March 2012

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

The Poetic Taste of Ilan Stavans

Reading an anthology is a little like coaching a sports team from the stands: you want this player on the field, you want it played like this, you understand it this way -- overall, you know the game better; or at least, that's how it feels from the stands. "I had no idea that anthologies reflected the taste of a particular time or of particular kinds of people," writes poet Adrienne Rich. One would have to be naïve to think this were not also the case for The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry. The "taste" in this case is that of Mexican-American Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is the author of various memoirs dealing with language, editor of the Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization, as well as the first stanza of Don Quixote written in Spanglish, but is perhaps best known as the host of the public television show, La Plaza. After defending the validity of Spanglish, a formerly hot topic of debate, Stavans became a spokesperson in the academic and public sphere for Latinos. His profile as a Mexican of Jewish origin, and, now, Mexican-American, qualified him to further expand and diversify the paradigm of "hispanicity."

The forward to this collection "Translation and Power" reflects Stavans's background in sociolinguistics and cultural studies, focusing primarily on the role of language politics in Latin America and its literature. As one would expect from a book of translations into English, great emphasis is placed on the relationship between North American and Latin American poetry. Stavans asserts that "since the Spanish-American War of 1898, Latin America has maintained a love-hate relationship with the United States. It is seen as an intrusive force as well as a fountain of inspiration." But, one wonders whether this sentiment has roots in the Monroe Doctrine of some fifty years earlier. Nevertheless, the Spanish-American War did involve the early Modernist poets in ways that, perhaps, previous American interventions did not. Cuban exile, patriot, and man of letters José Martí fought in the conflict that would eventually end in the Spanish-American War. Working as a freelance journalist, Martí conspired against the Spaniards who imprisoned and exiled him from his native Cuba. Although Martí remained suspicious of the United States on the political landscape, as a literary critic, he praised North American poets like Henry Longfellow and Walt Whitman, and spread their fame well before they were translated. Martí died fighting in Cuba in 1895, which -- given the book's title -- makes his inclusion at least a little questionable.

Tastes aside, it is the past century of Latin American poetry that seems to far outweigh its predecessors in terms of innovation. As the late Uruguayan critic Angel Rama pointed out, the twentieth century was the first time Latin American writers wrote full-time, aside from some teaching or freelance journalism, in a way that their progenitors -- mostly presidents, officials, even priests -- did not. Up through the later half of the twentieth century, poetry in Latin America enjoyed a wide audience, and was taught, learned and valued well after it fought for its existence in other parts of the post-industrial world. In fact, the "boom" novelists, who made their continent's literature famous, have cited their readings of the early modernist poets in Latin America as inspiration for their work.

Latin American literature could even be considered exceptional in that it found independence, or least some, in abstraction. Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, called "los cuatro grandes" by Stavans, were great experimenters, much more so than this collection would lead a reader to believe. Drummond de Andrade's admiration of Portugal's Modernists, Neruda and Borges's experiences with Spain's experimental ultraismo, as well as Paz's participation in late Surrealism, would all suggest at least some removal from the precepts of traditional formalism. However, these are not the opinions of the editor.

His brief descriptions reveal that Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade is "inward-looking," that Borges's epic patriotic landscapes ("A Page to Commemorate Colonel Suárez, Victor of Junín") along with his nostalgic invocations of Buenos Aires ("Two English Poems") are "cosmopolitan." The list goes on, and grows even less clear. Jose Enrique Rodó, a reactionary expelled from both his native Colombia and the United States, and author of unbridled, almost unreadable novels, is "a crucial essayist." Xavier Villarutia, Gonzalo Rojas, and Roberto Juarroz, of different time periods and countries, with dissimilar oeuvres, "evidence the need to insert their aesthetic quest in precise historical coordinates." For Stavans, Latin American poetry is a "pendulum between the private and the epic, between using the word to verbalize emotion in sublime fashion and as a mechanism to change the order of things political in the world."

If the forward makes little sense, at least there is the poetry. Once again, the poets chosen by our editor, with a few exceptions, lean toward the conventional and the political. Carlos Drummond de Andrade's first poem, and probably most famous, "No meio do caminho," a ten-line poem that brilliantly renovates the first line of Dante's Inferno, is replaced with "Ode to the Bourgeois Gentleman." While Dario's anti-imperialist invective "To Roosevelt" appears, more enigmatic works, like the experimental "Symphony in Grey," are skipped over. The Argentine poet Alexandra Pizarnik (who wrote of her pen name, the mysterious epitaph "alejandra alejandra/debajo estoy yo/alejandra") is limited to poems of brazen feminism. The zany jester Nicanor Parra's more acerbic, political poems are chosen, like "Litany of the Little Bourgeois."

If there is anything even remotely challenging to the conventional in this collection, it is Stavans's definition of Latin-American literature; he stretches it to include "languages such as Afrikaans, Cantonese and Yiddish," the French poems of Vincent Huidobro published in Nord-Sud, and two poems in English by Borges. Stavans clearly wants to present Latin America -- whose name itself derives from the French term L'Amérique latine -- as a mammoth polygot. But where do we draw the borderline? Why not include Latino poets in the United States like Jimmy Santiago Baca? Or William Carlos Williams, whose mother was Puerto Rican?

Some of collection's best poems seem to make it into the anthology almost in spite of Stavans's populist vision of Latin America. He opines "while the Hispanic world in the sixties underwent a revolution of social conventions, it never came close to its north-of-the-border Beatnik equivalent." As Roberto Bolaño wrote, Latin American poets were bar none the world's most extreme bohemians. As early as the twenties, Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo (whose exclusion from this collection I think is an oversight) writes explicitly of the smell of sex and breasts of passersby. If there were "Beatnik" equivalents, they might have been something like Colombia's raucous drug-induced Nadaistas, no doubt more daring and suicidal than their North American counterparts. Brazilian poet Paulo Leminksi«s eponymous poem "Pauloleminski" exemplifies the sort of casual explicitness that the Beats popularized, taken to the extreme: "pauloleminski / is a mad dog / that must be beaten to death / with a rock with a stick / or else he might very well / the sonofabitch / spoil our picnic." (I see that Robert Creeley was fond of Leminksi, but there's no mention about that in the book.)

The twentieth century, for Latin America, was another period of upheaval, injustice, and imperialism; nevertheless, such periods do not necessarily produce overtly political poetry. Vanguardist Vincente Huidobro ran for president in Chile, and yet his poems are far from what we might call political. The Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, cultural minster in Nicaragua's Sandanista movement, eulogizes a movie star in "Prayer for Marilyn Monroe": "Lord / accept this girl called Marilyn Monroe through the world / though that was not her name." Even revolutionaries, like Roque Dalton, or ecological activists, like Homero Aridjis, wrote poems outside of their public persona.

Despite some disagreement with the editor's overall approach, I believe the most intriguing -- by no coincidence the most audacious -- translation we owe to Stavans's interests as a cultural theorist. Achy Obejas's translation of Nicolas Guillén renders the thumping rhythms of Afro-Cuban Spanish into "Ebonics" (Stavans's term) via phonetic spelling:

Considerin how much English y'uze ta know
Bito Manué,
such fine English, now you cain't even say:
yeah

If you become interested in Achy Obejas, as I did, the reader will have to use Google, as translators are not afforded bios. Maybe that is a good thing. The author bios in this collection are horrendously written, often off-kilter and generally uneven. Several entries begin "arguably the most," as though fame could mean anything else but that. In the field of international literature "this poet's famous in his native country" seems vieux jeu. Besides, how does poet's readership define a poet?

The Polish writer Ryzard Kapuscinski characterized Latin America: "If there is a jungle it has to be enormous... if there are mountains they have to be gigantic... if there is a plain it has to be endless..." And, if there is a body of poetry, it might be unfathomably large, wide and deep, spanning a few dozen countries, hundreds of poets. Some have calculated the total reading hours required of critic Harold Bloom to be more than the average male lifetime; for Stavans to have read all these poems in their original languages, he would have to speak more than a dozen languages, some indigenous to regions separated by thousands of miles, and possess a profound knowledge of some twenty-odd poetic traditions. It is a scholarly task of Herculean proportions.

Although Stavans goes to great lengths to demonstrate the linguistic diversity of Latin America, in comparison to other bodies of work, its poetic tradition is sui generis in its expansive homogeneity. What other continents count on such a large readership all speaking, more or less, the same language? What other language encapsulates so many countries in one great literary tradition? Even the name "Latin America" suggests this diverse group of geographic regions is defined by its countries' cultural similarities, of which there are many. In the end, this anthology raises the question popping up in poetry festivals around Latin America: Can we call all of this "Latin-American Poetry"?

There is much to like in this anthology, but much more to dislike, including typographical errors in both English and Spanish. It will serve anyone looking for a few good poems, but readers looking for the big picture may want to look elsewhere. For all Stavans's good intentions, there is simply not enough poetry in this poetry collection.

The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry edited by Ilan Stavans
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374533182
768 pages