Stephen M. Hart
University of Kentucky


The avant-garde was characterized in Spain, as in other parts of Europe, and in Spanish America by a vigorous rejection of the past, and a no less vigorous promotion of everything new. The past was epitomized by the poetry of Ruben Darío and the new was emblematized by the city, the automobile and the modem technology. By the time the avant-garde arrived, modernismo as a movement was already in decline. In a now-famous sonnet published in 1911 the Mexican poet Enrique González Martínez had admonished his contemporaries: 'Tuércele el cuello al cisne' (Los senderos ocultos) . [1] The two specifically hispanic movements which are associated with the avant-garde are creacionismo (founded by the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro along with the French poet Pierre Reverdy) and ultraísmo . As we shall see, it is not easy to separate these two movements either ideologically or chronologically. They have many features in common with Gerardo Diego acting as an axis figure playing a significant part in both movements. However, I intend to study the two movements separately, and to conclude with a study of the avant-garde in Catalonia, with special reference to the work of Joan Salvat-Papasseit.



Before going to Paris towards the end of 1916, Vicente Huidobro was already an established writer in his native Chile. There, he had published numerous collections of poetry, Ecos del alma ( 1911), Canciones en la noche (1913), La gruta del silencio (1913), Adán (1916), as well as a collection of his critical essays, and he had been the director of the literary review Musa Joven . On arriving in the French capital he became swiftly integrated into the literary set. He collaborated assiduously in the monthly literary review Nord-Sud and formed a close literary relationship with Pierre Reverdy who was the director of the review. Other avant-garde artists such as Apollinaire, Tzara, Paul Dermée, Cocteau, Breton, Aragon, and Max Jacob also collaborated in Nord-Sud . While in Paris Huidobro also met Picasso, Juan Gris, Francis Picabia, Joan Miró, Max Ernst and Paul Eluard. Largely as a result of being inspired by the avant-garde spirit, and particularly Apollinaire's Calligrammes (1914), Huidobro began experimenting with the typographical layout of his poems. His Horizon carrée (1917), written entirely in French, was the fruit of his experience of avant- garde techniques. It is perhaps understandable therefore that when Huidobro visited Madrid in the summer of 1918 he was introduced as an avant-garde Messiah by one of the leading literary figures of the day, Rafael Cansinos- Asséns. The literary coterie that he set up there in his Madrid residence attracted leading literary figures of the day such as Gerardo Diego, Guillermo de Torre, as well as Cansinos-Asséns. [2] It was largely as a result of Huidobro's charismatic presence that the latter decided to initiate his own literary coterie and found an avant-garde movement which would eventually be baptised ultraísmo (see below).

The patemity of the movementcreacionismo is a much-debated issue. Huidobro clearly believed that he was the sole founder of creacionismo . Thus, he objected to Rafael Cansinos-Asséns contention in an essay on Huidobro published in Cosmópolis on New Year's Day 1919 that he had been influenced by Reverdy's Les ardoises du toit . [3] Pierre Reverdy happened to be in Madrid the following year, and an infommal interview that took place between him and Enrique G6mez Carrillo was subsequently published in El Liberal on 30 June 1920. In his interview, Reverdy rejected the idea that Huidobro had been the founder of creacionismo , arguing instead that Huidobro had deliberately pre-dated one of his books in order to make it appear as if he had been the real founder of the movement.4 By this stage, the two poets had fallen out, and many bitter accusations followed, such that it is difficult to separate the truth from the fiction. Even Guillermo de Torre, who gave his own account in 1920 of what happened, admitted years later that he had at first played down Huidobro's role as initiator for personal reasons. [5] It is clear that in terms of the patemity of the movement, each of the poets had experienced an acute form of Bloom's 'anxiety of influence' to such an extent that they each intentionally misread the work of the other, and therefore marginalized it as a false discourse. Critic/writers themselves such as Guillermo de Torre and Juan Larrea have themselves also become entangled in the ever-elusive net of artistic patemity. It is almost a classic example of two 'strong' poets, to use Bloom's term, unwilling at any cost to deny themselves the status of father-figure with regard to others.

The theory behind creacionismo can be summarised as follows: the movement espouses a non-representational art not based on copying nature but on an iconoclastic gesture which imitates nature's creative essence by creating something entirely new. As Huidobro suggested in a lecture given at the Ateneo in Santiago de Chile: 'Non serviam. No he de ser tu esclavo, madre Natura; seré tu amo... Yo tendré mis arboles que no serán como los tuyos, tendré mis montañas, tendré mis rios y mis mares, tendré mi cielo y mis estrellas'. [6] This idea was echoed in Huidobro's poem 'Arte poetica' from El espejo de agua (1916):

Por que cantais la rosa ¡oh, Poetas!
Hacedla florecer en el poema;

Sólo para nosotros
Viven todas las cosas bajo el Sol.

El Poeta es un pequeño Dios. [7]

Huidobro elaborated on the meaning of creacionismo in an interview he had with Angel Cruchaga which was published in El Mercurio on 31 August 1919:

Nuestra divisa fue un grito de guerra contra la anécdota y la descripción, esos dos elementos extraños a toda poesía pura y que durante tantos siglos han mantenido el poema atado a tierra. En mi modo de ver el "creacionismo" es la poesía misma: algo que no tiene por finalidad, ni narrar, ni describir las cosas de la vida, sino hacer una totalidad lírica independiente en absoluto. Es decir, ella misma es su propia finalidad. [8]

It is interesting that Huidobro should have used the term 'poesía pura' since this came eventually to have a specific resonance in the Spanish lyric.

Yet the kemel of Huidobro's poetics can be reduced to his emphasis upon an autonomous, non-referential art-form which rejects narration and description understood in a realist sense. One other important point was raised by the interviewer which deserves mention here, and this was the absence of punctuation in the creacionista poem. As Huidobro argued, this was necessary since 'en nuestros poemas en los cuales por razón misma de su estructura y dado que las diferentes partes van hiriendo distintamente la sensibilidad del lector, es más 1ógico cambiar la puntualizaci6n por blancos y espacios' ('Conversando con Vicente Huidobro', 64). This could lead to some disorientation for the reader, as Huidobro went on to point out. His poetry itself would seem to bear this out, as we shall see.

What is immediately striking about the Chilean poet's creacionista poetry is its innovative use of typography. The latter was characterized by three related features: the use of capital letters, the lack of any punctuation, and the positioning of words and/or phrases at seemingly irregular intervals. All of these three examples of experimentation with typographical layout could be traced back to Mallarmé, as Huidobro was the first to point out (Angel Cruchaga, 'Conversando con Vicente Huidobro', 62). Huidobro had in fact published a caligram as early as 1913, but his personal contact with Apollinaire in Paris from 1917 onwards and his reading of the latter's celebrated Calligrammes must have been decisive. [9] Yet Huidobro was to infuse these typographical devices with a life of their own, using them as linguistic signs of spiritual alienation and the disintegration of the self. Despite the rather dismissive words Huidobro had for Marinetti, his avant- garde works show an interest in a fast style of life characteristic of the modem age. The opening poem of Poemas árticos , for example, typically called 'Expres', mentions six European cities in the first four lines, London, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Naples and Zürich (Prosa y poesía , p. 211). [10] The final section of Ecuatorial in a similar way portrays the poetic self rushing around the world at a breathtaking speed.


Henos aquí viajando entre los santos

El tren es un trozo de la ciudad que aleja
El anunciador de estaciones
Ha gritado


Al lado izquierda
30 minutos


Pasa el tren lleno de flores y de frutos

El Niágara ha mojado mis caballos
Y una neblina nace en torno de ellos
(Poesía y prosa , p. 250)

Yet, more typically, Huidobro's poems express an existential anguish unrelated to Marinetti's vibrant optimism in speed and the new technology. The blanks and spaces between the words convey a sense of the moral bankruptcy of the modern world. Life is experienced as a disjointed series of sense impressions lacking an ultimate coherence. The novelty of the modern world is often emphasized by the juxtaposition of the old and the new, as in Ecuatorial where the Three Wise Kings are mentioned in the same breath as lifts: 'los Reyes Magos se han dormido / Los ascensores descansan en cuclillas' (Poesía y prosa , 248-49). 'Universo' from Poemas árticos is a good example of the nihilism underlying the use of words scattered across the blank page:

Bajo la enramada
Una corona solidificada

En dónde estamos

El mundo ha cambiado de lugar
Y estrellas falsas brillan en el cielo

Cordajes de guitarra sobre el mar

La sombra es algo que alza el vuelo

Junto al arco voltaico
Un aeroplano daba vueltas

En el aire un pañuelo

Y ninguna casa tenía puertas

 Un lago oblicuo  El camino sobre
 Hace el espacio  el campo inverso
Mañana será el fin del universo
(Poesía y prosa , 232)

Many of the phrases used here seem to stand out as separate autonomous sense-units. In empirical and logical terms there is little connection between the 'false stars' mentioned in the fifth line of the poem and the reference to 'stringings of guitar over the sea' which immediately follows. The disparatedness of the two sense-impressions is enhanced by the blank space of the white page separating the two sense units. Much the same could be said of the other bundles of images juxtaposed throughout the poem. Because of its semantic indeterminacy and its suppression of punctuation, Huidobro's text inevitably deals in 'double grammar'; the verbal phrase 'daba vueltas', for example, could modify 'Un aeroplano' or 'un pañuelo' mentioned in the following line. In this way the poem seeks to underline the impression of simultaneity. By deliberately undermining the linear drive of language, Huidobro strives to present these different sense-impressions in terms of their simultaneity. We find a very characteristically ironic treatment of time in another poem 'El amor' from Ecuatorial in which the words 'ALFA DILUVIO OMEGA ARCO-IRIS' are silhouetted in capitals against the lower-case description of a mundane reality (Prosa y poesía , 251). As so often in Huidobro's work, capital letters are the emotional axis of the poem, the semantic hub from which the secondary images draw their ultimate significance.

More typically in Huidobro's poetry, thoughts are not rendered according to any logical sequentiality. Particularly ambiguous is the reference in line eleven of the poem quoted above, 'And no house had any doors' which seems to have little to do with the other images mentioned in the poem. Throughout the text, the focus of the reader is displaced away from any sequential or syntactic hermeneutical system towards a non-logical, simultaneous and impressionist concept of meaning. Through the lack of any clear experiential focus provided by the poetic voice, Huidobro's text articulates what Julia Kristeva has called the 'sujet en procès', a non-stable textual personality. The lack of any ultimate transcendental centre to the poem's signifying process leads to the free play of signifiers trapped in a perpetually recurring and vicious circle. Each image becomes a deflection of and deferral from the endless process of meaning configurations. The ending of the poem 'Mañana será el fin del mundo' does not offer the possibility of semantic closure. since it merely points the poem futurewards. The central issue of the poem clusters around the rhetorical half-question which emerges in the third line, 'En dónde estamos', a line which epitomizes the existential 'lostness' of the poem. This feeling which is further enhanced by the blank spaces which threaten menacingly to engulf the linguistic traces which are all that is left of the hermeneutical struggle. Of paramount importance is the fact that this poem, like so many of Huidobro's creacionista works, is non-representational, that is, it does not refer us back to a recognisably previous 'state' or 'experience' which the poem then seeks to represent. Rather than (re)-presenting experience, Huidobro's text is its own finality, as he pointed out in the interview with Cruchaga quoted above.



Ultraísmo was an avant-garde poetic movement centring around Madrid in the years 1918-1922. Its main contribution to the history of Spanish and Spanish-American literature is confined to poem and manifestoes published in reviews published during that period, such as Cervantes , Grecia and Ultra , and the most prominent figures within the movement were Gerardo Diego, Juan Larrea, Guillermo de Torre and Borges. But of course ultraísmo did not spring into being ready-made in 1918. It was the result of a variety of factors, which were evolving in the gestation period before its official baptism. Important precedents were the Italian Futurist Marinetti, the Spanish humourist Ramón Gómez de la Serna, the creacionista Vicente Huidobro, and Rafael Cansinos-Asséns, who acted as a kind of literary Maecenas for the up-and-coming writers of the time.

The first appearance of the avant-garde spirit in Spain was the Spanish translation of Filipo Tommaso Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto which was published in the sixth number of Ramón Gómez de la Serna's review Prometeo in 1909; the original article had been published in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro on 20 February of the same year and had demanded the obliteration of the cult and culture of the past and the creation of a new society, as well as a new art based on velocità: 'We shall sing the law of danger, the habit of energy, boldness... We declare that the world's splendour has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile, its hood adorned with great pipes like snakes with explosive breath... a roaring automobile, which seems to run like a machine-gun, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace ."' Marinetti's enthusiasm for modernity as exemplified by speed, dynanism and the machine was eventually to find favour with the Spanish ultraístas , but his programme of extreme nationalism and colonial expansionism largely fell on deaf ears. The ultraístas eschewed politics as simply another alienating language. Yet, it was not until nine years after Marinetti's first manifesto that the avant-garde spirit was to be firmly entrenched in Spain. In the intervening years, Ramón Gómez de la Serna was to prove an important influence, mainly through his Greguerías , which though only published in book form in 1917, could be read in Promoteo over the intervening years. In their celebrated formula 'humorismo + metáfora = greguería', Gómez de la Serna's witticisms were to amuse his contemporaries and prepare the ground for the current of full- blown avant-garde which was to follow. Many of the 'greguerías were, in essence, extended metaphors of everyday objects, as in the following witticism: 'En otoño deberían caer todas las hojas de los libros' (quoted by Videla, 20). The humour is based on a comparison between the two lexical items both of which are described using the word 'hoja' (in English as much as in Spanish) and the sense of incongruity that this comparison brings about. This touch of light humour was to be a recurrent feature of the poetry written by the ultraístas , and it is in this sense that Gómez de la Serna's work must be seen as having a formative influence. The ultraístas , for example, lacked the kind of aggressive and nihilistic black humour of the Dadaists.

It is ironic perhaps that it should have been a non-Spaniard who would finally catalyse the first inklings of the avant-garde spirit into life. Vicente Huidobro's arrival in Madrid during the summer of 1918 was to prove crucial. Already a highly-respected figure of the Parisian avant-garde, having published avant-garde poetry in French, Huidobro brought a breath of fresh air to his Spanish contemporaries. While in Paris he had worked alongside Pierre Reverdy, who would one day form part of André Breton's literary entourage . He introduced Guillermo de Torre to Sonia and Robert Delauny and a group of Polish painters such as Wladyslaw Jahl and Marjan Paszkiewickz (Videla, El ultraísmo , 27). It is likely that Huidobro made all the more impact on Spanish literary circles because 1918 was the year in which his first genuinely avant-garde works were published in Spanish, such as Ecuatorial and Poemas árticos , both of which carne out that year. [12] It was largely as a result of the inspiring visit of Huidobro that Rafael Cansinos-Asséns founded a literary coterie which would meet on Saturdays from the autumn of 1918 onwards in the Café Colonial in Madrid.

By October 1918 ultraísmo could be said to have begun to exist as a literary group in Madrid. In that month the first 'Ultra' manifesto was published in the Madrid press. Signed by writers most of whom have subsequently been consigned to oblivion, the manifesto spoke (rather vaguely) of how 'en nuestro credo cabrán todas las tendencias sin distinción, con tal que exprese un anhelo nuevo'. [l3] The movement was clearly still at an embyonic stage. A far more perceptive manifesto was published three years later in 1921 entitled 'Proclama' in the Buenos Aires review Prisma , although this was at a point in time when the movement as a whole was approaching its demise. The document, which was signed by Borges, Guillermo Juan, Eduardo González Lanuza, and Guillermo de Torre, and reprinted in Ultra , no. 21, on New Year's Day 1922 gave greater emphasis to linguistic matters: 'Hemos sintetizado la poesía en su elemento primordial: la metáfora, a la que concedemos una máxima independencia, más allá de los juegitos de aquellos que comparan entre sí cosas de forma semejante, equiparando con un circo a la luna. Cada verso de nuestros poemas posee su vida individual i representa una visión inédita. El ultraísmo propende así a la formación de una mitología emocional i variable' (quoted by Videla, 201). As we shall see, the emphasis on the more extreme forms of comparison within the metaphor is of paramount importance. Despite the courageous efforts of its followers, ultraísmo in general met with a rather frosty reaction from the Literary Establishment. A reading of some ultraísta poems at the Parisiana in Madrid on 28 January 1921, the first venture of its kind, did not meet with a favourable reaction. The poems were greeted with stony silence or hoots of laughter. A second attempt at introducing ultraísmo to a wider audience at the Ateneo in Madrid on 30 April of the same year was also a flop, as Guillermo de Torre was later to recall sadly (Videla, 84-86).

Most of the major contributions to ultraísmo were published in contemporary literary reviews which either took a new direction and became ultraísta organs, such as Grecia (Sevilla-Madrid: 1918-1920), and Cervantes (Madrid: founded in 1916 and ultraísta from 1919), or were ultraísta from their inception such as Ultra (Madrid: 1921-1922), Tableros (Madrid: 1921- 1922), Perseo (Madrid: 1919), Reflector (Madrid: 1920), Horizonte (Madrid: 1922), Alfar (La Coruña: 1921-1927), Parábola (Castilla: 1923, 1927-1928), and Ronsel (Lugo: 1924) (Videla, 49-61). From the dates of the main reviews given here it is clear that ultraísmo as a movement lasted from 1918 until 1922, and petered out gradually after that date. Up to the present time, these contributions have not yet been collected together in one edition; they remain dispersed in various joumals.

Ultraísmo , as Gloria Videla has argued, as a literary movement, 'se caracteriza entre otras cosas, por el culto a la imagen, por la tendencia a la evasión y al juego, la exclusi6n del mundo sentimental y heroico, el logro ingenioso, la intranscendencia del arte, el humorismo' (Videla, 20). One other factor which deserves special mention is the experimental use of typography. Behind the various image-pictures used by the avant-garde poets who were largely following in Apollinaire's footsteps lies the desire to fuse the expressive qualities of the plastic arts with the unavoidably verbal representation of the poem. Their intention is to extend what Ezra Pound has called the phanopoeic qualities of language, namely, its picture-power.'' [14]

Gerardo Diego of all the Spanish poets was clearly the one most impressed by Huidobro's aesthetics. One poem from his Imagen múltiple was entitled 'Creacionismo' and urged his contemporaries to carry on Huidobro's mission of re-writing the Universe:


¿No os parece, hermanos,
que hemos vivido muchos años en el sábado?
porque Dios nos lo daba todo hecho.
Y no hacíamos nada, porque el mundo
mejor que Dios lo hizo...
Hermanos. superemos la pereza.

Modelemos, creemos nuestro lunes,
nuestro martes y miércoles,
nuestro jueves y viernes.
Hagamos nuestro Génesis. [15]

Diego followed Huidobro also in his use of typographical techniques. Like his Chilean predecessor Diego avoided pictograms and concentrated rather on the spacing of words and the use of capital letters (although Diego used capital letters more sparingly than Huidobro). Typically Diego will use typographic spacing in order to conjure up a mental picture to reinforce verbal expression:


Y de mi corazón
las hojas

(Poesía de creación , 107)

In an essay 'Posibilidades creacionistas' published in Cervantes in October 1919, Diego described a scale of uses of the image, from the 'simple image' to the 'multiple image' characteristic of the avant-garde in which various semantic levels are evoked simultaneously: 'El creador de imágenes no hace ya prosa disfrazada; empieza a crear por el placer de crear (poeta-creador-niño-dios); no describe, construye; no evoca, sugiere; su obra apartada va aspirando a la propia independencia, a la finalidad de sí misma... La imagen debe aspirar a su definitiva liberación, a su plenitud en el último grado' (quoted by Videla, 109). 'Tren' from Imagen múltiple is a good example of the interplay of various levels within one image:


VENID conmigo

Cada estación es un poco de nido
El alma llora porque se ha perdido

Yo ella

como dos

golondrinas paralelas

Y arriba una bandada de estrellas mensajeras

El olvido

deposita sus hojas
en todos los caminos

Sangre Sangre de aurora

Pero no es más que agua

Agitando los árboles
llueven silencios
ahorcados en las ramas
(Poesía de creación , 62)

The poem employs many devices (typographic and otherwise) to convey the absence of the beloved. At the beginning of the poem, the movement of the train is compared to the flight of a bird; thus each station becomes like a nest, a moment of repose. The basic metaphor train-bird is subsequently opened out to reveal new avenues of association. The two train rails are compared to 'parallel swallows' in lines 3-5, the implication being that the two lovers will never meet again for all eternity. This idea is efffectively expressed in the forrn of the words themselves which reveal the mark of absence in the identical gaps within lines 3, 4 and 5. As the poem progresses a further level is drawn out of the basic metaphor. The stars above are seen as privy to the private human drama, for they have been transposed into 'a flock of messenger stars'. Relating back to the bird image is the subsequent idea of migration and the weather that normally accompanies this action (autumn: the wind is blowing leaves off the trees). Notice how in the last four lines of the poem, these leaves have now been transformed into 'strangled silences' which the trees are raining. It is at this point that the reader is inevitably sent back into the gestation process of the poem, having to re-read its polyphonic structure, re-explicating the blank spaces which appear in between the words. The poem, as Timothy G. Rodgers argues, 'offers to each reader the experience of his own intuition and cognition and, as a result, opens itself as a challenge to him'. [16] The gaps between the words are not merely blank spaces having a zero semantic value; they stand as images of the absence of the beloved, the silence of death. Diego thus imbues the empty spaces surrounding the words with a concrete texture, thereby echoing closely the use of space in the paintings of the Cubists. As George Heard Hamilton has pointed out with regard to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon , 'in the painting there is no free, originally unoccupied space in which the women have been discovered. Such space as there is has been generated, so to speak, by their bodies and by the intervals between them, and even then it is broken into jagged facets, as if it were a substance as dense as flesh itself. Space, like the light that exists only as a function of the pink and yellowish bodies is a function of the form rather than an environment for them'. [17] Diego's poem articulates a very similar conception of space to that described here, as indeed do many of the ultraístas ' poems.

Juan Larrea's poetry pertaining to the period 1918-1922 was also influenced by the avant-garde. Larrea's reading in particular of Huidobro's Poemas árticos proved to be decisive in his decision to follow a new artistic direction in his work. Larrea's interest in Huidobro's work would remain with him for many years. [18] His poetry of that period has all the signs of ultraísmo , namely, the suppression of transitions and links between images, the lack of narrative elements, free association, and freedom from the limitations of verse form: [19]


pasan las horas sonando el claxon
con un poco de humo que nunca fue mujer
sobre almohadones rojos
y los tranvías la cayada al hombro
arrastraban rielantes
las cintas de las sandalias.
Al poniente los parques pleamares
las olas gateaban a los árboles.
En un roble vetusto crió por vez primera
gorriones disipados,
voceaban la prensa mañanera.
Sirenas exaltadas mejor que plumas fuentes
peinadas hacia atrás las chimeneas
cantaban entre dientes.

This fragment from 'Cosmopolitano' published in Cervantes in November 1919 (quoted by Videla, 136) is aggressively avant-garde in its depiction of the hustle and bustle of the modern city. As we have already seen in th work of Huidobro and Diego, disparate sensations are fused into one image In Larrea's text the hours passing by are fused with the sound of car horns trams pass by with a crook on their arm. The point behind comparisons of this kind is to emphasize the novelty of life in the modern city by contrasting it to an archaic style of life (a shepherd's crook and sandle! contrasting with the speed of the tram). In this upside-down world, water is flooding onto dry land (the park). Equally redolent of the avant-garde is the double syntax present in the last three lines of the extract: the adjective 'peinadas' could refer at once to 'las chimeneas' and the noun 'fuentes' of the previous line. The final impression is one of varying sensations run int each other.

Guillermo de Torre's role in the movement was mainly that of a behind-the-scenes organiser and manifesto-writer rather than a poet, as Videla has suggested (Videla,140-1) yet his own poetry from Hélices (1922) does have some interest, particularly his haiku poems:

Otro árbol, con las manos
en los bolsillos, se ciñe
los collares del viento.

The clichéd anthropomorphic depiction of a tree is foregrounded; the tree seems to be hugging itself and also attempting to hug the wind. Here de Torre captures the specifically ludic side of ultraísmo , which was galvanised by Gómez de la Serna's Greguerías as we have already noted. Another haiku by him picks out a different feature witin a similar scene:

La tijera del viento
corta las cabelleras
de las espigas más esbeltas.
(Quoted by Videla. 142)

In a paradoxical image, the wind is described as like a pair of scissors trimming the trees' twigs. Yet this particular image does not have some of the shock value we normally associate with some of the more successful ultraísta poems.