The author's statue sits with its back to the sea in Rio, gazing towards his home in Minas Gerais – but a campaign group wants to turn it around
Every time I'm in Rio, I make sure I go to the Copacabana. Not for the sand, or the sunshine – though there's plenty of both – but to pay my respects to Brazil's best-loved poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
A statue of Drummond has been sitting on the stretch of the beach nearest to his Rio de Janeiro flat since the centenary of his birth in 2002, baking serenely under the tropical sun while tourists pose beside it. He may he perched in one of Rio's most picturesque spots, but the bronze Drummond has his back turned to the ocean view. I imagine that he's looking towards the mountains of his native Minas Gerais.
He was born in the town of Itabira, about which he wrote longingly in later life: "Itabira is just a photograph on the wall. But how it hurts!" Like most provincial writers of his generation, he moved to Rio, then the country's capital, and made a living as a civil servant in the ministry of education. Rio became his home and his muse, but Minas Gerais was never far from his thoughts.
A group of well-meaning but misguided cariocas have recently started a petition to turn the statue around, so that the poet can forever gaze at the sea – a cliched gesture that Drummond would surely have detested. His famous line about Rio, "There was a city written into the sea", is carved on the bench that supports the seated effigy, but it was the inner vistas that interested him most. He was a poet of human solitude: "What now, José / The party is over, / the light is out, / the people have left, / the night is cold, / what now, José?"
His observations ranged from the mundane to the metaphysical, often combining both, as in one of his most famous poems: "In the middle of the road there was a stone / there was a stone in the middle of the road / there was a stone / in the middle of the road there was a stone." Drummond was also a prolific writer of erotic poetry (most of which was only published posthumously), and could be slyly irreverent: "The arse, how funny it is. / Always smiling, never tragic".
I first came across Drummond because my wife's family comes from Minas Gerais as well. This landlocked Brazilian state has produced many of the country's greatest writers, but the poet towers magnificently over them all. He's included in almost any anthology of the Brazilian poetry and is also well-known for his prose, once claiming that writing journalism was the only thing he did with any pleasure. Brazilian readers, it seems, can't get enough of a writer so popular that his Friendly Poem ("I am working on a song / that will awaken men / and make children sleep") was printed on the country's banknotes in the late 1980s. His instantly recognisable features (long face, oversized eyeglasses) have become iconic and appear not only on the covers of his books but on T-shirts, book bags and street posters.
He died at the height of his fame, only a few months after receiving one of the highest accolades Rio de Janeiro has to offer: he was chosen as the theme for the carnival parade by one of the city's leading samba schools.
"Poetry is necessary," he once wrote, "but is the poet?" This year's Dia D– a day of readings, discussions and exhibitions inspired by staff at the Moreira Salles Institute– showed how readers remain as loyal to the gentle man from Itabira as they do to his enduring work.