The modernist writer Carlos Drummond de Andrade is probably the best known and most loved poet in Brazil. His poem A Flor e a Náusea was used in the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. It was read in Portuguese by another Brazilian national treasure, the actress Fernanda Montenegro, with English provided by Britain’s own Judi Dench.
The combination of these two accomplished performers with the extraordinary poetry of Drummond made for an affecting moment in the ceremony. The poem accompanied a scene in which a young boy is transfixed by the sight of a fragile plant emerging from concrete, and this was a dramatisation of what happens in the poem itself, in which the relentless dirt, noise and grime of the city is held in check by the power of a blooming flower growing through it all. The poet asks that everyone stops what they are doing to see the flower, which has grown up from the ground and breached the asphalt, and in doing so has also broken through the sensations of disgust, hate and boredom that had settled on the human character.
The poem echoes a theme often celebrated at the Olympic Games: the power of one glorious moment to overcome darkness in the world. The Olympics bring people from all nations together in peace and celebration of human ability, and in Drummond’s poem it’s a flower that represents the power of hope.
Drummond trained as a pharmacist and then worked in the civil service in Rio before becoming a journalist and poet. He was by most accounts a quiet and unforthcoming personality in the flesh, but his poetry is endlessly inventive. He was an early pioneer of concrete poetry and published around 15 collections of poems, with his earliest English translator being Elizabeth Bishop. As an intellectual, highbrow and yet playful writer, he occupies a central place in the Brazilian cultural consciousness.
In his younger years his poems focused on philosophy and social commentary, inequality and hardship, but later in life he became more interested in writing erotic verse, which was largely published posthumously.
Drummond isn’t particularly well known as a poet in Europe, but his fame in Brazil is considerable: in his home nation he’s revered to the extent that one of his poems was even printed on Brazilian currency in the late 1980s. He died in 1987 at the age of 84.