NUMBER ONE / SEPTEMBER 1998

 

 

 

THE AVANT-GARDE IN SPANISH AMERICA

The avant-garde was to have many and diverse ramifications in Spanish America, ranging from the ultraísta group in Buenos Aires centring around the reviews Prisma (1921-1922) and Proa (1922-1923), both of which were founded by Borges (b. 1899-1986), to the more politicized estridentista movement founded by Manuel Maples Arce (b. 1900) in Mexico City, whose main reviews were Actual, Hoja de vanguardia and Irradiador . [20] Contacts between Spain and Spanish America had always been close. Huidobro, as we have seen, played a crucial part in introducing the avant-garde to Spain; Borges, before returning to Buenos Aires in 1921, had played a major role in the Spanish ultraísta movement.21 One important precursor of the avant-garde interest in ideograms ought to be mentioned. As a result of a visit to Japan in 1900, José Juan Tablada (1871-1945) became interested in Japanese ideograms and in 1920 published Li-Po y otros poemas . Like Apollinaire's Calligrammes , Tablada's poems form verbal pattems which delineate a picture of the referent: [22]


The most representative and original collection of Spanish-American avant-garde poems, however, were written by a Peruvian, César Vallejo (1892-1938). His Trilce was published in Lima in 1922 and its recourse to experimental typographical techniques and the suppression of explicit links between sense-units places it firmly within the avant-garde movement. Vallejo's knowledge of the avant-garde was restricted to what he could glean from the various reviews which reached Lima from Madrid. As Alcides Spelucín remembers, Cervantes was read with great interest in Peru at that time. [23] As a result of his reading of Cervantes , Vallejo began using upper-case letters and word spacing in his poetry; and he suppresses the links between sense-units. But, there was a crucial difference between the work of the ultraístas and the poetry Vallejo was subsequently to write. Whereas the ultraístas possessed a 'culto a la imagen' (as Videla has argued, 20), Vallejo favoured the auditory sensorium. Words are used in Trilce less for their visual evocative power than for their propensity to work together as sounds. In Trilce , as André Coyne has pointed out, 'el ojo casi no tiene papel ninguno'. [24 ] In Tr.LXV , for example, the poet is anticipating his future home-coming, but the poem declines to deliver a clear-cut visual image of the reunion. In the description given of the seat which is waiting like a grandfather for the retum of the child, attention is drawn to the auditory correlation between the sounds of the words rather than the phenomenonal world:


Me esperará mi sillón ayo,
aquel buen quijarudo trasto de dinástico
cero, que pára no más rezongando a las nalgas
tataranietas, de correa a correhuela.

The reader's attention is drawn away from the visual scene to a focussing on phonetic similitude, in terms of alliteration within a word ('tataranietas') or a slight phonetic difference between words ('correa a correhuela'). In the immediately following stanza, the juxtaposition of phonetically similar words gives the impression that the poem is created out of the differences between sounds, rather than a pre-conceived visual scene:

 

Oh si se dispusieran los tácitos volantes
para todas las cintas más distantes,
para todas las citas más distintas. [25]

The slight difference between 'cinta-cita' and 'distantes-distintas' tends to prioritize the signifier over and above the signified. In Vallejo's Trilce , the meaning of the poem is generated out of the sound, rather than vice-versa. Vallejo used the typographical inventiveness of the ultraístas as a springboard for a far deeper epistemological revolution.

 

THE AVANT-GARDE IN CATALONIA

Given that contacts between Paris and Barcelona had always beer closer than between the French capital and Madrid, it is perhaps nol surprising that the avant-garde made an early impact on the literary world of Barcelona. Since the end of the century, many Catalan writers had traditionally spent some time in Paris as part of their literary apprenticeship. But during the First World War, many French intellectuals had fled in the opposite direction to the relative safety of Barcelona, which strengthened ties still further. In 1915 Josep M. Junoy published his famous caligrammatic poem 'Oda a Guynemer' in the Barcelona review Iberia ; it was eventually translated into French and was even commented upon by Apollinaire himself. In 1917 Francis Picabia, who was residing in Barcelona at the time, began publishing his review 391 there. In the same year Junoy founded the avant- garde review Trossos . At around this time Folguera and Foix began publishing translations of contemporary avant-garde French and Italian poets in Catalan literary journals and Joan Salvat-Papasseit brought out his first avant-garde poems and manifestoes. The avant-garde in Catalonia soon came to crystallize around four main figures: Josep M. Junoy, J.V. Foix, Joaquim Folguera and Joan Salvat-Papasseit. [26] In 1920 Junoy published a collection of caligrammatic poems Poemes i cal.ligrammes ; the influence of the avant-garde was less sustained in the work of Foix (mainly restricted to some poems written in the 1920s) and in the work of Folguera (a few poems from Traduccions i fragments published in 1921). Of the four Catalan poets, Salvat-Papasseit was the most representative of the avant-garde spirit, publishing Poemes en ondes hertzianes (1919) and L'irradiador del port i les gavines (1921), both of which were overtly strident in their publicising of avant-garde techniques. Also famous are his manifestoes Mots propris (1917), Concepte del poeta (1919), and Contra els poetes amb minúscula (1920).

Most typically the avant-garde Catalan poems imitated the work of Apollinaire's Calligrammes . Folguera's poem 'Músics cecs de carrer' from Traduccions i fragments (1921) is dedicated to Apollinaire. The lines themselves are written in a wavy fashion as if to capture the idea of music frequency waves travelling through the air:

 

Llàgrimes de musica relliscant sobre pega grega
vibració de cordes i de nervis i d'aire
aigües tèrboles que s'agiten i malflairen
draps verds mans grogues cordes blanques
ulls d'àgata serena i polida
màxima pressió del gemec musical
degotall de melodia oliosa
multitud tangent
và1vula lilerària
mendicitat
puccini
(Poesia catalana del segle XX , 226)

 

The gradual reduction of the length of the lines gives the impression of a musical refrain tailing off in the distance. The lack of punctuation seeks to undermine the compartmentalization of sensations into separate categories. Sounds, colours, smells are amalgamated into one single simultaneous sense-impression. Eyes of 'serene and polished agate' are juxtaposed with 'white strings'; not only is the link between successive images indeterminate but the referent of images of this kind is also obscure. The free play of the signifier ultimately forestalls semantic closure within the poem. 'Músics cecs de carrer' ends abruptly on a note of abstraction ('mendicitat / puccini'), contrasting vividly with the opening of the poem which emphasized sensual impressions.

The avant-garde spirit made less of a deep impression in the work of Foix who is famous for his often-quoted statement, 'M'exalta el nou i m'enamora el vell'. This meant that he often combined a spectrum of literary allusion ranging from Llull to the Futurists and Apollinaire.27 Foix was more conservative in his use of avant-garde techniques, eschewing the more showy aspects of the movement. There are few examples of typographical experimentation in his work, for example. A poem dedicated to Salvat-Papasseit from the collection Sol, i de dol is representative of Foix's allusion to the avant-garde:

 

Ah!, si amb levites de verda llustrina
Ens amaguéssim darrere aquells sacs
Per quan vindran les noies, i, manyacs,
Cantéssim nadalenques amb sordina!

I, si plogués, darrere una cortina
Coféssim la corona com els Mags,
I en fer petar per la cambra els xerracs
Tothom digués que som de rel divina!

O anéssim tots plegats cap a les pistes
I amb la raqueta empaitéssim ocells
Mentre els estels fan niu al cim dels tells

I els núvols, a ponent, són ametistes
Que dibuixen la gepa dels camells
On cavalquem amb barbes futuristes! [28]

 

It is highly paradoxical to write a sonnet with a classieal metrical form which ends with a reference to 'Futurist beards', yet Foix was well aware of this paradox and he exploits it here to the full. The text as a whole is couched in the conditional tense describing hypothetical absurd actions (singing Christmas carols behind sacks, shaking rattles, hunting birds with rackets) all of which contrast vividly with the clipped classical style of the sonnet. The last stanza strikes a typically avant-garde note in its fusion of disparate realities within one discordant image. Clouds become amethysts which are like the outline of camel humps; to round off the absurdity of the image, the group of avant-garde poets are pictured as riding on the camels with 'Futurist beards'. In its fusion of the traditional (Christmas Carols, the Three Kings, the camels) and the iconoclastic, the poem is typical of Foix's avant-garde work which tones down the iconoclasm of the movement, but is able to frame its insights skillfully within a traditional framework. Nothing could be more outlandish than a group of Futurist poets on camels masquerading as The Three Wise Kings, and yet it retains its traditional focus through expression within the sonnet form.

Salvat-Papasseit was clearly the standard-bearer of the Catalan avant-garde in Barcelona in the first two decades of the century. His 'Columna vertebral: sageta de foc' from Poemes en ondes hertzianes captures the iconoclasm of the avant-garde spirit. The poem opens on a vitalist note:

 

LLUITA x BELLES GESTES I ACCIONS = Eterna espiral
vers l'Infinit

VICTORIA

VOLUNTAT x UN DESIG BOIG DE CORRER; i córrer sempre
als cims, així com fuig la cérvola.

JOVENTUT

 

Later on in the poem various empirical and hermeneutical systems, such as 'experiència, moral, sistemes de govern, sistemes filosòfics, religions' are dismissed as sophisms: 'Sofismes els sofismes per als qui només veuen amb els ulls del cervell'. Those who see with their 'mind's eye' can perceive these systems for what they really are. The poems's all-embracing iconoclasm reaches also into the political sphere:


Mes... si cal governar i dirigir,
agafeu una tralla.
Us estimaran més, i àdhuc obeiran
- NO VULGUEU GOVERNAR
(Poesia catalana del segle XX , 256-57)

In its recourse to a Swift-like irony to describe the best method of goveming people (the whip), the poem proclaims its anti-bourgeois and anarchistic status, especially in the imperative 'NO VULGUEU GOVERNAR'. As a whole the poem strongly recalls Marinetti's aesthetics in its anarchistic attitude towards established forms of government and its espousal of the strong and the young. Salvat-Papasseit's 'Marxa nupcial' from L'irradiador del port i les gavines (1921) is another good example of the poet's deconstruction of bourgeois mythologies. Contrary to the reader's expectations about the dignified ceremony of a wedding march, which are elicited by the poem's title, the setting is that of a circus. The poem is interrupted half-way through by the description in a suitable typographical form of an obscene poster. The deconstruction of mythology is carried into the sphere of language - some words are capitalised, other words are enclosed within caligrammatic shapes. The opening of the poem demonstrates how the text of the poem is in an antagonistic relationship with its title:

 

Llum de l'IRRADIADOR camaleònic damunt
l'estrella del Circ encara hexagonal

Exit! Exit!! Exit!!!

CLOWNS equilàters líders romàntics
Això és sa i en les constel.lacions de quatre barrets
cònics

La terra només gira perquè jo sóc aquí i jo sóc un

PALLASSO que agonitza
(Poesia catalana del segle XX , p. 253)

What is perhaps most disorientating about this poem is its juxtaposition of the world of the circus and its associations with a happy-go-lucky life, and the existential anguish which surfaces in lines seven and eight. It is clear from many of the images used throughout this poem that Salvat-Papasseit is fascinated with geometric shapes; in only the first eight lines of the poem, for example, quoted above, he uses geometric terms such as 'hexagonal', 'equilàters' and 'cònics', demonstrating the similarity of his artistic aims to that of the Cubists. Like the Cubists, the Catalan poet was striving to show the geometric forms which structure our own perception of the universe. In particular Salvat-Papasseit's injection of space into the verbal medium is similar to the concept behind the work of a fellow Catalan artist Julio González whose aim in his metal sculptures was to 'draw in space'. [29] The last two lines of the poem ('i així seré immortal perquè d'aquí ha nascut el meu / JO dins el TOT') are deliberately shocking and have the aggressive emphasis on metaphysical discovery normally associated with the Futurists.

The three areas which are the most representative of the hispanic avant-garde spirit ---creacionismo , ultraísmo and their equivalent in Catalonia - are linked by their dependence on and initial inspiration by the Parisian avant-garde, and above all Apollinaire. The poems demonstrate an interest in the pictorial and spatial qualities of the written word and often show great ingenuity in their use of typographical devices, such as the use of capitals letters, word-spacing and picture-poems. Underlying this incorporation of pictograms into the text is the syncretistic desire to integrate other fields of artistic discovery, such as the visual arts, and even music as in the case with Folguera's 'Els músics cecs de carrer', within the inescapably verbal medium of the poem. Typographic experimentation of this kind was rooted in a logocentric deconstruction of the linear and consecutive propulsion of the written word in favour of a poetics of simultaneity. In the case of Vallejo this led to a radical exploitation of the phonetic propensities of language. By exploring the picture-power and the sound-value of the signifier the hispanic avant-garde strove to open up the surface-value of language, thereby eliding its essentialist properties.

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Notes:

1. Quoted by Teodosio Fernández , La poesía hispanoamericana en el siglo XX (Madrid: Taurus, 1987). 14.

2. Cedomil Goic, 'Vicente Huidobro: datos biográficos'. Vicente Huidobro y el creacionismo (Madrid: Taurus, 1975). 27-59 (38-41).

3. Cansinos-Assén's article was entitled 'Un gran poeta chileno: Vicente Huidobro y el creacionismo' and is reprinted in Vicente Huidobro y el creacionismo , ed. R. de Costa, 119-24. Huidobro's questioning of Cansinos-Asséns's contention is from an interview with Angel Cruchaga 'Conversando con Vicente Huidobro', originally published in El Mercurio, 31 August 1919, and reprinted, ib. 61-67 (61).

4. Enrique G6mez Carrillo, 'El cubismo y su estética', Vicente Huidobro y el creacionismo, ed. René de Costa.125-28 (125).

5. See Guillermo de Torre's 1962 essay 'La polémica del creacionismo: Huidobro y Reverdy', republished in Vicente Huidobro y el creacionismo, ed. René de Costa. 151-65.

6. Quoted by Juan-Jacobo Bajarlía, 'La leyenda negra contra Huidobro', Vicente Huidobro y el creacionismo ed. René de Costa. 167-208 (178).

7. Huidobro claimed that he got this idea from a South American Indian: 'El Poeta es un Dios; no cantes la lluvia, poeta, haz llover'; quoted in Poesía y prosa de Vicente Huidobro, ed. Antonio de Undurraga (Madrid: Aguilar, 1957) 78.

8. Quoted by Angel Cruchaga. 'Conversando con Vicente Huidobro-, Vicente Huidobro y el creacionismo. ed. René de Costa. 61-67 (63).

9. See Juan-Jacobo Bajarlía, 'La leyenda negra contra Huidobro', Vicente Huidobro y el creacionismo, ed. René de Costa. 167-228 (181).

10. Poesía y prosa de Vicente Huidobro , ed. Antonio de Undurraga (Madrid: Aguilar, 1957).

11. Quoted in George Heard Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880- 1940 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981) 279; a 'Proclama futurista a los españoles' specifically written for a Spanish audience was published in Prometeo in 1910; see Gloria Videla, El ultraísmo (Madrid: Gredos, 19O3) 18.

12. The desire to write avant-garde poems in French rather than one's native language may have been the cause, and not only the symptom, of the fact that the avant-garde only truly arrived in Spain from 1918 onwards. Marinetti, for example, had continued to write poems in French until c.1912; see Harold Osborne (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford O.U.P., 1981) 354. Huidobro did not write in Spanish until six years later.

13. Videla, 33. The writers concerned were Xavier Bóveda, César A. Comet, Fernando Iglesias, Guillermo de Torre, Pedro Iglesias Caballero, Pedro Garfias, J. Ruiz Panedas, and J. de Aroca.

14. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (London: Routledge. 1934) 125.

15. Gerardo Diego. Poesía de creación (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1974) 42. A similar idea is expressed in 'Antipoema' when the poet exclaims: 'Qué pocos cantos sabe el ruiseñor / Se aprenden en seguida Cuéntalos'. 93.

16. 'Reader Cognition and the Dialectical Imagery in the Poetry of Gerardo Diego', At Home and Beyond: New Essays on Spanish Poets of the Twenties . Ed. Salvador Jiménez and John C. Wilcox (Lincoln, Nebraska: SSSAS, 1983) 77-86 (81).

17. George Heard Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981) 237.

18. See David Bary, Nuevos estudios sobre Huidobro y Larrea (Valencia: Pre-Textos, 1984) 1346. For the interface between Larrea and Diego, see Juan Larrea: cartas a Gerardo Diego 1916-1980 , ed. E. Cordero de Ciria and J.M. Díaz de Guereñu (San Sebastián: Mundaíz, 1986).

19. Nancy B. Mandlove, 'Ultraísmo and Tradition: Two Sonnets of Gerardo Diego', At Home and Beyond: New Essays on Spanish Poets of the Twenties . Ed. Salvador Jiménez and John C. Wilcox (Lincoln, Nebraska: SSSAS, 1983) 69-76 (75).

20. For a discussion of these movements, as well as other avant-garde movements in Spanish-America, see Teodosio Fernández, La poesía hispanoamericana en el siglo XX (Madrid: Taurus, 1987) 28-37: H.J. Verani. Las vanguardias literarias en Hispanoamérica (Rome: Bulzoni, 1986); F. Schopf, Del vanguardismo a la antipoesía (Rome: Bulzoni. 1986): and G. Videla, 'Direcciones hispanoamericanas del ultraísmo, RCL , 27-28 (1986): 189-96.

21. See Linda S. Maier, 'Three "New" Avant-garde Poems of Jorge Luis Borges', MLN , 102 (1987):393-89.

22. Poesía en movimiento . México, 1915-1966. Ed. Octavio Paz, Ali Chumacero, José Emilio Pacheco and Homero Aridjis (México: Siglo Ventiuno Editores, 1979) 450. For more information on Tablada's sources see Adriana Garcia de Aldridge 'Las fuentes chinas de José Juan Tablada' BHS , LX (1983) 109-19.

23. Aula Vallejo 2-3-4 , ed. Juan Larrea (Córdoba: Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, 1902) 105.

24. César Vallejo y su obra poética (Lima: Letras Peruanas, 1958) 125.

25. César Vallejo. Obra poética completa (Lima: Mosca Azul, 1973) 169.

26. Joaquim Molas and Josep M. Castellet, Poesia catalana del segle XX (Barcelona Edicions 62, 1963) 53. For an excellent discussion of the avant-garde movement in Catalonia the reader is referred to the introductory essay in J. Molas, La literatura catalana d'avantguarda 1916-1938: seleccio. edicio i estudi (Barcelon: Bosch, 1983) 15-90, as well as the same author's introduction in Joan Salvat--Papasseit: Poemes (Barcelona: Ariel, 1979) vii-xcii. This should be balance with Geoffrey Ribbans's study of Salvat-Papasseit, Foix and Riba in 'La temptació de l'absolut a la lirica catalana del segle XX', in Actes del sisè Col.loqui internacional de llengua i literatura catalanes: Roma, 1982. Ed. G. Tavani and J. Pinell (Montserrat: Abadia de Montserrat, 1983) 293-306. For a discussion of the impact of Apollinaire's poetry in Catalonia between 1916 and 1924, see W. Bohn, 'Guillaume Apollinaire: homage to Catalonia', Symposium 33 (1979), 101-18. For a discussion of concrete poetry in the Catalan avant-garde see the same author's two important articles, 'Joan Salvat-Papasseit and visual form', KRQ 30 (1983), 29-44, and 'The visual poetry of J. M. Junoy', Hispanófila 84 (1985), 51- 69. For a reading stressing Salvat-Papasseit's roots in the avant-garde, see C. Miralles, 'Per a una lectura de Salvat-Papasseit', Reduccions 17 (1982): 45-69, and the introduction in Joan Salvat-Papasseit: Selected Poems, translation and introduction by Dominic Keown and Tom Owen (Oxford: the Anglo-Catalan Society, 1982) 7-20.

27. See Arthur Terry, Catalan Lilerature (London: Ernest Benn, 1972)104-05.

28. J.V Foix: antologia poética , Ed. Pere Gimferrer (Barcelona: Edicions 62 1984) 51.

29. See Penelope Curtis. 'Julio González: fact and fiction'. Julio González: Sculptures and Drawings (London: Whitechapel An Gallery, 1990) 9-23.

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