The Neo Baroque: A Converging in Latin American Poetry, PDF

I see two basic lines in today’s Latin American poetry. One is a thin line, the other thick. The geometry of the thin is linear, its expression familiar, colloquial. The geometry of the thick is prismatic, convoluted, its expression turbulent and dense. The first line I associate more with American and the more traditional Latin American poetry, aspects of its already assimilated Avant-garde included. I associate this line with say, Robert Lowell, a certain pellucid Eliot, or the work of Elizabeth Bishop. The second line, meaning the thick line, I associate with international poetry, a stronger converging and diversity, indeed more opaque, but in spite of thickness, more encompassing. This international poetry includes aspects of 20th Century American poetry, as well as a basic source rooted in the Spanish Golden Century Baroque, Góngora and Quevedo above all, plus some sprinkling of the English Metaphysical poets, an attachment to the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, and a strong and fruitful contact with the work of, for instance, Ezra Pound; and in certain younger poets, with Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson and John Berryman: were you to move into modern music, John Cage, Philip Glass and the French Catholic mystic composer Olivier Messiaen could represent a diversity of musical sources transfused into this thicker trend of poetry.
Let me now say that the thin line of poetry in Latin America proliferated during the first half of the 20th Century. You find it, for instance, in Vicente Huidobro, Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Eduardo Carranza, Salvador Novo, Octavio Paz, Nicanor Parra, Ernesto Cardenal, Heberto Padilla, Eliseo Diego and Gonzalo Rojas, to name a few. There is an intermediate line, which gets thicker, and includes the great Peruvian poet César Vallejo, the Argentinean surrealist Oliverio Girondo and his confrere the Peruvian Emilio Adolfo Westphalen, as well as Carlos Germán Belli and Francisco Madariaga. A poetry to be associated with the spheres of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Herman Broch and Gertrude Stein, with our own Golden Century, and the Baroque of Francisco Medrano, the Mexican Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the previously mentioned Góngora and Quevedo, will be primarily found in the more recent poetry of the so called Neo Baroque poets, a group, or rather groups of individuals, living (some have recently died) from the second half of the 20th Century to today. They work, abundantly, in all the Spanish speaking countries of this continent, Brazil very much included. This poetry, to help you contextually, has the oozing, the curling, the entanglement and reverberation of multiplicity and proliferation that you find in the works of Virginia Woolf and, above all, Gertrude Stein. Its Latin American foundational fathers are the Cuban José Lezama Lima and the recently deceased Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos. These two writers are our progenitors, the father figures of a fairly large group of poets working voraciously and productively from Patagonia to Havana, in both Spanish and Portuguese. It is at the same time a dispersed and yet highly coherent, and resilient group. Dispersed, because these poets live in different countries, far away from each other, but related, since their aesthetical points of contact are manifold, and since communication is now instantaneously possible among them through the enslaving magic of internet. They constitute an elite; not an elite of money but rather of the literate and the culturally rich. Moreover, I would term them an open minded elite, unwilling to reject any materials that can be reconfigured, reconverted, into poetry. They work in extreme dislocation, stretching language to the utmost, all sorts of language, joyfully participating in the liberties of the Baroque: their writing is not geared to lust but at best to lust as worship; each and all of them, rather than Poet, is a configuration of many voices, polyphonic, choral. And those voices manifest themselves more athematically than otherwise, showing a tendency towards atonality, the obscured to be revealed through perusal and reading, and the obscure as an instrument for understanding the spiritual, as well as reality, when conformed by variety and the threat and dread of Nothingness.

Reading these Neo Baroque poets requires patience, patience and great reading experience. The asana or body posture has to collaborate with the act of reading, which has to be unprejudiced, open to the new, aware of different traditions in different languages, ready for immersion in miscegenation. You can, at this point in history, read Borges, Neruda, Parra or Paz more rapidly, since their poetry has fewer obstacles than ours: it is more conceptual, symmetrical, harmonious. Moreover, their adventurous vanguardism has been by now assimilated. However, reading Vallejo, especially Trilce, requires the patience of the eye that moves slowly, as the tip of the finger ought to move when reading inwardly the Bible. The texture in a Trilce poem is dense, full of breaking points, lines of evasion, dispersion, proliferation, disjunction, propagation within the text through anacoluthon, and the unexpected through language manipulated to its extremes. It transfigures itself as text through the abrupt, the unexpected. It is as if words were rushing to the outside of the written page; or as if their gravitation was simultaneously vertical and horizontal, “mixing memory and desire”, heaven and earth, with subsoil. Vallejo, however, is a poet that stays within a given framework. If compared with, for instance, Ernesto Cardenal, his poetry is less linear; an epigram of Cardenal is, in its linearity, a brief, immediately comprehended syllogism. At the same time, both Vallejo and Cardenal are less traditional in their conceptions of poetry than, say, Pablo Antonio Cuadra or Eduardo Carranza. A Neo Baroque poet, different from all of them, tends not to stay within a given framework but rather, I would say, is all over the place. He deals in abrupt syntax, displacement, and a non systematic system that can be found, mutatis mutandis, in the poetry of Olson and Zukofsky. The space of the Neo Baroque poet is splintered. It has, of course, its own logic, a logic which includes, and at times prefers, the illogical, in the way an atheist includes God in his thoughts.

Now, the poetry of José Lezama Lima and Haroldo de Campos is still more complex than, say, Vallejo’s. To read them, and therefore, to read us, you have to breathe differently: more asthmatically. Oxygen in them is somewhat lacking, or rather, it concentrates more at the subsoil level, among the worms. Thus, the Argentinean poet Néstor Perlongher writes: “vermes de rosicler urdiendo bajo el césped un laberinto de relámpagos” (“rosy hue of dawn worms warping under the lawn a labyrinth of lightning”). These poets are ideologically naked, both in terms of politics and poetry. Therefore, you can only deal with them, referentially, in terms of the poem itself, and not through political or poetical analogies that tend to explain through context. There is, basically, no need for context in order to read Lezama or a Neo Baroque poet: there is a need for slow immersion, a deep sea diver immersion in a milieu where gravitation changes constantly, and the pace is different since it can move in all sorts of directions at the same time, without a specific chronology, and where the breathing requires new forms of concentration. And a faith, an acceptance, that these diverse materials do function as unity; if you wish, a mess in unity, but nonetheless a cohesion and not pure chaos and disconnection.

The Neo Baroque does not comprise a group in the sense that the Generation of 98 or the Generation of 27 in Spain comprised a group; yet these poets have a family air, a congruous homogeneity in disparity. Their ages range from Gerardo Deniz, Rodolfo Hinostroza, Roberto Echavarren and myself being in our sixties, to a younger generation of poets in their forties and fifties, among whom I know and enjoy the work of the Mexicans David Huerta, Coral Bracho and José Javier Villarreal, the Uruguayans Eduardo Espina, Eduardo Milán, Silvia Guerra and Víctor Sosa, the Brazilians Claudio Daniel, Josely Vianna Baptista and Glauco Mattoso, and the Argentineans Tamara Kamenszain, Arturo Carrera and Reynaldo Jiménez, to name just a few. All of them, all of us, and please bear in mind that in this story there is a we, there is an us, comprise a family (as in every family, there are plenty of quarrels, dissidence and malicious gossip). We do not reject, but rather incorporate, the linear and the traditional, at times mocking it lovingly, at times furiously distorting it, at times quietly and respectfully accepting it. We read and humbly acknowledge the work of, say, a Sylvia Plath, an Anne Sexton, a James Schuyler or a James Merrill, and their Latin American differing counterparts, the Venezuelan Rafael Cadenas, the Nicaraguan Carlos Martínez Rivas, the Chilean Enrique Lihn or the Cuban Gastón Baquero. However, we are made of different stuff: dense, asymmetrical, more dodecaphonic than classical, without a specific center but rather involved with a proliferation of centers, no real program to offer, no basic theme above and beyond the inescapable themes of Eros and Thanatos, themes which we tend to distort, mock, deconstruct, and hopefully revitalize. This is a poetry where language is both King and Queen. An all inclusive language that does not reject any materials, for it can squeeze poetry out of coprophilia or necrophilia as much as from the beauty of vegetation. It is cosmopolitan in nature yet highly localized, so that a Neo Baroque poet is comfortable with a Havana street or Li Po drinking with his friends a cup of saké wine at the foot of the Sacred Mountain of Tai Chan, with the denseness of the Amazons or Matto Grosso, as well as with the surface visual experience of the Pampas, the Atacama desert or the Russian tundra. This poetry does not fear detritus and garbage, it exalts the pestilential and decayed, never presents reality in black and white, it moves sideways like the crab, and it constantly weaves like the spider: its movement tends towards the zigzag, which, as in the case of insects, constitute an organization, with means and ways, modes and quirks, based on variety and variation, modern imagery, clips, shots, and the intermittent. Our diversity and zigzagging is natural, attuned to the times we live in.

Our poetry is difficult to read, we are fairly unknown and isolated, we don’t sell, we make no money, many of us are broke (fortunately I am not) we are constituted by different races, sex, sexual orientation, religions, nationalities and ethnicities, and as we write our performances are all over the place, yet in more ways than one we are realistic: there is a form of Neo Baroque wisdom that knows how to live, or perhaps survive, in the modern world. Our work is open and androgynous, hard to place. We accept, for didactic reasons, the Neo Baroque label, yet we reject such a limitation. This poetry operates as syntax in distortion, contains a rich vocabulary, mixes levels as well as national peculiarities of Spanish and/or Portuguese, at times being regional and at times universal. This mixed language is Neorican, Chicano, Peninsular, Mexican, Colombian, Nordestine, and recurs openly to expressions in Esperanto, the European languages, Greek, Latin, or as in my case, Yiddish plus Cuban idiolects. Wilson Bueno, the Brazilian poet from Curitiba, combines Portuñol (itself a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish) with the guaraní language. The Mexican Gerardo Deniz is Golden Century Baroque combined with mexicanisms, plus scientific and pseudo scientific language. He is comfortable writing about the myth of Marsyas, the long gone Belle Époque or Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloise. The Argentinean Néstor Perlongher operates in a transvestite’s world, whereas the Uruguayan Roberto Echavarren directs his attention and his language to a homoerotic world, as in his poem The Lady of Shanghai. Tamara Kamenszain is an Argentinean poet who exalts the Japanese No theatre, and the Brazilian Haroldo de Campos is more comfortable in the Milky Way than on this earth, the very earth that a few weeks ago took his body and sent it to the Milky Way. The Mexican Coral Bracho writes about what goes on in the interstices and the subsoil, and not about actual political issues. The Argentinean Reynaldo Jiménez writes about moss, miniatures, incidental noise a la John Cage, or the circularity of Nothingness, but not about the traditions of tango, the Pampas and drinking mate tea. The Uruguayan Eduardo Espina is a thick poet, highly compressed, tragic when comical and comical when tragic: to read him you need patience, a patience, I can assure you, that is rewarding. To read any of us you need the expertise and devoted patience that is required when reading Joyce’s Finneganns Wake, Mallarmé’s Igitur and Un coup de dés or Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (a slang word, by the way, meaning clitoris). Gertrude Stein says, for instance, “Dining is west.” What sense can we make out of this? Perhaps much more than saying, at this point in the history of literature, that dining is nice, that dining in an expensive restaurant makes me happy, or simply describing a la Zola or a la Balzac, in a naturalistic fashion, each and all of the elements that compose a restaurant as physical reality: a morose, slow moving description, that goes hand in hand with a realistic, human, all too human drama unfolding, textually, in the page. In my case I recombine my Jewish background with my Cuban nationality, my American experience, my devotion for Asian culture and literature, to produce a work which I consider transnational and multicultural. I am not only what I eat, I am also, and perhaps mostly, what I read (and bear in mind that I normally read six hours a day, whereas I spend thirty minutes or so eating; wine excluded).

Our forefathers read with intensity and devotion: we are perfectly aware of the reading voracity of Lezama, Borges, Haroldo de Campos, Paz; yet there is a difference in our diverging reading experiences. To put it bluntly, we also read the comics. We read and utilize in our work sub rosa literature, the so called “culebrones” or soap operas, digesting, regurgitating and rewinding all this cheap matter. To give you an example, I published recently in Mexico a short book containing the poems and prose texts I have written throughout the years in honor of Franz Kafka. Its title is Un caso llamado FK (A case called FK). I sent the book to Contador Borges, a young Brazilian poet, who always calls himself Borges the Minor. He wrote back telling me about a parallel he found between some of my prose texts and Bat Masterson. I imagine Kafka turning in his grave, or perhaps Bat Masterson. Perhaps Mr. Contador was being facetious, perhaps he was debunking my texts, which I wouldn’t mind, since I think it’s all for the good of poetry; in any event, and this I would like to emphasize, his reading is an open, extreme way of reading, which is typically Neo Baroque. It doesn’t fear a kitsch interpretation, neither fooling around with the text, in the sense that literature is not stiff, non pliable matter. The Cuban poet Eugenio Florit claimed that he spent the last years of his long life reading Goethe. I believe he did. Not that he was a specialist, but he belonged to a generation more attuned to the Classical. We, however, belong to a period in history which is attuned to the Classical, plus detritus; attuned to Order as well as Chaos. We read in a dispersed, somewhat uncontrolled and multidirectional way. I cannot conceive a Neo Baroque poet spending the last years of his life reading a single author or about a given theme, without constantly deviating in his reading. Recently, while in Mexico, I was taking a walk with David Huerta, and we started talking, enthusiastically, about the work of Haroldo de Campos, and ended discussing certain aspects of Berceo, including his rather open minded religiosity and aspects of his anti-Semitism. Which then moved us to Quevedo’s anti-Semitism and his particular rejection of Góngora’s poetry. We also joked, myself explaining some esoteric aspects of Cuban joking, and Huerta explaining the way Mexican “albures” operate (these are highly distorted jokes, mostly based on punning and language contraptions). Thus, we read, and discuss literature “a salto de mata” or jumping frames, shifting from one thing to the other. The American essayist, translator of the Classics, and fiction writer Guy Davenport says that he reads throughout the day different texts in accordance to the passage of the hours, the season of the year, his personal mood, even having a need to change rooms, body position and place of reading (at times a chair, at times a sofa, others a bed) in accordance to the material he reads. It seems to me this is how a Neo Baroque poet reads. I, for instance, will begin the day reading poetry, then spend hours reading fiction, afterwards I normally read a chapter of the Bible (obviously both Testaments), a few pages of a dictionary or an encyclopaedia (I am nowadays reading a huge dictionary of religions), spend some time reading the young, who usually send me their books for an opinion or plain sharing, and will end up the day again reading fiction. Also, I read every day alternating Spanish and English. All the Neo Baroque poets I’m in contact with read this way. They never single out a writer and read him or her systematically; rather, as I said before, the trend is to jump from one thing to the other, and to include all possible literary genders. Everything fits in our poetry, nothing is, in principle, discarded. The discarded, waste, rubbish, the refused, is part of the text, and many times is the text.

To give a more concrete view of what we are doing, let me recur to the didactic, and somewhat superficially create three basic (here I would underline the word basic) models. I would like to term these three models or categories as Heavy, Medium Heavy (or perhaps Medium Light) and Light. In the Heavy vein I would include Gerardo Deniz, Wilson Bueno, Paulo Leminski, Eduardo Espina, and Reynaldo Jiménez. In the Medium Heavy or Medium Light: Roberto Echavarren, Néstor Perlongher, Osvaldo Lamborghini, and Coral Bracho. And in the Light: Tamara Kamenszain, Rodolfo Hinostroza, David Huerta and Raúl Zurita. All these poets are dense and complex, difficult to follow and digest, yet the texture of their material moves from heavy to light. What they write, if compared, for instance, with the Antipoetry of Nicanor Parra, lacks in steadiness, a unity of form and content, a chronology. Take a poem by Parra and notice its syllogistic structure: it moves forward, line by line, stating, pushing linearly ahead from main to secondary premise, to a conclusion or dramatic denouement. It normally ends with a punch line, a final impact that in a sense is programmatic; its purpose is to kick the butt of the bourgeois. In the case of the Neo Baroque, the procedure or strategy is lateral, non programmatic, sharp edged or purposely flat, detached or falsely sentimental, containing no story or using story as pretext for language exploration. It can be a dull edge construction, containing splinters, rather than an entablature perfectly joined.

Just like we have the three suggested categories of Neo Baroque poetry, I would like to say that in our poetry we avoid sentimentality, that Neo Baroque poetry hardly ever falls into the vaguely sentimental, the opportunistic sentimental, the nationalistic sentimental (patriotic gore) that pretends to enlighten and move to tears. Many linear Latin American poets fall into sentimentality, the rhetorics and verbosity of sentimentality, which placing open the right hand on the heart, reeks to tears. On the other hand, the Neo Baroque poet hardly ever falls for sentimentality, and when used, its for the purpose of debunking, which is achieved through irony and parody. Some lighter Neo Baroque poets at times fall for sentimentality, but there is in my mind a law that says that the heavier the poetry the least sentimental. I can find some sentimentality for instance in Huerta and Zurita but not in Echavarren, Espina, Jiménez or Leminsky.

Charles Ives, the great American composer, has dedicated a lucid essay to Thoreau, in which at one point, he says: “He seems [Thoreau] rather to let Nature put him under her microscope than to hold her under his.” And he adds: “The study of Nature may tend to make one dogmatic but the love of Nature surely does not.” Were we, simply, to write Poetry where Ives writes Nature, we would have a good view of the credo that a Neo Baroque poet expresses in his work; wherein he is an instrument of Poetry and not Poetry, a humble potter and craftsman at work, and not a Creator; the Hand of the Dyer, let us say, rather than the Dyer. A summary of Neo Baroque poetry would include notions such as dispersion, the re-appropriation of former styles, styles that move in barbaric landscapes, where ruins are put together; a writing where the trobar clus and the hermetic proliferates, where there is great turbulence, unnatural mixtures, the joy of combining languages, the dissolving of a unidirectional sense, no praising of the Self or the Ego or the I; polyphony, polyvalence and versatility, utilization of former styles in order to deconstruct them, creating a true explosion of different forms of writing, a soiling of materials, a signature towards the ugly, the sordid,
the recyclable.

Since the death of both Octavio Paz and Haroldo de Campos, there are no more sacred cows when it comes to poetry in Latin America. When I say sacred cows I don’t mean this derogatorily but simply as description of a historical situation. Our forefathers, Neruda, Huidobro, Vallejo, Lezama, or Paz, were perceived as grand, grandiose, never interchangeable, as separate as boulders in a landscape. What you have now, on the other hand, is a new phenomenon: a group of poets (I can easily mention forty, fifty of them that I read with respect and a growing interest) to be considered as Primus inter pares, not boulders but gravel, wherein instead of competition you have a hybrid group, ideologically naked. There is, I realize, a level of idealization in what I’m saying; yet I feel that we are moved by historical forces that are divorcing themselves from excessive vanity and egolatry. When I was young, I was walking one day on Eight Street, Greenwich Village, New York, with a famous Latin American poet. At one point he grabbed me by the arm and said to me: “José, don’t you think I beat Vallejo by a nose?” I looked at him and replied, instinctively: “Please remember that you are flat nosed.” (“No te olvides, por favor, que eres ñato”). Obviously, he never talked to me again. I didn’t mind and I don’t mind to this day. I don’t think poetry is a rat race or a dog beats dog affair. On the contrary, poetry to me is an experiment in the Unknown, a search for beauty, knowledge and wisdom through the mystery of a complex, multidimensional, simultaneous language, that at a given point is received, transmitted, and
yet not fully understood or rigidly controlled
by the poet.