Mexico has always seemed a country of vast possibilities for the creation of poetry. To start with, it inherited great traditions of poetic expression: from the Aztecs and the Mayas, marvelously simple contemplative and lyrical verse, and from the Golden Age Spaniards, opulent and intricate poetry exemplified by the flamboyant Gongora. Like its northern neighbor, Mexico offered its hopeful poets a landscape of inspiring beauty and size. And most of all, it offered its history, which featured perhaps the most massive blending of divergent cultures in human experience to provide poets enormous symbolic, linguistic and narrative resources.
But as "Mexican Poetry" demonstrates, the poetic promise of Mexico was not easily realized. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the intensity of Spanish cultural domination sometimes produced clumsy results in poetry. In celebrating the Mexican landscape, for example, Mexican poets adopted a baroque style, eloquent but formal, aloof and thus incompatible with its subject. As Octavio Paz points out in his introduction, early Mexican poets aspired to European notions of universality and thereby failed to avail themselves of indigenous resources. The history of subsequent Mexican poetry turned on the struggle to balance aboriginal and Spanish elements and to find an appropriate voice in which to treat the synthesized national culture.
The struggle was not only arduous but long-lasting, for until the late 19th Century, Mexican poetry still manifested Spanish influences. In the 18th Century, Mexican poets avidly embraced the conventions of Spanish neo-classicism--even to the point of writing in Latin--and in the next century fell prey to the excesses of Spanish romanticism.
Mexican poetry did not decisively shed Spanish hegemony until Ramon Lopez Velarde and Alfonso Reyes appeared on the scene. Lopez Velarde was a provincial poet in the finest sense, drawn to ordinary people, their language and their actual cultural and economic circumstances. Reyes helped to turn Mexican poets irreversibly toward native subjects with compositions such as "Tarahumara Herbs."
"Mexican Poetry," which originally appeared in 1958, gathers poems from the period 1521 to 1910, the first year marking the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the second, the onset of the Mexican Revolution. All of Mexico's prominent poets in that span of time are well represented here: Bernardo de Balbuena, Juana de Asbaje, Jose Manuel Martinez de Navarrete, Luis Urbina, Amado Nervo, Lopez Velarde and Reyes of course, and 28 others. The great strengths of the anthology are that it clearly shows the trajectory of Mexican poetry over four centuries, and that Paz carries the reader through various literary movements with great style and insight.
Unfortunately, the volume's shortcomings are as striking as its virtues. While the time span of its coverage is convenient, it provides a very incomplete view of its subject. Certainly the collection would have been enhanced by the inclusion of pre-Columbian poetry, a very rich body of verse little known in the United States. Furthermore, the closing date of the anthology cuts the reader off from post-revolutionary poetry--the work of Efrain Huerta and Paz himself, to pick but two examples--arguably the finest body of verse Mexico has produced.
One last point about the selections. Paz mentions that Mexico has developed an impressive tradition of popular and folk poetry. He is correct, and it is a shame that the volume does not contain, at the very least, a sampling of ballads known as "corridos."
As the cover of "Mexican Poetry" prominently notes the participation of Samuel Beckett as translator for the poems, a few words on the subject are in order. The anthology began to take shape in 1950 when UNESCO commissioned Paz, then a financially strapped student in Paris, to gather 100 Mexican poems for publication. UNESCO then approached Beckett to serve as translator, presumably because he had earlier translated Gabriela Mistral's poem, "Recado terrestre." Also in need of money, Beckett accepted, although he admitted his knowledge of Spanish was only fair. With the help of Paz, an unnamed friend and a dictionary, Beckett completed his assignment. The results are mixed. Beckett obviously took liberties in his work, so much so that many of the English poems are more like revisions than translations. Which suggests a final, belated recommendation for the new edition of "Mexican Poetry." The publisher might have issued the volume with Spanish and English versions of the poems on facing pages. Then the bilingual reader could decide which he liked better, the Mexicans' poems or Beckett's.