Ilan Stavans on Rubén Darío’s "No"
All modern Latin American poetry begins and ends in Rubén Darío.
At a time when the whole region was culturally and linguistically stagnated, this Nicaraguan hombre de letras (1867—1916) led an aesthetic movement, known as El Modernismo, that combined a refined cosmopolitan sensibility, an interest in the occult, a curiosity for the indigenous past, technological advances, and a passion for anti-colonial politics that resulted in the conviction that Latin America needed to choose its own destiny. Indeed, it was Darío who heralded the arrival of a new consciousness in the entire hemisphere, a Latin America proud of its history—what he, and his fellow modernista José Martí, described as nuestra América.
Jorge Luis Borges hardly paid attention to him, yet Darío's refined poetry and his adoration of Walt Whitman foreshadow the Argentine's exquisite tastes. And Darío's ideological bluntness, especially around the 400th anniversary of Columbus' sailing across the Ocean Blue, as well as during the Spanish-American War of 1898, make way for Pablo Neruda's Canto General. Not surprisingly, in 1933, in Buenos Aires, Neruda and his friend Federico García Lorca, who a few years later would become the most famous martyr of the Spanish Civil War, delivered a lecture in which they described Darío as a universal poet, by which they meant a poet who emphasizes the local yet is never provincial.
Many others have paid tribute to El Bard. Gabriela Mistral saw him as a source, Octavio Paz wrote a memorable essay on him, and Roberto Bolaño meditated on his legacy. And Darío's contemporaries, like José Asunción Silva, Ricardo Jaimes Freyre, Amado Nervo, Leopoldo Lugones, and Delmira Agustini, talked of him with awe and more than a little envy.
In fact, this is a suitable occasion to venture a proposition: it's a single word in a famous poem by Darío, only one word, which all Latin American poems of the twentieth century dance around like planets circling the sun.
It isn't in his extraordinary sonnet "Lo fatal," where Darío harks back to the philosophical questioning of the superb Francisco de Quevedo, the master poet of the seventeenth century. Nor is Darío's much-quoted "Sonatina," which has a princess as its protagonist, as far a topic from the obsessions of everyday Latin America as one might possibly imagine. Or in the poem where Darío described poets as "God's towers," that is, as prophets.
Instead the crucial word is in "To Roosevelt," Darío's indictment of Teddy Roosevelt. He portrays Roosevelt as part George Washington and part Nimrod, his nature a mix of Alexander the Great and Nebuchadnezzar. Daringly, he addresses the poem directly to Roosevelt. "You think that life is a fire," Darío says, "that progress is an irruption, that the future is wherever your bullet strikes." And then the word shows up, right at the heart of the poem:
It looks plain but it isn't. Latin America, in Darío's pen, is a refutation, a resounding no to those who think of it as passive, derivative, unengaged. That no is integrated into César Vallejo's "Be Wary, Spain, of Your Own Spain!," in Nicolás Guillén's "Big-Lipped Nigga," and in scores of other examples that turn the no into a yes.
Or rather, into many yeses: a genuine way of looking at things through the Latin American lens.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College. He is the editor of The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry. He will be hosting a reading from the book at McNally Jackson on April 22nd.