Alfonsina Storni Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

Alfonsina Storni 1892–-1938

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Tao-Lao) Argentine poet, playwright, and essayist.

Storni is considered one of the most prominent Latin-American women poets of the twentieth century. Inspired by her own personal experiences, Storni courageously wrote about the struggles of the individual woman in modern urban society, advocating equality for women and bemoaning the inadequacies of romantic relationships in a male-dominated society. Her subject matter focuses on themes of love and death, while the formal development of her work during the course of her career changed from traditional rhyme and meter to experimental forms of free verse. Storni achieved prominence as a writer in the 1920s, winning two of Argentina's most distinguished literary awards, and joining an elite circle of Latin-American writers in Buenos Aires. A revival of critical interest in her work arose during the 1970s, celebrating her feminist perspective and her place as an important figure in Latin-American literature.

Biographical Information

Storni was born of Italian-Swiss parents May 29, 1892, in Sala Capriasca, in the Italian region of Switzerland. The family relocated to San Juan, Argentina, in 1896, where her father owned and operated a brewery. After the brewery failed in 1900, Storni's father, suffering from depression and alcoholism, opened a small café, where Storni waited tables while supplementing the family income by taking in work as a seamstress. When the café failed in 1904, Storni, at the age of twelve, obtained work in a factory, becoming the primary breadwinner in her family. Her father died in 1907, after which her mother remarried, leaving Storni free of those financial responsibilities. Now fourteen, she joined a traveling theater troupe, but decided after a year that she was not suited to the lifestyle of frequent travel. She enrolled in a teacher's training school, which she attended while supporting herself by working in a chorus line. After receiving her diploma in 1910, Storni began teaching in the town of Rasario. Her life took a sharp turn, however, after she fell in love with a married man, by whom she became pregnant. Refusing to compromise the man's reputation by revealing his identity, Storni moved to Buenos Aires in order to escape local scandal. Her son, Alejandro Alfonso, was born in April 1912. Storni's struggles to survive as a single mother led her through a series of odd jobs. Her feminist sensibilities, expressed through her poetry and essays, published in widely read women's magazines, were rooted in these experiences, which inspired a critical perspective on the role of women in her society. Storni's first short story was published in 1914, and her first book of poetry published in 1916. By 1920, she had gained a reputation as one of the foremost female poets in Latin America. In her lectures and teaching throughout Argentina, Storni promoted fellow female writers, especially Delmira Agustini and Juana de Ibarbourou, both of Uruguay. She also began to publish feminist essays arguing for women's rights, such as the right to vote. She became the first woman to join a prominent South American literary circle, “Anaconda,” through which she befriended the Uruguayan novelist Horacio Quiroga, and the Argentine author Leopoldo Lugones. In the early 1920s, Storni taught drama at a children's theater, for which she wrote and produced plays to be performed by and for children. A nervous breakdown in 1928 was followed by the diagnosis of breast cancer in 1935. A radical mastectomy did not improve her health, and she suffered from depression, as well as cancer, during the final years of her life. After two of her closest friends and fellow writers had killed themselves, Storni committed suicide, at the age of forty-six, by drowning herself in the Mar del Plata, Argentina, on October 25, 1938.

Major Works

Storni's poetry developed in terms of both formal and thematic concerns during the course of her career. Her experiences as a single unwed mother, supporting herself in a modern urban setting, informed much of her work. A persistent theme throughout Storni's oeuvre is the struggle of women in a society that does not grant them equality. These struggles are further expressed through recurring themes of love and death. While her early works follow traditional poetic form in terms of rhyming and metrics, her later works utilize experimental forms and were written in free verse. Storni's first volume of poetry, La inquietud del rosal (The Disquietude of the Rosebush), published in 1916, successfully launched her career as a notable woman writer of her day, but was later renounced by the poet herself, and most critics concur that it is her least successful volume. With her next three volumes, El dulce daño (1918; Sweet Pain), Irremediablemente (1919; Irremediably), and Languidez (1920; Langour), Storni became one of the most prominent Latin-American female writers of the early twentieth century. In these collections, her concern with the oppression of women and their yearnings for equality were a central thematic focus. On the theme of love, she addressed struggles over her physical passion in conflict with her cynicism about male-female relationships. In “Tú me quieres blanca” (“You Want Me Pure”) she criticized Latin American men for imposing oppressive standards of purity on women. In “Hombre pequeñito” (“Little Man”) she compared the role of a woman in a relationship to that of a canary imprisoned in a cage. Ocre (1925; Ochre) demonstrates a shift in her poetic voice to a more intellectually distanced, ironic, and increasingly cynical expression of her perspective on male-female relationships. Her final two volumes of poetry were influenced by her travels to Europe in 1930 and 1934, where she was exposed to the literary avant-garde movement in Spain, meeting such renowned poets as Garcia Lorca. The title of Mundo de siete pozos (1934; World of Seven Wells) represents the human mind as a “world of seven wells.” In a dramatic change from her previous works, these poems are written in free verse, and utilize a surreal, dreamlike, fragmented language of mood to explore her familiar themes of death and alienation in modern urban life. Sea imagery is especially prominent in Storni's final two volumes, hinting at her eventual suicide by drowning in the sea. Mascarilla y trébol (1938; Mask and Clover), published posthumously, makes use of an experimental form of unrhymed verse which retains the metric structure of the traditional sonnet. No longer concerning herself with love and passion, Storni's thematic preoccupations in these “anti-sonnets,” as she called them, created during “moments of near loss of consciousness,” are markedly more abstract and metaphysical, while maintaining the dark, anxious, dreamlike mood of her previous works.

Critical Reception

During her lifetime, Storni was one of the most prominent female poets in Latin-America, yet her works remained controversial due to their feminist themes and open expression of female passion. While Storni is included among the ranks of Latin-American women writers such as Delmira Agustini and Juana Ibarbourou of Uruguay, and Gabriela Mistral of Chile, her work stands out as the most courageously and openly critical of male-dominated society. Although she wrote during an era of transition from modernism to postmodernism in Latin-American literature, Storni's work does not clearly reflect either aesthetic. Critical response to her body of poetry has developed through two distinct phases. Her early works were popular with the reading public, while receiving mixed critical response, due to her feminist stance. In 1920, she received two of Argentina's most prestigious literary awards for Languidez, and, by the mid-1920s, had become a prominent literary figure in Argentina. Her later works were met with waning popularity, as well as harsh criticism for their experimental forms and obscure meaning. Critics in the late twentieth century, however, now view her later work, most notably Mascarilla y trébol, as her most mature and important contribution to Latin-American literature. A revival of critical interest in Storni grew from the convergence of the burgeoning field of feminist literary criticism in the 1970s with the publication in 1975 of the first collection of her poetry in English translation. As María A. Salgado has stated, Storni's life and works “have been fundamental in establishing the foundations of contemporary feminist discourse in Hispanic letters.”