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Book review: 'The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry'

The tremendous diversity of modern Latin American poetry is on display in a new anthology edited by Ilan Stavans that also features top-notch translations.

May 22, 2011|By Reed Johnson | Los Angeles Times

The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry

An Anthology

Edited by Ilan Stavans

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 729 pp., $50

Here's the answer to a hypothetical "Jeopardy" query: "Who are Pablo Neruda and, um…?"

And now, the question: "Which modern Latin American poets could an average U.S. reader likely name without using Google?" No fair if you're counting Ricky Martin, by the way.

Until fairly recently, that would've been my own blushing response. For five years I lived in Mexico City and worked in an office near a beautiful, leafy street named for Rubén Darío, the great Nicaraguan journalist, cultural diplomat and poet. Darío's admiration for the French Symbolists, along with his wariness toward the geopolitical adventurism of Uncle Sam, propelled him, almost single-handedly, to haul Latin American verse into the 20th century under the battle flag of the "Modernismo" movement.

Yet, despite my inspirational environs, for many years my knowledge of Latin American poetry was limited to a handful of stalwarts like Neruda, the nonpareil of romantic yearning, and his compatriot and fellow Nobel Prize-winner Gabriela Mistral. Some poets I'd known better as political prophets and provocateurs than as verse-makers (José Martí, Ernesto Cardenal, Roque Dalton). I'd read and re-read the brilliant, book-length essays of Octavio Paz (yet another Nobel recipient) but was far less acquainted with his poetry, drawn not only from the deep cenotes, or sinkholes, of Mesoamerican mythology but also from his scholarly immersion in Sanskrit, Japanese haiku and whatever else his elegant mind alighted on.

For that reason, among others, I'm grateful for the publication of "The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry," which thoughtfully gathers selected works of these relatively familiar names, along with many deserving lesser-known ones. Handsomely printed and designed, the collection has been astutely edited by Ilan Stavans, the prolific author and Amherst College professor who has done as much as anyone alive to bridge the hemisphere's linguistic gaps, and it boasts an all-star lineup of translators. In addition to Stavans they include W.S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur, Lysander Kemp, James Merrill, Robert Bly, Samuel Beckett and Ursula K. Le Guin. Many of the English-language versions that appear here, alongside the originals, are as good as we're likely to get for some time, perhaps ever.

Most significantly, this hefty volume shows the ethno-linguistic breadth of what we lump under the monolithic term "Latin American" poetry. Like Walt Whitman's poetic Self, the bards of Latin America "contain multitudes." This volume includes works originally written not only in Spanish and Portuguese, but also in French, slangy Caribbean patois (for example, Nicolás Guillén's wonderful "Brief Ode to a Black Cuban Boxer") and indigenous tongues, such as the Nahuatl of Mexican poet Natalio Hernández Xocoyotzin and the Mapuche of the Chilean Elicura Chihuailaf. (What is it about Chile and its production of great poets: Mistral, Neruda, Nicanor Parra, Chihuailaf and on? Does the dramatic convergence of northern desert, southern glacier and Andean peaks create a parallel tectonic collision of lyrical thought? Has the country's remoteness and sparse population made it a refuge of quiet contemplation?)

One way of looking at how Latin American poetry evolved between the late 1800s and the post-World War II era is in terms of how it was shaped by Great Power spheres of cultural influence as Spain gave way to France, which in turn gave way to the United States — not only the U.S. of Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Allen Ginsberg, but of Teddy Roosevelt and the Bay of Pigs.

As the last remnants of the Spanish Empire crumbled in the 1890s, many Latin American writers, composers and artists turned to Paris, then the world's cultural capital. Darío, in particular, became the standard-bearer of a new style of cosmopolitan hemispheric literature, and other poets also embraced the French aesthetic and transformed it into Latin American "Modernismo."

Martí's "Love In the Big City" owes an obvious debt to Baudelaire: "It is an age of dry lips!/Of undreaming nights! Of life crushed unripe!" the Cuban laments. While Baudelaire often seems about to choke on his own bile, Martí's aftertaste is decidedly bittersweet. His tart observations and spiritual ennui are made palatable by the passionate fecundity of his imagery.

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