His surname came from some Irish ancestors, but Alexandre O’Neill, born in Lisbon, was passionately Portuguese. ‘Passionately’, because he carried on a love/hate relationship with his country. He was passionate, as well, in his personal relationships – whether these were with family members, lovers, or friends. The son of a banker with whom he was always at loggerheads, O’Neill abruptly left home one day and refused to see his father for the next fifteen years. As an adult, similar ruptures occurred with long-time friends on what sometimes seemed like flimsy grounds. He fell madly in love with not one but a whole series of women.
According to Mário Cesariny, it was O’Neill who introduced him and others to the writings of the French Surrealists. In 1949, two years after its founding, the Grupo Surrealista de Lisboa held an exhibition that included work by O’Neill, who in the previous year had published A Ampola Miraculosa [The Miraculous Vial]. Designated as a ‘graphic poem’ but also as a ‘novel’, it consisted of fifteen images with no apparent relation to each other nor to the fifteen captions that accompanied them. A frontal attack against logical thought and the logic of literature, it was a quintessential product of Portuguese Surrealism. But in 1951, upon the publication of his first full-fledged book of poems, O’Neill parted company with the group.
Though his passion for Surrealism had ended, O’Neill’s work continued to display some of its salient characteristics: a disrespect of conventions, both social and literary, an attitude of permanent revolt, playfulness with language, and the use of parody and black humor. These traits are not unique to Surrealism, of course, and O’Neill, whose early experiences included the production of cadavres éxquis in collaboration with others, had clearly lost faith in automatic processes to arrive at a ‘truer’, more-than-real art. For the Portuguese Surrealists, poetry existed before the poem; for O’Neill poetry was ultimately a construction that took shape on the written page. It was, as for Cesariny, part of a lifestyle, but as a place of retreat, to help him make sense of his experience and to organize and reflect on his feelings, nearly always with sardonic detachment. He was a die-hard pessimist.
O’Neill was at continual war with Portugal. While Cesariny and other contemporaries wrote poems that inveighed against national life under Salazar, O’Neill’s attack ran deeper. Poems such as ‘Standing at Fearful Attention’ and ‘Portugal’ suggested that the dictatorial regime was a symptom (the worst symptom) of graver ills – lack of courage and smallness of vision – woven into the nation’s psyche. Other poems, such as ‘Lament of the Man Who Misses Being Blind’, seemed to hold religion and mysticism responsible for an obscurantism that made change difficult if not impossible.
A publicist by profession, famed for inventing some of the most ingenious advertising slogans of his time, O’Neill was unusually adept at manipulating words and using them in an efficacious manner, but he refused to put that talent at the service of a lyrically lofty, feel-good sort of poetry (see ‘Simply Expressive’). Stridently anti-Romantic, concerned to keep humanity in its place as just one of earth’s species, he did not believe that an especially harmonious world was possible, and he abhorred all attempts to escape the world, whether through mystical or poetical exaltations. His one hope, or consolation, explicitly stated in ‘St. Francis’s Empty Sandal’, was in the connection (never entirely peaceful) he felt with other members of the species.
A Ampola Miraculosa, 1948.
Tempo de Fantasmas, 1951.
No Reino da Dinamarca, 1958.
Abandono Vigiado, 1960.
Poemas com Endereço, 1962.
Feira Cabisbaixa, 1965.
De Ombro na Ombreira, 1969.
A Saca de Orelhas, 1979.
Poesias Completas, 2000.
Portogallo, Mio Rimorso. Tr. Joyce Lussu, Turin, 1966.
Made in Portugal. Tr. Antonio Tabucchi, Milan, 1978.
As Andorinhas Não Têm Restaurante, 1970.
Uma Coisa em Forma de Assim, 1980.
Good bio note, commentary, bibliography, poems.
Interview & reminiscences of a friend.