Baroque and Neobaroque (PDF)

At the time José Kozer and I put together Medusario, in the early nineties, there was no internet. We were Prediluvian. We had to rely on the post to get and send information through Latin America. Books were brought by friends or imposed by strangers. In any case, one had to make a certain kind of effort if one wanted to keep informed of what was going on in the continent. Transcontinental distribution of small press poetry publications being next to nothing, each book was more or less destined to bloom and die it the limited circuit of its own city, or country of publication, without the chance of being related to equivalent efforts throughout. So it became relevant to yuxtapose works and trends and play them together.
Nowadays, on the other hand, there are two blogs, one from Perú, the other from Chile, which offer dossiers about Neobaroque and Medusario.

At a certain point, it occurred to me to make a sample, some sort of precipitate, of what was going on according to us. I wanted to put together a reader of what was most interesting to us.

Our purpose was diverse from an anthology. An anthology supposedly offers a comprehensive panorama, and does justice to a more or less random series of writers, representative of a certain context or tradition, whereas the taking of a sample makes us rather like curators of plastic works, or disc jokeys sampling music. By taking a stance, we traced a figure. Most visible to us.

In Uruguay, where I come from, there were several good women poets in the late sixties and early seventies. Yet, the kind of writing that predominated then was rather simple and flat colloquialism. It answered to imperatives the left considered moral or correct, be it the urban guerrilla or the Communist Party. Pro Cuba tendencies. Poetry had to contribute to the “revolution”, conceived as the overtaking of a central power of government.

People did not, at that point, talk about minorities, or sexual rights, or gender troubles. Neither drugs, such as marihuana, were the subject for any kind of public discussion. Contemporary music, rock and roll, was suspected of imperialist penetration and perversion. Only nationalistic folkloric or pseudo folkloric unplugged bards, the “cantautores”, were in sight. Everything else reaked of bourgeois or capitalistic infatuation.

The Tupamaro guerilla excluded homosexuals, the Communist Party demonized them. Since the second half of the sixties there were in Fidel Castro’s Cuba forced labor camps for the internment of homosexuals and other undesirable categories, youngsters with a different stylistic code or lifestyle.

Looking back, not in anger this time, but in admiration, I consider Modernism (roughly 1890-1920) a high point of our poetical tradition. A constellation of authors, preceded and headed by the itinerant Nicaraguan, Rubén Darío, inaugurated art nouveau sensibility in Argentina, Cuba, México, Uruguay, and other places. The modernists overcame epigonal romanticism, and renovated the themes and language of poetry. These poets read and translated fin de siècle French poetry from Baudelaire to the Uruguayan francophone Jules Laforgue, to Mallarmé.

Later, avantgarde poets such as Huidobro, Neruda and Vallejo radicalized modernist procedures experimenting with free verse. They were confronted by events like the Spanish civil war, and had to opt for communism, fascism, or other forms of socialism. This political urgency, either in the thirties or later, or through de cold war in the fifties and sixties, led some of their successors to write in plainer romance, with purposes of propaganda. They wanted to be understood by everybody, by a wide audience of supposedly progressive peoples.

This trend was initiated by Pablo Neruda, among others.

Nicanor Parra made spoken language his own, but divorced himself from political compromise, thus creating sharp, absurdist, humorous anti-poems.

It was against this background that I met Rodolfo Hinostroza in Paris in the late sixties. He was the first writer that impressed me as starting a new phase in Latin American poetry, opening up a new kind of alternative, a new lifestyle and viewpoint, political or otherwise, with his book Contranatura, published in 1970.

Instead of being nationalistic, instead of being concerned by the ancient Leninist left, Hinostroza’s poetry went through and beyond territories, spoke of migrations, of breaking frontiers. For the first time it was possible for American and European young people to travel unassisted through northern Africa and Asia. The rebellion of the sixties, which in some ways culminated in May 68 in Paris, was concerned with music, sex and drugs. The hippie outlook and way of life broke the image of the conventional male and female person, and brought up an alternative set of priorities. Eastern thought and practices, religious or not, permeated the younger culture.

Hinostroza declared:

“I wanted to create a world full of diverse characters sustained by a mysterious unity, from the point of view of a subject who voluntarily seeks dispersion.”

Dispersion. Singularity. Dissent. The individuals abandoned their conventional identity, gender, and role behavior. No fatherland, rather foreign trajectories to explore. Eros and humor eroded rigid conventional morals. Contranatura partakes also of esoteric knowledge, of resurrected chamanistic traditions, modes of divination, alchemy, Tarot and astrology, disciplines all linked to a life practice, to the interpretation of events, to action. No other poetry that I know in Spanish incarnates so well these new horizons of the period.

Travelling to Summer…
We will camp under the stars…
Not overrun by the barbarians in power…
Androgynous and beautiful, millions of hitchhikers silently advance…
The other margin perchance shall we reach.


The androgynous new creature is defined by long hair, a persistent fetish throughout the book: “The energy emanating from your hair will be magic enough”. “My hair is as long as yours”, and “Un coup de cheveux, and I will fall down”. Just as Samson, the new creature looses its power with a haircut. This is the new look. Certainly not Christian Dior’s. A new image, a new attitude: gender distinctions become to a point irrelevant, masculine and feminine genders are erased in favor of a new undertaking: the experience of bodily intensities. The body here is not divided, not weakened by compelling gender models. “You were not a single body, you were two before birth… from there you saw the eclipse… two tend towards the center of the universe.”

The whole book states art as “counter behavior”; Contranatura, counterpsychiatry, testimony of a conflict, a reevaluation of all values. The young embrace the right to be singular. This adventure of alternative lifestyles works here through a plurilingual verse in the tradition of Ezra Pound, a patchwork of tongues corresponding to this transnational enterprise of hatching a brave new world, with blended perfumes of “millennia, myrrh, and sodomy”.

The Spanish poets of the Generation of 1927, notably Federico García Lorca, rediscovered the poetry of Luis de Góngora and the Baroque.

Later, through the forties, fifties and sixties the poet and critic Dámaso Alonso wrote enlightened essays on Góngora, and prose transliterations of his mayor poems, making possible for younger readers to have ready access to the Baroque achievement.

As we know, the publication of Wölflin’s landmark essay, Clasicism and Baroque (1888), made visible from a different viewpoint long uncomprehended and discredited poetic and artistic works of the XVIIth century. In the light of these new appreciations, Góngora was acknowledged the highest point of “españolismo”, or golden age of Spanish literature, a phenomenon which spread over Europe at his time.

José Lezama Lima, a Cuban poet, wrote an essay titled Sierpe de Don Luis de Góngora. Lezama elaborated in his poetry, essays and novels a complex baroque syntax and deployed learned realms of the “image” (his own term), a second degree mimesis articulated by metaphors and double meaning.

In Medusario we included three of his poems as an Incipit.

He was a major influence on several neobaroque poets, such as the Argentinian Néstor Perlongher, who published his first book: Austria-Hungría in 1980. Perlongher’s poetry was political in a gender bender way. It played with camp humor, but went beyond camp sensibility towards masochistic erotic violence, with breathtaking freedom, intensity, and dare.

I met Néstor in 1983 in Sao Paulo, at the book opening of Haroldo de Campos’ Galaxias. At the end of the eighties I reunited two Argentinian writers, Perlongher and Osvaldo Lamborghini, with the Uruguayan Marosa di Giorgio, in a new selection, under the title Transplatinos. It came out in Mexico in 1991. Almost at the same time Néstor prepared a bilingual anthology of Spanish American neobaroque poetry, which appeared in Sao Pablo, titled Caribe transplatino. This adjective, transplatino, applied well to Perlongher. His first book, Austria-Hungría, suggested a transnational trajectory, a geographical and poetical pilgrimage. If, according to Jacques Lacan, a signifier represents a subject before another signifier, and we don’t need to believe in essential identities, here we can say that Argentine speech represented a subject before Brazilian speech, and soon they polluted each other, as it became manifest in the following books by Perlongher, who was then living in Sao Paulo. Portuñol, Spanglish, are instances of translinguistic contamination. Perlongher made a virtue out of it, and his writing is all the richer for that. Transplatino refers literally to the lands on the other side of the Río de la Plata. Beyond national frontiers, and by an act of poetic justice, Perlongher takes into account the geopolitical unity of the region. So that the second poem of Austria-Hungría is titled: “Los orientales”, that is, citizens of the República Oriental del Uruguay. And the first poem of the following book, Alambres, takes the form of a letter written by the military commander Fructuoso Rivera to his wife Bernardina, at the time of the Guerra Grande, when the troops of the Argentinian dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas besiege the town of Montevideo. Nevertheless, some of his major poems have to do with an Argentinian obsession: Eva Perón. “El cadáver de la nación” alludes to the embalmed body of Evita, but it also hints at the genocide carried on by the military in the seventies in the name of a mythical “nation”.

The last period of Perlongher’s work coincides with his discovery of a drug called ayahuasca or yagué. Prepared primarily by Amazonian Indians, the ayahuasca is also consumed ritually by non-indian peasants in the forests of Acre, a Brazilian state bordering Peru and Bolivia. Their eclectic rituals and religion, built around the taking of ayahuasca, are called “Santo Daime”. In the eighties some anthropologists interested in it formed in Sao Paulo a group dedicated to the ritual consumption of the drug according to the hymns and dances of the Acre peasants. Perlongher wrote a book of poems, Aguas aéreas, under the influence of ayahuasca, and recreated its perceptual enhancements, the “miraciones” or visions experienced in a trance.

Here is an example of Perlongher’s verse:

Cuadran, culan,
En el kuleo de ese periplo
Porque en esas salas, acalambradas
De lagartos que azules ejos ciñen, o arrastran, babeándose
Por los corredores de cortina, atrapalhada como una toalla
Que se desliza o se deja caer en los tablones
De madera, mad, que toca, madra, toca lo madrastal de ese tocado…


These verses are impossible to translate, unless we recreate them entirely. I only want to call attention here to the Portuguese word, atrapalhada (confused, disordered, perplex, embarrassed, in the feminine form) which adds a humorous confusion to this string of associations. Let´s look more closely: madera (wood), becomes mad (crazy), and then madra and madrastal (motherly, belonging to the mother). The verses do not stop at this Freudian fantasy; mother is not a point of arrival; it offers only transitory support to a web of deformations and associations which continue on and on, until the poem dissolves itself by mere exhaustion of its lines of strength. Signifiers evoke smells, sticky textures, synthetic stuffs, body secretions (sperm, transpiration, drivel) overwhelmingly physical, palpable. Erotic excitement is involved in an ever material flow of plastic significations, in a humorous series of puns, alternating the attractive and the repugnant, with lewdness, anguish, and transgender desire.

The Venezuelan Marco Antonio Ettedgui died in 1981 when he was only 23, from a supposedly accidental rifle shot onstage, “como si toda la vida culminara en la expresión de un solo gesto” (as if an entire life culminated in the expression of a single gesture). He left mostly unpublished materials. Some poems, ideas for performances, fragments of theatrical plays, were gathered by his friends in a posthumous edition under the title: Arte información para la comunidad.

His writing is made of the interaction of several disciplines, contexts of reference, rock and pop music, alternative styles and ways of living. Angels in platform shoes here remind us of Swedenborg’s angels wearing complicated hats. Actor, performer, and poet, Ettedgui longs for transgender experiences and fetishism:

Draw on my skin a glass ring
And then eat it as if it was a medlar
But draw it in such a way that
It looks like the rape of a female child
And draw it right upon my crotch
There rapes become somewhat loving.


A swaying gender uneasiness, a hesitation, a vacillation:

A non harmonious element after synthesis in fear
Changes me from man to woman
In the wink of an eye, a noise in its terminology.


This freedom from conventional roles and constraints becomes somewhat tragic. His own difference or deviation from the standards prevalent in a given community, to which he belongs by reason of time and place, makes the individual vulnerable, if not doomed. Nevertheless, tragedy is lifted here by play and humor, as it is in Oscar Wilde, García Lorca, and Perlongher. Ettedgui is both a minimalist and a baroque; “a minimalist with a baroque companion”. At first sight his poetry gives the impression of quick and disordered jottings and notations. His playful casualness acquires intensity through juxtaposition and multipolar allusion, therefore: “I changed the structure from minimalist to baroque.”

Another poet included in Medusario, the Peruvian Argentinian Reynaldo Jiménez , wrote a “Masturbating Self Portrait”, in which the body acquires “the consistency of another animal species”, and acknowledges an androgynous condition: “I desire the woman I find in myself, I desire the man I find in myself”; an echo, no doubt, of a Brazilian hit of the eighties, by Pepeu Gomes: “Se deus é minina e minino/ eu sou masculino e feminino” (If god is a girl and a boy/ I am masculine and feminine).

This tendency which we call neobaroque, as different from the old avant garde, does not bet on a single method of experimentation, be it chaotic enumeration, the suppression of syntax, or any other more or less exclusive stylistic device. It does not become prisoner of a definite procedure. In this sense, neobaroque poetry has no style. It verges sometimes on the essay, sometimes on apparently mindless phonetic games. It can be ironical, at moments colloquial, at moments metapoetical. In reaction against the avantgarde, it avoids utopian didacticism. In reaction against “engaged” colloquialism and propagandism of the populist kind, it does not accept a “middle level” of poetic communication, and is not afraid of becoming obscure and overcomplicated.

Algirdas Greimas and François Rastier call isotopy “all iteration”, or multiple repetition, or redundancy in a text. Isotopies are of three levels: phonological (assonance, alliteration, rhyme), syntactic (concordance by redundancy of traits) or semantic (equivalence of definition, sequence of narrative functions). Phonological and syntactic isotopies have served to sort out, due to their concentration or regularity, a poem from other types of discourse. But semantic isotopies in poetry have received less attention. In general it is assumed that a poem follows a line of thought, speaks about something (a referent). Nevertheless, it is a demonstrable hypothesis that a poem develops, or can develop, several parallel semantic isotopies, several storylines at the same time. And it can also refer to itself, to the process of its production, to the practice that engenders it. Rastier establishes three semantic isotopies in a sonnet by Mallarmé: the sonnet refers to a banquet and a toast, to navigation, and to poetry, a practice that reunites the assistants to the banquet. A reductive attention would fetch only one or two of these themes. Góngora, in the Soledades, also refers at the same time to rowing and writing, to water currents and writing, to the flying of birds and writing. Writing is figured through other practices. It is not a mirror of reality. It is a way of running across it.

Our time is a turn of the screw concerning the complementary ideals of the XIX century: illusory subjectivism and authoritarian utopianism. The interest of the Neobaroque in the present situation has to do with tolerance, with allowing for the singular, the particular, the lustful erratic, without being checked by prejudice and dogma. Information is the result of a fight of powers. Individuals are divided not only by income or by class origins. They are also divided by education, race, erotic tendencies, and artistic lifestyles.

In this situation, what does the Baroque mean to us?

The universe of Marsilio Ficino, a renaissance commentator of Plato’s Banquet in the court of Florence; the universe of Petrarch, as well as Dante’s before him, was a closed universe. The earth stayed immobile, and the celestial bodies run around it, within a series of crystal spheres. A delicate and well tempered navigation device.

The discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo dismantled this self centered vision. They passed from a closed universe into an off-centered infinite one, alien in fact to our usual perception powers, full of mysteries, and impossible to grasp. These discoveries challenged the teachings of the Bible and the church. Profane knowledge seemed to contradict religious dogma. Space and time lost their axles. This was an anguishing experience for a XVIIth century man. He became freer, but he lost his handhold, and his self-centered confidence was lost.

In this infinite universe, Giordano Bruno writes, there is only one kind or matter, be it in the earth, in the moon, or in the celestial bodies. According to Spinoza, there is a single substance which perpetually differentiates itself from itself. Poetical discourse begins to be conceived as such continuous stretchable substance, as an infinite flow. Its limits are only the human faculties and human strength.

The long baroque poetical sentences, full of parenthesis, subordinate clauses, rambling digressions, attempt to grasp disparate levels of meaning, different fields of knowledge, a multipolar reality, as if poetry was the place for the synthetic articulation of them all, in the most plausible manner of true thought. The convoluted phrases, the incantatory rhythms, make it difficult for the reader sometimes to decide about the correctness of the syntax.

The “poemas de arte mayor” in the Spanish language, silvas, o selvas (forests, woods), by Góngora and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, alternate de endecasílabo and the heptasílabo type of verse. They use an open form, plastic and free, of great length (about a thousand verses each poem). These poems incorporate and discuss mythological allusions, antique and contemporary geographical information, medical and scientific knowledge, philosophical problems.

But there are two distinctive moments in our poetical baroque. One is Góngoras’ Soledades. The other, El sueño by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Góngora’s Soledades transfigures the world of everyday coexistence in a more luminous, more stimulant, and more difficult verbal habitation. Neoplatonism had appropriated Hesiod’s distinction of several human “ages”. As the neoplatonist and petrarchist Philip Sidney wrote, poetry effects the passage from a “bronze age” of routine everyday cohabitation into a “golden age” of personal intensities. These “ages” are not thought of as successive, but as parallel to each other: poetry opens up a dimension, neither past nor future, a resplendent realm of verbal (sensible, intellectual) experience. In Góngora, the flux of the “poema de arte mayor” is framed by shipwreck and catastrophe. A privileged island floats by, but before arriving to it, and after leaving, mishap or death awaits the “peregrino”. This “golden age” of the poem is not the unequivocal contemplation of the dead Laura, or the platonic idea, as in Petrarch, but the achievement of a crafted opus through hard work. Góngora builds the poem with the relief of a jewel, intensifies verbal impact through artifice.

The idiomatic basis on the foreground of our language is made of the noun and its immediate representation, but in Góngora it is formed by metaphor and the splendid and irreal vision that it immediately suggests. Metaphor substitutes the name, or common concept, or current designation. Let´s take an example: “birds of prey” are not named as such, but substituted by the expression “los raudos torbellinos de Noruega” (the quick whirlwinds of Norway). Góngora puts before our eyes the sensible robust impression of the flight of these birds. He leaves the reader in this realm of neat and strong sensible impressions, which lean on each other, and lend density to the whole. By suppressing their commonplace referents, or terms of comparison, Góngora obscures the meaning but enlightens the perception. So we sometimes do not know what he is talking about, yet we inhabit magnificent, neat, exact, luminous sensual impressions put into value by choice and placement of words.

In the poema de arte mayor El sueño, by the Mexican Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the human body being at rest and asleep during the night, the soul undertakes a cosmic trip which carries it as high as the moon. Yet when it reaches the utmost heights, it discovers its limitations. The mind’s faculties: memory, understanding, and even phantasy (or imagination), condition the soul’s performance. These faculties are far from adequate to process a sufficient knowledge about the universe. The soul strives to obtain a clue. But our senses are weak and not reliable. Telescope and microscope alter our perceptions, as if under the effects of a drug. So the senses deliver only certain aspects of reality, and sensual information depends on the relative powers of the organs of perception. The capabilities of the soul are not its own. Its highs and lows depend on bodily functions, on digestion, on the lack or plenty of food. In El sueño, the flight of the soul is framed by descriptions of the physiological processes of the different organs (lungs, stomach, heart) according to medical science, leading to sleep or awakening. For Galeno, already, the soul is not immortal, since it is affected, energized or deprived of strength by bodily changes. Having lost the platonic idea (no instant intuition of the soul can reach the secret model of the universe), and finding the Aristotelian categories incapable of processing and clarifying the unending series of events, the soul in El sueño fails in its task.

The categories of the understanding, and even the flights of poetical fantasy, are instruments incapable or revealing anything beyond perceptible but uncertain phenomena. The baroque decentering of man is a source of anguish and doubt. So the newly gained expansion of perspectives is lived with frustration. The ancient sun, the ancient earth, are lost forever. No human intelligence can tell us where to find them again. Men investigate new planets and new worlds, and they frankly confess that the world they thought they knew is finished. The platonic idea, Aristotelian science, or Christian dogma, do not guarantee knowledge anymore.

On the other hand, the atomism of Lucretius (De Rerum Natura), and before him Democritus and the epicureans, seem to offer the most correct model for this newly discovered infinite universe. Campanella acknowledges: “Thus, as man’s thought develops, he thinks about the sun, and afterwards beyond the sun, and afterwards outside heaven, and afterwards about other worlds, as infinite as the epicureans imagined.”

Testing the limits and exploring desire, the baroque poem nevertheless nourishes the animus, nourishes the spirit by means of mots d’esprit, agudeza, arte de ingenio, wit, fantasy. The baroque concetto or conceit is synthetic: it brings together opposites by paradox, and finds double meaning in a single noun with diverse acceptations, “significa a dos luces o en varios sentidos” . Contingency is the occasion for discourse, the occasion for the poem, as far as it abandons itself to circumstantial associations, to the attractions of fetish and decoy.

The latent fermentation, and the spreading of the disturbing feeling of the infinite, makes for the uneasiness and proliferation of the new forms. The poem is neither subject to literary models, nor to the crystallized resources of the language. According to Agudeza y arte de ingenio, by Baltasar Gracián, there is no kind of valid normative or prescriptive indications. The poet invents by linking, producing synapses, instant contraptions out of apparently distant materials, or by dividing or unfolding what seemed of one piece. The baroque lived the multipolarity of the real among rough bouts of naturalistic violence and frustrated metaphysical strivings. Its restiveness, as a new anguish in man, brings stylistic nervousness and syntactic surprise, not without pomposity at times or a taste for scenographic grandeur.

By unchaining the boat and letting it drift, the baroque manifests our shock of recognition, the loosening up of our fixity, a challenge to identities and the compulsive roles determined by tradition. In actual fact, we owe to it the acknowledgment of our new situation.