The OOMPH! Press Primer to Latin American Poetry in the Spanish Language

Frustrated by my almost complete lack of knowledge of Latin American literature, I set out to study the literary tradition and its correlating historical and cultural contexts in order to process and distill a large amount of information into an easily-digestible survey. Aware of the dangers of canonization and its inherent nature of exclusion, not to mention the actual parameters of the region, encompassing 20 countries and over 500 existing languages (not to mention dialects), I want to say, as a disclaimer, that the purpose of this project is to simply introduce Spanish-language Latin American poetry to an English-speaking audience, thus constructing a foundation to build upon and fill in over time. To say least, I feel like I've only scratched the surface.

According to The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (2009), edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon-Grosman, Latin American poetry can be traced back to Mexico in 1519, when Malintzin, the enslaved Nahua translator for Hernán Cortés, learned Spanish and spoke the language with a native intonation, marking the birth of Latin American Spanish. Grounded in the mestizaje (mixing) of languages and cultures, the mestizo or criollo (mixed) identity and culture, emerged from the clash of European and indigenous civilizations---initiating an ongoing process of the formation of languages and cultures distinctively separate from Europe, but inherently interrelated to the Americas.

In it's earliest forms, mestizo poetics can be seen in Real Commentaries of the Incas and the General History of Peru (1609), a Spanish-language multi-genre work in mestizo syntax and intonation of compiled texts detailing the history of Incan civilization from multiple perspectives up through colonization. The book was written by Inca Garcilosa de la Vega, the son of an Incan noble woman and a Spanish conquerer, and the first person to identify as a mestizo. Representative texts that pre-date colonization include the Mayan codices, such as the Codex Cantares Mexicanos, and the Incan notation system known as khipu (knot). Definitive mestizo documents written or recorded during colonization include the Aztec Florentine Codex, The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, and the Mayan Book of Chilam Balam, each of which exhibit influences from both sides of the Atlantic---for example, a codex presented in a European style, or an oral story recorded in Spanish.

In the 17th century, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz emerged as an important figure and poet of the Baroque movement, becoming a nun to pursue intellectual interests and fighting for women's educational rights. Her most notable work is "Primero Sueño" (1692), but her multi-lingual and -dialect poem, "Villancico VII: Ensaladilla," remains an extremely useful text within the framework of criollo poetry, for it features a Latin American Spanish dialect, an Afro-Hispanic dialect, and words and phrases in Nahuatl.

While the 18th century continued to be an era of colonization, The Book of Chilam Balam stands out as a representative text from the indigenous perspective. Native priests of different towns each wrote a different edition of this series in alphabetical script in Yucatan Mayan, in order to band together and defend their own culture and religion in response to the overpowering dominance of Christianity in the region. Additionally, an anonymous work from Argentina, "Grant Don Juan V Life," can be seen as one of the earliest examples of Latin American visual poetry, which shows how the way in which the poem appears on the page is of secondary importance to its content.

During the independence movements of the first half of the 19th century, formative nationalist literature emerged, such as Domingo Sarmiento's creative non-fiction book, Facundo (1845), which pitted the civilization as symbolized by the city of Buenos Aires against the barbarism found in the countryside: a theme that can still be seen today in the tension in national identity between the cosmopolitan and the indigenous. In the second half of the century, there was a celebration of the regional criollo, which is best exhibited in José Hernandez' gauchesque epic poem, Martín Fierro (1872), written about the folk tradition of the gaucho (Argentine cowboy).

At the end of the 19th century, Rubén Dario ushered in Modernismo, an artistic period inspired by French symbolism and characterized by continental identity, with the publication of Azul (1888). Other notable poems include "Poets! Towers of God!", "Nocturne," "Symphony in Grey Major," and "Love Your Rhythm." Additionally, José Martí surfaced as a politically committed visionary, publishing "Our America" (1891), an essay arguing for the collective effort of Latin American countries to combat the cultural dominance of the United States in the region. Other notable works include "I Dream Awake" and "Love in the City."

From Modernismo sprang numerous vanguard movements influenced by French surrealism and Anglo-American Modernism, such as the Ultraist movement in Spain, which crossed the Atlantic with Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote an ultraist manifesto for the Argentine journal, Nosotros, in 1922. This omnipresent transnational influence from Europe to Latin America, as perfectly exhibited by Borges and the Ultraist movement in Spain, can best be explained by Oswald de Andrade's Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto; 1928), in which Andrade argues that Latin American poetics cannibalize and metabolize European culture, resulting in the creation of an entirely new cultural body. Notable poets and works from this era, which began in the early 20th century but continued through the 1960's, and encompassed a wide range of styles and genres, include Oliverio Girondo's Scarecrow (1932) and In the Moremarrow (1957), César Vallejo's Trilce (1922), José Lezama Lima's "Thoughts in Havana" (1949) and "Our Surrealist Ballad," Xul Solar's "This Hades is Fluid," Borges' "The Mythological Founding of Buenos Aires," "Borges and I," and "Limits," Pablo Neruda's Twenty Poems and a Song of Despair (1924), Octavio Paz' "Sunstone" (1957), Olga Orozco's "Variations on Time" (1979) and "Mirror on High," and Alejandra Pizarnik's "Nocturnal Singer."

The authors and texts of the Latin American Boom, characterized by the well-known genre and style of magical realism, emerged in the middle of the 20th century, which included Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (1963) and Bestiario (1951), and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985); however, the 1960's and 70's ushered in an era of political and cultural upheaval, tinged by authoritarianism and military dictatorship. Despite extreme government censorship, poetry, unlike other genres, continued to thrive, due to small press publication and distribution(!). In Argentina, Jorge Santiago Perednik published diverse and experimental authors and work in his journal, XUL, such as Néstor Perlongher, the Paralengua group, and Emeterrio Cerro. This period is also marked by the Neo-Baroque, which can be defined as the appropriation of the Spanish Baroque to become authentically Latin American, manifesting as a fusion of European and mestizo/criollo cultural referents and linguistically experimental in nature and form. Notable authors and texts from the Neo-Baroque include Perlongher's "Tuyú" and "(desgradée)," as well as Oswaldo Lamborghini's "The Most Amusing Song of the Devil."

Rather than attempting to discuss and classify Latin American poetry in the contemporary era, I'm going to invite you to check out our Scene Report on Buenos Aires over at Real Pants: Literature & the new literary community. It is by no means as extensive as this primer, but it identifies some key trends, authors, and movements in contemporary Argentine poetry which can be used as a point of reference.

Now that we've got this primer together, look out next month for our weekly beats!

-Alex Gregor

Further reading:

  • The XUL Reader, an anthology of English translations of Argentine poetry from 1980-1996

  • The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, ed. Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon-Grosman

  • Scarecrow (1932), Oliverio Girondo

  • The Savage Detectives (1998), Roberto Bolaño

  • Latin-American Women Writers: A Resource Guide to Titles in English (2007), Kathy S. Leonard