THE WORD THAT HAS BEEN WRITTEN
By Carlos Adolfo Gutiérrez Vidal
20th century Mexican literature seems to be an act of devotion to history. What history? A history of ideas, political intrigues, and semi-glorious battles? A history of tension between conservative and liberal power cabals? A history of customs and private worlds as a reflection of economic or political change? Everywhere we look there is history in abundance. Why does history have all this weight beyond political and social actions?
We can say, with little doubt, that 19th century writers were more important as public figures than because of the artistic value of their work. As part of a new republic, Mexican literature took many elements from abroad. Since independence day and before the 1850s, Mexican writers had at least three options: to copy, to translate, or to give a local interpretation of foreign literatures. This kind of translational literature gives many Mexicans the opportunity to know the work of the French Romantics, so when the Romantic school coincided with Neoclassicism, we had a change in the conceptions of form in verse and prose.
Romanticism took as a basic tenant a great desire for freedom and an exacerbated nationalism, both things suited perfectly to insurgent and post-independent Mexico. That was the origin of two kinds of poetry; one was highly bucolic and took many elements from the local landscape; the other was civic poetry. The influence of the Neoclassic school produced a second romanticism, much more concerned with received forms, as well as with cosmopolitanism. The development of the post-Romantic period during the late 1800s set the stage for the emergence of Modernism.
If we look at the literary facts of two major proponents of Romanticism, even before the war for independence, Juan Manuel de Navarrete and Andrés Quintana Roo, we find some interesting things. Why did Quintana Roo's political speeches and essays seem like an essential part of the rush of events in his day? Why can we not say the same thing about his poetry? What is the importance of Navarrete's incursion into bucolic poetry? It is quite evident that Andrés Quintana Roo's political and social critique are still in force due to the country s political stasis -- it persists with impunity, in obtuse regulations and laws. Navarrete's bucolic poetry is important because it represents the first step in a process of finding an identity, a poetic entity that many people thought impossible.
Looking at the 19th century from a literary perspective, we find that Mexican poetry has always been at the vanguard of politics; Mexican poetry has become an intelligent and reflexive writing. Politics, however, has dealt with the entrenchment of power through the guise of liberal discourse. Narrative has been forced to deal with reality since politics has been little more than a game of appearances. Poetry has had to work from material related to the resultant absence.
Modernism was the first literary school born in Latin America for the rest of the world. It should not be confused with North American and European Modernism. Latin American Modernism was a post-Romantic school, easily identified by its use of metaphors, as well as its delicate conception of beauty and fantasy. Modernism was a very popular style in Mexico during the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century.
After the Mexican Revolution there were two important changes in the understanding of arts and culture. On one hand, the government assumed the responsibility of promoting Mexican arts as part of national identity, a servant to revolutionary principles. Then, as in the Soviet Union, politics and the arts went in the same direction. On the other hand, what we have called the Historical Avant-garde (Dadaism, Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism) influenced many aspects of Mexican cultural life. It was a time of political changes, a new conception of property and land use, a new political class pushing different kinds of laws and institutions. It is quite interesting to see how European avant-garde movements influenced state supported genres such as mural painting, as well as independent and underground movements like Stridentism, inspired more by early industrialization, the coming of electricity, and the implosion in urban life, than by official policies.
A literary group named Contemporaries subverted that tendency and introduced eroticism, psychoanalysis, and a more professional conception of writing. The movement started to translate some of the most contemporary texts of western literature, as it started to looked outside of its own heritage, and to write to gain a parity of vigor. It cultivated the essay (a somewhat different form of discourse than its Anglo-American counterpart), poetry, and translation, as well as establishing magazines and other periodicals. It started to make literature go in a direction different from politics, and it was persecuted by many institutions and social organizations.
The Contemporaries,' work, as well as Mexican government promotional policies, have defined the current characteristics of contemporary Mexican poetry, as a free and well-cultivated practice in the middle of a complex system of workshops, official publishing projects, and, more recently, state financial support.
In a society in which the spoken word has great importance, even more than the printed one, the assimilation of the image in literature has differed from its role in other western societies. First of all, we must bear in mind that most pre-Columbian Mexican writing was iconographic or ideogrammatic -- images used as writing. We must also keep in mind that most colonial- period images are also heavily laden with religious significance. We must keep before us the fact that most 19th century words and images were a vehicle for finding identity and for ideological reflection. Thus the assimilation of the image in Mexican literature has had its strongest and deepest influence mostly not on the form but on the sense of words.
In this selection of Mexican poetry, I have included some of the most important writers born between the 30s and 50s, as well as some poets from my generation. I hope this short selection can give you a general idea of the contemporary face, the searches and the gains, of a poetry enriched by migration and writings from different states of the country. These poems are as visual as words can be, and have a magical value that the spoken word has never had. Innovation here is in the use of words as extensions of the body, mind, and soul, as well as in conceits, rhythms, and sensory associations.
Here, you will find a religious and Dionysiac approach to life (Elsa Cross), as well as cathartic and delicate blasphemies (Ofelia Pérez Sepúlveda). I have included poetry that plays with common sense and the sense of words, with prosaic structures, colloquialism, and the classic forms of verse (Gerardo Deniz, Eduardo Milán, José Leonel Torres, Roberto López Moreno, Luis Vicente de Aguinaga), prose poems as patterns of the sense of life and the reflexive soul (Jorge Esquinca, Víctor Ortiz Partida, Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz), epics of love (Mariana Bernárdez) and of misery (Armando Alanís Pulido), and poets as those who walk in a lonely world (Mónica Nepote, Minerva Margarita Villarreal, Fabio Morábito), a wor(l)d for others.
I have chosen poets with different voices and interests. This selection is just a small sample of contemporary Mexican poetry, but perhaps it can give you an idea of how writers from different parts of the country use their art as a way to write an alternative history.
Go to Carlos Adolfo Gutiérrez Vidal's Selection of Contemporary Mexican Poetry
Whose Border? / La Frontera żde Quién?
Go to Light and Dust Poets
This is a cooperative effort of
Atticus Press and
Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry