Régis Bonvicino: The Improbable Poetry of the Americas

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:19 AM
Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the world’s superpower, a condition that was confirmed in 1991 with the demise of the Soviet Union. To speak, then, of a “Poetry of the Americas” is, to a certain extent, to speak of a poetry of centrality. The advantages achieved by the force of American capitalism have given American poets worldwide visibility.

The usual cultural flow was inverted: American poetry came to influence and nourish the various poetries of Europe and—to a lesser extent—of Latin America. Through the opposite mechanism, the United States exported its modernism (Objectivism, Imagism, Gertrude Stein) to Europe and fascinated the other Americas.

However, for that very reason, the centrality of the poetry of the Americas must be historically understood, above all. There are no Brazilian poets or Spanish American poets who have influenced American poetry. In fact, America poetry, in practice, as far as I know, is self-referential. With the notable exception of Ezra Pound, few American poets made dialogue with the Western tradition the focus of their writing. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, for example, is an exclusively American phenomenon that did not have the need of any external avant-garde influences in order to constitute itself. In L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry there are European influences that were already present in the tradition of the American avant-garde. In the opposite direction, two American poets were, on the other hand, crucial for Brazilian concrete poetry: Ezra Pound and e. e. cummings, besides Stéphane Mallarmé, James Joyce, the German Bauhaus, etc.

But there are cases in which anti-Americanism, or at least a sentiment of resistance against the United States is a sort of missing link in the way certain South American Blocs came together. In general, this kind of alliance by reaction was unsuccessful, as in the case of the Latin American boom, a movement that was more folksy and touristy than politically committed and relevant in literary terms.

There have been other attempts at rapprochement between Spanish Americans and Brazilians, as is the case of the Neobaroque or “Neobarroso,” which tried to link the poetry of the River Plate regions. It was, however, artificial in relation to Latin American traditions themselves, and fallacious if not naïve in relation to the clearly European models of the historical baroque.

2. The Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954) attempted to break with the Portuguese colonizer and proposed, in broad terms, the colonization of all colonizers: “Let us divide. Imported poetry. And Brazilwood Poetry” (“Brazilwood Poetry Manifesto,” 1924). The cannibalist mechanism devised in 1928 and expressed in the “Cannibalist Manifesto,” would be the “national” filter used for reading materials coming from abroad and the instrument that would allow a new poetry to be forged—a new and different “poetry for export.” These words, uttered directly to the Portuguese colonizer, were assumed to be applicable to the United States as well (“Against all the importers of canned conscience”—also referring to manufactured items in the forementioned “Cannibalist Manifesto”). And there’s no dearth of historical arguments for this proposal. The British historian Norman Davies observes that the history of the expansion of the United States across the North American continent following its independence and the settlement of white colonizers in the lands of Native Americans hardly differs from the expansion of European powers in Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America.

3. These basic observations lead me to believe that a “poetry of the Americas” is a hope, a utopian seed, but whose unity, paradoxically, when formulated, necessarily introduces the egg of an ideological serpent. Formulated in Charles Bernstein’s terms, I understand the concept as a benign ecumenism, as a civilizing attempt to tame globalized savagery, whose most direct effect for poetry would be to put poets in touch with each other. But without wanting to show a rancorous reaction or reject the hope that is being drafted here, let us think a bit more about the differences that this problematic plural, Americas (and not America), entails.

The colonial trait, and then that of economic dependency, unites all cultures of the Americas, except that of the United States. The Latin American literary models are European. Which is not enough to even postulate a unity among these diverse countries. This is obvious from a variety of angles, but I will limit myself to a single and decisive one, in my view: surrealism marked Spanish American literatures, something that never happened with Brazilian literature, whose influences were more constructivist, except in one or two important poets, such as Murilo Mendes.

4. As everyone knows, Latin America suffered at the hand of bloody dictators supported by the American government, such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who destabilized the difficult construction of democracy in South America. For all non-North Americans, the postwar period was marked precisely by American interventionism, which, at times, besides politics, promoted unique poetic currents, with well-defined profiles, different from American poetry.

If an American speaks about a “poetry of the Americas” to a Spanish American or a Brazilian, even against their will, they will wonder skeptically if the idea is not at the service, culturally speaking, of the Monroe Doctrine. This should not come as a surprise. There are reasons for this skepticism. As soon as they became independent in 1776, the United States adopted the mechanism of the European colonizer, annexing parts of Mexico and Central America. Such a phenomenon did not happen, unless in limited cases of border disputes, in any other country on the continent. Obviously, such political and cultural inequalities make quite difficult the dialogue that is forged in between the cracks, by a few poets, without configuring a “poetry of the Americas.”

There is no historical unity between the blocs, other than on mythical grounds. The colonial imprint and later that of economic dependency unites all the cultures of the Americas, except that of the United States.

5. Therefore—I insist—there is no such thing as a poetic identity of the Americas. In Brazil we don’t even use the term “Americas.” The continent seems divided, once and for all, into three blocs: United States and Canada Spanish America (Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America), and Brazil, the only Portuguese-speaking country.

But the three blocs are much more than three. American identities are multiple, and are evidently irreducible to a unity, and, actually with very little experience of egalitarian dialogue among them. Clearly, I continue to contemplate on the horizon of possibility the ecumenism of Bernstein’s proposition as a civilized alternative for interaction and for an increase in cultural exchange, but in some way, I consider it historically ill-founded. As the Italian Cesare Pavese (1908-1950) affirmed, a culture that does not entail effort, that is not live work, doesn’t mean anything. Bernstein’s attempt—I imagine—will not be lost.

I say all this without victimizing Brazil or its literature. Brazil is among the 10 largest economies in the world for the last two decades; it represents 47.7% of the South American continent and 20.8% of the Americas. Brazil has produced some of the greatest and most original writers in the world, such as Joaquim de Sousândrade (1833-1902), Augusto dos Anjos (1884-1914), Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1939-1908), Afonso Henriques de Lima Barreto (1881-1922), Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967), Clarice Lispector (1920-1977), Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987), Murilo Mendes (1901-1975), João Cabral de Melo Neto (1920-1999), Raul Bopp (1898-1984), and the Concrete Poetry movement in the 1950s and 60s (Haroldo de Campos, Décio Pignatari and Augusto de Campos), etc. Brazil has formed equally a cultural singularity, which is rich and diverse, and is perhaps only matched by Cuba or the United States.

Because of this, I prefer to say that there are matchless poets in the Americas, but there is no poetry of the Americas.


Odile Cisneros points out, rendering both the main thesis of this text and Charles Bernstein’s thesis (in the sense that the topic is not exactly new), that there has historically been dialogue among poets of the Americas. She notes that the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío (1867-1916) and the Cuban poet José Martí (1853-1895) read and admired Walt Whitman. The Brazilian poet Mário de Andrade (1893-1945) makes the following remark in the “Prefácio interessantíssimo” of Pauliceia desvairada (1922), the book that launched modern poetry in Brazil: “Have you already read Walt Whitman? Mallarmé?” Cisneros speaks of a Pan-American spirit. The presence of Whitman in Spanish American poetry, she argues, would be a good topic for a book. The Brazilian poet Ronald de Carvalho (1893-1935), she adds, wrote a poetry volume entitled Toda a América (All of America), published in 1926, which was translated into Spanish by Francisco Villaespesa and published in 1935, with repercussion in all of the Spanish-speaking Americas. Octavio Paz influenced poets such as Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, Cisneros, a professor in Edmonton, concludes. Her point about Ronald de Carvalho’s Toda a América is very relevant. Besides participating in the Brazilian Week of Modern Art in 1922, Ronald de Carvalho was the only Brazilian poet who had contact with the Portuguese modernist poets Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) and Mário de Sá-Carneiro (1890-1916), even managing to publish in the review Orpheu (1915), edited by these two poets, veritable giants of all of Portuguese-language poetry. Carvalho was posted to Lisbon as a diplomat in 1914, and returned to Brazil in 1919. I quote an essay by Antonio Donizeti da Cruz entitled “Identity and Alterity in Ronald de Carvalho’s Toda a América: The Link of the Local and the Global”: “America—in the words of Octavio Paz—is the ‘sudden incarnation of a European utopia. The dream becomes reality, a present; a now that is colored with the hue of tomorrow. The presence and the present of America are a future […] Its being, its reality or substance consists of always being a future, a history that does not justify itself in the past, but rather in what is to come […] America was not; it only exists if it is a utopia.’” I quote here the last stanza of Carvalho’s poem “Broadway”: “Epic ground, lyric ground, idealistic ground,/ Broadway's indifferent ground,/ wide, flat, practical and simple in the air, this/ smooth roof, suspended in the air, this roof, where a/ saxophone pours out a warm stupor of slave quarters’ sun.” For Octavio Paz, the dialogue points in the direction of plurality and the monologue, towards identity, and he concludes: “Poetry was always an attempt at resolving such discord through the exchange of terms: the ‘I’ of the monologue into the ‘you’ of the monologue. Poetry does not say: I am you; it says, my I is you. The poetic image is otherness.”

[NOTE.  The reader should also consult Charles Bernstein’s important essay, “Our Americas: New Worlds Still in Progress,” which appeared here and here on Poems and Poetics, and to which Bonvicino’s piece may be read as a kind of counter proposal.  Regis Bonvicino is a major Brazilian poet and the editor of Sibila, a key journal of poetry and poetics, both Brazilian and international.  A complete version of Bonvicino’s essay can be found at http://www.sibila.com.br/index.php/sibila-english/823-the-improbable-poetry-of-the-americas]

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