: 30 Poets filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, edited by Neil Astley, which includes three poems from Tugs in the Fog read by Joan Margarit with Anna Crowe:

[16 February 2021]

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