Post-Modernismo: The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry Edited by Ilan Stavans

The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry
EDITED BY Ilan Stavans
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

Poets and poetry readers in search of the new in the old should welcome The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry, assembled by Ilan Stavans, a well regarded translator and academic, and the author of Spanglish (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). It is worth noting that this rich anthology comes relatively soon after the publication of another worthy bilingual collection, The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry (edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon-Grosman, Oxford University Press, 2009). These two anthologies are more complementary than competitive. Stavans’ introduction reminds us that a language is not just syntax but a world view and a way of understanding. The Oxford editors also emphasize the conflation of languages, and in fact intend the book to illustrate what they call Mestizo poetics, arising from both indigenous languages and imposed European languages.

Stavans credits the rich variety of Latin American poetry in part to the incomplete historic imposition of Spanish and Portuguese over myriad native languages, as well as the later influence of English and French, when Latin Americans looked to sources from abroad as inspiration. This collection offers a rather brief introduction: less academically-oriented and less grounded in critical theory. The compilation, however, successfully demonstrates how Latin American literature of the twentieth century embraces both conservative religiosity and radical politics, nationalist fervor and individualism, solemnity and sensuality, Spanish duende and French intellectualism, intense localism and a peripatetic drive to engage other cultures.

Like civic monuments, anthologies tell us whom to remember and what to think about them.

Poetry anthologies today have a smaller role than in the past. The Chinese Shijing (the Book of Songs or Odes), preserved ancient Chinese poems and forms not as historical artifacts but as exemplars. For centuries afterwards, many Chinese poets wrote brilliant original compositions “to the tune of” a work from the Shijing. The original musical tunes have been lost, but not the syntax and structure.

While not central to poetry as models, anthologies are still very influential, especially as classroom texts. Like civic monuments, anthologies tell us whom to remember and what to think about them. Many anthology readers, like readers of the Shijing, are interested in finding good poems, inspiring practices and styles. In this respect, readers will be able to relate to The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry. Stavans, for example, makes no claim to have included the greatest Latin American poems, or to have allotted poets page space in order of importance. Instead, he makes it a priority to allow readers to experience the variety of Latin American poetry, and to hear the range of “verbal possibilities” within the tradition.

One reading pleasure offered by the bilingual format of this anthology is the opportunity to puzzle over and quarrel with translators at the crucial level of the line. Even a rudimentary knowledge of the original language illuminates syntactic choices that lie close to the heart of original composition and the praxis of revision. Now and then, all poets, and presumably most poetry readers, find themselves asking of a line “Why did the poet do it that way?” As if an elusive illustration in response, the first stanza of Jorge Luis Borges’ “El Golem” suggests that if it is true that “a name is the archetype of the thing” that it names, then,

En las letras de rosa está la rosa
Y todo el Nilo en la palabra Nilo.

in Alistair Reid’s translation this is:

the rose is in the letters that spell rose
and the Nile entire resounds in its name’s ring

Reid here adds references to sound that go beyond the runic visual point of Borges’s poem. The words “resounds” and “ring” seem wrong. A more straightforward translation might be both more euphonious and truer to the original poem’s short, emphatic utterances:

in the letters spelling rose is the rose
and all the Nile is in the word Nile.

Perhaps Alistair Reid has a persuasive rationale for his wording. And perhaps readers will pause here and find a third (or better) English language poem based on the Borges original. Translation is a form of interpretation open to both subjective inclinations and objective stance. Fortunately, The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry includes a comfortable range of translations from different contributors. Readers will find many wonderful opportunities here to read poems that are exotic by our current tastes, before asking “Why did the poet” and “why did the translator” do it that way? Several of these translators are important poets in their own rights: Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Galway Kinnell, Gregory Rabasa, W.S. Merwin, James Wright, Samuel Beckett and Achy Ogejas. And translations in this compilation, are, in effect, poems composed collaboratively between those translators and poets of the stature of César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, and Octavio Paz.

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