Alberto de Lacerda

Acclaimed poet, artist and critic
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Carlos Alberto Portugal Correia de Lacerda, poet, artist and broadcaster: born Lourenço Marques, Mozambique 20 September 1928; died London 27 August 2007.

Habitués of SW3 and SW10, of such tranquil cafés as the Picasso on the King's Road or Dino's by South Kensington tube station, of London's galleries, museums, theatres, concert halls and selected cinemas, cannot have failed to have seen Alberto de Lacerda: latterly a small, hobbling, tramp-like old man, with two horns of white hair and noble brow and nose, ceaselessly flitting from one venue to the next, wearing a battered black parka, whatever the heat, and clutching a crumpled white supermarket bag bursting with newspapers, books and sundries.

Lacerda was made more conspicuous by hurpling recklessly through speeding traffic at the expense of any zebra crossing or traffic-light; and fearlessly airing his right to object to what he considered such social blights as mobile phones, background music, galleries too dark to see for so-called conservation's sake, ignorant panjandrums, functionaries unable to speak English, inattentive waiters, unruly children and women in trousers.

This could lead to wrangles and misunderstandings. He was man-handled and permanently banned from a Cork Street gallery for demanding to know the price of a Picasso; struck off the list at his local health centre for asking the receptionist her nationality. Evelyn Waugh was equally at fault when describing him in younger days as "a little swarthy man who looked like a Jew but claimed to be Portuguese".

How impressions can deceive. Lacerda was a member of one of the three oldest families of the peninsula, kings and cardinals among his ancestors. He was above all one of the finest poets of his generation; but also a collage artist who had a solo show at Lisbon's Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes; a compulsive collector and connoisseur of all the arts, an inspired teacher who retired as a professor emeritus of Boston University; a brilliant critic (the first to champion Paula Rego), a gifted broadcaster and linguist, in short a man described by Edith Sitwell as one of the most cultivated persons she had known.

Carlos Alberto Portugal Correia de Lacerda was born in 1928 in Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony. His father was a member of the colonial service and subsequently a business administrator. The Lacerdas' house was in open country and Alberto would fall asleep "to the sound of lions roaring". He remembered his astonishment when his parents gave a ball and scores of white ladies and gentlemen appeared out of the darkness in impeccable and glittering court dress. It contrasted with the nightmare of a hurricane which tore the entire roof off the house. As an adult and in his poetry, Lacerda always believed the dream was the true reality; "we are such stuff as dreams are made on" one of his favourite Shakespearean lines.

As a notably precocious child he read voraciously but his formal education was patchy. A first visit to South Africa as a youth opened his eyes to the wider world, but instead of going to university he studied French and English in Lisbon. His reputation as a poet in Portugal was already established before publication of his acclaimed first collection, 77 Poemas (1951), when he was still only 23. He was in the forefront of a notably talented post-war generation of Portuguese poets, which included Sophia de Mello Breyner, Jorge de Sena and António Ramos Rosa.

On this wave of success he came to work for the BBC Portuguese service in London. He went straight from the boat to a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of The Winter's Tale. Thus began the love-affair with London which made it his base for life, although he never became a British subject. Through interviewing the poet Roy Campbell he met Arthur Waley, poet and famed oriental scholar, who translated his first collection, published in England as 77 Poems. His reputation was endorsed and lionisation by the Sitwells was an almost inevitable reward.

Brief imprisonment under Salazar's regime and a fall in Lisbon, which left Lacerda with a permanent limp, confirmed his preference for exile. The reputation of poets is often at odds with the pittances they earn, and while Lacerda's arrival in Brazil caused headlines in the national newspapers, in England he lost his BBC job and had to make ends meet through literary and other freelance work. His situation improved when he embarked in the early 1960s on an academic career in the United States, which lasted nearly 40 years, first at the University of Texas, Austin, and then at Boston. At both universities he was professor of comparative literature, specialising in those of France, Portugal and Brazil.

Lacerda's poetic reputation rests on 12 books published between 1951 and 2001, and has long been secured. It is testimony to his international standing that such poetic luminaries as the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican Octavio Paz, the American John Ashbery, the Frenchman René Char, the Brazilian Manuel Bandeira and English Edith Sitwell were among his many admirers.

His poetry mirrored his eccentric independence and defies categorisation. There is a personal and romantic strain but he is as much a master of the classical sonnet as of surrealist leaps of the imagination or minimalist oriental perfection. The poems celebrate his love of paintings, his passion for music – classical, folk, jazz or pop, "excellence the sole criterion" – for dance, theatre, cinema and the everyday. One of his most famous poems, "The Portuguese Language", extolling "Esta maravilha / Assassinadissima / Por quase todos que a falam (translated by Lacerda as "This wonder / So massacred / By nearly all that speak it") may be made compulsory reading in Portuguese schools.

Lacerda wrote many of the poems, one of them characteristically praising coffee, in the cafés he regarded as "essential to civilisation"; corroborating his belief in the things of the spirit and friendship: " vivo para isto: as coisas do espirito e a amizade". He abhorred the egalitarianism of deconstructive criticism, the tyranny of political correctness, the pervasiveness of supermarket values. "We live in the age of vulgarity," he sighed; "vive la difference" his guiding principle. As for television, he never owned a set: "Am I interrupting your viewing?," he would tease a friend on the telephone. "You're sure? They tell me it's very educational."

Yet Lacerda was always aware of his own lonely fate, which became painfully pronounced in age.

Aos outros levarei a felicidade
Que a mim obscuramente foi negada
Hei-de ficar sem nada

(To others I shall bring the happiness
That to me was mysteriously refused
I shall be left with nothing)

And so it proved.

His one-bedroom flat in Battersea became an extraordinary archive of his life and times but by depressing turns unvisitable, irreparable and eventually, by common standards, uninhabitable. He cut himself off from friends, refused to have his telephone reconnected, left letters unanswered, said he no longer wrote poems. A formal Portuguese initiative, instigated by the poet Luís Amorim de Sousa, to place his archive in a museum and rehouse him was spurned.

A few months ago, radio and television programmes in Portugal were interrupted falsely to announce his death, yet only chance led to his discovery when an ultimately fatal heart attack came. The full horror of the flat was finally revealed, but tucked everywhere were poems, some written this summer, short and exquisite distillations of his profound solitude.

Now Portugal's former president Mário Soares has issued a formal statement in honour of Alberto de Lacerda. Friends have returned from as far away as California for his burial. Plans for the museum have resumed. Like Pessoa, Lacerda's posthumous reputation seems destined to dwarf even the fame that in his heyday led to murmurs of a Nobel Prize.

John McEwen