Latin American Poetry Analysis

From Encounter to the Colonial Era

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The panorama of Latin American poetry spans five hundred years, from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries. The first “Renaissance” in the New World (1492-1556) was the era of discovery, exploration, conquest, and colonization under the reign of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabela and later Carlos V. The origins of Latin American literature are found in the chronicles of these events, narrated by Spanish soldiers or missionaries. The era of colonization during the reign of Philip II (1556-1598) was a second Renaissance and the period of the Counter-Reformation. During this time, Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga (1533-1594) wrote the first epic poem, La Araucana (1569-1589). The native saga narrated the wars between the Spanish conquistadors and the Araucano Indians of Chile. This is the first truly poetic literary work with an American theme.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

During the period of the Austrian Habsburg kings (1598-1701), this Renaissance was gradually replaced by the Baroque era. While the Golden Age of Spanish letters was declining in the Old World, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) reigned supreme as the queen of colonial letters. She was the major poet during the colonial era. The autodidactic nun, who wrote plays and prose as well as poetry, was known as the tenth muse, la décima musa. Her poetic masterpiece, the autobiographical “Primero sueño,” combines Baroque elements with a mastery of Spanish and classical languages and her unique style. Her shorter poems, with their lyrical verse phrasing and native themes, capture popular Mexican culture. Some of her most famous sonnets are “Este que ves, engaño colorido” (what you see [is] dark deception), “¨En perseguirme, mundo, qué interesas?” (in pursuing me, world, what interests you?), “Détente, sombra de mi bien esquivo” (stop, shadow of my elusive love), and “Esta tarde, mi bien, cuando te hablaba” (this afternoon, love, when I spoke to you). Her most recognized redondillas (or “roundelays,” stanzas of four octosyllabic lines rhyming abba) are “Este amoroso tormento” (this tormented love) and “Hombres necios” (“Foolish Men”). Her charm and brilliance won her many wealthy and royal patrons. While she initially accepted their admiration, she died a recluse after rejecting her literary career and denouncing her precocious fame and vain pursuits.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

During the Wars of Independence (1808-1826), Neoclassicism and other French influences dominated literary production. Andrés Bello (1781-1865) is better known for his prose, but he was also a prolific verse writer who followed the European neoclassical movement. He wrote the poems “Alocución a la poesía” and “La agricultura en la zona tórida” with American themes and European style. José Maria Heredia (1803-1839) was a Cuban exiled in Mexico and the United States who wrote about the beauty of the countries that adopted him. Romanticism characterized his poems about Niagara Falls, “Niágara,” Aztec ruins, “En el Teocalli de Cholula,” and other wonders such as a storm in “En una tempestad.” His ode “Himno a un desterrado” relates his experience as an exile in adopted nations.

Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (1814-1873) left Cuba to write in Spain because of the greater freedom she could enjoy there as a female poet. Romanticism influenced her poems about love, God, and her homeland, such as “Noche de insomnio y el alba” (night of insomnia and dawn), “Al partir” (upon leaving), and “Amor y orgullo” (love and pride).

José Hernández (1834-1886) wrote about the Argentinean gauchos in El Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872; The Gaucho Martin Fierro, 1935) and La vuelta de Martín Fierro (1879; The Return of Martin Fierro, 1935; included in The Gaucho Martin Fierro, 1935). His Romantic verses followed the structures and lyrical rhythms of popular songs that romanticized the gauchos as a dying breed in the wake of industrialization.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

By 1875, the roots of a poetic movement had grown into a new poetic era. The Latin American Modernistas were innovators and critics of the conservative thematic and stylistic structures that persisted from the colonial period. In Latin American society, global industrialization, capitalism, North American cultural and economic imperialism, and Spain’s loss of all its colonies had a significant impact on artistic development.

A definitive moment in the progress of the movement resulted from José Martí’s publication of Ismaelillo in 1882. The poet and hero, who died fighting for Cuban independence (1853-1895), published Versos libres that same year, a collection that followed Versos sencillos, published in 1881. All three collections characterized the existential angst of the era as they experimented with new lyrical forms and themes. Martí approached language as a sculptor approaches clay and molded words into new forms. His innovations have allowed him to be considered the first great visionary Latin American poet as he sought to define Nuestra América, a Latin American identity struggling for artistic as well as political and economic independence. Throughout the movement, the anguish, emptiness, and uncertainty of modernity provided a unifying thread for poets seeking innovation.

The Mexican modernist Manuel Gutierrez Nájera (1859-1895) was a journalist renowned for his prose writings in his own time. He founded La Revista Azul, a literary review that promotedModernismo throughout Latin America. His contemporary Rubén Darío (1867-1916), however, defined the...

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Postmodernism and the Vanguard

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

No exact date marks the transition from Latin American modernism topostmodernism or to a vanguard movement. A combination of historical and societal factors influenced the artistic development of individual Latin American countries. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, World War I and the Mexican Revolution interrupted artistic and literary exchange between the Old World models and the New World innovators. The urban bourgeoisie, who were patrons of the arts, were displaced. The United States had gradually replaced the European masters in science and industry as well as politics, and its dominance permeated all levels of Latin American society.

Altazor (wr. 1919, pb. 1931), by Chilean Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948), marks a break with the past. Huidobro originated stylistic practices never seen before in Latin American poetry. Increacionismo, his personal version of creationism, he sought to create a poem the way nature made a tree. His words, invested with autonomous linguistic and symbolic significance, reinvent themselves by creating a world apart from other words. They are antilyrical, intellectual, and disconnected from emotional and spiritual experience. Nevertheless, Huidobro’s world, created by his unique use of words, was a human creation because in it the poet experiences alienation and existential angst. Huidobro’s poems “Arte poética,” “Depart,” and “Marino” voice his despair in isolation.

Huidobro had a significant influence on younger poets, particularly in his development of a school of thought that centered on the theory of Ultraísmo, which attempted to construct alternative linguistic choices to those offered by the external world. Ultraísmo synthesized Latin American with Spanish and European tendencies.

Among those influenced by Ultraísmo were Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), and in fact, Borges became its main proponent. While his short stories have repeatedly caused him to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, his poetry reveals a linguistic expertise and lyrical genius unparalleled by his contemporaries. He believed that lyricism and metaphysics united to justify the means of the poetic process. This fusion provides the genesis of his most representative poems, “Everything and Nothing,” “Everness,” “Laberinto,” “Dreamtigers,” and “Borges y yo.”

The Peruvian César Vallejo (1892-1938) developed a unique and distinctive poetic voice. His Los heraldos negros (1918; The Black Heralds, 1990), Trilce (1922; English translation, 1973), and Poemas humanos (1939; Human Poems, 1968) demonstrate the impossibility of mutual communication and comprehension, the absurdity of the human condition, and the inevitability of death.

In 1945, Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was the first Latin American writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her verses echo the folksongs and traditional ballads of her native Chile, the Caribbean, and Mexico. They naturally blend native dialects with...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Agosín, Marjorie, ed. and trans. These Are Not Sweet Girls: Latin American Women Poets. Fredonia, N.Y.: White Pine Press, 1994. Bilingual edition. Agosín is a prolific and influential poet as well as a distinguished professor and literary critic. This volume from the Secret Weavers series focuses on the poetic production of Hispanic women since the advent of feminism as expressed through their work, written predominantly during the last thirty years of the twentieth century.

Agosín, Marjorie, and Roberta Gordenstein, eds. Miriam’s Daughters: Jewish Latin American Women Poets. Foreword by Agosín. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Sherman...

(The entire section is 661 words.)