“The Poetry and Anti-Poetry of Luis Palés Matos: From Canciones to Tuntunes”

[“The Poetry and Anti-Poetry of Luis Palés Matos: From Canciones to Tuntuneswas originally published in Callaloo, 18.2 (1995), pp. 506-523.The Johns Hopkins University Press. The following are the opening pages. ]




The Poetry and Antipoetry of Luis Pales Matos: from Canciones to Tuntunes     by Julio Marzán

Starting in 1925, a number of poets, mainly but not exclusively from the Caribbean, published what is broadly called poesía negra. Different from African American poetry in English, poesía negra was called black even when the poet wasn’t, but the same bias prevails among the critics, who stereotype it as a sort of quasi-oral style, requiring an anthropological and social investigation, a justification for treating it as marginal to the evolving poetics of implicitly white, written poetry. This pattern holds true even among supportive critics, those specializing in traditionally overlooked literatures. Those critics customarily study poesía negra in a “Nativist,” ethnological, or political framework that removes poesía negra’s strictly literary significance, effectively segregating that poetry from any conversation on its contribution to contemporary Latin American poetics. Owing to this convention, poesía negra has been woefully misrepresented as has been the genealogy of contemporary Latin American poetry. Thus readers and critics have failed to appreciate that with poesía negra, notably in the work of its most prominent figures, Luis Palés Matos and Nicolás Guillén, Latin American poetry took its first step toward the ironic, conversational, comic, mordant, quotidian and unpoetic consciousness that decades later encompassed what the Uruguayan Mario Benedetti termed “poesía comunicante” and the Chilean Nicanor Parra called “antipoetry.”

In The Antipoetry of Nicanor Parra, Edith Grossman details three objectives of “the theoretical course” that Parra “set for himself after the publication of his Cancionero sin Nombre.”(2) The first objective was to free poetry from the domination of the metaphor, which he terms “the abuse of earlier poetic language” (Grossman 8). His antipoetry, understood as a liberation from what he termed an “abusive” style, would rather avoid such “poetic” language in favor of direct communication with the reader. Second, antipoetry should “depend on the commonplace in all its ramifications, that it decisively reject the rarefied and the exotic, both thematically and linguistically” (Grossman 8). By this, Grossman elucidates, Parra meant that “the language of literature must be no different from the language of the collectivity . . . language reflects the life of the people. . . “(3) Third, Parra has reaffirmed that his writing was leading directly to a “purely national expression” (Skarmeta 39; Grossman 9) because the poet cannot remove himself from the community, the tribe. Thus the poet “should use colloquialisms peculiar to his own country, even if readers from other areas find them difficult to understand.”(4)

These objectives, of course, are ideals. Starting with its title, Canciones Rusas contain a good number of exoticisms (from a Chilean viewpoint, of course). And as his own title Poemas y Antipoemas (1954) well illustrates, Parra himself was aware that antipoets are only at best half-time antipoets. Consequently, while he aspired to liberate the poem entirely from the domination of the metaphor, in practice he often simply turned the speaking persona into a neo-romantic persona-metaphor, as in “El Soliloquoy del Individuo” or “El Peregrino,” who ultimately resorts to the claim of being “Un arbol que pide a gritos se le cubra de hojas,” or the “Autorretrato” in the tradition of Robert Browning. These are a form of Chilean blues. Similarly, the metaphor is still central in the “Montana Rusa,” whose titular metaphor describes his new poetry. A similar contradiction operates in the poem whose title asks “Que Es la Antipoesia,” and which subsequently responds with a catalogue of metaphors.

As Benedetti has noted, Parra is a hybrid among several other makers of new poetry. What Parra did, Benedetti observes, was to take on the voice of the existentialist tragedian in Neruda’s Residencias and make it say wholly different and novel things:

. . . even though Parra occasionally assumes an anti-Neruda posture, at bottom he is the one who receives from the poet of the Residencias the post of the word, and instead of fracturing or repudiating it, makes it say something else, original and fertile before passing it on to Enrique Lihn, who also rather than break it down enriches it. And of course one can establish other paths and other almost parallel lineages, . . .(5)

In other words, Latin American poetry has evolved without a break from or a repudiation of its antecedents. As Jose Ibañez Langlois affirms in his introduction to the Spanish edition of Parra’s selected poems, Antipoemas, antipoetry was simply a stage in the continuous enrichment of a poetic lineage; it was just another category of poetry:

The antipoem isn’t, of course, anything other than a poem: we must eliminate any mythology surrounding it. Parra himself says of it that “after all, it is no other thing than the traditional poem enriched with the juices of surrealism – creole surrealism or whatever you want to call it-” . . . The question, then, is one of cleansing European surrealism of its artifice, of its useless obscurity, its decadent uprooting of life, by means of a local answer – and only for that very reason a universal one – bound to an everyday language and a real experience of man in situ . . .”(6)

Being poetry, the antipoem has a long history and the epithet “antipoetry” is generally applicable to poetry in a tradition of rebellion. Thus, the term “antipoetry” can also apply to “all poetic responses against exhaustion, verbal routine, prefabricated emotions, forms that are derivative and now dead to the language and lived experience.”(7) Ibañez sees Parra’s style as hinging on two key devices, irony and personae. These helped Parra take antipoetry to conversational language and even farther from traditional poetic forms; these have been Parra’s two chief weapons against the lyric, voiced with the preeminence of the first person.

But while irony and personae may have been revolutionary in the standard literary context, these were technical elements that had already characterized important Latin American poetry in a literary lineage that the criticism simply overlooked, namely in poesía negra. In the late 1930s, Parra was theorizing about a poetry with ingredients that had already been used to the same rebellious effects in Latin America for almost a decade, anthologized (by de Onis in a 1934 anthology that included “Cancion Festiva”) and popularized in night club performances. By every standard, including Parra’s three objectives, Guillan’s “Tú No Sabe Inglé,” a satire on cultural imperialism, is also the consummate antipoem:


Con tanto ingle que tú sabia,
Vito Manué,
con tanto inglé,
no sabe ahora decir: ye.

La mericana te buca,
y tú le tiene que huir:
tú inglé era detrai guan,
de etrái guan y guan tu tri . . .

Vito Manué, tú no sabe inglé,
tú no sabe inglé,
tú no sabe inglé.

No te namore más nunca,
Vito Manué,
si no sabe inglé,
si no sabe inglé.

[All that English you ‘pose to know,
Vito Manuel,
All that English,
now you can’t even say: jes.

The americana lady chases you,
and there your ass go:
your English just for estrike guan,
estrike guan, and guan, two, tree.

Vito Manué, you don’t know no English,
you don’t know no English,
you don’t know no English,

Don’t you fall in love
if you don’t know English,
if you don’t know English.]

For the complete essay, request at:


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