In the first few years of this century the American felt himself essentially modern, without fixed tradition — having voluntarily broken the ties with Spain — obsessed with a desire to bring something different into the world. The Cantos de vida y esperanza interpret this dawn of the century, the first fifteen years of modernism. Here it can be seen that Dario was using exoticism only as a decorative element like a sprinkling of ‘American spice’ to sharpen the flavor of his creations. But, at bottom, his poetry continued to be unchangingly nourished by philosophy, human experience and eternal emotions.
‘Very modern, daring and cosmopolitan,’ Dario called himself. These traits are the three essential American virtues which are the key to his point of view. Solidarity with the new era and with all the countries of the world is the chief message which the great poet dispersed; it is also the fundamental characteristic of our continent.
The chorus of poets imitating Ruben Dario added nothing or very little to modernism. There were those who sang of the pampas, the forest, the cataracts of the new world as so many other promises for mankind. But it all became blurred in the midst of a disordered verbal trumpeting whose most talented practitioners were Diaz Miron, Santos Chocano, Jaimes Freyre and Guillermo Valencia. (2) The note of exoticism reached its highest point with Herrera y Reissig of Uruguay.
Then, in a natural but secret continuity with the Ruben Dario of Cantos de vida y esperanza — and not in opposition to him as some have believed — there followed Gonzalez Martinez whose work democratized poetry, stripping it of superfluous and decorative elements and giving it greater sobriety.
This epoch — in which Lugones and Jose Juan Tablada must also be mentioned — closed with Huidobro and his ‘creationism’ which enlivened poetic activity, endowing it with superimposed materials never before used and with subtle inventions, durable and light at the same time. Expression in the Spanish idiom then became a ship on the open sea with the prow always pointed toward an unknown horizon. (In Spain this poetic school was called ‘ultraism’ in recognition of its overseas origin and also of its ultimate directions.)
No account of the forces at work in Latin American poetry of this period would be complete without an acknowledgement of the debt to Walt Whitman, who has influenced the work of Sabat Ercasty of Uruguay, Gabriela Mistral, Parra del Riego, Neruda and others.
Knowledge from on High and Earthly Root
We can easily appreciate the significance of contemporary American poetry by glancing at the poetic panorama of the Spanish-speaking world. Spain, in the nineteenth century reduced to a mere corner of Europe, made inaudible efforts to preserve her heritage of tradition and mysticism; but the hurricane of European Romanticism came sweeping all before it in its gusts of tears. Spanish poetry was a ‘knowledge from on high,’ as its marquises, dukes and clerical poets liked to call it. With this term they indicated its celestial origin and its direct descent from theology and religious lore. The common man, therefore, could not be visited by poetic grace.
Romanticism and the political reforms concomitant with liberal thought changed this situation to some extent. A few men of the middle class began to write poetry, but in order to do it they went on invoking a supernatural being called the Muse.
In the twentieth century the telluric man of America sees to it that for the first time poetry sinks its roots in the earth. The human, the immediate, at last exercises its power, and its significance begins to be gradually deciphered. Poetry turns into a vital message which can come from the lips of the man of the people, the Indian or the Negro or any being of the species man. A vast undiscovered world begins to be partially perceived: the kingdom of things, the realm of the physical. And poetry does not hesitate to penetrate into it to the point of resolving its mystery.
This is the contribution of the new American: to have reached the earthly root of man, to have initiated a species of ‘poetic realism’ in contrast to metaphysical vagueness and romantic mists. This American poetic realism has effected a rejuvenation even in Spanish poetry through its best contemporary exponents, from Unamuno and Antonio Machado to Rafael Alberti, Vicente Aleixandre and Luis Cernuda.
Material sonnets and songs, ‘elegies of matter’ and human poems have taken the place of ‘canticles and spiritual sonnets.’ Gabriela Mistral sings of ‘the white blind salt’ and the ‘holiness of the salt.’ Pellicer writes his Poemas elementales. Cardoza y Aragon, sick from solitude, penetrates into the world of ‘mute opaque matter without form or tears.’ Pablo Neruda calls his great book Residencia en la tierra. Huidobro writes a series of poems with the title Ver y palpar. Alberto Hidalgo publishes Dimension del hombre; Francisco Luis Bernardez, Cielo de tierra; Juvencio Valle, Tratado del bosque; Octavio Paz, Raiz del hombre. This obsession with the human and earthly — fruit of a group of countries, partly unexplored, where men of various races live together more or less pacifically — is America’s contribution to universal poetry.
Key of The Native
The poetic revaluation of the reality of the environment produces as a natural result ‘nativism,’ in the sense of affirmation and defense, in countries of great foreign immigration such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. In the Afro-American region, more or less at the same time, Negro poetry was born and, in the rest of America, ‘indigenism.’ The glorification of the immediate environment, of the native landscape, of the earthly wilderness in this manner leads the American to the discovery of his own nontransferable world.
Nativism had an undeclared precursor in the Leopoldo Lugones of the Odas seculares. Likewise Carriego, Ramon Lopez Velarde, Pedro Leandro Ipuche, Luis C. Lopez, Alberto Guillen, Jose Eustacio Rivera and Jorge Luis Borges can be characterized as nativists though not all of their poetic creation falls into this category. The mature and cultivated nativism of Borges of Argentina and the musical, ironic and profound work of Lopez Velarde — one of the great poets of our time — are lofty and provocative poetic lessons.
In the countries where the great masses of people are still Indian — Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia- indigenism appeared as a movement toward simplicity and a protest against the present condition of the primitive masters of the soil. It was not a picture of the ‘noble savage’ but a cry of revindication for the oppressed. The indigenist clamor has not left major results but it was, in its time, a punctual reveille for the conscience and a sure seed which would produce actual novels about the Indians.
Indigenism must not be confused with Indianism or local color. Indigenist literature has always existed from the days of the colonization; (3) but it incorporated only decorative elements and possessed no social content. Indigenism is the expression of a portion of humanity, a desire for integration in America to be achieved by absorbing a native and forgotten race into the common adventure.
Both nativism and indigenism are forms of interpretation of reality or, better expressed, of direct contact with the soil.
Negro Poetry to Be Danced
This same impulse toward integration in America gave rise to Negro poetry in Puerto Rico, Cuba, San Domingo, Haiti and all along the Caribbean coast. Even in Rio de la Plata a ‘Negro guitar’ can be heard played by a white man who has the nobility to mourn the fate of his dark-colored brothers. This poetry, however, has nothing to do with the Negro art which was prevalent in Europe for some years after the first World War. That was only a new source of exoticism for jaded Europe.
In Spanish American countries, ‘negrism’ obeyed an internal imperative and produced a definite poetic movement: Negro poetry to be danced, in contrast to Negro poetry to be sung, which is produced in the United States. Taking only geography and chronology into account, one would come to the conclusion that a current of poetic influence flowed from Louisiana and Florida toward Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Antilles in general. The echoes of the stevedore songs and of the Negro spirituals seem to have traveled on the wind of the Caribbean Sea toward hospitable shores. There is also the general notion that certain poems of Vachel Lindsay’s are the seeds of the Antillean poetic flora. But ‘The Congo’ — which the author subtitles ‘A Study of The Negro Race’ — ‘General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,’ ‘Simon Legree,’ ‘John Brown’ and other poems of his represent a religious, moral and ideological preoccupation and are made to be recited or sung individually or in chorus. The source from which this poetry flows in the Negro song.
What differentiates Spanish American Negro poetry is the fact that it derives its inspiration from the dance. These are not yet work-songs or hymns. Nicholas Guillen and Jose Zacarias Tallet write rhumbas; Pereda Valdes evokes the candombe; Luis Pales Matos calls one of his poems ‘Danza Negra.’ The golden measure of poetry does not yet exist, only the rhythm of the maracas, the exact sound of the kettledrum. The poems of Ballagas, Tallet and Pales Matos can actually be danced. The conga of Brazil and of Cuba, the pena of Puerto Rico, the alfandoque of Ecuador, the Antillean rhumba, the tamborito of Panama are imprisoned in onomatopoeic syllables, in mimetic whirls, and carry a shiver of sensuality and obscure desires.
But the contribution of Negro poetry is not only music and blood, ‘beautiful and animal.’ Above all, it is social protest, thus incorporating a quality which was lacking in order to round out the complete profile of America.
Social Poetry of Spanish America
Contemporaneously with Negro and idigenist poetry, social poetry appeared in successive stages from Mexico to Argentina. It was concerned with a movement of spiritual insurrection against bad conditions prevailing among the lower classes, the workers and the farmers. It was likewise a kind of affirmation of ‘independence from one’s own past,’ to use an expression of Jose Gaos. (4)
This social poetry was a call to action. It bristled with imprecation and threats, and made use of burning epithets with which it hoped to incite the world. Shouts were its principal weapons. It endeavored to reach the people and therefore concerned itself with being as objective as possible, or so simple and schematic as to become what was called a ‘proletarian poster’ or lyrical manifesto. These posters, though often stripped of the most elemental poetic ornament, will remain as the document of an epoch and will serve to make more understandable the process of spiritual emancipation of our continent.
There is no doubt that the Spanish American poets preceded other poets of the world — with the exception of the Russians — in joining with the masses of the people and formulating the message of their desires and sorrows. In Europe there was no social poetry.(5) There was only poetry about the people, French unanimism, German expressionism, futurism, cubism, universal vanguardism. In Spain the example of independence given by America was beginning to bear fruit when the reaction engineered by the generals and the aristocrats intervened.
As to the Russian influence which some have believed they have discovered in the social poetry of Spanish America, it is no more than a similarity of technique and sentiment. When revolutionary poetry was initiated in our countries, no one could read the Russian language, and there was nothing translated into Spanish or French except a little of Blok or Essenin or Mayakowsky, or of writers who resemble very little the representative figures of our social poetry.
Social poetry’s contribution to the authentic expression of the American spirit, by its character and importance, makes itself felt throughout the continental map. In Chile there is the violent and powerful Pablo de Rokha who battles in a ‘high temperature’ of masses and motors; in Peru the contradictory, celestial and earthly scourger, Alberto Hidalgo of the Biografia de la palabra revolucion, Cesar Vallejo, Xavier Abril of the significant Declaracion en nuestros dias; in Ecuador the irrepressible Manuel Agustin Aguirre of the Llamada de los proletarios; in Colombia the flexible Luis Vidales, in Venezuela Antonio Arraiz, the vigorous author of Aspero; in Cuba Regino Pedroso and in a special sense the febrile but restrained Nicolas Guillen; in Bolivia Oscar Cerruto; in Central America Gilberto Gonzalez Contreras; in Mexico List Arzubide and, above all, Manuel Maples Arce, who takes many of his images from the social and political struggle. There is not a Spanish American country which has remained indifferent to this awakening. It is true that in recent years a good many of these harangues and political manifestoes have been buried in the ruins of ideas, epochs and cities, but, in any case, this stage must be taken into consideration and properly evaluated in order to understand better the present poetic attitude of the man of America.
Neruda, Dweller On The Dark Earth
All the blue of the sky has begun to age, has turned gray. The sand in the earth is now nothing but ashes. It is as if the world had lost its pleasant mask, its luminous look, its vestments of colors and showed itself in lamentable nakedness. The hunters of angels, the collectors of seasons and roses depart in silence. And Pablo Neruda, dressed in mourning, raises his clear and tortured voice. He does not ‘invent things’ when he sings, but he is compelled to remove the mask from reality and expose its true name and its secret mission. Thus the wind ‘unfurls its banner of mournful leather,’ the blood ‘has fingers and opens tunnels beneath the earth,’ the day falls ‘like the shuddering veil of a roaming widow.’ (6)
Now poetry frees itself to a tremendous degree. Neruda aspires to be no more than the common man; he interprets the agony of man on the huge earthly stage. He lives ‘inside his skin and his work, sincerely obscure.’ He expresses the inexpressible. He raises to the emotional category the succession of days, despised objects, the melancholy of families, the sicknesses of housewives, the oil, the beds, the bottles, domestic utensils. He provides a faithful image of the world, pregnant with sorrow, poverty and human exploitation.
Pablo Neruda, born in a tiny city of Chile (7) in the beginning of this century, from 1925 to 1935 wrote his great book Residencia en la tierra, which plumbed America’s spiritual profundity. His poetry deliberately avoids all transparency, disclosing only its live terrestrial root, a poetry compact, mineral, of a toughness which does not often make itself clear at first glance but afterwards grows dazzling with its fund of inexhaustible, almost liquid images, its omens and its symbols.
The poet of Tres cantos materiales has rejuvenated and restored the idiom, giving a new meaning to ordinary words, applying unexpected yet exact characteristics to things. He has created a new scheme of metaphors of philosophical spaciousness and density. He has stripped bare the pathetic and transcendent in daily life. His scorn for rhetorical devices, his disdain for myths, his virginal vocabulary are so many more examples of independence which have been followed confusedly and not without peril by the young men of America.
Neruda is master of a living world in turmoil, and his expression is at times scarcely more than a sibylline stammer, a primitive muttering. He is adept in a kind of science of irrelevant words.
There is no one who has excelled Neruda in creating the pathos of reality. His songs to matter are without peer in Castilian. No one has invoked more ably the forms of the world: ‘Oh eyelids, oh columns, oh staircases — Oh profound materials, collected and pure; how much even to be bells! — How much even to be watches! Aluminum — in blue shapes, cement — staked in the dream of beings!’ This vigorous man of Chile and the universe has known how to see things as no one else has seen them, not even the French surrealists. There is much that is conventional, much that is ultrarefined and a large bookish element in surrealism, while in the poetry of Neruda there is the enigma of nature, a direct telluric revelation. The earth and man are two connecting vessels through which circulates the elemental mystery.
I am watching, hearing
With half my soul on the seas and half my soul on land
And with both halves of my soul I look at the world. (8)
But very often the poet does not resign himself entirely to his contemplative role. He has seen destroyed cities, multitudes quivering with heroism and suffering, and he has participated in all this, ready to share the collective sorrow. He has written hymns and elegies of war. And he has enlisted voluntarily as a martyr, among the men who have determined to make our America the embodiment of the most splendid ‘fatherland of humanity."
Poetry of War and Death
The alert sensibility of the new American was once more manifest during the civil war in Spain which was the beginning of the international social war. Many young Spanish Americans went to Spain to give their blood for the cause of the people. They were concerned with paying, in this way, the debt of gratitude incurred many years ago when the Spaniards came to America bringing their idiom and their spiritual patrimony.
Among the smoking ruins of bombed cities, during the assaults of German-made tanks and Moorish Calvary, this war poetry, written by Spanish Americans, was born. It is best represented by the work of Cesar Vallejo, Nicolas Guillen, Neruda, Gonzalez Tunon, Octavio Paz and Pita Rodriguez. It was a poetry that raised its standard of death and hope in the midst of blood and powder, of injustice and defeat. The tilled fields grew nothing but stalks of fire and smoke, peasants’ bodies, ruins of humble dwellings. The common man felt himself harassed on all sides by his traditional enemies. If these should triumph in Spain, the life of the people would be menaced all over the world. That is how Vallejo, Neruda, and Guillen understood it. Cesar Vallejo identified himself with the fate of the Army of the Spanish People to such an extent that when it began its disastrous retreat from the Ebro the poet could not sustain such profound bitterness and died in despair in a French hospital. Espana aparta de mi este coliz is the title of the book written by this tormented Peruvian mestizo whose universal sensitivity perceived that the destiny of man was being decided on the soil of the peninsula.
This war poetry is necessarily elegiac, lacerated, cosmic. It has the clamorous protest of social poetry. It is disoriented, at times declamatory. Likewise it is profound, flexible, moving and philosophic and, above all, earthly. Its realism reaches the extreme of producing almost physical sensations. The song of living matter, pacific hymns to wood and wine, symbols of crystal and salt are replaced by shells and ambulances, dust and ruins, destroyed matter, sweat, the animal moans of dying men. The cannon is the ‘bull of death that assaults and overthrows everything,’ blood is ironically ‘the historic tomato,’ dust is a ‘nightmare vegetation."
The most representative book of this war poetry is unquestionably Espana en el corazon (Himno a las glorias del pueblo en la guerra) of Pablo Neruda. Here death has a new sense of rebirth, of fusion with the earth. After this book many others of similar temper appeared in each one of the Spanish American countries; but only a certain number of these titles have endured until the present. Among the most notable are Paso de sombra of Cruchaga Santa Maria, La muerte en Madrid of Gonzalez Tunon, Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas of Nicolas Guillen and No pasaran by Octavio Paz.
With the crumbling of the military united front in Catalonia and the exodus of the Spanish people, a feeling of discouragement and death was left floating in the spirit of Spanish America, a feeling which has been even more intensified by the destruction of European cities, the fall of France and the continual disasters to the democratic states. This presence of death is particularly notable in Mexican poetry of the last few years. Already in 1936 Ortiz de Montellano published his Muerte de cielo azul, an unexpected and transparent book which was followed by Cripta of Villaurrutia (1938) and Muerte sin fin by Jose Gorostiza in 1940. This last work reveals a poet of exemplary maturity, master of a precise vocabulary and of compact and lucid imagery. In Gorostiza the telluric element is united with culture and intelligence to produce a balanced synthesis.
The following example is one of the most original things which have been written about the inconstant water, image of fleeting changing life, which is a kind of continual death without end:
All of me, situated in my skin
By an ungraspable god which chokes me,
By its atmosphere radiant with lights
That hides my prodigal consciousness,
My wings broken on splinters of air,
My sluggish walking in darkness through the mud;
Full of me — surfeited — I discover myself
In the startled image of the water
Which is so much merely an unfading tomb,
An unfurling of fallen angels
At the pure delight of its weight
Which has nothing
Except my face in its blankness,
Half sunk already, like an agonic laughter,
In the tenuous Dutch linen of the cloud
And in the dismal canticles of the sea
Most disagreeable with salt or the whiteness of cumulus cloud,
Which is only speed of pursuing foam.
Nevertheless — Oh paradox — constrained
By the rigor of the glass which makes it clear,
The water takes form,
In the glass, it acquiesces, it deepens, it builds,
Completes a bitter ages of silences,
And the graceful repose of a dead child,
Smiling, that deflowers
A hereafter of birds
In the crystal net that strangles it,
Here, like the water of a mirror,
It recognizes itself;
Tied here, drop to drop -
Withered, the trope of foam in the throat
Which is such intense nakedness of water,
Which is water — so much water -
It is dreaming in its changeable globe,
Already singing a thirst of icy justice!
Very different certainly is the death invoked by Luis Cardoza y Aragon, death ‘the humble queen of the eclipse,’ which exists in the eternal hymn-colored climate,’ death covered with a ‘great uniform without buttons and with only white gloves still spotless that do not grow weary.’ (9)
The New Man’s Point of View
From modernism to the current poetry there is, to sum up, a continuous line, a kind of complete orbit in which have been appearing nativism, indigenism, Negro poetry, social poetry, Nerudism, and war poetry. (10) All these different manifestations are authentic facets of the American spirit. Outside of this orbit are left transplanted surrealism, neo-culteranismo, the imitation of superannuated Spanish forms.
In the spiritual discovery of his native continent the new man of America recognizes his primary task. This discovery consists in knowing how to look about him, in interpreting the real speech of the diverse racial components of the population — mestizos, Indians, Negroes, whites — and in delivering the message of the eternal human being who refuses to succumb to the weight of exploitation, injustice and war. The American of our time — in the north and in the south — sees with new and penetrating eyes. He obeys the telluric mandate. He has a sharp feeling for the immediate which constitutes the basis of his extraordinary realism. His capacity for comprehension and his sensory experiences are easily raised to the level of synthesis. His feeling for the brotherhood of man leads him, logically, to his desire for universal solidarity.
In the poetic production of these last years one can see clearly a strong current of universality of a new type which does not exclude local differences. It is not a question of the old leveling universality but of a new integrating kind which prefers to sum up before destroying, conserving variety within the unity of mankind. This is one of the most important characteristics of America, which helps to make more understandable the significance of its splendid strength. America aspires to become the embodiment of the ideal of ‘a united humanity collaborating in the construction of a prodigious tower.’ (11) This ideal is as old as the world, it is true but the methods of military domination by which attempts have been made to bring it about have been the least appropriate. (12) Only in a union of free states, joined voluntarily and peopled by free men of all races is the execution of such a magnificent dream possible.
The new man of our continent desires to make a contribution with his poetry of construction and hope. His point of view is that of the apprentice who, while waiting for the dawn to set up a great architectural monument, spends the last hours of the night inspecting his treasured materials and testing his tools. In this hour of anticipation and preparation, in this ‘hour of man’ — in the felicitous words of Huidobro — there are still vacillations and shadows. And there is a profusion of roads and directions but all lead toward the creation of happiness, toward the hill upon which the long-awaited architectural monument shall be reared.