Desde su origen la poesía moderna ha sido una reacción frente, hacia y contra la modernidad (10) [From its origins, modern poetry has been a reaction to, toward, and against modernity].
Octavio Paz, Los hijos del limo
Poetry, often considered the most "literary" of literary forms, became increasingly isolated from other cultural practices at the end of the twentieth century. Has poetry had its day? Has it proven itself an outmoded genre unable to keep pace with the postmodern self-conscious problematization of representation, of historical metanarratives that characterize much literary production in the late twentieth century? The very "literariness" of its images appears to be a handicap in a cultural world in which visual images, such as those of film, mass media, and the computer screen, predominate. So what does poetry do in contemporary Latin America and how does it interact with the region's rich array of cultural forms? In this book, I argue that, far from being an arcane diversion for literati, recent Spanish American poetry participates in the fundamental cultural debates of its time. Succeeding chapters will reveal how poetry struggles with the division between politics and aesthetics or between visual and written images, as well as with issues of ethnic, national, sexual, and urban identities, and how it incorporates rather than rejects technological innovations and elements from the mass media.
In literary studies in Latin America, Europe, and the United States, the postmodern questioning of history and referentiality has been readily seen in narrative, film, photography, architecture, and other forms of textual and visual representation; in these theoretical considerations of postmodernism, however, poetry is most often mentioned as an aside, if it appears at all (e.g., Jameson, Hutcheon, Colás, Richard, Beverley and Oviedo). Or it is treated as a separate area of interest, a discrete subject that is not incorporated into the broader category of postmodern literature (as exemplified by the work of Marjorie Perloff, a leading critic of postmodern poetry in the United States, and by the focused, site-specific approach that readers such as Ronald Haladyna take on postmodernist poetry in Mexico). This marginalization of poetry may in some part be due to the renewed importance of narrative or storytelling to global literary studies, a dominance that Brian McHale describes in Constructing Postmodernism. McHale charts the rise of narratology in the sixties and seventies, then a shift from "theories about narrative" to "stories about theory" (4). Since one of the chief characteristics of postmodernism is the end of metanarratives (as signaled by Jean-François Lyotard), none of these stories triumphs as "the story of stories"; what has proliferated instead is a series of more provisional "little" or "minor" narratives (6). One of the qualities of the lyric that leaves it outside this trend is its tendency to scrutinize reality in a non-narrative way, for the lyric does not get its epistemological power from narration. Poetry's marginality to postmodernism may also be due to a changing audience for the lyric in the late twentieth century; it is frequently seen as a genre with an emphasis on language and with conventions that link it to high art, offering limited mass cultural appeal. Imbued with a Romantic legacy that emphasizes the expression of an individual subject, poetry is read as a sort of sonorous diary-made-public and is seen as either distant from historical events or far too enmeshed in these. The genre is laden with tradition and formal constraints, and rather than demonstrating how poets transform and experiment with these, many contemporary readers have used the conventional elements of verse to consign the lyric to a prior moment outside "the modern," let alone the postmodern.
In a Spanish American context, this is at once an ironic inversion and a continuation of poetry's previous roles in cultural production. Early-twentieth-century modernismo reacted against positivism and the mercantilization of art as Spanish American poets responded to their new roles in society and to the high cultural demands of a small Europeanized audience. No longer state poets or visionaries, modernist writers reacted to their more marginal status by, as Cathy Jrade explains, putting their "faith in the superior epistemological power of literature" (4). Poetry, considered the "most literary" of genres, was the center of the modernista moment, and the cultivation of traditional Western aesthetic techniques (meter, symbol, synaesthesia, etc.) allowed Spanish American poets to compete with or outdo their European counterparts. They famously used the old to make themselves modern. Modernistas constructed a harmonious alternate vision and created an aesthetic distance between their work and the realities of early-twentieth-century Spanish America. Minimizing this distance was to be one of the primary goals of the succeeding avant-gardists of the 1920s-1940s.
The avant-garde movements in Europe and in Latin America sought to reconnect cultural and political realms by questioning the role of art in society, as Peter Bürger has explained. Poetry continued to be central to the avant-gardists, but it was poetry that experimented with inherited forms, expressed a crisis in the poets' world view, denied any sublime character to the poetic realm, and translated into language a world that was seen as impenetrable, chaotic, and destructive. The avant-garde movements did not do this only through art's content or its structure, however, but by attempting to change "the very institution of art by making it more integrated with life" (Kelly, 231). Bürger developed his theory in relation to the European and North American avant-gardes; just as in the case of modernism, however, these changes did not take the same form in Latin America. Vicky Unruh has observed that in Latin America, "one rarely finds the absolute anti-art stance normally associated with European Dada" (7). She elucidates how in the early twentieth century the institutionalization of art was in process in Latin America, as nations in the region that had gained their independence in the nineteenth century were still consolidating their identities; in these circumstances, the avant-gardists frequently formed alternative relationships to the institutionalization of art (7). Unruh also explains that the Latin American avant-gardists "conceived art and intellectual endeavors in activist terms"—not a unique stance for the period but a more pronounced one in Latin America. In their "drive toward engagement," they employed anti-mimetic strategies "in order to turn art toward experience in more provocative ways" (22). These artists did not want their work only to reflect the crisis they lived, but to textualize it. In the case of poetry, this happens primarily through language, its central element. This predicament is palpable in poetry such as César Vallejo's Trilce (1923), which evidences languages and cultures in ruins; includes the disarticulation of any unitary poetic subject; and breaks with logic, reason, and certain key elements of the Enlightenment tradition.
The avant-gardists, then, combined a somewhat utopian vision of the power of art with a profound disbelief in the communicative function of art—in its social role. They continued the struggle between modern and anti-modern forms that began in modernism and extended the profound questioning of the role of art in the cultural identities of the different nations that make up Latin America into the mid-twentieth century (although the movements had reached their apex in the twenties and thirties). After the Second World War and by the 1950s, in fact, the once protean avant-gardes had solidified into a tradition. William Rowe acknowledges this status, for example, when he opens his recent study of late-twentieth-century Latin American poetry with the statement that since midcentury, poets have had "two main inheritances to be used, modified, or abandoned: the work of the avant-gardes and the tradition of politicized poetry" (Poets, 1). Rowe astutely proposes that these inherited traditions have created models of reading that limit what we find in more recent poetry, and he advocates learning new ways of reading from the poems themselves (60). The effect of these two currents has generated a false separation of political and aesthetic concerns—a division that reinforces tensions between art and society, tradition and innovation, old and new, instead of recognizing how these poles intertwine, merge into one another, wax and wane. They remain dilemmas to be replayed into the postmodern moment with yet another twist, for with this shift, the relationship between art and society is more provisional; the value of art is not found in "ordering chaos but by finding ways of inhabiting it honestly and adjusting expectations so that one could celebrate not meanings, but momentary clarities" (Altieri, 6). In postmodern cultural production, all forms of representation are implicated in relations of power and cannot be trusted; there are no master narratives, including those of progress, modernization, and development.
In bringing up these provocative issues concerning poetry's relationship to the modern and the postmodern, my interest is not in fitting poetry into a "cultural dominant" (Fredric Jameson's term) from which it has been excluded, or in making poetry a part of "the metropolis' postmodern repertoire," as Román de la Campa would have it (12). Instead, and as we have seen, in a Latin American context, poetry's inconsistent affiliation to the postmodern is another indicator of the region's problematic relationship to modernity. This is not only an aesthetic concept of modernity, but a socioeconomic one, for "postmodern" is a temporal category that usually refers to late-capitalist technological global societies. Charles Altieri usefully distinguishes between the term "postmodernity," which designates actual social conditions and general cultural practices, and "postmodernism," the "different discursive positions taken as efforts to characterize those social conditions" (7-8). Yet, just as in the case of the concept of modernity, these terms often overlap. The idea of Latin America's "uneven" social and economic modernization and the consequent irregularity of its cultural modernity is now generally accepted; the region shares a situation that has also been described as contradictory, heterogeneous, incomplete, fragmented—it has not experienced an uninterrupted process of modernization, but one of discontinuous "modernizing movements" (Brunner, 70). This sporadic modernity has been marked by continued high rates of illiteracy as oral-performative literatures coexist with computers, MTV, and mega malls. How can the region participate in postmodernity when premodern social structures coexist with the supermodern? As we will see, Latin America's connection to postmodernity, like its link to modernity, is uneven, and how it participates in the postmodern depends, in part, on a continued redefinition of terms relative to the region's cultural and political history. Among those terms are "culture," "literature," "poetry," and the "poetic."
In "Latinoamérica y la posmodernidad," Nelly Richard asserts that postmodernism is a rereading of modernity, not a temporal stage in a linear trajectory. She also emphasizes its plurality—there are really postmodernisms and rereadings—differences not only between Latin America and an Other, but within the region itself, an "experiential zone" that Richard defines as "común a todos los países del continente situados en la periferia del modelo occidental-dominante de la modernidad centrada" (212) [common to all the countries of the region situated on the periphery of the dominant Western model of centralized modernity]. Questioning this model of modernity is a characteristic of Latin America's postmodernism. Richard continues to draw our attention to the particularities of this diffusion and multiplication of dominant meanings through
la fractura de los ideales (sujeto-historia-progreso como absolutos de la razón) que regularon monológicamente el proceso civilizatorio de la modernidad occidental-dominante; heterogeneización de los signos y multivocidad del sentido; abandono de las certidumbres, resignación a lo parcial y lo relativo; descorporeización de lo real-social convertido en artificio massmediático. (211; emphasis mine)
[the fracture of ideals (subject-history-progress as reason's absolutes) that monologically regulated the civilizing process of dominant Western modernity; the heterogenization of signs and multivocality of meaning; the abandonment of certainties, resignation to partiality and relativity; dematerialization of the social-real as converted into a mass-media artifice.]
Her definition emphasizes the heterogeneity and fragmentation that situates Latin America as part of a multiply determined global world. Nevertheless, this concept of the crisis of the center, Richard warns us, may become another master narrative that does not effectively alter the balance of power but merely shifts it—from the opposition "center vs. periphery" to "decentered—center vs. periphery" (221). In another characterization, Román de la Campa sees the region as "an on-going criss-crossing of disrupted modernities" (70), which produce a "transmodernity" that is "an uncertain in-between modern and postmodern that also carries colonial traces" (64). In both Richard's and de la Campa's ideas, the particularity of Latin America's situation within international concepts of postmodernism is linked to its peripheral position vis-à-vis the governing ideas of modernity.
Its colonial legacy is another factor that distinguishes the Latin American experience from the North American or European ones but joins it to other regional phenomena. Walter Mignolo has engaged in a dialogue with Ranajit Guha about similarities between South Asian and Latin American experiences of postmodernity in which he specified that the important issues are "coloniality" and "postcoloniality" rather than "modernity" and "postmodernity" ("Coloniality of Power and Subalternity," 424). Mignolo explains that although colonialism ended with national independences in Latin America, coloniality did not. Many countries in the region remained dependent on England and then the United States for their modernization, a situation that has created "colonial modernities" (439). This kind of circumscribed modernity links colonial and modern points to an ensuing conjunction between "postcoloniality" and "postmodernity." As Mignolo has explained in another essay that takes up many of the same themes: "If postmodernity does not mean a chronological superceding of modernity, but rather a radical transformation of human interaction and its theorization, then 'postcoloniality' should also refer to a radical transformation in the histories of colonialization, imperialism, and globalization and in the theorization of colonial histories" ("Afterword: Human Understanding," 172). Enacting transformation within colonial modernity requires a radical shift in perspective. Cultural production in these circumstances will range from works that attempt to assimilate or imitate inherited models to those that oppose or create transcultural alternatives, finding ways of creating new places from which to speak within colonial modernities.
Part of Latin American postmodernism, then, entails this creation of diverse "loci of enunciation," Mignolo's term for these new speaking locations ("Afterword: Human Understanding," 210). Adding yet another dimension to the discussion, Amaryll Chanady raises the issue of where and how these speaking positions have come about. She states that "the relationship between postmodernity and postcolonialism is complex, and one could engage in endless arguments about whether postcolonial challenges to Western hegemony contributed significantly to the West's problematization of its own paradigms or whether it was the West's questioning of the legitimacy of its values and authority that enabled postcolonial voices to be heard" (xi). Chanady's remark signals the continued entanglement of colonial legacies with responses or alternatives to these that are generated from both outside and within in a variety of cultural forms.
Postmodern poetry, perhaps unexpectedly, presents another possible place where this interaction is played out. Genre links it to a Western cultural legacy through the formal tradition of poetic conventions and definitions (the sonnet, endecasílabo, tropes—myriad inherited elements associated with both written and oral poetic forms); yet these are reenacted, reformed, or disrupted and retextualized in terms of late-twentieth-century social situations. This poetry is aware of its origins, for these works often act self-consciously as a kind of historiographic metapoetry, creating theoretically demanding, paradoxical constructions of their own history and of their relationship to History, a function comparable to that observed by Linda Hutcheon in postmodern fiction. But the relationship to the past goes beyond this and has led me to the idea suggested by this book's subtitle—that of "textual disruptions"—poetry that crosses the boundaries of essentialized literary and generic conventions to rewrite those traditions, to undermine and to renovate them. These disruptions do not announce the end of literature, however, for they are themselves textual. We will see instead how they reinforce literature's work by questioning the "literary" as a detached and impermeable category. The poetry I explore here presents examples of both change and continuity, proffering possible new roles for literature that break the culturally determined conventions and codes they also depend on. Similarly, this poetry is in keeping with the plural or multiple formations of Latin American societies today, while it departs from and depends on traditions nurtured in the Latin American institution of the ciudad letrada, or "lettered city."
To demonstrate these interactions, I combine close textual analysis with a variety of interdisciplinary approaches to situate the aesthetic features of poetic texts in a wider context than the belletristic one to which they have often been relegated. In this, my study builds on theoretical groundwork laid by William Rowe and Cary Nelson (who study Latin American and North American texts, respectively), two of the few scholars to consider poetry from a cultural studies perspective. Using a cultural studies approach in this case implies a different way of reading poetry, one that does not privilege aesthetic factors over social and historical information, nor one that simply inverts these paradigms. Instead of reading poetry only within the republic of letters, I situate poetry as one practice among others in a broader field of cultural practices. Including a range of cultural and social information in conjunction with lyric elements will demonstrate that lyric poetry is not intriguing only for formal reasons, but that it cannot be read without attention to these, for merely paraphrasing poetry into historical terms makes it something else. For this reason, I intertwine historical and aesthetic realms and read these poems in relationship to generic memory—to a set of expectations and conventions that poets write with and against as they formulate their own ways to create meaning. This method reveals how these late-twentieth-century poets confront the issue of the "poetic speaker"—who he or she is and what he/she/they can do within this role. It also demonstrates how these writers combine new and old techniques to textualize significant cultural information in poetry and, in the process, reform the conventional cultural space of the lyric. We will examine what the possible aesthetic effects of this remodeled space are as well as how cultural conventions change relative to late-twentieth-century issues that appear in these poems—issues such as modernization; immigration; globalization; economic shifts (most notably, neoliberalism and the creation of informal economies); mass transportation and tremendous urbanization; shifts in technology; means of reproduction; and the role of books, reading, photos, film, and electronic media. All of these changes involve corresponding shifts in the construction of the realm of literature.
Although other critics have organized studies around one country, one author, or largely aesthetic issues, to draw larger conclusions about the shifting role of poetry in a breadth of social and political climates, I use a body of comparable texts from different countries. Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Peru share recent pasts of dictatorships with concomitant repression, exile, recovery, and return to democracy. These circumstances and transformations make them particularly productive sites for investigation of cultural change. Reactions to dictatorship and shifting social and economic conditions range from Chile's high degree of economic stability and technological formation coupled with social changes linked to this country's negotiated transition to democracy, to Argentina's boom and millennial financial collapse. Peru has experienced a sustained encounter with social differences such as internal immigration and corruption, and its state continued to struggle with the split between guerrilla movements and a civil-military alliance into the 1990s. I include works from Nicaragua and Mexico as points of thematic contact and contrast; the former in terms of Ernesto Cardenal's style of indigenismo, which proves itself more regional than national, and the latter through Coral Bracho's connection to the neobaroque, part of Mexico's contemporary colonial legacy. Néstor García Canclini has raised questions about how the repression of the last decade in the Southern Cone countries produced both formal and informal remodelings of public space; I refocus and expand his query here by examining how or whether the poets I study have reclaimed both public and artistic spaces in their countries through works that bridge the perceived gap between artistic and historical concerns.12
In the chapters that follow I demonstrate a way to move the reading of contemporary Spanish American poetry beyond the impasse of established categories—seeing only the strands of modernismo, the avant-garde, or political poetry. Although all of my readings attempt to be socially relevant and culturally engaged, I never seek to simply view these works as social poetry, nor do I compartmentalize them as offshoots of the avant-garde. Rather, I seek to read poetry in dialogue with meaning in everyday life and within multiple meaning contexts. As Rowe's work has suggested, I frequently come to terms with the issues in this poetry by following a variety of reading approaches that are offered by the poems themselves, for they include signposts that communicate crucial cultural information about poetry's role in distinct times and places.
All of the works of the poets I consider traverse the rift between aesthetic and historical concerns in diverse ways. In the first chapter, we see it through "postmodern indigenismo"—a term I use for poetry that continues the tradition of writing about the Indian into the 1990s. We see how this poetic indigenismo is connected to the postcolonial legacy; to ideas of transculturation, authenticity, and identity politics that become central in the second half of the twentieth century; and to associated concepts of agency and expression, modernization and tradition. Thinking about how native peoples are portrayed in poetry by non-natives brings the history of this interaction and the history of its textualization to the forefront. We will see that postmodern indigenismo does not evidence the "end" of the subject or of possibilities for subjectivity, but rather the multiplication, complication, and questioning of inherited subject positions. In works by Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Cardenal, and Tulio Mora, the indigenous, though to some degree offering an alternative to dominant culture, also responds to Western culture. My analysis reveals that when poetry engages postmodern, historical, national, and literary discourses at the same time, it moves the reader toward a more self-conscious awareness of his or her own ethnographic stance.
The boundaries of the literary are crossed in a different way in Chapter 2, "Image and Text: Reading Outside Language," which highlights the roles of written and visual images in public space. Here I analyze the "atextual," and therefore often unread, visual elements in the poetry of Chileans Cecilia Vicuña and Raúl Zurita and, reciprocally, investigate the use of the word in visual representations and installation art by Uruguayan Luis Camnitzer. My exploration of the word's status as icon in examples from both the visual arts and poetry leads to questions about the boundaries between image and text, to cultural biases that have resulted in the repression of the visual dimension in favor of the textual, and to the mixing of both dimensions as a means to communicate to a broader public during repressive circumstances. Combining visual and verbal modes of representation makes us read or view these works differently, and it gives these poets ways to communicate beyond national borders to what are now their global or transnational audiences.
Textualizing the city is the subject of the third chapter. Beginning with Jorge Luis Borges and his Fervor de Buenos Aires, we see that the city is a constant theme in this century's Spanish American poetry. With the midcentury surge in population, however, urban perspectives change; like the city, this chapter is more populous too, including an array of poets from Santiago de Chile and Lima, Peru. Unlike earlier urban poets, these writers use a range of speakers whose identities prove to be hybrid, transitional, and often based on microcommunities rather than a unifying center. These postmodern identities imply new modes of perceiving the city, as evidenced in the work of Nicanor Parra, Carmen Berenguer, Clemente Riedemann, and Elvira Hernández. The work of these Chilean authors transforms the role of the poet from bard, prophet, or metaphysical observer to that of cultural consumer of or witness to the disparate, ephemeral city. Peruvians Enrique Verástegui, Carlos Oliva, Marita Troiano, and José Cerna-Bazán take another approach to Lima; some demonstrate the despair of the contemporary urban inhabitant while others offer a possible vision of change through the people as protagonists. In all of these works, we see the late-twentieth-century city as a spectacle, as a "no-place," as a center for continued problems and, perhaps, unanticipated possibilities, both lyrical and real.
In the fourth chapter, the idea of identity is not urban but postcolonial, for here the focus is on the intersection of sensuality and difficulty in the neobaroque poetry of Argentine Néstor Perlongher, Uruguayan Eduardo Espina, and Mexican Coral Bracho. Choosing a neobaroque style at the end of the twentieth century may seem anachronistic, but these writers return to the mode of the conquest period and the madre patria to rewrite and redefine relationships between center and periphery. In doing so, they invoke a specifically Spanish cultural legacy and simultaneously demonstrate the impossibility of cultural translation. Their complicated neobaroque style of writing is frequently so elaborate or condensed that it exemplifies the poetic use of other structural elements (such as space, line break, or sonority) to create an alternative "language" that brings the issue of representation to the forefront. This is one of the links between the baroque and the postmodern: both styles constantly remind us that we cannot have unmediated access to reality. These neobaroque writers revalue complication, making their self-conscious inaccessibility and the difficulty of their writing part of its fascination and seduction. In this, they write against the mass-market models of consumption and advocate a slower, more attentive and measured reading that highlights the particularity of poetry and extends the limits of language.
In the last chapter, we confront the conjunction of poetry and technology. Again, as is the case for the theme of every chapter of this book, this idea does not mark a radical break with the past but another transformation of it, for poetry has already been altered by "technologies" such as writing and the book in its transformation from an oral to a written medium. In this case, though, I look at the intersection of the lyric with popular cultural forms such as film in my reading of Argentine Eliseo Subiela's film El lado oscuro del corazón. Subiela joins a popular cultural medium in film with an older language-based tradition (poetry) in a variety of ways that create an ironic commentary about Argentina in the 1990s. Chilean Alexis Figueroa's poetry offers a different example in his collection that opens a dialogue with television culture. His mass-mediatized poems lead to a discussion of hypertextuality and electronic poetry, and we see examples of this on a Uruguayan CD-ROM and several Argentine instances of poetry that can only exist in an electronic environment—in this case, the Internet. These artists demonstrate what can be done in different technological environments, how to incorporate and reformulate visual elements and traits from the nonprint media, and how these consequently alter our reading habits. This electronic poetry may confront the propagandistic use of language by the mass media, and it may also demonstrate an attempt to recuperate technology for art. This topic brings us back to issues of access and literacy, present in other chapters, to the matter of who the reading community for this kind of poetry is and how it is constructed. It also demonstrates how these changes in poetry's appearance, presentation, and performance can challenge our often normative definitions of what poetry is and what it can be.
The chapters do not trace a progression in poetry, either historical or stylistic; instead, they form a series of intersecting paths or motifs, an associative network, for themes overlap and echo one another, multiplying the possibilities for poetry as a practice and for its resonances in its readers. These themes may represent trends and offer insights into how the poetic medium works today, yet they do not pretend to be conclusive or definitive. The poems, artworks, and authors studied make forays into new territories and revisit old ones. Since they are contemporary, all of these writers' works are "in progress," just as all of my readings are in progress; they are incursions in the cultural field, part of a larger series of dialogues about poetry and the poetic, literature and culture at the most recent turn of the century.
I began this chapter with Octavio Paz's idea about poetry and modernity: "From its origins, modern poetry has been a reaction to, toward, and against modernity"; and his use of the term "modernity" may seem more problematic now. Taken out of the larger context of Paz's work, this quote is an accurate description of one element of what modern and even postmodern poetry does—for the implication is that it rereads or responds to modernity; in the process, it is both attracted to and repelled by it. But even painting the development of contemporary poetry in broad strokes, as I have done here, demonstrates that the situation is more complicated than this. There are not just two ways in which poetry responds to modernity, but manifold reactions to a plurality of modernities, as we will see in the readings that follow. George Yúdice has proposed that modernity in Latin America is a "series of necessarily unfinished products" ("Postmodernity and Transnational Capitalism," 20). Postmodernity, then, involves creating a succession of new relationships with these ongoing products and projects. The poetry studied here demonstrates these new relationships. They are associations that use elements of the Western lyric tradition in distinct cultural and historical situations, not to restore or to outdo that tradition, but to make something else—to renovate and to revamp tradition, to make it new. The authors and artists studied here unleash inherited or imposed languages and poetics to expand possibilities of communication, to enlarge "poetry" as a category of understanding, and to transform and confront cultural conceptions of what lyric poetry can do and be.