By Jeremy Paden, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Poetry (Translation) Faculty
While it is true that Chile has a long list of novelists worthy of attention, the literary truism about the nation is that “Chile is a country of poets.” Indeed, though not all the novelists start out as a poets, many do.
For example, Alejandro Zambra, an author who a few years ago was making all the lists of writers to know and watch for, published several books of poetry before moving to novellas. Indeed, he has shown himself to be a master of the short form with novellas like Bonsai (2006), The Private Life of Trees (2007), and Ways of Going Home (2011).
The great epic poem in Spanish, La Araucana (1569), written during the Golden Age of Spanish literature, was set in Chile and was about its conquest. But it is in the 20th century that Chilean poetry comes into its own and becomes a guiding light in Spanish letters. First among these is Vicente Huidobro. His 1916 Ars Poetica, as translated by David M. Guss, reads:
Let poetry be like a key Opening a thousand doors A leaf falls; something flies by; Let all the eye sees be created And the soul of the listener tremble.
Invent new worlds and watch your word; The adjective, when it doesn’t give life, kills it.
We are in the age of nerves. The muscle hangs, Like a memory, in museums; But we are not the weaker for it: True vigor Resides in the head.
Oh Poets, why sing of roses! Let them flower in your poems;
Do all things live beneath the Sun.
The poet is a little God. For us alone
Huidobro was in Paris with Guillaume Apollinaire in the early 1910s when the French cubist poet wrote his famous Calligrammes and was himself author of a series of poetic word pictures. Between 1919 and 1931, Huidobro wrote and rewrote his masterpiece, the epic poem Altazor, a book divided into seven cantos that is a journey into language in an attempt to renovate poetry.
As already mentioned, Chile boasts two Nobel Laureates in literature, both poets: Gabriela Mistral (1945), the first Latin American to be awarded the prize, and Pablo Neruda (1971). My presumption is that Mistral, a formal poet who also worked with prose poetry, is less known to English readers than Neruda. In Spanish, she’s well-regarded as a poet who catalogues various kinds of loss, from the personal to the collective. While this is true, this kind of reading of her work ignores the way her poetry evolved over time and also the way her poetry took up explicitly feminist topics (as seen in her poem We Were All Going to Be Queens, which uses the language and rhythms of children’s fairytales to tell the story of how the dreams of young girls are thwarted by the pressures of society, and as is seen also in her poems on mad women), various kinds of elegies (like her lovely ode to bread, which could be understood as an inspiration for Neruda’s various odes to common things), and her poem sequence on Chile (which can be understood as a response to Neruda’s epic poem Canto General).
Nicanor Parra, a poet who died just this past year at 103, famously said, “There are two ways to refute Neruda: one is not to read him, the other is to read him in bad faith. I have tried both, neither has worked for me.” Neruda and Federico García Lorca, who were very good friends, are perhaps the best known Spanish-language poets in literary circles in the U.S.. As a poet, Neruda was famously protean, changing from the simple language of Twenty Love Songs and a Song of Despair (1924), to the closed, hermetic surrealism of his first two Residencies on Earth (1933, 1935), to the plain but politically engaged poetry of the Third Residence (1947), which opened him up to write the historical and political poetry of the Canto General (1950). This lightning overview of Neruda ignores the poet who wrote Odes to Common Things (1954, 1955, and 1957), and the Neruda of the myriad love poems and other writings.
Such a short overview ignores the other greats, including Pablo de Rokha, Gonzalo Rojas, Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn, and Jorge Teiller. After Neruda’s publication of Twenty Love Songs, he spent a good number of years abroad, serving as cultural attaché in various embassies in the Far East and in Spain. De Rokha, Rojas, and Parra are poets who allow one to trace the development of a Chilean Surrealism that, while connected to the wider Spanish world, is local and wrestles both with the legacy of Huidobro and their contemporary Neruda. Lihn and Teiller are part of what is known as the Generation of 1950—there are ways in which this group is comparable to the New York School of Poetry, where jazz, painting, observational vignettes, and an irreverence towards poetry itself characterize their writing, as does a political commitment to the Latin American Left. Such a canonical take ignores current, contemporary voices like Juan Carlos Villavicencio (who has recently been translated), Mariela Griffor (who runs Marick Press), or Soledad Fariña Vicuña.
[L to R: Elicura Chihuailaf, Roxana Miranda, Leonel Lienlaf]
For those who read Spanish, the 1980s and 1990s saw increased attention given to poets of Mapuche descent. Among these are Sebastián Queupul, Elicura Chihuailaf, Leonel Lienlaf, and Roxana Miranda.
Before closing, I would like to return to Zambra, who not only is a poet and novelist, he is also a wonderful essayist on literature. To write, one must read. Often reading what writers see in what they read is both instructive and fun. Zambra’s collection of essays Not to Read (2010), some very short, some long and sustained, is a wonderful and enlightening trip through Latin American and World literature. It introduces the reader to new authors, enlightens the reader on aspects of Chilean culture, and shows the mind of a writer assessing other writers.
Just as travel and writing have always gone hand in hand, national writing traditions have always been quickened by an encounter with modes of writing developed in other places. Writers, after all, are a community of people always in conversation across time, space, language, and national boundaries. So, you’re going to Chile. Spend some time with these memoirists, novelists, poets, and essayists. Your writing life will thank you.
Born in Milan, Italy, and raised in Central America and the Caribbean, Jeremy Paden received his Ph.D. in Spanish & Latin American literature from Emory University. He’s the author of the chapbooks ruina montium and Broken Tulips, and his translations of poems from Spanish have appeared in Words Without Borders. He teaches translation in Spalding University’s MFA program.