Chile: A Country of Poets

I was wondering, up until the last minute, what I should dedicate the first Chilean article on Babel Tower to, and I decided that where better to start than with its literary culture?

Chile is a country of poets. The nation’s literary traditions have deep roots that can be traced to the colony, and even before to its native heritage. Chile’s literary reputation, however, was earned in the 20th Century. Specifically thanks to what are now known as “the four greats of Chilean poetry”, that means, Pablo Neruda, Vicente Huidobro, Gabriela Mistral, and Pablo de Rokha. All of them were born near the turn of the 20th Century; and two of them, Mistral and Neruda, would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of their contributions to poetry.

I’ll begin with Pablo de Rokha. Most of his poems reflected his life in the countryside, but he also explored some other themes throughout his life. He had a chronically tense relationship with Pablo Neruda, who he viewed as excessively bohemian. Both of them would become to take an active role in Chile’s communist party, as would Vicente Huidobro for that matters. Here is an extract of a poem he composed in 1916:

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I am like the absolute failure of the world, oh, Peoples!
The song, face to face with Satan itself
dialogues with the mighty science of the dead
and my pains spills the city with blood.

Yet my days are the reminders of huge, old furniture;
last night, “God” carried between worlds that go
like this, my lady, alone, and you say: “I love you”
when you talk with “your” Pablo, without ever listening to him.

Men and women smell like tombs;
My body falls over the raw land
Same as the red coffin of the unhappy.

Absolute enemy, I howl through the streets.
a dread more barbaric, more barbaric, more barbaric
than the hiccups of one hundred dogs left to die. 
Genius and Figure

The golden age of Chilean poetry would take place in the 30s when most of the aforementioned poets would publish their magnum Opus. I will mention Huidobro’s “Altazor”, a work that would fit in to his avant-gardist movement “Creacionismo”. The essence of the movement being that a poem is something new, and is created for its own sake rather than to please the audience or to describe something. Altazor is existential in nature and deals with the strangeness inherent to the human condition. The book’s illustrator was none other than Pablo Picasso, an acquaintance of Huidobro. Here is a small extract:

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The waterfall tresses over the night

While the night beds to rest

With its moon that pillows the sky

I iris the sleepy land

That roads towards the horizon

In the shade of a shipwrecking tree

Following on to Pablo Neruda: it is interesting to note that Neruda met Gabriela Mistral when he was young and sought her critique of his early compositions. At the time, she was directing a girls’ school. The following extract comes from Neruda’s “Residencia en la tierra”, a series of unified poems released in three volumes. In this work, Neruda would take it upon himself to explore the anxieties of the unconscious, while utilizing pessimistic surrealism. This opus earned Neruda the status of a world-class poet, which would be confirmed some decades later in 1971 when he received the Nobel Prize.

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If you should ask me where I’ve been all this time
I have to say “Things happen.”
I have to dwell on stones darkening the earth,
on the river ruined in its own duration:
I know nothing save things the birds have lost,
the sea I left behind, or my sister crying.
Why this abundance of places? Why does day lock
with day? Why the dark night swilling round
in our mouths? And why the dead?
Extract of Residence on Earth

One of the last outstanding works of the 30s was Gabriela Mistral’s “Tala”. The work is one where Mistral expresses her deeply felt emotions in a world marked by war (specifically the Spanish civil war). Mistral also uses this opportunity to reflect on the solitude inherent to those who are childless and spouseless, as was her case. One can really sense the impact that world events are having on her own perspectives and feelings. What money she earned with this publishing she sent to those orphaned by the Spanish civil war.

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She speaks in her way of her savage seas
With unknown algae and unknown sands;
She prays to a formless, weightless God,
Aged, as if dying.
In our garden now so strange,
She has planted cactus and alien grass.
The desert zephyr fills her with its breath
And she has loved with a fierce, white passion
She never speaks of, for if she were to tell
It would be like the face of unknown stars.
Among us she may live for eighty years,
Yet always as if newly come,
Speaking a tongue that plants and whines
Only by tiny creatures understood.
And she will die here in our midst
One night of utmost suffering,
With only her fate as a pillow,
                                        And death, silent and strange.              
The Stranger

I’d like to mention one last poet who, unlike the previous four, is still alive. Born in the 50s, Elicura Chihuailaf is a poet of Mapuche (native ethnicity which happens to be the largest minority in Chile) origin. His compositions therefore exist both in Spanish and in Mapudungun (language of the Mapuche). One of the main themes present in Chihuailaf’s poetry is a love/defense of Mother Nature in a context where capitalism and development are taking place in a form that is not particularly sustainable in the long run.

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I am withered grass
waving at the rain
but soon I feel the first drops
falling on the fields
Let this water soak me!
I hear myself say, dancing
amongst the flowers
When I wake up I will rise
touched
and held up by the scent
of lavender.

When the Waters of the East Sing in my Dreams

These are, of course, but a few extracts, given that this article is meant to be an introduction to the much larger world that is Chilean poetry. Chile was, and is, and will most likely always be, a country of poets…

Antony Rossi

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