Guillén, Jorge 1893–
A Spanish poet, critic, and translator, Guillén celebrates life in a poetry that is pure, complex, and highly disciplined. Although his life was touched by the violence of the Spanish War, he has retained his optimism and spirituality. Showing the influence of Valéry and Juan Ramón Jiménez, his work transcends the local to achieve an artistry that is of universal proportions. He is considered by many to be Spain's greatest living poet.
What Guillén's early poems indicate, above all, is a scrupulous care on the part of the poet, an ideal of perfection that is apparent both in a thematic context and in the business of making poems. (p. 111)
[The basic idea of the theory of pure poetry] is that of elimination, which in turn contains implicitly the notion of a compression or synthesis: elimination of the non-poetic…. The stringencies of this theory, which must have influenced (though not riveted) Guillén's sensibility, help to explain his special affection for the short poem where strict confines allow for a more densely worked piece, and from which, hopefully, flaws may be cast out.
Outstanding amongst the short poetic forms employed in the first Cántico is the décima. The seventeen décimas of this volume are most representative of Guillén's inclination towards a concision coupled with a disciplined roundness of form. The décimas also express, in one image or another, Guillén's most characteristic theme: that of man's fundamentally positive relationship with reality…. [The] essential property of the décima, which is its concision, makes this poetic form most appropriate for correlating the poet's dynamic concept of reality. It is more accurate to speak in terms of poetic tension than in terms of theme: the décima's tendency to concentrate itself into stark image form, as opposed to the more discursive tone of the sonnet, for example, is a key factor in its accommodation of Guillén's uncomplicated positivism in the first Cántico. (p. 112)
[Guillén has a] predilection for an unusual rhyme-scheme constructed out of two quatrains and a central couplet in lines five and six [patterned as ababccdeed]. (p. 114)
[This] pattern affects not only the words that rhyme but also the rhythmic structure of the poem as a whole. The couplet has the function of concentrating and even partially arresting the poem's rhythm at its centre. In the [traditional rhyming pattern of the décima, called the] espinela … a pause inevitably occurs at the end of the fourth line; and lines five and six, with their distinctive overlapping rhymes, have the function of relating the poem's separate parts and of re-charging its momentum. It is likely that Guillén objected to this somewhat rigid system and wanted more variation in his rhythm; indeed, even in his espinelas he prefers to abandon the traditional pause at line four, often using enjambement instead. Both types of décimas show that Guillén wished to complicate the rather fluent or andante rhythm which had been a feature of this form; but his achievement is more apparent in the new couplet décima, with its...
(The entire section is 1141 words.)
[Although] Guillén did indeed write, at some point in his career, poetry which might well be described as dehumanized, pure, classicist or Gongoristic, by the time [Cántico (1919–1928)] was ready for publication he had freed himself from these categories….
His poems [before 1925] were often occasional pieces, lacking substance and almost always without the polished sophistication which distinguishes every edition of Cántico. (p. 24)
[Guillén] revised his early work [for Cántico] … in order to present a book of poems which had organic unity. (p. 25)
[Desiring to translate poetic experiences as faithfully as possible, Guillén] rejected sentimentality and realism. Such an attitude need not imply the dehumanization of poetry. Indeed, by this very rejection, Guillén focussed attention upon those things he considered to be at the very centre of human experience…. The very symbol of transitory beauty, the rose, which is often used by Guillén, defies oblivion. The axe bites into the pine but, in so doing, takes part in the pattern of creation and recreation. There is a certain mystery in creation and the poet's task is not to explain away the mystery but, first, ensure that the mystery holds no terrors, and secondly, to recreate the wonderful mystery of 'creation' in his own poetry. This can only be done if that mystery is approached in a controlled and reasoned manner....
(The entire section is 511 words.)
Poetry, it might be argued, has always inclined to Platonism or at least to Platonizing, and [Guillén's collection] Cántico acknowledges the proposition by opposing it, by affirming the value of living in the real world, by celebrating the experience of consciousness, that consciousness which, without experience, would not know that it existed. (p. 697)
Between the beginning of the book and the end are, in the complete Spanish original, 332 poems that celebrate the ordinary experiences of life, experiences that thus become extraordinary, experiences by definition—and faith—good—all the "normal" things that can be encountered in a day (and of course as long as one is awake, in a night). And since reality is what is, not what was or what may be, we have a rhetoric of the present, things in space more than actions in time, more nouns—far more—than verbs. Only the consummation of love generates verbs of action rather than of state…. (p. 698)
It's a daring trick to try, and Guillén brings it off in Spanish without a bobble: no doubt there are smiles of assent in the audience, but there's no snickering, no tittering. I cannot imagine such a performance in modern English…. [The] "normal" experiences represented by Guillén, of "dawns, mornings, noons, evenings, sunsets, nights, springs, summers, falls, winters, heat and cold, light and shade, earth and sky, the sun, the moon, the stars," through the fanatical purity of Guillén's spatialization transcend the dazzlingly representational and inevitably become representative. (p. 699)
Edmund L. King, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Winter, 1978–79.