Ilan Stavans: Poetry as History, History Through Poetry
What better lens to approach a civilization than through its poetry? We depend on journalists for firsthand accounts of events and on historians for pondered explanations of the forces behind the events. But it is left to poets to tackle the unexplainable, to survey the heart itself.
Take Latin America in the twentieth century. It was a region in constant upheaval, oscillating between an embrace of modernity and the downright rejection of it. The century started with the Mexican Revolution of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, which opposed a decades-long dictatorship. It ended with the belief that democracy and neoliberalism could serve as panaceas to cure deeply rooted social, economic, and political inequalities. And in between . . . in between there’s poetry: José Martí (Cuba), singing to the honesty of the countryside while cherishing a love of the big city; Rubén Darío (Nicaragua), emulating French Parnassianism and opposing Teddy Roosevelt’s imperialism in equally inspired verses; Gabriela Mistral (Chile), everyone’s motherly teacher; Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina), hiding behind hyperintellectualized labyrinths as Juan Domingo Perón was handing money to the poor; Pablo Neruda (Chile), the Whitman of the Spanish-speaking world, championing change through his odes.
The roots of Latin America are everywhere: in the aboriginal past, in the European empires, in Africa where slaves began their journey, in the Far East. The region’s poets in the twentieth century were a restless bunch. They traveled abroad and returned home with fresh ideas. They were women challenging the status quo. And, astonishingly, their words changed as they did, becoming more nuanced, less complacent. Indeed, poetry was written not only in the standard languages (Spanish and Portuguese) but in an assortment of possibilities: Nahuatl, Quechua, Zapotec, Mixtec, and other Indian tongues, as well as in French, Italian, German, Russian, Yiddish, Ladino, and Spanglish.
The poet, Darío suggested, is also a prophet: he sees what’s hidden, what hasn’t happened yet, what’s written through silence, what others can only imagine. In a region and a time that often appears to have biblical qualities, this is a vision of poetry that makes sense. For Latin America without poetry is Latin America without a soul. After all, this is a region where people see themselves as poets. Is there a desaparecido in the family? Yes, and a poet to memorialize him. Are two adolescents about to discover their bodies? Leave it to a sonnet to chant their physical crevices. Do dreams seem as if they were tangible, as if they competed with reality? No doubt, and redondilla is available to map that evanescent line between what’s true and . . . what’s truer.
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.